High-Dollar 1911 .45s: Wilson Combat Beats Baer and Clark
Many Gun Tests readers have asked if expensive self-defense guns from Wilson Combat, Les Baer, and Clark Custom are worth the money. Frankly, we didnít know, so we set out to test them.
[IMGCAP(1)] Value is a difficult concept to pin down when buying a self-defense gun, because it means different things to different people. For one shooter, value means getting acceptable performance for the fewest dollars; for another, it means uncompromising performance, the dollars be damned. At Gun Tests, we generally lean toward the first definition—maximizing what you get for what you spend.
But there is another way to look at purchasing firearms, especially self-defense guns: Get the best. We admit this idea has strong appeal, because in a shoot/don’t-shoot situation where your life is at stake, don’t you want the best possible machinery in your hand?
In response to dozens of inquiries we’ve had from readers, we wanted to test a set of high-dollar guns from big-name makers—Wilson Combat, Les Baer, and Clark Custom—to see if their supposedly well-fitted and reportedly very accurate pistols are significantly better for self-defense than, say, an over-the-counter Kimber, Colt’s, or Springfield pistol.
We did know that many, if not most, serious users and carriers of .45 auto single-action semiautomatics generally have extensive work done to their chief carry pieces. This aftermarket work often includes trigger and accuracy jobs, dehorning, adding night sights, throating, adding better-quality fitted “target” barrels, and on and on. The total for this work, when added to the base cost of the piece, can easily exceed the price of a Baer, Wilson, or Clark, depending on the options.
Instead, we wondered if you could simply plump down your dollars for one of these premier-brand autos and get exactly what you wanted without the need for any aftermarket work. Would these $1,400 to $1,600 handguns have all the little details looked after, all the extra work done? Could they be simply test fired and then crammed into the holster and be trusted with your life?
We doubted it. Frankly, although it’s easy to spend $1,500 or more for a full-size self-defense 1911-style auto pistol, we thought we would have to do something to it in order to make it “just right” before we’d be happy sticking it into our holster. It was time to find out. We acquired self-defense 1911-style pistols from Wilson Combat, Les Baer, and Clark Custom. We specified that these be self-defense, carryin’-type handguns with no frills.
We first approached Les Baer, maker of the Thunder Ranch Special (TRS). This gun is touted and promoted by Clint Smith, proprietor of the Thunder Ranch training center in Texas. Smith likes his Baer Thunder Ranch Special, so we tried to get one.
We first spoke with Mr. Baer in January, and he promised to send us a Thunder Ranch Special if we contacted him during the first week in February. This we did, and again Mr. Baer told us he’d send along a TRS. A week or so later we checked on the progress, only to be told we would not be getting the promised Thunder Ranch Special. He was too far behind in orders for the TRS, but we could have a Premier II immediately. Since the gun was listed as a duty and defense gun on the Baer website—just like Wilson and Clark Custom guns that were already in the works—we agreed.
Thus, our lineup of guns, the Wilson Combat CQB, $1,650; a Clark Custom Conversion of a Caspian 1911, $1,630; and the Les Baer Premier II, $1,428; were matched up in nearly respect. These were all-steel guns. All had checkered wood stocks, long triggers, beavertail grip safeties, extended thumb safeties, dovetailed-in front sights, opened magazine wells, and checkered front grip straps. They all had forward serrations on their slides for safe press-checking. (The weak hand grasps the serrations from underneath and pulls the slide part-way back to verify a chambered round.) The finishes varied, but that of the Wilson was the most business-like, in two-tone black and green, with black diamond-wood grip panels. The Clark was semi-matte blued with checkered cocobolo grips. Baer’s gun was matte blued on top and edges, semi-glossy on slide and frame sides, and had fully checkered cocobolo stocks.
