A normal Gun Tests match-up pits three guns from three makers, with us deciding which piece offers the best performance among the trio. But over the years we’ve gotten lots of mail asking us to differentiate between levels of guns from certain high-end makers, one of whom is pistolsmith Les Baer.
Until now, we’ve resisted doing these single-brand tests, but we’ve gauged there to be sufficient interest in limited single-maker tests because, well, the readers have asked for it. Also, we realized brand loyalty in other areas shows that many consumers will stick with marques they like rather than consider competing options. Example: A Chevy owner will look at Trail Blazers, Avalanches, Tahoes, and Suburbans before he’ll consider Ford’s Explorer, F150, Expedition, and Excursion.
One gunmaker whose customers seem to be loyal, but who also are looking for the best deal, are Baer’s .45 buyers. These buyers have pointed out that Baer’s guns are richly appointed and nicely finished, but they also say that they pay for the privilege of shooting a Baer. They wanted to know how far up the food chain they need to go — $1,500 or $2,000 or $2,500 — to get what they really need, and want.
To find out, we recently acquired three Baer guns and tested them head to head: the Ultimate Master, $2,470; Monolith Heavyweight, $2,011; and Premier II, $1,498. Since these were similar guns, we’ll begin with an overview of factors all three had in common.
Every gun was hand built. Each gun was “hard fit,” i.e. when new it had an extraordinarily tight slide-to-frame-to-barrel fit. On a new hard-fit 1911, you will have trouble breaking the action. This begins to ease after a few hundred rounds. After 500 rounds it’s mostly gone. After a thousand rounds the gun will be smooth as silk. Then, 50,000 rounds later, when a “smooth” but loose out-of-the-box factory 1911 is a rattletrap, the hard-fit gun will still be tight.
All three guns were 5-inch-barreled Government Model types. Slides featured cocking serrations front and rear. Ejection ports were lowered and flared to give expended brass a larger “door” to exit, and avoid dinging spent casings. Barrels were carbon steel. Feed ramps and barrel throats were traditional two-piece styles. These guns had no firing pin locks. Front-sight blades were serrated and mildly ramped, installed in a cross-dovetail cut. The rear sight was an adjustable unit patterned on the Bo-Mar Combat Sight. The rear sight was installed in a “hidden leaf cut,” in which slide metal came up and around the sides of the sight, a semi-circular cut-out allowing access to the windage adjustment screw. This installation is very difficult to do right.
Recoil springs were Wolff 18-pound variable power units. Baer went for a heavier than standard recoil spring (classic recoil-spring weight for a .45 ACP 1911 is 16 pounds) because so many of his customers fire a steady diet of stout hardball, and he wanted to provide the guns more of a buffer against long term battering. Mainspring weight was the normal 21 pounds. None of the guns employed full-length recoil-spring guide rods, because Baer doesn’t believe this part aids in accuracy, smooth operation or reliability. The Baer Speed Trigger fitted on all three guns splits the difference between the classic “long” and “short” trigger lengths. Triggers were made of lightweight aluminum, pierced with three holes, and fitted with an adjustable overtravel screw adjusted by the factory.
The Ultimate Master had the lightest trigger, starting at 4 pounds out-of-the-box, and wearing in to 3.5 pounds after 1,200 rounds, as Baer indicated it would. The Monolith Heavyweight and Premier II measured 4.25 to 4.5 pounds out-of-the-box, and the Premier II wore in to 4 pounds. The Monolith Heavyweight had the heaviest trigger pull after testing at 4.5 pounds. All three trigger actions had about 1/16 inch of takeup, and almost nothing in the way of creep or overtravel. Thumb safeties were ambidextrous of the Swenson pattern, retaining the offside lever by having a tab off the front of the lever hook inside a slot cut into a modified grip panel. The tab of the primary safety lever did not, when flipped up into the on-Safe position, expose the underlying hole in the frame — a rarity among 1911s when mating a thumb safety to a highrise beavertail. While the main safety lever was quite wide, the lefty paddle was considerably thinner. Les Baer felt that a left-hand shooter — he’s a lefty himself — shouldn’t be able to put much pressure on that offside lever and really ride it hard, or they’ll snap it off. He made the lever thinner so that couldn’t happen.
All three test guns had their frontstraps and slide-stop tabs checkered at 30 lpi. All checkering on Les Baer 1911s was hand cut. Grip safeties were the highrise beavertail type with raised lug on bottom. Unlike safeties on other 1911s, all three Baer safeties disengaged with little inward movement.
Grips were of cocobolo, fully checkered and squared-off at the bottom. This works well with guns featuring a mag funnel, in our view. Grip screws were the traditional slotted type. Each gun was supplied with two stainless-steel eight-round magazines with black composite followers and baseplates.
