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The Next Generation of Custom 1911 (The end of a Cottage Industry)

Updated: Aug 30, 2018

The custom 1911 industry has been a small cottage industry since its inception. Being from Florida, I have had the pleasure of handling quite a few examples of quality custom 1911s from Jesse Harpe out of Tampa, building from the 1930s to the 1960s, and John Giles out of Odessa, building from the 1960s to the 1980s. These builders were very innovative, using anything available to create extremely accurate examples of the 1911 platform, many of them shooting well under 2" groups at 50 yards. Larger barrel bushings, welded barrel lock-up supports, hardened rods on the sear face, custom sights, all fabricated on manual machines were just some of the enhancements they utilized when rebuilding a 1911. These guns were not pretty by today's standard, but they worked. Reading about how they approached building was very interesting. Factory parts were cheap and readily available, so they often "cherry picked" the best parts and used them as a base to build from. They used the knowledge they gained through trial and error and applied it to each build. Bullseye was the sport of choice so many of the features on the gun were specific to the sport, definitely function over form. Work from builders like Harpe and Giles, paved the way for this industry.

Since that time the sport branched off into various types of shooting disciplines and the industry has been served by multiple generations of 1911 builders. Today, competitive shooters, collectors and gun enthusiast alike demand far more from their 1911s than ever before; aesthetics have become just as important as accuracy and reliability. This combined with the sharing of information, high resolution photos, and videos on social media, as well as political pressure from all areas of business, is creating a dynamic shift in this cottage industry which will shape and change it forever.

I started Bunker Arms Custom in 2012 as a part-time hobby business and went full-time in 2013. In the past five years I have seen first-hand how the industry is changing. When I first got involved in the business, I had the perception that the industry still felt like a cottage industry, with a handful of builders working out of their home based shops. I quickly found that the industry was undergoing change at a rapid pace. What was relevant five years ago may be different today, and with each year the bar was being raised higher. Competition has been growing in each sub category of the industry, especially the category of action pistols, also contributing to the pressure of change and the evolution of this cottage industry into something more.

Social media plays a major role in the change of this industry. Forums were a fantastic place to share information, but social media is on-tap, instant interaction, and it's taking the industry by storm. Social media was/is critical in growing my business and has allowed other new builders to enter a market which was once reserved for a much more exclusive group. While some may think of this as a negative concept, it certainly is not. Competition drives innovation in every industry, and this change created by social media has only fueled a climate where improvements in all aspects of the business will only enhance the industry.

Political climate has certainly played a huge role in the custom 1911 industry. While I believe the custom 1911 industry is less volatile than other sectors of the firearms industry as a whole, varying definitions of what it is to manufacture a gun, coupled with pressures from banking institutions and insurance providers have certainly added to the climate of change. Many builders have been forced out of the once cottage industry into small scale industry, or forced out of business all together. Home based business have moved into industrial parks, insurance costs have increased, government fees have increased, credit card processing is limited, all leading to the need to adapt by increasing volume and efficiency as a means to remain profitable. This leads right to my next example of change, process efficiency.

Since the earliest 1911 builders like the previously mentioned Jesse Harpe, the custom 1911 world has been driven by one man operating a milling machine, lathe, and a host of hand-tools, jigs, and measuring devices; this has been the standard in the industry for about 80 years. With change, comes the need to change. Charles Darwin once said "It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change." The semi-custom market was created by the custom industry evolving decades ago, custom 1911 builders who evolved themselves into a completely new category of the industry through a higher volume approach led by automation and in some cases assembly line manufacturing. The semi-custom market serves a large majority of the demand once filled by the custom 1911 industry alone, and have added a variety of quality parts and accessories to the industry to support it. This did not eliminate the need for the custom industry's ability to produce expertly crafted precision 1911 pistols, but it definitely contributes to change. My opinion is that the custom 1911 industry will evolve into something between what it once was when Jesse Harpe was putting his stamp of approval on Colt based custom 1911s in the early 1900s, to what the semi-custom market is today. Like the semi-custom market, automation will be a driving factor accelerating the custom 1911 industry to the next level of evolution. CNC machines will help pave the way for the next generation of custom 1911 builders in the industry by utilizing technology to improve process efficiency, enhance machining accuracy, and ultimately aiding the builder in producing a higher quality product.

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