American Handgunner January/February 1986

By Dave Arnold

In recent years big money matches like the Bianchi Cup have spawned a number of highly customized handguns specially modified for those who are serious about this type of shooting. One of the latest and most sophisticated handguns to appear is a highly modified Colt Government Model of modular design customized by Paul Liebenberg, master gunsmith managing the handgun division of Pachmayr Gun Works.

For nearly a decade, Pachmayr has offered a line of Colt 1911s specially customized for IPSC shooters. Many top shooters like Ray Chapman and Ross Seyfried, both of whom captured World IPSC titles (in 1975 and 1981 respectively), have used Pachmayr .45s.

Paul himself is a top IPSC shooter, having shot for his native country of South Africa before emigrating to this country in 1983. He is still a top class shooter who continues to compete and has placed high in the professional money matches like Steel Challenge and Bianchi Cup.

Under Paul's direction, Pachmayr continues to produce handguns for both duty and competition as well as some very sophisticated designs like this exotic 9mm the Handgunner received for evaluation. This pistol is a modular design, built around the Colt 1911, that can be had with accessories that will convert it to chamber both the .45 ACP and the .38 Super as well as 9mm. It is designed specifically for professional matches like the Bianchi Cup and the Steel Challenge.

The modular design allows the serious competitor the chance to shoot the same pistol in a number of match formats. Slap on the .45 ACP top end (slide) and you're ready for bowling pin matches. Swap to the .38 Super slide and you’ve got a ticket to the winner's circle in any IPSC match. Install the 9mm slide and you're ready for the Steel Challenge; add the mount for an optical sight and you're set for the Bianchi Cup.

The modular design is an important concept in this pistol. "You have this one gun," Paul explained, "and all the calibers are interchangeable within the system, You're getting four guns in one when you consider the three calibers as well as the chance to put on an optical sight. And you get this on the same frame with the same ergonomic grip and same trigger." Because of the number of combinations available with the modular design, Pachmayr cannot quote a fixed price, but Paul said the modular pistol retails for between $2,500 and $3,750 depending on options.

To be suitable for a precision match like the Bianchi Cup, a handgun must be capable of delivering target accuracy, be completely reliable and handle ammunition that meets the power factor with a minimum of recoil. In addition, the gun must be able to mount scoped aiming devices like the Aimpoint. Of course it goes without saying that a superb, crisp trigger action is part of the package.

In the accuracy department, many of the .38 Special PPC revolvers and customized .45 autos currently used in the Bianchi Cup are capable of shooting 2 1/2 inch groups at 50 yards. Various methods are used to accurize the 1911 like tight barrel bushings, oversize barrel links and close mating of the slide and frame rails. More recently, dispensing with the barrel bushing entirely and having a barrel tapered at the muzzle, often with a heavy compensator attached that mates directly with the slide, has been the way to go.

This Pachmayr pistol uses an entirely different locking system. The front of the barrel fits into a ball-swivel joint contained in a large housing that is an integral part of the front of the frame. Upon firing, the barrel moves backwards to unlock within extremely tight tolerances made possible by the unique ball-swivel joint. The barrel moves back two-hundredths of an inch (.02) and drops downwards within the ball-swivel only one-thousandth (.001"). This permits the barrel to unlock while at the same time insuring consistent barrel alignment.

The rear of the barrel locks up with another unique system employing a redesigned rear link that ensures the barrel will return to battery in the same exact position for every shot. The link is designed to keep the barrel cammed into position as the barrel hood wears so that accuracy is not lost. Paul explained that slight wear occurs on every 1911 in the area of the barrel hood and the edges of the lugs as a normal result of shooting. But he added that the Pachmayr cam-link system prevents loss of accuracy due to normal wear.

"It will shoot two-inches at 50 yards when you first get the gun. After 300 to 500 break in rounds it’ll shoot two and a half inches at 50 yards, but it will continue to shoot two and a half inches forever with the cam lug we use to allow for slight wear," Paul explained.

To support the additional mass of the front barrel housing, the area of the recoil spring dust cover has been strengthened by adding metal to it. This, together with the housing, also adds weight to the front of the gun which helps dampen recoil keeping muzzle lift to a minimum. It also supports the mounting for the Aimpoint, placing it low and forward of the ejection port and in line with the barrel much like the manner this device is attached to revolvers. Most auto mountings usually consist of a special left hand grip panel that places the electronic sight higher and further to the rear. There are claims that this method is inferior to revolver mounts because it is less secure, places the weight further back and can cause functioning problems if it interferes with the ejection of spent cases.

The modular pistol without the mount and Aimpoint sight weighs 64 ounces and goes up to 72 ounces with the sight. But these weights were taken from Paul's personal pistol. Paul pointed out that the weight of each modular pistol varies to suit the requirements of the buyer. For instance, Paul said Mickey Fowler's modular pistol is slightly lighter than his while another one he built for Jim Zubiena is slightly heavier. "The gun is designed ergonomically and weight-wise for the individual. The modular system will stay constant, but the individual guns will be slightly different," Paul said.

