Custom Guns - Ammo Performance and Compatibility

Over the 27 odd years I’ve been building handguns; and at least half of that time competing professionally, I’ve developed this indelible image in my mind of a shooter clearing a malfunction in the middle of a stage. You can tell the shooters who seldom experience malfunctions from those who live with them on a daily basis. The former is momentarily paralyzed before he (or she) figures out what actually happened and proceeds to clear the stoppage. The latter is so efficient at clearing malfunctions that the spectators hardly notice the ‘happening’ at all and it’s only after they clear the second malfunction, in the same stage, that anyone figures out what the first one was. I’ve even seen shooters win stages after one of these blinding recoveries. The fact is, the only way to avoid a malfunction in your lifetime is not to shoot. All you can do is prepare for it and limit the probability. When I hear a statement like, “my gun never malfunctions”, it’s a clear sign that unless this person gives up shooting immediately they’re in for a shock. Anyone with any experience in the business just doesn't even go there. It’s like a person saying they’ve never had an AD. All the ‘oldtimers' in the room immediately cover their ears.

I sometimes wonder how often an investment was made in a custom gun that was at least partially influenced by a written report that said it would digest EVERYTHING you feed it. Or perhaps another of those classic cliches, “it’ll feed empty cases”. Unfortunately, that’s no indicator of a well-built custom gun. We’ve been sucked in by the pure fallacy that custom guns are supposed to “feed anything”. Well, they’re not. A custom gun is a precision instrument; they’re supposed to feed anything they’re designed for, and that's good quality ammunition. If for some reason, TOTAL ammunition tolerance is a prerequisite of your handgun, a high-end custom gun is not what you’re looking for.

I often ask my customers what they intend to do with the pistol they are planning to have built, and depending on their response, I’ll attempt to steer them to one of the three principal build philosophies we apply to our guns. The first of which is a high performance, no holds barred custom gun that is designed to fire high quality ammunition in the most accurate and efficient manner; often for score intensive competition like the Bianchi Cup or for the enthusiast who wants the ultimate example of our work. The second, and most common, is a practical pistol designed for varying competition environments and personal carry where the user has good control over ammo, magazines etc. The last is a pure fighting handgun.

If we assume that all other variables are equal, like a good tuning job, quality magazines, fresh recoil springs and efficient trigger mechanism etc, then the fundamental difference between the three packages is the range and quality of the ammunition likely to be used. The high end, super precise custom handgun is expected to perform as close to ammunition capability as possible. It goes without saying that you need quality ammo to get there. Sometimes it’s one cartridge design produced by a single manufacturer that will deliver that magical 25 yd. group in the hands of a good shooter. In the good old days we built Bianchi specific guns that routinely delivered groups under an inch at twenty-five yds and in fact were close to doing that at fifty. But they did it with one ammo recipe only and we stuck to it, even for practice. We considered the caliber, timing, bullet, powder, primer and user to be a system and we made our shooters aware of the optimal ammo specs. The bullet seat of the barrel was finely tuned to contact the ogive of the bullet when in battery. The headspace was also held to tight tolerances making control of overall case and cartridge length essential. A long case, or a bullet not fully seated by the press, could have caused a fail to close if we weren't diligent with our reloads. But we did everything possible to avoid malfunctions. I even designed a slide guard to keep the shooters thumbs from riding the slide. Expecting a high performance custom 1911 to work with ANY ammo is like expecting your Indy Car to run on pump gas.

On the other hand, pistols intended for use in a practical environment such as IDPA, IPSC and even more intense stuff like LE and military applications are more likely to be affected by varying conditions and ammunition types. Mags get dropped in the sand and we tend to fiddle with our loads and bullet types. Some shooters have different ammo for practice and match. Cases get reloaded until they split and all of this can contribute to a malfunction. Part of the solution is obvious. Make more headspace for the inconsistent case lengths. Move the bullet seat forward. Push the throat and ramp on the chamber enough without adversely affecting case support. Retard the barrel lock time, snug up the extractor and push the recoil spring weight a bit. But there’s a price to be paid for this increased ammunition tolerance. Because of the deviation from some of the mechanical enhancements that made it so accurate in the first place, we trade a small portion of that accuracy, and there’s no way around it. The other part of the solution is what the pros habitually do; they find a couple of compatible loads for their pistols and stick to them.

In the case of a dedicated fighting handgun for those who actually use them, these function enhancing techniques need to be pushed even further, effectively negating the whole reason for building a high end custom gun. Target engagement distances are close and 1.5” at 50 yds is not an issue. A 3" gun at 50 yds is more than adequate, let alone the fact that a lot of the ammunition these guys use won't carry that kind of accuracy. What's left is a working tool that doesn’t need to have tedious hand checkering and a grade ‘A’ polish job or even fancy grips for that matter. It’s a well-fitted close quarter gun that will function with some ugly stuff if it needs to. The fact is that the majority of these ‘Operators’ and SRT dudes do an interesting thing i.e. exactly what the money shooters do; they find an effective load that is compatible with the system and they stick to it. This eliminates many of the variables that could cause a malfunction, but with the peace of mind that should they need to fire some suspect stuff, the likelihood of the gun working is good. Here’s the rub, because your ammo head-stamp is that of one of the 3 or 4 best ammo companies in the world it doesn’t mean its ammo worthy of including in your system. Some factory ammo, and in particular the bullets, look like they were deliberately designed to malfunction the gun.

By all means experiment with loads and bullets and the other things that make shooting fun. If you get free ammo that’s not totally compatible with your system, send the gun to your gunsmith and ask him to tune the pistol for it. But there are just too many ammo products out there nowadays to make a broad statement like “the gun will digest everything”; many more than just a few years ago. The more variables introduced - the higher the probability of failure. The ultimate solution to all this is common sense. If we review the preceding opinions and observations on the subject then there should be a glaring constant. Although we build guns with a focus on the intended use, the experienced user almost always identifies and uses no more than a couple of ammo combinations that have been well tested. There are a number of reload formulas and a lot of traditional boxed ammo that can be relied on implicitly. The reward is the hassle free enjoyment of shooting your custom gun without those frustrating ammo related glitches.

Paul Liebenberg