Brownells 75th Anniversary - A Shooting Heritage

Shooting the Breeze with John Harrison of Harrison Design


If you aren’t already familiar with his work, John is a master pistolsmith at Harrison Design specializing in custom modifications for 1911 platform pistols who has earned a reputation for building guns that run. John has over 20 years of experience creating smooth-functioning, reliable, accurate, ergonomic, and cosmetically pleasing pistols - one of the best in the trade. He’s also one heck of a nice guy, and he was kind enough to share some of his wisdom and experience with customers who submitted questions for him.

Out of the many questions, John chose 10 to answer for you. Below are the questions, and John’s responses.

Simple question: Why the 1911?

  1. It fires a cartridge that is a proven fight stopper, which is pretty much at the upper limits of controllability.
  2. It is an ergonomic design; the grip angle is comfortable in most human hands. Its size fits most hands and is operable by most people. It is heavy enough to give comfort and not so heavy as to be uncomfortable.
  3. The ignition system design is such that it renders the finest trigger feel available. This in turn enhances the pistol’s usable accuracy.
  4. It is quickly reloadable and returned to firing condition.
  5. Properly manufactured, it is a highly reliable service pistol. Made to wandering tolerances and dimensions, or monkeyed with by the uninformed, it is what my friend Ken Hackathorn calls “The King of the Feedway Stoppages.”

At what age did you know that this was the career for you?

I was a handgun enthusiast from my teenage years on. The problem was that at that point in time, I had little access to books other than those written for general purpose gunsmithing or rifle customizing. There was hardly anything geared to handguns and what was there was pretty sketchy. There were no schools around the Southeast that had gunsmithing programs. Back then, there was no Internet or YouTube and no 1911-specific DVDs and books like those available now. Everything seemed to be top-secret. So without a clear pathway into a career as a gunsmith, I started working in the earth-moving equipment industry as a mechanic. After a while, I realized that I was developing some mastery of the complicated hydraulic systems, diesel engines and transmissions that I encountered on the job and I figured if I could learn that, then I could learn to work on guns.

I met a great guy and super-talented gunsmith named Ed Pitt back in the ‘80s. Ed would always patiently listen to my questions and give me solid advice. He got me out of trouble more than once. My skills developed and confidence progressed. I worked on my guns and friends’ guns as a hobby and little by little, I built up a more diverse skill set. I was active in USPSA competition, so working on the 1911 was an obvious fit. If you do something long enough, you tend to get better at it and gain confidence in your abilities. In ’92, I got my FFL and started gunsmithing professionally during evenings and weekends. I kept my day job until my kids were out of college and on their own and then decided to find out what being a gunsmith was like for a career. I’m glad to have found out that being a gunsmith is what I’m happy spending my days doing.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to start pistolsmithing 1911s but cannot go to a long-term school for it. Are there any books or short-term schools that you recommend?

There are tons of gunsmithing books available now, along with instructional DVDs. Check out Brownells catalog; they have a tremendous selection. The NRA sponsors a series of summer time short-term classes that are very affordable. Brownells usually sends out flyers around this time of year, but you can also find the info by surfing around the NRA’s web site. They are taught by professional working gunsmiths who offer a curriculum in their own specialty. Classes typically last 3 to 5 days and are held in several colleges around the country. It’s a great experience and a tremendous opportunity to learn from someone at the top of their game.

Can you explain to me the difference between the Colt series 70 and series 80?  I see lots of people lamenting the differences between the two, but I don't really understand what they are!  Thanks.

The Series 80 Colts have a trigger operated firing pin blocking safety, where the Series 70 doesn’t. The Series 80 system uses a plunger and spring located in the slide that is in a vertical bore that intersects with the horizontal firing pin port. The Series 80 firing pin has an extra groove machined around it to accommodate the plunger. When the spring pushes the plunger down, the plunger intersects with and blocks the movement of the firing pin.

When the user wishes to fire the Series 80 pistol, the grip safety is depressed and the thumb safety is pushed down, both as normal. As the trigger is pulled to the rear two levers are moved.  The lower lever pivots on the sear pin and is moved to the rear by the back of the trigger bow. Its upper arm moves the upper lever which pivots on the hammer pin. The top arm of the top lever pushes up against the bottom of the firing pin plunger, clearing the blocking of the firing pin. If timed correctly, by the time the trigger has pushed the sear out of engagement with the hammer, the firing pin plunger should be lifted out of the way and the firing pin will be free to go forward when struck by the hammer.

Long story short, as the trigger goes back, the plunger unblocks the firing pin safety. There’s really no reason to fault the Series 80 system, almost every new gun design out there has a trigger operated firing pin blocking safety, just like the Colt. A good pistolsmith can do just as nice a trigger job on a Series 80 as he can a Series 70. One thing that the consumer needs to know about Series 80 guns is to be aware that if his pistol has a trigger with an overtravel screw and he tightens that overtravel screw in too far, he can put his firing pin safety out of time and ultimately wind up with a jammed firing pin and a non-firing pistol.

Do you have any tips or tricks to reduce the felt recoil? My wife likes to shoot my SR1911 but complains about the recoil. I would like to make it more enjoyable for her.  Thanks

There are several things you can do to reduce or disguise the effects of recoil. Obviously, you can try different loads to see what feels best to your wife. Be sure the gun fits her hand as best you can. You might try a set of slim grips. Adding some weight in the right place can reduce muzzle flip a little. A full length guide rod (FLGR) in stainless steel will add just shy of 2 ounces to the front of the gun. A tungsten FLGR will double that to about 4 ounces. Use a shock-buff. It may have a dampening feel to her. I would not go up in recoil spring weight. I would stay with a 16 or maybe a 14 lbs. spring. Too heavy a recoil spring will cause the muzzle to dip below the point of aim during recoil.

