A Definitive, Masterful Rendition Of The Classic.
Thirty-two years ago, an 11-year-old boy would work all weekend on the family ranch — ignoring the blazing sun — so he could shoot a few magazines through his stepfather’s 1911. That young man went on to shoot PPC and USPSA at age 15. He later became captain of the UCLA pistol team during his college years, shooting international events like Free Pistol and Air Pistol.
He had the bug bad, just like the rest of us do.
But unlike most of us, Stan Chen — the “Stan” in Stan Chen Custom — was taken by the “why” behind guns. In his words: “American Handgunner was very influential when I was a teenager growing up in the late 1980’s. It was the heyday of the 1911 racegun. I marveled at the custom creations of the 1911 as ’smiths experimented, breaking new ground with compensators and ergonomic enhancements, advancing the 1911 well beyond a stock Colt.
“I often wondered how these pistolsmiths got their start, what their backgrounds were … and how could I become involved some day?
“But … I took the easy way out and went the traditional route, going to college, getting a degree, landing a good job. I was trying to be responsible. I spent my 20’s in the corporate world doing well, but was never satisfied with the work. I was the definitive square peg not fitting in the round hole.”
As Stan neared 30, his long-time dream of learning to build custom 1911’s resurfaced — hard. He had a sincere conversation with his wife, who supported him, simply saying, “A man needs a life’s work. You need to go for it.”
So he did.
Holster by 5 Shot Leather.
Starting in 2001, Stan began in earnest to learn the gun. “Pure passion drove me,” he told me. “I spent two years, full-time, learning everything I could about building 1911’s. I supported myself doing consulting work, but my focus was to learn everything it would take to be the best at 1911 work.”
Stan learned where he could, however he could. He devoured everything he could about machine work, welding and metalworking in general. Later, he taught himself CAD design, CNC maching and CAM-driven programming. As he said, “I never wanted my building techniques and process to be held back by a lack of metalworking ability.”
Two years of self-made gunsmithing school flashed by and Stan hung out his shingle. Then a surprise occurred.
“After I built my first gun for a customer, five orders came in, and in very short order, I had a substantial backlog of work. I still do.” I could tell Stan was smiling in surprise, even now, as we chatted on the phone.
Stan admitted the process had been hard work, but he found he took to it naturally. Things simply clicked and he found not only was he good at it — he loved the work.
“The resources, talent, opportunity and relationships,” Stan said, “I see them all as a gift.”
Today, some 12 years later, Stan still does all the machine work himself, in-house. People assume he has a background as a tool and die maker, but Stan laughs, “Most are shocked to hear I’m largely self-taught. I do owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to master machinists Pete Single and Chuck Rogers, who gave me advice and were always there for me when I had questions. And while I admire many pistolsmiths, the two who most influenced me, especially in my early years, are Paul Liebenberg and Dick Heinie.”
Another thing separating Stan from most pistolsmiths is the fact he never assumes anything. He’s constantly testing conventional 1911 wisdom by proving things for himself. He learned right away simply because something had always been done a certain way, it didn’t make it right, or even good.
He said when he attended a very early class on basic pistol building the instructor said, “Okay, get out your hammers and let’s peen those frames so we can fit the slide.” Stan told me he was amazed that was how pistolsmiths were still fitting frames and slides! “I thought, surely there’s got to be a better way?”
Then he went on to find a better way.
Stan’s shop is full of sophisticed machine tools, and he’s enhanced his skills by learning precision TIG welding, milling, turning, precision grinding and intricate handwork with files and stones. He counts shelves of custom tooling and fixtures he’s made entirely from scratch as integral to his success.
“I simply couldn’t find the tooling I needed to get the kind of finished product I wanted, so I had to create it myself,” explained Stan. “I use 3- and 4-axis CNC machines and a battery of more traditional machines I have in my shop to create a pistol. The only work done outside my shop is the final dip in the bluing tanks done by Glenrock Blue. I also handle all the final polish and metal prop work before Glenrock sees the final product.”
This is, as Stan said laughing, “Not a pistol you build in the bed of a pick-up truck with a file and a hammer!”