Wilson’s and Baer’s magazines had padded bottoms to ease insertion. Baer sent along four magazines, though only one normally comes with the gun. They were similar to Wilson’s except for an error in their design that we’ll explain later. Wilson sent along a complement of two Wilson-Rogers stainless-steel magazines with replaceable bottom pads (available in varying thicknesses) and a dished polymer follower that permits the loading of eight rounds. This makes any 1911 into a nine-shooter when fully loaded. The lone Clark magazine had no pad. Clark’s gun had an arched mainspring housing; the others were flat.
The fixed rear sights of the Wilson and Clark guns were drift-adjustable after loosening a locking set screw. All three guns were close to perfect for windage. The front sights were adjustable only by replacement with a higher or lower unit. The Baer had a Bo-Mar adjustable rear, and its dovetailed front sight had a vertical roll pin to absolutely guarantee the sight wouldn’t be knocked out of alignment.
As we took each gun out of its box, we made a few simple tests. We first cleared each gun to ensure it was unloaded. Rather, we attempted to do so, but we could not open the Baer Premier II. The slide was stuck forward. By banging the front of the slide against a hard object while applying rearward pressure, we were able to force the slide open to ascertain the gun was indeed unloaded. More on this later.
Next, we ran the weak hand (left, for right-handers) down the top of each slide in a rearward direction, pressing firmly down onto the slide. This is a standard stovepipe-clearing drill that any self-defense gun must pass. The hand must not get cut or gouged by anything on the slide, rear sight, or around the ejection port as it whisks the “stovepipe” off and racks the slide. The Wilson CQB alone passed this test.
The Clark gun had very sharp forward edges on the front of the ejection port and front edge of the rear sight that would easily cut the hand. The Baer had the same thing, plus more sharp edges on the front of the rear sight blade.
All three guns came with a Ransom Rest–made target testifying to their accuracy. Baer guarantees 1.5 inches at 25 yards for the Premier II. This gun did much better, putting 10 rounds of Remington’s Golden Saber into 1.4 inches at 50 yards. Wilson guaranteed 1-inch accuracy at 25 yards, and that gun’s test target, shot at 15 yards with a (fully detailed) handload, was a ragged round hole. Clark didn’t guarantee a level of accuracy. They tested the gun and sent along a target that told its own story. Fired at 50 yards, it measured 1.9 inches for 10 rounds of Federal match ammo. Clearly, you get accuracy for your money.
Suffice to say that for self-defense, these guns will put any and all decent self-defense loads into groups less than 1.5 inches at 25 yards. We did find preferences, but they were so slight as to be more a matter of the available light, or luck, than grand differences from load to load.
We tested all three guns with Federal American Eagle 230-grain hardball, Black Hills 230-grain JHP, and Cor-Bon 185-grain JHP loads. The worst groups with any of the ammo and guns were less than 2 inches at 25 yards, and they were undoubtedly our fault. When we called three or four shots with a perfect hold during a string, with any gun, we found three or four shots touching. If we thought we had bobbled the sight picture, we found a shot outside the main group. These guns shot very well indeed, and all were essentially equally easy to shoot.
This made our testing more a matter of determining individual handling qualities and how each gun could be expected to deal with hypothetical problems, and of course reliability, than of accuracy testing. Here’s what we found.
Wilson Combat CQB
Our recommendation: This $1,650 gun was done exactly right. It is the only 1911-type handgun we’ve seen that had all the necessary features we put on our personal .45s. It’s one of the best .45 autos we’ve ever seen, and well worth its cost.
We immediately noticed the Wilson had a feel of having been put together by someone who had been heavily involved in competition or combat with no-nonsense handguns. Bill Wilson was and still is an active competitor in matches like Limited (and original) IPSC and pin shooting that place a premium on perfect gun setup. Only by knowing what is needed on a gun can you expect to build one that has all the right features.
To begin, these included breaking all edges (dehorning) for ease of handling, holstering, and shooting. Also, the appearance of the Wilson CQB (Close Quarters Battle) was all business. The frame was finished in dark green, with matte black slide. This is Wilson’s Armor Tuff finish, and it seemed to be durable. The left side of the slide had “WILSON COMBAT” and the right had “CQB” in subdued letters.
