Purpose built M1911 yields a performance plus!

By Jeremy Clough

Custom pistols aren't custom-built anymore. Thanks to the ready availability of aftermarket parts, and the inclusion of these parts on factory pistols, it's easier than ever to get a .45 with a beaver-tail, three-hole trigger and night sights. Fifteen /ears ago, these features were all well outside the price range of the average shooter. Now, it's hard to find a new M1911 without them. The downside is the "Cookie Cutter Syndrome," even custom pistols are no longer truly distinctive. While tuned guns in the Seventies and even early Eighties bore the distinct marks of their makers, nowadays, there's a certain stable of standard modifications. The end result is that even high-dollar hand-built M1911s frequently get mistaken for Kimbers.

Enter Pistol Dynamics. The resurrected pistolsmithing shop that Paul Liebenberg originally started in the 1980s is dedicated to making scratch-built guns that don't look, or perform, like anyone else's. First though, a few words on Liebenberg are in order. Originally from South Africa, Paul studied industrial design at Johannesburg College, and he learned to run a file on his own .45s. In those days and in that place, the only way to get a custom gun was to build your own. Insulated from the fads of American 'smithing, Liebenberg began developing M1911 modifications, such as his trademark beaver-tail, which were uniquely his own. After immigrating to the US, he took his talents to Pachmayr's vaunted custom shop, where he headed up their pistol division and, after its closure in the mid-1980s, founded an M1911 operation named Pistol Dynamics, whose latest incarnation started business in Florida last year. In between, he headed up the Smith & Wesson Performance Center.

With a corporate identity solidly based on their technical skills and experience, Pistol Dynamics covers the standard gunsmithing gamut, from basic packages on customer guns to exquisite one-of-a-kind pieces crafted by Liebenberg himself, and also utilizes state-of-the-art solid modeling, CAD, and other cutting-edge technology. Not only can they modify a problematic part with hand tools, they’re capable of redesigning it and prototyping a corrected version from scratch.

Thus, although they can do all the run-of-the-mill 'smithing, it would be incorrect to refer to Pistol Dynamics as merely another custom shop. By relying so heavily on advanced technology, they combine the best of modern machinery with the individual attention that has always distinguished the hand-crafted firearm. In corporate terminology, they have "leveraged technology to achieve consistency in craftmanship while maintaining individuality." In English, they've put a small-scale 1911 factory completely at the customer's disposal.

By using a commercially unavailable M1911 slide and frame (or, in their par-lance, "chassis") made to proprietary specs, Pistol Dynamics' "Performance" pistols have avoided one of the problems that has plagued smiths since the beginning, that is inconsistency. As a 'smith, you work on what you're sent, using aftermarket parts that, while specially made, have to be made to fairly generous tolerances in order to function in the wide variety of handguns that come across the bench. In short, you compromise; even the finest aftermarket beavertail cannot fit equally well on a Kimber, Springfield, and Colt; it must follow the law of averages. "Factory custom" pistols are even worse. Yes, the gun may have a beaver-tail and a rear sight, but are they the ones you want? If not, you're stuck, retrofitting an already-done gun is pricey, and at times, impossible.

Using almost exclusively their own components has allowed Pistol Dynamics to avoid these problems. Each gun begins life as a blank slate from which they can make anything from an accurate rendition of an original M1911, all the way to the wildest thing you can dream up.

I only had a brief idea of what Paul was doing when an online newsletter from led me to his website, but I was interested enough to call for details. When I first requested a test gun, Liebenberg was still designing his proprietary slides, and he and I discussed them in some detail. Paul explained how all sizes of the slides would have a standardized length of travel, making for maximum reliability in the shorter guns, and greater overall flexibility in choosing a slide length. "I can make any length slide and barrel the customer wants," he told me, unwittingly setting himself up for a challenge.


"Really?" I asked casually. "How about four-and-a-half inches?" A half-inch shorter than the Government Model, and a quarter-inch longer than a Commander, no one I knew of had ever done a 4.5 inch .45.

"Sure," he replied. I had expected him to backpedal, but Paul never missed a beat. I had my reasons for the oddball barrel, more than just putting him to the test. After reviewing some of the classic gun fighting books by Bill Jordan and Fairbairn & Sykes, I had integrated a few of their quick-close-and-dirty techniques into my close-quarters draw. While the new draw stroke worked fine with a Browning Hi-Power, and was very fast, the barrel on my 5-inch Colt .45 was just too long to work. It kept hanging up on the holster front. A Commander was out of the question, for some reasons they've never worked for me at speed. I'm not sure why, it may be a balance issue. A 4.5-inch, I reasoned, would clear leather better then a full-size Government Model, while retaining the balance of the big gun.