Stan’s father was an artist, and Stan admits he inherited his father’s eye for detail and his creative talents. His dad told him, “No matter what you do, be the best at it and you’ll do fine.”
Stan’s doing just fine.
Stan and I met first on the phone and in emails many years ago. I finally got to chat with him at the SHOT Show some years ago, and we instantly hit it off. He’s smart, sincere, passionate about his craft — and about excellence in general — and listens intently when someone talks to him.
After meeting him I said, “Stan, build a gun I can put in the pages of Handgunner. I think our readers would really enjoy what you do. I think your guns are distinctive, handsome and represent a significant change in the way people need to think about how a 1911 goes together.”
I leaned on Stan for several years to come through, but he was busy moving, building his ASYM ammunition business and had his fingers in a dozen pies at once. I finally put the screws to him and he knuckled down and got it done. Until I got this test gun on my desk — Stan calls it a “full-build” by the way — I had never fired one of Stan’s guns. But by simply looking at one, I felt I had a sense of what it would be like.
I had underestimated things considerably.
There are some pistolsmiths whose work is so distinctive you can identify it across a room. Literally, if you’re familiar with the breed, you can pick out a gun Ted Yost, Terry Tussey, Paul Liebenberg, Chuck Rogers, Dick Heinie — Stan Chen — and a very few others have built … while it sits on a table 20 feet from you. Combinations of how they reflect light, angles, finishes, small touches and overall esthetics often differ very subtly among the greats, yet each is distinctive in their unique way.
Looking at the test gun Stan sent me I saw immediately this was something very special. And the unique Helical Fluted Kart Barrel jumped out at me — fast. A bit like how streamling makes a good auto design look like it’s going fast while sitting motionless.
Keep in mind, every single part of this pistol is tweaked and tuned in some thoughtful way so it functions better, operates more efficiently and because of that, will last longer. I could hardly wait to shoot it, which is not like me.
Chen Blueprint Fit
Stan uses a very scientific methodology when it comes to the 1911. While many “custom pistolsmiths” can kludge a 1911 together, put racing stripes on it, weld on daggers, lasers, electrodes or paint skulls on the sides, what’s on the inside is what creates the pistol. The outside of anything can be made pretty, but if the foundation is wrong, it’s like a $5,000 paint job on a fancy fiberglass-bodied custom car built on Yugo running gear. Once you turn the key, you know something’s not right. Suddenly, all that flash doesn’t mean a thing.
Stan cleared the table when he took his first really hard look at what makes a 1911 run. This “Blueprint Fit” is a comprehensive custom 1911 build process yielding a precision instrument, if you will, which happens, in this case, to be a 1911. Every critical dimension is built to optimal, precision-engineered tolerances. This approach entails precise machining, custom fabricating, meticulous hand-fitting and at times, even highly detailed welding. The result seems to be a pistol exhibiting a degree of reliability, accuracy and durability rarely seen in the breed.
The focus of all this is on three things: reliability, frame and slide fit and barrel fit. This process assures the assembly work as one unit, rather than a slap-dash conglomoration of parts which have been peened, beaten, filed, lapped and generally fudged hither and yon until the gun works — mostly. Stan makes everything work first, then fits them into a single cohensive unit.
Stan realized early on every dimension is critical to performance. How parts relate to one another as they move, not just as they sit idle, is of specific importance. The dynamic relationships between the parts in the firing cycle is the magic — when done exactly right — creating something to behold.
Even though Stan developed methods to blueprint Colt frames and slides, he still wanted the ability to start from scratch, rather than “rebuild” factory frames and slides. A few years ago Stan set out to build his own frame/slide combo sets. Starting with the best USA-made forgings he could find, Stan uses his in-house 4-axis machining center to do all the final critical-tolerance machine work on them, then meticulously finishes each by hand.
“Because I’m doing the work myself, in my shop,” explained Stan, “the frames and slides I use are in fact dead-nuts to my specs. No guess work, no rebuilding, no wondering … they are exactly right.”
Frame And Slide
I’m going to tell you something now you likely won’t believe. Stan holds frame and slide parallelism on all bearing surfaces to 0.0001″. That would be one ten thousandth of an inch. A piece of paper is about three thousandths. This fit is one tenth of one thousandth of an inch.