Each grip panel had the Wilson logo on a cartouche. All attached parts except for the barrel bushing and barrel were matte black. The barrel and its hand-fitted bushing were match-quality stainless. The wood and metal checkering were perfect, as was the slide-to-frame fit. The front strap and flat mainspring housing were checkered 30 lines per inch. The gun had fixed sights that included Wilson’s Night Eyes inserts. These tritium inserts, green in front and yellow in back, glow in the dark. Because most gunfights take place at night or in reduced visibility, self-defense handguns ought to have night-visible sights. Neither Baer nor Clark included them.
The Wilson package included two magazines, a video on disassembling and cleaning the gun, a trigger lock, and a soft, practical, zippered carry case with fitted compartments for four magazines, the gun, and a few accessories. Also included was a voucher for ear protectors, various tools, the video tape, a shooting hat, lube and ammo, all of which comes with the gun at no extra cost.
The instruction manual had a list of recommended ammunition that the company felt would provide the highest reliability and best street performance, and some recommended handloads for practice. Also included were the phone numbers of four of the best training schools in the world, Gunsite, Mid-South, Lethal Force, and Thunder Ranch. Everything in the package spoke of Wilson’s obvious commitment to excellence.
Shooting the CQB was a joy. The trigger pull was 3.25 pounds, very consistent, and entirely free of creep. Overtravel was minimal. The first two rounds we fired at 15 yards were touching. Then the brand-new Wilson spat out a double-tap, with both shots on target. Slow fire again put round after round nearly touching, so we moved back to 25 yards. From this range, we had all we could do to keep up with the Wilson’s accuracy. The gun printed about four inches high at 25 yards. Some prefer a six-o’clock hold, but we personally prefer a gun to hit dead center of the sights at 25 yards. That is the only change we’d make to this handgun, but we could live with it with absolutely no changes.
The Wilson shot groups of 1.2 to 1.3 inches average for us with the 185-grain Cor-Bon ammo. With the Black Hills 230-grain JHP (one of Wilson’s recommend loads), we got groups as small as 0.6 inches and as large as 1.7 inches. With the Federal American Eagle, groups averaged 1.4 inches. We knew the gun would do better; our groups reflected only our ability to shoot well.
As important in a test of this type are the field-related questions. The rapid-fire handling and performance were superb, we thought. We engaged three targets as fast as we could present from concealment and shoot, and the gun made us look good. The excellent trigger pull and fast sight acquisition helped immensely.
There were no problems or malfunctions with any ammo tried. The CQB had a stiff recoil spring that helped it handle the hot Cor-Bon ammunition. That ammo was noticeably more comfortable in this gun than in the Clark, which had a weaker recoil spring. The Wilson CQB had a thin blue recoil buffer, which some would recommend taking out. This, for the simple reason that the buffer restricts the rearward movement of the slide, and that means that you can’t pull the locked-open slide rearward and let it fly forward to reload. Tactically, that’s perhaps not the proper way to manage your .45 (the slide release is faster), but it’s sometimes necessary. Take the buffer out if you don’t like it. The Baer gun also had a buffer, and it had the same restriction on its locked-open slide. By the way, we were able to disassemble the Wilson gun (with difficulty) without a bushing tool. We couldn’t do that with the others.
Clark Custom 1911 Caspian Arms, Ltd.
Our recommendation: The $1,630 Clark Custom gun came in a padded, lockable hard plastic case and, all in all, it was an attractive package. As noted above, the Clark gun would have cut our hand from the sharp edges on the front edges of the ejection port. Further, the front edge of the sloping rear sight had sharp edges that didn’t belong. Our test gun had very sharp front ends on both slide and frame that would gouge a holster in a hurry. Clark offers a comparably priced Meltdown package that rounds off all the sharp corners, and it would probably make a better carry gun, in our estimation.