Thus began my test gun. The rest of the build sheet reads like any other premium M1911: match trigger, Bar-Sto barrel, mainspring housing, trigger guard, and front strap checkered at 30 lines per inch (Ipi), all fairly standard. I had the slide flat-topped and serrated, as most of my defensive M1911s have this, and I'm used to it. The rear sight is from Pistol Dynamics, and the front sight is one of Liebenberg's new dovetail-mounted models. Available in a wide variety of configurations, the front sight is a clean-looking installation in a longitudinal dovetail (as opposed to the traditional cross-slide slot), and is secured by a flanged barrel bushing. Although I admit some initial skepticism about having the sight dovetail going in the same direction as the gun recoils, Liebenberg pointed out that this is the only design in existence where the sight is held in a closed dovetail, recoil or no, the sight has no place to go. A pinned-in version is available for those with qualms.

Liebenberg's trademark beavertail is a story in and of itself, besides being machined, and not cast (which is how beavertails are typically made), it's designed for those who take an extremely high grip on the gun. The combination of a wide, near-flat tail and an almost-straight underside force your hand forward, rather than up on the tail itself that re-engages the safety, and which is what usually happens if you grip a standard beavertail too high. While a "speed bump" is said to be unnecessary, mine had a vestigial little bump at the bottom of the contact pad.

I also requested Browning Hi-Power style cuts on the business end of the slide. Aside from being cosmetically unique, for those who pinch-check, it gives some purchase on the slide with-out tearing up your holster the way serrations can. Although I don't pinch-check, preferring to keep my fingers away from the muzzle of a loaded gun, the lessened bearing surface of the narrower slide lets the gun come free of a friction-fit holster quicker.

The parts Paul uses, however, are not all that makes his guns unique. The assembly process itself is also different, especially the tolerances. Conventional wisdom says that tolerances should be loose on a combat pistol, so there's room for whatever gunk may accumulate in there. Paul, of course, realizes what most of us know, factory pistols have loose tolerances for ease-of-assembly reasons, not to make them more reliable. Additionally, the less room there is for gunk to get in your gun, the less gets in.

I first saw the assembled test gun during an on-site visit to Pistol Dynamics. Still in-the-white, it was beautiful: cleanly machined Browning cuts, well-fit beavertail, rock-solid barrel lockup—the gun even passed that most-overused of all tests, checking the slide-to-frame. There was no discernable play. Nonetheless, pretty is as pretty does, so we adjourned to the firing range. This let me shoot the gun to make sure it was what I'd asked for, and also let Paul watch me shooting it, so he could adjust the sights for my personal point-of-aim and also discover if there were any "hotspots" where the gun irritated or abraded my hand during recoil. Incidentally, this range visit was not a courtesy extended to a gun writer: they'll do it for any customer who'll come to the shop, and prefer it that way.


First shots were impressive, indeed, from the bench, at twenty-five yards, I put four out of five rounds into less than one inch. A called flyer opened the group up to about 1.5 inches. And remember, that was by hand, and it was not the best group I shot. Later Ransom Rest testing proved the gun's accuracy; one group literally went into one hole. "Paul must have sold his soul to the devil," I muttered as I triggered five shots, and watched the hole in the target stay the same size. Center-to-center, that 25-yard group came out to 0.6 of an inch with groups averaging 1.27 inches at that range. Accuracy of that sort, I was told repeatedly, is an "expected consequence" of the way they make guns. "They all shoot like that,” I was told. “There are no levels of performance with Paul’s guns. They’ll all do that.”

However, accuracy is only one part of the equation, a combat pistol must handle well (so you get on target in time), and shoot smoothly (so you stay there). The well-contoured grips and wide beavertail turned the gun butt into an almost-perfect oval, and spread out recoil evenly in the hand. A more subtle improvement over a stock M1911 is Paul's "waisting," or narrowing, of the grip tang. The beavertail and frame itself were shaved a bit right where the base of your thumb (that weakest of all digits) contacts the gun, so it doesn't take a beating during recoil.

Paul also takes great pride in individually tuning the cycling of each weapon. By adjusting the barrel's locking and unlocking, as well as the spring rate, the gun is calibrated to the load that will be fired out of it. This is significantly more technical than it sounds; perfectly balanced, the spring absorbs the full energy of recoil, and drives the slide forward with just enough force to push the muzzle back down onto the target. I requested that my test gun be calibrated for 230-grain Federal Hydra-Shok hollow points. In firing about 300 rounds (100 of which were hollow points) there were no mal-functions. Recoil was oil-smooth, and the gun's handling in rapid fire was exceptional.

As you might imagine, Pistol Dynamics guns don't come cheap, this one weighed in north of three grand. Delivery times are typical for a high-end custom gun, and cannot always be accurately projected. The test gun, which I first "spec'ed out" during Paul's tooling-up period, took one year (which includes several missed delivery dates), and was well worth the wait.

I recently read a wine critic complaining about the "dark forces of universalization." Amidst the cookie-cutter guns, Liebenberg's pistols have emerged as different, but different for a reason.

Welcome Back, Paul. Nice work.

For more information contact: Pistol Dynamics, 2509 Kirby Ave. NE #109, Dept CH, Palm Bay. FL 32905; (321) 733-1266;•