Now, this isn’t the distance between the bearing surfaces (it would be too tight and never work) but relates to the fact the bearing surfaces are, essentially, exactly parallel to each other. That means there are no high spots to wear off, and wear is even and predictable.
Stan created special tooling, custom jigs and fixtures, processes and even measuring techniques over two years until he was happy with the final beautifully smooth, honed finish on all bearing surfaces. It’s called a “gauge fit” and is something you won’t often — ever? — see on a custom 1911 built in a one-man shop. Stan also machines special relief cuts inside both the slide and the frame to allow lube to freely circulate and to allow firing debris a place to go. One of the benefits of making your own parts.
For perspective, let’s look at that peened frame and slide fit from a while ago. Lapping compound is not used in Stan’s fitting process — there’s no need. Lapping compound is usually used as a sort of crutch when fitting two parts together. A ’smith might not know exactly where two parts are binding during the slide/frame fitting process. Lapping compound is applied and the slide is run back and forth until it runs free. What is happening here is the frame and slide then runs on a few “high” spots which are supporting this fit. When these high spots wear — and they will — things loosen up.
Reliability, according to Stan, is all about barrel fit and timing. “Barrel fit is centered on blueprinted timing to ensure the very best in reliablity, accuracy, smooth function and durability,” said Stan. “The barrel, frame and slide are precisely laid out and machined to optimal specs so at every moment of the firing cycle, the barrel is positioned exactly where it was intended to be for optimum function.”
How the barrel’s lugs are cut and the arc of movement determined by the length of the barrel link (all in relation to the other dimensions of the pistol), are critical to timing. That’s why having a frame and slide to exact spec means there’s nothing left to guess at.
“Traditional methods of barrel fitting often leave this timing to chance,” explains Stan. “There’s often a lot of guessing and ‘gee, let’s try a shorter link, or cut the barrel legs more’ goes on. At times, correct barrel timing seems to be arrived at more by accident or almost as an afterthought.”
Having the timing correct affects feeding, extraction and ejection. If the barrel isn’t in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time, the extractor may be off, the ejector might strike the case incorrectly, or any number of other issues could crop up.
“A poorly timed barrel fit leads to unreliable, erratic function, poor accuracy, increased wear on locking surfaces and stress on parts, leading to failure,” said Stan. “This increased wear can also be seen in peened lugs, cracked lower lugs and broken slide stops.”
There are three bearing surfaces in the barrel’s upper radial locking lugs, those cuts on the top of the barrel in front of the chamber. Most stock (or even many custom 1911’s) have a fit allowing bearing on only one of those surfaces. As the pistol wears the fit changes and the gap between the barrel hood and the breech face opens.
Stan takes the time to machine the upper barrel lugs to match the recesses in the slide to bear on all three contact points. “This gives greater stability to the barrel as ignition occurs. It’s a more durable fit, and with triple locking lug engagement, the fit of the barrel hood does not loosen over time,” explained Stan.
I also like the radical 45-degree barrel crown, hidden behind the face of the bushing. It not only looks handsome, it completely protects the all-important barrel crown if the gun is dropped. And by the way, don’t even think about dropping this gun!
To make sure his blueprint process goes well, Stan fires each gun he builds a minimum of 500 rounds, with a variety of ammo. He makes any minor adjustments needed along the way, but doesn’t stop until he’s sure the gun is 100 percent. Most makers shoot a few magazines through their custom guns, with most factory makers shooting five to seven rounds as the final “test.” Just so you know.
Stan is a self-confessed trigger connoisseur. “A superlative-feeling trigger action whould be part of any high-end custom 1911,” said Stan. “I set my triggers at 4 pounds, but they feel much lighter due to the extensive tuning and exacting in the action parts.”
Our test gun had a smooth take-up, with no hesitation, no grinding and no grit, as if it were on rollers. The actual break was creep-free and with no perceptible movement. Frankly, it’s the best trigger I’ve ever felt on a 1911. There is a small handful of others who come close, and might even be on par with this one, but I predict you’d get this same trigger in every build gun from Stan.