Right out of the box, this gun had several failures of the hammer to drop when we attempted to evaluate the trigger pull. This anomaly presented itself once on the range with Cor-Bon’s 185-grain load, but in fairness we hadn’t put the requisite 200 rounds through the gun, the minimum specified by Clark before trusting your life to gun and load. However, the failure of the gun to go bang did nothing for our confidence in the piece. We would not carry this gun until we found out the exact cause of the malfunction, and fixed it.
Clark performed an accuracy job (slide-to-frame fit), adjusted the extractor tension, and fit the barrel to the slide. The company also installed a King beaver-tail, Clark Combat hammer, King extended safety and long-light trigger, and Clark front and rear sights. They checkered the front strap, lowered the ejection port, installed an offset firing-pin bushing, throated and polished the barrel and feed ramp, and machine-rest and function-tested the gun. The accompanying target consisted of ten shots with a maximum center-to-center distance of 2.0 inches, fired from a machine rest with Federal Match ammunition. The grouping was very round and evenly spaced. Need we tell you we couldn’t beat that target?
The Clark had an arched mainspring housing. Some like and need this feature, but most don’t. Clark will give you exactly what you want. You can specify your needs, and they’ll build your gun as you want it. Prices are spelled out in their catalog. We thought the checkering on the front of the grip strap was coarse at 20 lpi. After handling the Wilson and Baer guns with their 30-lpi checkering, the 20-lpi checkering didn’t feel right. We think it will cut your hands badly during an intense training session such as at Thunder Ranch or Gunsite, where you go through 500 rounds in a week. However, many experienced shooters prefer coarse checkering and it undoubtedly gave us a good grasp on the gun. It’s ultimately up to you, but be sure to try 30-line checkering before you pop for 20 lpi.
The Caspian name appeared prominently on the left side of the slide and, slightly muted, on the right side of the frame. There were “C” logos on each side of the slide at the rear. The right side of the slide had “Clark’s CUSTOM” and “Princeton, LA 71067” in white on the right side of the slide in front of the ejection port. The barrel had “CLARK 45 ACP” stamped into the chamber top. The matte bluing was very well done and evenly applied, and the gun looked very good overall.
Other features included somewhat finer checkering on the arched mainspring housing, and a light-looking burr-style hammer for fastest lock time. The fixed sights were intended to be suitable for concealed carry. The dovetailed-in front sight had a good bevel to its rear surface to quickly and easily clear a holster, and serrations on its rear edge to cut glare. The rear sight had sharp edges at the front that needed attention.
The ejection port had not been lowered. In contrast the Wilson had a huge ejection port, and the Baer was only slightly smaller. Although we had no failures to eject in our limited testing, we would have liked a bigger port, if only for our biased peace of mind.
The Clark gun had a recoil-spring rod instead of the original-style keeper at the front that both Wilson and Baer used. This required an Allen wrench to remove, and that was included, as was a bushing wrench. The magazine release button was checkered, and the magazine well was beveled to ease reloading.
On the negative side, the edges of the frame at the bottom of the mainspring housing were very sharp, and caught on clothing and hands. The front end of the slide and the front end of the frame in front of the trigger was sharp enough to quickly destroy any leather holster. In fact, the entire front portion of this pistol was full of sharp edges. Likewise the rear end, where it’s easy to bump the gun with hand, elbow, etc., was very sharp.
Considering Clark’s outstanding reputation, we expected the gun to be easy to shoot, and it was. Its trigger pull was crisp and consistent at 3.5 pounds with zero creep and minimal overtravel.
Did it shoot? Groups measured 1.3, 1.2, 1.9 (oops), 1.8, 0.9, and 1.5 inches. Yup, it shoots. With a 6 o’clock hold, groups were centered in a 6-inch bull at 25 yards. The NRA influence dies hard.
Recoil with the 185-grain Cor-Bon was stiff. The gun had a lighter recoil spring than the other two. That, combined with sharp checkering on the wood and too-angular, sharp rear surfaces on the frame made it obvious this gun was not set up as well as the Wilson or Baer for serious self-defense shooting, in our view. Placing the back of the gun into the web of our hand and rubbing it side to side quickly told the story. The Clark hurt. The Wilson and Baer did not.