Another thing that helps reduce recoil is to retard the opening of the slide so that the slide travels at a slightly slower speed. The slide will stop with a little lighter impact against the frame and slowing the opening will also increase the dwell time of the recoil impulse, spreading the recoil impulse out over a longer time, of course we’re talking milliseconds here. The way to slow the opening is by making it harder for the slide to cock the hammer. To do this, we want to reduce the mechanical advantage of the slide’s ability to push the hammer back. If the firing pin stop is replaced with a square-bottom firing pin stop and is shaped to have a small bottom radius, it will be pushing against the hammer down lower on its front face and the mechanical advantage will be reduced. Be sure you have a standard pressure hammer spring (23 lbs.) or an extra pressure hammer spring (25 lbs.). This will work in conjunction with the new firing pin stop. If she has trouble pulling the slide back when loading, have her cock the hammer first and then pull the slide back. Good Luck to you both!

I have a Springfield Armory lightweight Government Model. I want to know, can I put a Commander slide, barrel, spring etc to complete change over?

You can make the change, but you need to make a modification to the seat in the frame where the recoil spring’s guide rod sits when the gun is together. That seat along with the forward end of the frame rails needs to be machined back by approximately .1". The dust cover needs to be shortened by approximately .750". If you don’t machine back the guide seat and rails, then your slide’s stroke will be .1" shorter than the Commander is supposed to have to assure correct function of feeding, extraction and ejection. It’s a permanent modification and your Gov’t Model slide will no longer work on that frame. It’s a pretty difficult machining task requiring a mill, boring head and boring bar, so I’d recommend getting professional help.

Do you have any tips or tricks for fitting a new Ambidextrous Thumb Safety that you would like to share?

The most important thing to accomplish when installing an ambi safety to a 1911 is to set it up so that the joint in the center of the shaft of the safety is stressed as little as possible during use. Done correctly you won’t have the aggravating problem of the right-hand side of the safety working loose down the road. This is accomplished with a positive stop on the right-hand side of the gun for the lever to swing down against, when you flip the safety off. It needs to be timed to stop so that the left-hand side of the safety has also swung down, unblocked the sear and has stopped against the frame port and is not in any strain through the joint. The stop on the right-hand side could be the top of the grip panel, if the grip panel is big enough at the top. This is not preferable to me as people like to change grips and they are all made to different shapes and sizes. Instead, I prefer to drill and thread a 5-40 hole into the side of the frame and install a headless screw with its shank protruding far enough for the safety’s paddle to stop against it on the down stroke. The location of the hole is placed just to the rear of the grip and just high enough that I have to file down the shank a little to get it to stop in a spot where nothing is in a bind. Hope this helps you!

Hey John, I own a Rock Island Armory 1911-A1 and I want to put a trigger system into it. Should I replace the sear and disconnector as well? The gun is fairly new and I don’t think the sear is worn, but I’m trying to improve the pull—please help.

I would suggest you spend the extra money to get an ignition set consisting of hammer, sear and disconnector as these parts are engineered to work together as a set, to give you a really good trigger pull. You have no way of knowing what your result will be if you reuse your sear and disconnector, but replace the hammer. I remember earlier times using components from three different manufacturers (all good quality companies) and having an absolute horror show trying to get the parts to work together correctly. They were engineered to work with companion parts from their own company and the manufacturer had tweaked the specs to get the best result with his set. That was about the time that I developed my own ignition sets and got into the parts business.

Is there any benefit to a "long slide" 1911 compared to the standard 5" in terms of accuracy and energy?  I would like to have a 6" 1911 for hunting but if there is no real benefit, I will stick to the 5" I currently use.

The long slide 6" 1911 gives you two things to work with, an extra inch of barrel and an extra inch of sight radius. You can use the extra inch of barrel to fully burn powder in a high performance hunting load, giving you higher velocity and therefore more muzzle energy. A cartridge like the 10mm can benefit from an extra inch of barrel and give you a combination of gun and cartridge that will let you reach out a little farther and maybe take a little larger game. Maybe also let you protect yourself a little better in the woods with dangerous wildlife around.

The extra inch of sight radius lets you reduce aiming error, and shoot tighter groups at greater range. If you really want to hunt with a 1911, then a 6" gun is worthy of consideration.

John you recently came out with a replacement rear sight for the Springfield Range Officer. What other new products do you have in the works for 1911 platform?

  • As new manufacturing runs of sights are made, I am adding “U” notches to each sight, including the night sight variants. The HD-004 family made for the Novak cut is next up and will be ready next week. After that, I want to make more of the Retro with a U notch. We will always keep the square notch; we’re just adding the U notch to it.
  • Also in the process is a new 1911 firing pin stop that will have design features that will improve the function of short and heavy recoiling 1911s in a couple of different ways.
  • There is also a thumb safety in the pipeline that will be a complimenting design to my Extreme Service slide stops. I expect to have all of these new products on the market in 2013.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions and to John Harrison for taking time out of his busy life to answer them for us all. Your next opportunity to Shoot the Breeze with industry professionals is coming soon.