Here’s how the guns compared in more individual detail:
The Ultimate Master’s slide and frame were blued carbon steel. This was the only gun that, in addition to its checkered frontstrap, also had a checkered (30 lpi) mainspring housing. Likewise, it was the only gun with 30-lpi checkering under the trigger guard. This is a feature many people love, feeling it makes the gun twist less in their grip under recoil, cutting down on lateral dispersion when firing a 1911 fast.
The rear sight blade was horizontally serrated 40 lpi, and that pattern continued down onto the rear of the slide and extractor head. While touted as “breaking up distracting glare off the back of the slide,” we think this feature is really an excuse for truly fine pistolsmiths to show off their skills.
The top of the slide had been serrated but not flat topped. Les Baer refuses to flat top a 1911. He’s seen too many flat-topped 1911s crack at this point because removing metal from the slide top thins and weakens it. Eleven parallel lines (at 30 lpi) were carved in the metal, from the very front of the slide all the way back to the body of the rear sight. The effect was cosmetically pleasing.
The gun was fitted with a mag funnel that was blended to mate with the mag well entrance. The Les Baer Ultimate Master 1911 was intended to be appropriate for double duty as an IPSC/IDPA match piece and/or a carry gun. A good mag funnel is a non-negotiable necessity on the former, and an excellent case can be made for it being a really good idea on a carry gun, as well.
The Ultimate Master’s “big head” magazine release might not find favor with many “tactically oriented” gun carriers, but during our evaluation, we actually carried the Ultimate Master for several months and found that huge button caused no problems in concealed carry. Moreover, it performed its intended function of allowing mag changes with minimal shifting of the gun in the hand.
We began our shooting evaluation of the Les Baer Ultimate Master by breaking it in lightly, firing a 50-round box of Federal’s generic American Eagle 230-grain ball. The gun functioned perfectly. After that, the Ultimate Master was accuracy and reliability tested with a reasonably diverse assortment of ten .45 ACP loads. Hardball on hand was American Eagle and Black Hills 230-grain Full Metal Jacket (this was Black Hills’ factory new “red box” ammo; the reloads are in blue boxes). Hollowpoints included Black Hills’ 185-grain, Federal’s 165-grain Hydra Shok, as well as that company’s 230-grain “Classic” jacketed hollowpoint (basically the Hydra Shok without the post), Speer’s 230-grain Gold Dot, and from Winchester three loads, the 185-grain Silvertip, 230-grain jacketed hollowpoint in their “Personal Protection” line, and 230-grain SXT. Finally, light target loads were represented by the Black Hills “blue box” 200-grain Lead Semi-Wadcutter.
[PDFCAP(2)] was performed by firing five-shot groups at 50 feet, the maximum distance possible at the indoor range on which we were shooting. Fully half the loads tested put five rounds inside or at 1 inch. Best group was a tiny one-hole cluster with Federal 165-grain Hydra Shoks measuring a 0.5 inch center-to-center. Second place belonged to Speer 230-grain Gold Dots at 0.8 inch. Black Hills’ 185-grain jacketed hollowpoints and 200-grain LSWCs both gave 0.9-inch groups.
After our evaluation of the UM was complete, we were handling it later when we noticed the trigger pad had come loose from the trigger bow and could actually be pulled forward and out of the gun! This was so silly and unexpected, our evaluators had to laugh. It was like finding the antenna loose on a brand-new Porsche. A quick disassembly, reassembly, and a dab of permanent threadlocker in-between solved that problem.
Feed reliability was flawless. Everything we put through the Les Baer Ultimate Master fed, fired, ejected, and fed again. Each of the two eight-round magazines experienced one failure apiece to lock the action open when the gun was empty, once with hardball, another with hollowpoints.
To be brutally frank, we were less impressed with Les Baer magazines than we were with his guns. The magazines fed perfectly but did have a tendency not to lock the action open when empty. After testing for this article, we put about 900 rounds through the UM with Wilson magazines without a single problem.
The Les Baer Monolith series was intended to give shooters a more softly recoiling 1911 .45 without going to a compensator. This was accomplished by doing away with the forward slide scallop (Monolith slides extend straight all the way to the end) and likewise going to a full-length dustcover, thus putting more weight out front to hold down muzzle flip. This slide/dustcover configuration gives Monolith guns a distinctive, very attractive profile reminiscent of early Colt/Browning auto pistols.
Les Baer actually offers two versions of this idea, the Monolith and Monolith Heavyweight. The Monolith came first; it added 1 ounce to the gun’s overall weight compared to a standard 1911. Les Baer literature says the Monolith Heavyweight weighs 3 ounces more than a standard 1911. And that’s true. However, as you examine the spec charts for all three test guns, you’ll find the Monolith Heavyweight weighs only 1.9 ounces more than a Premier II. That’s because all Les Baer 1911s use National Match frames that are heavier than a typical 1911 frame.
Every person who saw this particular Monolith Heavyweight raved about its finish. The T-Chrome treatment is a two-tone effect in which the flats of the gun appear blued, while everything else is brushed hard chrome. It’s striking. It also added $300 to the base price of a blued Monolith Heavyweight at $1,711.