We had one failure to feed with the Cor-Bon ammo. The case actually fed, but the slide didn’t go fully forward into battery. A slight shove overcame the problem, but a heavier recoil spring would have prevented it. Note that the gun was not nearly broken in. Yet neither of the other two guns had any feeding problems with equivalent testing. Does this mean the Clark isn’t as good? Not necessarily, but it didn’t help our confidence.
The Clark’s failure to fire was eventually traced to the hammer sticking all the way back and not returning to rest against the sear. Although it was a condition that ought not to have existed, it appeared to be a simple matter of stickiness from tight fitting, or of the parts needing to be broken in. Any defense gun must be tested thoroughly before it’s ready for prime time.
Les Baer Premier II
Our recommendation: Pass. The first few seconds of inspection often determine the long-term feelings for a thing like a handgun. Our first impression of the Les Baer Premier II was that it didn’t work. It was impossible to open the gun by hand to peer into the chamber and verify its condition. The fit of the barrel at the back was too tight. Okay, we thought, it’s a tight gun. Perhaps it’ll shoot loose. In our testing, it didn’t. We even disassembled the gun part-way through our test and removed metal from the back of the barrel. Though that helped, it didn’t solve the problem.
This over-tight condition does not lead to safe gun handling with a novice shooter. Anyone ought to be able to crack the slide by hand so he can verify an empty chamber. It took virtually all the hand strength of a man with powerful hands to crack open the Baer Premier II. Most men would not have been able to open it, we believe. We spoke with a shooter who had handled another new Baer Premier II and neither he nor the store clerk were able to open that gun either. Baer needs to fix this problem, in our view.
The second thing we tried was the top-of-slide hand rub, and the Baer failed there as well. Not only was there a sharp edge to the top rear of the ejection port, the front edges of the adjustable sight would have gouged our hand if we had performed a standard stovepipe-clearance drill.
On the upside, the appearance of the Baer Premier II was superb. The bluing and workmanship overall were excellent, aside from the sticky barrel. The almost-all-blue gun had well-checkered stocks with an attractive grain pattern. The ambidextrous (but not necessary for everyone) safety worked properly, but it was extremely stiff to put on. It was easily moved to the off position. The safety loosened up as we handled the gun, and by the end of our testing the safety was manageable.
There was no apparent movement to the slide, or to the barrel within the slide. The Videki trigger was so well fitted that there was no motion except in the fore-aft direction. The fully adjustable Bo-Mar rear sight was dovetailed into the slide, as was the front blade. The front blade was also pinned, precluding its ever coming loose. We’ve seen this treatment on a Robar-customized gun, and it seems like a good idea. The back edge of the front blade was serrated to cut glare, but the angle of the rear edge of the front sight was too vertical for fast holster use. The gun lacked night sights.
The left side of the slide bore “45 ACP” markings and the right side carried the “BAER Custom” logo on two lines. Baer told us he makes his own frames, slides, and many other parts of his guns, and they are certainly well made and well finished. Except for the forward edge of the rear opening of the ejection port and front side of the rear sight blade, all forward-facing parts were beveled to avoid holster or hand damage. The back end of the slide was also beveled. The bottom of the wood stocks were squared off. This, we believe, is a mistake. Beveling these panels makes them smaller and less prone to snagging.
Although the Baer Premier II had ambidextrous safety levers, the left one was unnecessarily wide, in our estimation. (So was Clark’s.) It was about half again as wide as that on the Wilson Combat CQB. Our left-handed tester appreciated the right-side lever. The Baer’s beavertail safety was similar to those on the other two. These are necessary for fast handling. All three beavertails had pads to assist the hand in depressing them. The Baer hammer was, like Wilson’s, skeletonized to cut lock time. It appeared to be made of stainless steel, as did the barrel bushing.
