Nine Steps To A Reliable 1911 – An Interview With Bill Wilson

Wilson Combat "Classic Supergrade" 1911
Wilson Combat “Classic Supergrade” 1911

Des Moines, Iowa – -( We found this article in the WebBench archives while we were preparing our 1911 Catalog #10.

It’s been a few years since we originally ran it, but we felt this interview was so fascinating that we just had to share it with a new generation of readers, especially since Wilson Combat has kindly built for us a Special Edition 1911 to commemorate the Brownells 75th anniversary. It will be on display in our booth at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Indianapolis, April 25-27 2014. Visitors can sign up for a drawing to WIN this gun!

Wilson Combat “Classic Supergrade” featured as one of the Dream Guns in our 1911 Catalog #10. Click here for a parts list. :

The Interview
The first thing you notice about Bill is his down-to-earth personality, which is reflected in his approach to building reliable self-defense pistols. Our goal in this interview was to gain some personal insight into Bill’s early years as a pistolsmith, as opposed to his ability as a handgun competitor. The other thing we really wanted to know was what criteria he demands in a well-made handgun. We hope this interview brings Bill and his philosophy on defensive handguns, competition and business practices a little closer to home, and that all of our readers can apply his ideas to their own pistolsmithing projects.

Our thanks to Bill for taking the time to share his thoughts.

Brownells: When did you begin pistolsmithing?
BW: I started tinkering with doing revolver action jobs as far back as 1972 and first began working on my own 1911-style pistols in 1974. The first 1911 I worked on for a customer was in 1977, and the customer was Frank Triplett of Licking, Missouri.

What was the very first pistol or handgun you built?
A series 70 Colt .45 with the following modifications: King Tappan high-visibility fixed sights, trigger job with long aluminum trigger, polished feed ramp and throated barrel, lowered ejection port, polished and adjusted extractor, beveled magazine well, bobbed hammer spur, Swenson ambidextrous thumb safety, and Pachmayr grips.

Bill Wilson in action a few years ago.
Bill Wilson in action a few years ago.

Was your pistolsmithing training formal or informal?
Informal, I would say. My formal training is as a watchmaker/jewelry maker, and many of these skills, especially making clock parts and jewelry, were easy to apply to guns. I obtained my working knowledge of guns from study of how they worked, books and advice from other experienced gunsmiths such as Armand Swenson, Jim Clark Sr., and an excellent local gunsmith, Terrance Clark. I was always a serious shooter and exposed to serious shooters all the time, so it was very easy for me to find out what really worked and what didn’t. I initially became a pistolsmith to build my own competition guns.

Where was the location of your first shop or pistolsmithing job?
My first shop was the 10 ft. by 15 ft. back portion of my father’s jewelry store. I had hand tools, a Dremel, Craftsman drill press with rotary table vise, bench grinder, and a small Atlas lathe. In the early days, things were pretty primitive!

Is the 1911 Auto your favorite handgun?
Yes, I would have to say so. No other pistol is as dependable and durable as a 1911. If limited to ONLY one gun, I’d have one of our #130D Defensive Pistols or our Service Grade equivalent of the Protector. However, personally I like the following handguns real well: Beretta 92F, Glock 19, S&W 640/629/19/3919, Browning High Power, and Ruger Redhawk. No one gun will fill all needs.

What is your favorite modification to the 1911 Auto?
Is this a trick question? I wouldn’t say that I have a “favorite” single modification. However, I certainly have favorite modifications – ones that I feel should be done to every serious use 1911.

Your goal is to make sure the pistol fires EVERY time you pull the trigger with the ammunition you plan to use. This is done by making the following modifications: Polish the feed ramp, properly throat the barrel, properly fit and adjust the extractor, and use the correct recoil spring for your load. Also, I like a safe, crisp trigger pull with an aluminum trigger. I prefer 3-1/2 lb. trigger pull weight, but many people like a 4 lb., with our #190 (#965-190-045) trigger. To shoot well, you also need high-visibility sights, and an extended thumb safety. Personally, I prefer our #6BN single side safety (#965-600-007), but others like an ambi, instead. I consider all these NECESSITIES on any 1911, but I also like a beavertail grip safety and beveled magazine well, too. If the pistol won’t shoot my pet load within 2″ at 25 yards, accuracy needs addressing, too.

A Wilson Combat Ultralight Carry pistol. Click here for a parts list.
A Wilson Combat Ultralight Carry pistol. Click here for a parts list.

Which sighting system is your favorite for combat or carry use?
I prefer our #367T Wilson Combat Nite-Eyes fixed Tritium night sights with bright green front insert and subdued yellow rear. I have these on all my serious use pistols. However, shooters who do primarily target shooting will be impressed with the quality of our fully CNC-machined #428 series adjustable sights; they are hands down the BEST adjustable sights on the market.

Do you consider IDPA to be the future of competitive pistol shooting?
I don’t know if you can call it the “future” of competitive shooting, but I will share with you the following thoughts: We MUST bring more people into the shooting sports, and IDPA’s stock service pistol and revolver divisions are doing this. (I’d say at least 7 out of 10 IDPA members had never been involved in organized competitive shooting prior to joining.) The more specialized any sport becomes, the less attractive it becomes to the masses. People want to become more proficient with their self-defense guns and IDPA offers them a place to do so. I support all types of shooting (even those that I don’t personally enjoy) from plinking tin cans to Olympic free pistol and everything in between.

