Drop-In .45 Replacement Barrels: Worth The Money and Trouble?
In some cases, we certainly think so. Our evaluation of several 1911 aftermarket products shows us that nearly any gun can benefit from a new tube. Which one? Find out below.
[IMGCAP(1)] Ever wonder what effect the barrel of your .45 has on the gun’s overall accuracy? We suspect anyone who has ever fired a .45 ACP 1911 has wondered how much better his gun would shoot if he dropped a high-quality replacement barrel into it. Can such a transplant transform a 4-inch gun (best grouping capability at 25 yards) into a 2-inch gun?
We endeavored to answer this question, knowing one thing for sure: If a gun’s original barrel was poor, almost any new barrel would improve accuracy. But a bigger question we wanted to answer for the hard-core Gun Tests reader was how much difference would there be between a standard, garden-variety replacement barrel that might cost $85, versus a top-grade barrel that cost $150 to $200?
We knew custom-fitted barrels were capable of amazing accuracy in custom-fitted .45s, but had no idea how easy, or hard, it would be for the average Joe to fit a high-grade “drop-in” barrel into his pistol. Would it simply slide into place with no fitting required? The makers of most drop-in barrels and bushings say that their products may need “minor fitting,” but do they mean that it will require a doctorate in filing, or a milling machine and lathe? Or can the job be done with a stick and a sheet of sandpaper?
(Please understand that the fitting of an aftermarket barrel may void your gun’s original warranty, so read all the fine print that came with your pistol before you start, and make sure you can live with the consequences of your actions.)
We’ve also wondered about another 1911 accurizing technique. Does it matter if the slide is tightly fitted to the frame? Or is the barrel-to-slide fit more important? We had no idea how much either of the two affected accuracy with this most popular pistol. Although we didn’t plan to tighten a given gun progressively to see what each step would have on its performance, we did have access to pistols that were both fitted and unfitted, and we hoped to learn something about what’s really necessary along the way.
Our test products, which are all offered in Brownells catalog, (515) 623-5401, were five barrels touted to be “drop-in” replacements, requiring little or no gunsmithing. We picked a standard-quality barrel by Springfield ($83); and higher-grade barrels from Nowlin ($190), Wilson Combat ($150), Ed Brown ($185), and Storm Lake Machine ($140). The Brown, Nowlin, and Storm Lake Machine (SLM) barrels came with bushing, link, and pin. The Wilson had a bushing but no link or pin, and the Springfield barrel had nothing with it.
As noted, all of the test products were supposed to “drop in” almost any 1911 with minor fitting. To check their ability to do this, we gathered three 1911 handguns of varying quality and accuracy, and attempted to drop each brand-new barrel into each pistol. The guns were as follows:
Early Colt 1911. One of our test crew had the dubious honor of owning an early Colt 1911 (not A1) with a four-digit serial number, making it around 80 years old. It was very rusty externally, and had most of the rifling worn away. The fit of slide to frame was actually quite good. The innards were in acceptable condition, but we replaced the hand-biting original hammer with a Commander-style hammer and modified grip safety for our testing. We also replaced the nearly dead recoil spring with a stiffer new one. This gun had its slide sandblasted several years ago. While that took off the surface rust, it exposed many pits. The grips were plastic replacements, and the entire gun pretty much was a clunker. The trigger pull was acceptable, but the sights were less than good. They were original, which is to say fixed and small. They were rounded from corrosion but gave an acceptable sight picture, as you will see from the results we eventually got.
Fisher/Norinco. Next up was a Norinco (Chinese) copy of the 1911. This gun had been fully accurized several years ago. The outstanding conversion work was done by Colorado gunsmith Don Fisher. He welded the barrel extension and refitted the original barrel, fitted slide to frame, checkered the grip straps, did a marvelous trigger job, installed an adjustable Bo-Mar rear sight, beavertail, extended safety, and made a set of wood grips of his own design. This was the most accurate original gun of the test, and the only one on which the slide had been tightened to the frame and lapped into place. The gun had been left in the white for later engraving. It was not stainless, though it may appear so in the photos.
Robar/1991. The third gun was an engraved Colt 1991 that had been worked over extensively by the Robar Companies. Robar had made it extremely reliable, but had done no specific accuracy work, other than giving it an outstanding trigger pull. The owner had put more than 2,000 rounds through it with zero malfunctions. Although he loved its reliability, he wanted to know if we could improve its accuracy without having to ship the gun off for additional work. He had noticed a slight decline of the gun’s accuracy since it was new. This gun had its original Colt barrel, and the original, rather loose, fit of slide to frame. The sights were fixed, but had been filed to regulate 230-grain ammunition to point of aim at 25 yards.