The Baer, out of the box, had a slightly creepy trigger and an inconsistent pull that varied from 3.8 to 4.7 pounds. We performed a little trick and the pull settled down to a consistent 3.8 pounds. The trick was to cock the unloaded gun, put forward pressure on the hammer, hold that pressure and pull the trigger. We did that half a dozen times and the effect was to very slightly burnish the engagement surfaces. The creep problem was helped, but not eliminated.
We knew the Baer shot extremely well. In fact, it was the most accurate of this trio, though we had a hard time proving it. We had clusters of 0.3 inch (three shots), 0.7, 1.7, and 1.4 inches, and many others like that. Our worst group was 2.3 inches, and we did that with two different loads. We believe we were responsible, not the gun.
Through our testing we were plagued with the too-tight fitting of the barrel. When we took the gun apart we could see that the back of the barrel wasn’t touching the slide evenly. A high spot had made a mark into the slide. We took a very small amount of metal off the barrel, but not enough to cure the problem.
Rapid-fire with the Baer was essentially as good as with the Wilson, concerning trigger pull, control, and the overall feel of the gun. However, there were some problems. First, the front sight hung up occasionally on one shooter’s Bachman Slide holster. Next, the right-side safety lever interfered with another shooter’s trigger finger, though he has a problem with all ambi safeties. The rear edge of the left-side safety had a bump on it at the back that was uncomfortable to those of us who ride their thumbs on top of the safety. The shape of the Wilson rear sight gave it a slight speed advantage over the Baer, in our opinion.
A further anomaly appeared. The magazine pad of the Baer was very well fitted to the gun, and it blended with the checkering of the front strap. This was a tactical blunder because the magazine didn’t have a protruding lip. A .45 magazine needs a protruding lip in front to enable ripping it free from the gun with the little finger of the weak hand, if the magazine gets stuck. This is a standard drill for clearing a feedway jam. The Wilson had a longer pad that permitted this drill.
We had no malfunctions with the Baer Premier II. It shot extremely well with everything. It handled the hot Cor-Bon ammo easily because of a strong recoil spring and a buffer.
Gun Tests Recommends
If you’re going to pay $1,430 to $1,650 for a handgun, it ought to be exactly right out of the box. A self-defense gun does not need much better accuracy than 4 inches at 25 yards. All of these guns easily beat that, with all loads tested. The gun must function perfectly all the time with whatever ammo we choose to use in it. Two of these guns did that.
Wilson CQB, $1,650. Buy It. We had a very hard time letting go of this fine handgun when the tests were done. It looked great and was perfectly set up for self-defense/concealed carry. It had far more accuracy than we could hold for, and that creates immense shooter confidence. The trigger pull was perfect, the setup was perfect, the gun was completely reliable, the sights were appropriate for nighttime defense, and the gun completely lacked sharp edges or roughness, making it easy to handle and shoot. If you bought any 1911 and had it customized, you’d spend at least as much as the cost of the CQB and, depending on the workman, perhaps wind up with a gun that wasn’t as good. The Wilson CQB was clearly the best gun of this test.
Les Baer Premier II, $1,428. As it was set up, this gun was not quite ready for self-defense use, in our view. However, it was much closer than the Clark gun. The Baer needed a few modifications that might not require refinishing, such as some file work on the slide and rear sight. We’d get rid of the ambi safety for our personal use. We didn’t like the rake of the front sight, but this would not be a problem with some holsters. We definitely wanted night sights, especially during a comparison session with the CQB in a darkened room. The Premier II, at $1,428, was the least costly of this trio, and if we take that into consideration along with its outstanding accuracy, we’d give it a Conditional Buy rating.
Clark Custom 1911 Caspian Arms, Ltd., $1,630. Out of the box, the Clark gun needed work in order to be a proper self-defense handgun. Although we liked the Clark, we don’t think it was a suitable self-defense handgun as it came to us. It needed more than just simply being broken in. It needed serious metal filing, a stiffer mainspring, and exploratory work on the sticking hammer. In short, this gun was not ready for prime-time self-defense carry as it came to us. Don’t Buy It when you can buy the Wilson (which needed no work at all) for the same money.