Apart from these unique refinements, the rest of the pistol is basically unaltered. Of course, the trigger has been worked on to give it a light, crisp pull, but there is a noticeable absence of other frills normally considered standard on IPSC pistols such as flared magazine wells, extended slide catches and magazine release buttons. Most of such features are intended to facilitate fast magazine changes and, as this is not a critical requirement in either the Bianchi Cup or Steel Challenge, they have been dispensed with. The only other feature of note is a shroud that is located just forward of the manual safety catch that keeps the thumb from rubbing against the slide during firing, something that could result in a malfunction. Taking everything into consideration, virtually all the modifications are intended to give the pistol the advantages that many claim the revolver has over the auto in the Bianchi Cup.

In the Steel Challenge, where target accuracy at long range is not a requirement, the auto reigns supreme, thanks to its greater ammunition capacity. Speed is of the essence in this match and, while a few competitors use Aimpoints, most go for iron sights claiming these help them get on target much faster. As there is no ammunition power factor to worry about, most of the pistols used are pin guns that often have compensators to reduce recoil to a minimum.

And the Pachmayr pistol is ideal for this speed shooting match. Being a modular design, one simply has to remove the Aimpoint and mounting, and the pistol is ready for the Steel Challenge. Alternatively, if the pistol is to be used solely for this match, the basic gun without the Aimpoint and mounting can be ordered. This version has the low profile Bo-Mar fully adjustable rear sight but can have the electronic sight mounting added later, if desired. Pistols so fitted will also accept a mount for a scope.

Although the pistol does not have a compensator, the mass of the barrel housing is enough to dampen muzzle lift considerably, even with the Aimpoint removed. When chambered for either 9mm or .38 Super with reduced loads, recoil is miniscule. Reports have already appeared in previous issues of the Handgunner about the possibility of the .38 Super replacing the .45 in IPSC because of its reduced recoil. The trouble with this ammunition is that it is not always easy to obtain and, because of the pressures involved, case life of reloads is reduced. The latter can be a real problem because of the amount of rounds top shooters go through in practice. It is because of this that the gun is being offered in 9mm Luger. Ammunition in this caliber is much more readily available and the cases can be reused many more times than the .38 Super. The only problem is the fact that, in my experience, 9mm does not have the same accuracy potential of either the .38 Special or the larger .45 ACP. While either of these rounds can be loaded to print tiny groups all the way back to 50 yards, getting the same results with 9mm without sacrificing reliability is much more difficult.

Paul claims that, in his gun, the 9mm can be made to perform as accurately as any .38 Special and can print groups under 1/2 inch at 25 yards with properly loaded ammunition. With this in mind, I was interested to see how the gun would perform on the range. Accuracy testing was done at 25 yards from a sand bagged bench rest using one of the Aimpoint models. Ammunition consisted of some special reloads prepared by Watson Precision together with some Federal and PMC factory rounds. Paul's auto grouped just under 3/4 inch, using Federal 95 grain JHPs. Even better results were achieved with the match reloads supplied by Watson Precision. This ammunition is loaded specifically for matches like the Bianchi Cup by Bud Watson (2650 S. Myrtle Ave. #1, Dept. AH, Monrovia, California 91016). It is not as hot as factory loads, yet meets the power factor specified for this competition. The best group measured under 1/2 inch which is excellent and shows just what the pistol is capable of.

Certainly these loads together with the combined weight of the heavy muzzle and the Aimpoint reduce recoil to almost negligible proportions. This was evident when I tried the gun out on the six metal plates that are used in the Falling Plate stage of the Bianchi Cup. Apart from a slight hiccup, there was hardly any muzzle lift and it was almost like shooting a .22 Short Rapid Fire pistol.

To see what the pistol would be like for the Steel Challenge, I tried one of the basic models with iron sights. Even without the additional weight of the Aimpoint, the recoil was hardly noticeable, thanks to all the extra weight in the front. This certainly indicated that the gun is just as suitable for this match as it is for the Bianchi Cup.

As far as reliability is concerned, no problems were experienced with either model when factory ammunition or the Watson Precision match reloads were used. However, there were a few cases of the slide not returning completely into battery with some practice reloads. In all other respects, the gun gave a very impressive performance and lived up to all the claims made by Paul Liebenberg and Pachmayr.

The sophistication of these modular autos is such that they can be likened to Formula One racing cars. Because of the work involved, these guns can be very expensive, especially if they are ordered with all the accessories necessary to convert them to the other calibers. Consequently, they are not the kind of handguns that the average shooter is going to rush out and buy. Most sales will be to competitors who are in contention for top honors in the big money competitions. However, what is interesting is the fact that in developing these guns some of the features like the rear barrel link system and the safety shroud will now be included in Pachmayr's IPSC and pin gun custom autos which will be to the benefit of all shooters. Further information on Pachmayr's Modular Pistol and other models can be obtained by writing to them at 1220 S. Grand Ave., Dept AH. Los Anseles.CA 90015.