Due to T-Chrome’s lubricity, this particular Monolith Heavyweight had the easiest action to break of any test gun. Les Baer declined to say exactly how this finish was applied, adding, “Because I know there are people out there trying to figure it out.” The T-Chrome appellation, Baer said, “… doesn’t stand for anything. That’s just the name we came up with. One of the guys who works here said, ‘Hey, why don’t you call it T-Chrome, that sounds cool.’ I said, ‘Works for me.'”
According to Baer, some of his customers use Monoliths and Monolith Heavyweights as carry guns. After testing this piece, we found ourselves more amenable to that concept, but with caveats. The non-standard slide/dustcover configuration won’t fit in “normal” Government Model holsters; you’d have to have something custom made. Also, the Monolith Heavyweight was not a light gun.
During accuracy testing, the Heavyweight didn’t provide quite the accuracy of the Ultimate Master, though it did put two loads inside 1 inch: The Blacks Hills 200-grain LSWCs and Federal 165-grain Hydra Shoks both posted groups of 0.9 inch. A large part of the UM’s better accuracy, we think, came from its lighter trigger pull and checkered mainspring housing. The checkering helped stop the gun from twisting in the grip under recoil better than the Monolith Heavyweight’s serrated housing. If we bought an MH, we would upgrade that part to a checkered unit.
The MH was a pleasant gun to fire — no surprise given all that weight out front to dampen muzzle flip. The Monolith Heavyweight exhibited flawless feed reliability. There was one instance of the slide failing to lock open when the gun was empty, with Black Hills 185-grain jacketed hollowpoints. We did notice that quality of the Les Baer magazines varied a bit from example to example. Some were noticeably rough to load, followers depressing in jerks and starts; others were smooth. If we bought this gun, we would likely buy Wilson mags and be done with it.
To our minds, the Monolith Heavyweight would make a better competition piece than carry gun. It practically demanded to have a tungsten full-length guide rod to add more weight out front, and we would also add a checkered mainspring housing and a magazine funnel. Set up in that manner, it would be an excellent choice for competition in USPSA/IPSC’s Limited-10 division. Be aware you can’t use this gun in IDPA, though; full-length dustcovers are specifically forbidden in IDPA.
There are two guns in the Les Baer catalog marginally less expensive than the Premier II: the Concept I and Concept II both cost $1,466, a $32 difference. Despite the price difference, the Premier II is the company’s best-selling gun, mainly because shooters want the PII’s checkered frontstrap instead of the smooth strap found on the Concepts.
The Premier II was basically the Ultimate Master without all the “extra” stuff. It had the same hard fit slide/frame/barrel treatment, the same adjustable sights with serrated rear blade installed in a hidden leaf cut, the same blued steel finish, ambidextrous safety levers, speed trigger, and frontstrap covered with hand-cut 30 lpi checkering. What it didn’t have was the serrated-top slide and checkered slide rear/extractor head. From a functional standpoint, none of these were losses. Also, in place of the UM’s big-head mag release, PII had a standard low-profile button. Also, the underside of the trigger guard wasn’t checkered, and it lacked a magazine funnel.
In our view, there was only one Ultimate Master feature missing on the Premier II offering major real utility: the checkered mainspring housing. In its place the Premier II, like the Monolith Heavyweight, had a longitudinally serrated flat housing that didn’t provide nearly as secure a grip, in our estimation.
During accuracy testing, the gun shot best with Federal 165-grain Hydra Shoks at 0.9 inch. Federal 230-grain Hydra Shoks gave a group of 1 inch, as did Federal’s 230-grain “Classic” JHPs. Feed reliability was flawless.
Gun Tests Recommends
• Les Baer Ultimate Master, $2,470. Buy It. An Ultimate Master costs a thousand dollars more than a Premier II. Though the features leading to the Ultimate Master’s high price tag were very well-executed, several were cosmetic and did not materially affect the gun’s performance, in our view. If a customer wants the most refined street/match 1911 possible and is willing to pay for it, we would say buy the Ultimate Master. Otherwise, the Premier is a better value.
• Les Baer Monolith Heavyweight, $2,011. Buy It. This gun had the least perceived recoil of the three tested. Its T-Chrome finish drew raves from everyone who saw it. As nice as it was, however, the Monolith Heavyweight would not fit in a holster made for a standard 1911 Government Model, and many people would find it on the heavy side. The Monolith Heavyweight would make a great competition gun, but probably not a first choice general defense piece.
• Les Baer Premier Ii, $1,498. Best Buy. It’s amazing that Les Baer could offer a gun of such quality for this price. The Premier II comes in toward the low end of custom-1911 costs, but it is hard fit, has adjustable sights with the rear installed in a hidden leaf cut, shows great feed reliability, lists features such as front and rear slide-cocking serrations and a checkered frontstrap, plus has fine accuracy and good looks. That sounds like a winner to us.