What do you see as the future of pistolsmithing – “hard” gunsmithing or drop-in products?
I feel there will always be a demand for high-quality, true, custom work. However, drop-in parts are very popular with the consumer. Quality work, like the master pistolsmiths here at Wilson Combat, Richard Heinie, Larry Vickers, Jim Garthwaite and others do can never be mass produced. But, quality of work is only one piece of the puzzle. How a pistolsmith treats their customer is equally important. Always quote the customer as accurate a delivery time as possible, do what you tell them you will do, stand behind your work, and pay your suppliers on time – these are all things that add up to success.

Darla and I began what is now Wilson Combat in November of 1977 (we were married in October of ’77) with virtually nothing but the following business principles: treat the customer the way you would like to be treated, do quality work at a fair price, make sure the product is right and fully tested before you ship it, promote your products and services, work closely with your suppliers and look upon them as lifelong business partners, pay your bills on time, don’t go in debt by trying to grow too fast. It’s worked well for us anyway.

Bill Wilson’s Nine Steps To A Reliable 1911 Pistol

For our readers’ convenience we’ve included the Brownells stock numbers and hyperlinks to our website following the Wilson Combat item number Bill refers to.

Brownells: Let’s say I’m a typical customer who wants a reliable 1911 Auto, and I’ve got some money to spend. What would you recommend for alterations to my stock pistol?
BW: Using Wilson Combat parts to build a good 1911 Series 80 carry gun in .45 ACP, I recommend the following items and modifications, in order of importance:

  • 1. Match-grade extractor, #101 (#965-101-080) or #415 (#965-415-080) series, properly fit and adjusted.
  • 2. Polish the feed ramp and throat the barrel. Remember: a 1/32″ step MUST be maintained between the top edge of the feed ramp and the lower edge of the barrel throat.
  • 3. Select the proper recoil spring for YOUR load. I recommend using a 17 lb. or 18.5 lb. spring in a full-size 1911 .45 if you are shooting IDPA or IPSC loads, hardball, or JHP self-defense loads. I ALWAYS use a Shok-Buff #965-002-004 in my pistols. Buffs and springs are cheap, slides and frames are not.
  • 4. Trigger job with a crisp/safe pull of around 3-1/2 – 4 lbs. using an aluminum match trigger and Commander-style hammer, #190 (#965-190-045) and #337 (#965-337-002). If your pistol is a Colt with a MIM (metal injected molded) sear, it would be wise to replace the sear, too, with a #314 Match Sear (#965-314-000).
  • 5. Install high-visibility sights. I prefer our #367 black on black or #367T with Tritium inserts.
  • 6. Install a beavertail grip safety. I prefer our #298B (#965-298-001) on my pistols. Bevel the magazine well and/or install an oversize magazine well #188B (#965-170-113) or #188S (#965-170-213).
  • 7. Install a checkered mainspring housing #92B (#965-092-001) or #92S (#965-092-101).
  • 8. Install a full-length guide rod and plug #25G (#965-025-001) or #64G (#965-064-045).
  • 9. Install a match grade barrel and bushing, #33D (#965-033-645).

Founded in 1939, Brownells is an Iowa-based, family-owned company that supplies more than 75,000 firearms parts, accessories, reloading components, gunsmithing tools, and ammunition to armorers, gunsmiths, and shooters worldwide. In addition to their industry leading 100% lifetime guarantee on EVERY product sold, their staff of veteran Gun Techs are available to assist customers with any need – free of charge. There are no minimum order sizes or fees. To place an order, or for more information, call 800-741-0015 or or visit

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william j mcneese

dang it would have been cheaper to but a wilson than do all the coating


I am the owner of a cheap ATI 1911 commander in .45 cal. It had been a good experience. The gun has not missed a single round, and is more accurate than I am. The only thing I would change is the sights. The problem is, the front sight is pinned, and the test sight is too small. I want a simple 3 for sight, but don’t know if it would be cheaper to just buy a new slide, instead of having the machine work done on the original slide. I have put a dab of paint on the front… Read more »

Vicente Taboada

Since i was a child i listen to my father talking abount the famous 1911 45. He allways sed. 1911 is the best ever defensive weapon.

David McGale

May I send a 1911 to your address and utilize one of your gunsmiths to do the work on mine .
Are firearms illegal to send out of state for gunsmith work ?

Milwaukee 2A

It’s interesting to read this because you can see as a company frown they forget where they came from to an extent. Not to say that wilson isn’t good because in a semi custom, semi production pistol they are, but I don’t think they are as friendly and worried about screen satisfaction as they were in the beginning. You can find countless horror stories about any mfr, but it how the affected person is treated if a problem arises. Thank you for your time.

Frank Martin

I’m a fan of the Wilson’s products, I know that both Wilson & Brown use a higher quality of stainless steel in their pistol frames and the internal parts. I found this out buying a stainless ll that were rusted pitted horribly under the grips, this was a brand new pistol from magnum force gunshop in Monroe Michigan so when I field stripped it as you should any new weapon I found pitting & a ton of rust. The gun shop said it wasn’t their problem & Kimber offered to refinish it & return it in a few months lol,… Read more »

Dusty Morgan

Wilson combat builds what I consider the higest quality 1911s on the planet. Your article was an excellent report on how to better understand Mr Wislon’s feelings and views too. I than you for your time!