“The whole process of tuning the trigger is very time-consuming,” explained Stan. “Every part in the action is tuned in some say, from the bottom of the mainspring tunnel, to the disconnector track in the slide, and everything in between. Careful stoning and handwork to perfect engagement and surface geometry is necessary in any system you install, but working with the best parts to begin with, makes the final result the best possible.”
Stan said he uses ignition parts from Extreme Engineering. He feels they make the finest trigger components in the industry, and the metallurgical integrity of their parts provides him with a solid platform to craft the action to perfection.
The list of modifications and custom features on this pistol could take pages. From Stan’s “Progressive Traction Checkering” (or Pro-Trac as it’s called), his innovative magwell allowing a positive grip on a recalcitrant magazine, Herringbone checkered slide stop and slide top, 3D blended front sight (can you see it’s actually in a dovetail?!), sculpted safeties, angled mag catch, French borders and much, much more, Stan takes great pains to assure only the finest work makes it out the door.
“I want one of my guns to look like a work of art and perform like an extension of its owner. I want the pistol to melt into the shooter’s hands, and the sweeping high cut under the trigger helps by setting the pistol deeply into a shooter’s hand,” says Stan. “I give a lot of thought — and care — to how all the parts of my pistols integrate to create a cohesive machine and not simply a conglomoration of parts.”
Of course I shot it. Lots, as a matter of fact. I figured, if Stan can do it, so can I, so I put a bit over 500 rounds (more like 550) through this test gun — after I got it back from our crack photographer! An essential characteristic of this gun is consistency. It clearly operates as one unit, from the moment you pick it up, it fits smoothly into your hand, the Pro-Trac progressive checkering molding into your palm and fingers, the safety falling under your thumb and the sights aligning automatically as you target the gun.
Run the slide and you’ll find a smoothness that’s surprising, and terms like roller bearings or bank-vault door aren’t quite right. It’s more alive than that, more than simply mechanical movement. Many custom (and many factory) 1911’s tend, at least to me, to feel like a cobbled together set of parts being forced to work against each other. It’s almost like the gun is fighting to tear itself apart. And indeed, many do.
It’s easy to force two parts to mate and grind against each other, at least for a while. But inevitably they fail. Stan’s single-minded focus on assuring everything works as one, shows in this “integral” feeling his guns invoke. It’s almost biological, as if it had DNA and grew as one, polished unit.
Accuracy is as predictable as you might imagine. If I had good eyes and could shoot well, this gun would have delivered 1-hole groups at 25 yards. As it is, on a cold, blustery day, I shot group after group hovering in the 1″ and less mode. Aim, hold the breath, let out half, squeeze carefully, bang, and the bullet holes touch. The amazing trigger made it possible.
On a lark, I fired a 10-round group. One ragged hole. I kept at it, and at 50 rounds, it was still one ragged hole. More ammo (Stan’s ASYM 230 FMG at 750 fps) kept it going. At 150 I stopped. Note the photo. If you drop the two flyers the group size is about 1.40″. That’s 150 rounds at 25 yards from an old guy who can’t see, on a cold, windy day. If you don’t find that amazing, you need to reboot your operating system.
Stan builds his guns one at a time, alone, with nobody hurrying him along. There’s no pressure to get a gun out the door — ever. It goes out when it’s perfect, or not at all. Stan admitted to me building 1911’s is his life work.
“I’ll likely leave behind a few hundred pieces representing my professional passion,” said Stan. “I’m grateful every single day there are those out there who appreciate what I do.”
Today, Stan builds pistols showcasing the highest level of refinement he can craft. From function and ergonomics to aesthetics, every detail of one of Stan’s 1911’s delights the eye and the hand. Indeed, while the outside resembles a 1911, the qualities representing Stan’s work results in a pistol which feels very different from the norm. It’s a 1911 — and it’s not.
Passion and perfectionism drive him. Stan’s always pushing boundaries, breaking new ground in performance, interface with the shooter and sheer elegance in metalwork.
On a personal note, it’s gratifying I’m able to see Stan’s work in the pages of Handgunner — the very magazine which first motivated him to raise the bar and challenge himself.
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index; Chen Custom: (970) 385-7900/ 5 Shot Leather: (509) 844-3969
By Roy Huntington