Our first goal was to see if the barrels would fit the guns without major gunsmithing. Unfortunately, we found that one of our test barrels wouldn’t go into any of the three pistols because of a manufacturing flaw. More on that later. Before we changed any barrels, we fired and recorded ten-shot control groups with each gun. We used Black Hills 230-grain JHP ammunition from the same lot for all our testing. We then fired ten-shot groups with each barrel in each gun, shooting from a solid back-rest position at 15 yards. Before you condemn us for our lack of scientific procedure in not using a Ransom Rest, we’ll tell you we found major differences that didn’t need a machine rest to determine, and that’s exactly what we were looking for. If there were any questions about each barrel/gun combination, we continued shooting until we had determined each setup’s capabilities.
Inspecting The Barrels
All the barrels except the blued Springfield were made of stainless steel, and all four of those were supposed to offer increased accuracy, but didn’t specify over what standard we could expect to see an improvement. We didn’t expect any of these barrels to improve the accuracy of our tightest-fitted gun, the Fisher/Norinco, but we were willing to be pleasantly surprised. [IMGCAP(2)]
All of the barrels besides the Springfield were beautifully machined, inside and out. Their rifling was shiny and cleanly formed throughout the entire groove area and on the tops of the lands. The chambers were uniformly clean. The bores measured 0.450 inch to 0.4505 inch. All the makers put their names onto the tops of the chambers, and all had their names on the bushings, when provided, except Nowlin. The Springfield barrel, marked “S.A. .45 AUTO” on the chamber, was nicely made, and closely resembled original military Colt or substitute barrels. Its grooves were not as shiny at their edges, adjacent to the lands, as they were in the middle.
We’ll tell you right up front we could not get the Storm Lake Machine barrel into anything. We tried to fit it to the loosest gun, the old Colt. After some stoning that got us nowhere, we compared its measurements to the other barrels that had fit very snugly into the other guns. The locking lugs of the SLM barrel had been cut 1/32 inch too far forward. Dropping a round into the chamber revealed accurate chambering, and all the dimensions at the back of the barrel appeared to be correct except the distance from the barrel extension (or from the rear of the barrel) to the locking lug cuts. This was approximately 0.032 too long, indicating the locking lugs had been inadvertently cut that much too far forward. The lug cuts were correct in their own dimensions. Thus it would have been impossible to fit this barrel into any 1911. We had no choice but to reject the SLM barrel out of hand.
With the other four barrels and guns in hand, we went to work collecting and comparing before-and-after data. Here’s what we found in more detail:
Our control groups established the starting points. The clunker Colt gave us a 6.9-inch ten-shot group at 15 yards, with some of the bullets hitting sideways. We were sure we could beat that, but we had no idea by how much, or how easily.
The tightly fitted Fisher gun blasted twenty shots into an average group size of 1.5 inches, That’s what we reported on the chart nearby, but we knew the gun was capable of tighter groups with different types of ammunition. We had a very long phone conversation with Don Fisher about barrel fitting, barrel life, and the ultimate capability of 1911 handguns (see sidebar), and the upshot was that we realized how much we don’t know about fitting .45 barrels to 1911 pistols. Still, our 1.5-inch group gave us something to shoot for.
The reliable Robar put its shots into a 2.7-inch group at 15 yards, and we thought we could probably beat that with one of the new tubes. Again, we had no idea how easy it would be—nor at what cost.
We were sure the easiest improvements would come to the “clunker,” as we fondly called the rusty old 1911 Colt. We dropped in the Nowlin barrel, bushing, and link. No fitting was required. We promptly shot a 1.7-inch group. Egad! We were absolutely amazed at the improvement in this old war-horse, and pressed on eagerly with our barrel-swapping.
We dropped in the Ed Brown barrel, and again no fitting was required. We punched a round group of 1.6 inches. Throw out the worst shot (the first shot of each group usually landed outside the remainder) and we had nine shots in 1.3 inches. Wow! That was better than we got with the tight-and-tuned Fisher piece with this ammo. This drop-in-barrel idea seemed to be well worth the effort and cost, at least with the Ed Brown and Nowlin barrels and bushings.
We eagerly wanted to find out how well the plain Springfield barrel would do, so we tried it next. It dropped right into the ancient Colt, as expected. We used the very loose original Colt bushing with it, and got a 3.4-inch group, which cut the results obtained with the original barrel in half. What would we get if we put a tight bushing into the pistol around this decent barrel? The Fisher bushing was a good fit, and with it in place on the Springfield barrel, we got a 2.4-inch group. By replacing the very loose bushing in addition to the barrel, we further improved group size by a full inch, or 30 percent in this case. It would seem that a good fit of the barrel to the slide at both ends of the barrel was important.
When we tried the Wilson barrel, we ran into trouble. Its bushing would not fit into any of the three guns. It barely started into two of them, the clunker and the Fisher. It went most of the way into the Robar-tuned 1991 Colt, and we eventually fitted it to that gun in about five minutes with a Dremel tool and a polishing bob. However, the Nowlin bushing fit the Wilson barrel extremely well. It was just as tight to the end of the Wilson barrel as Wilson’s own bushing, and it also fit into the clunker and Fisher guns tightly enough to require a bushing wrench, so we used the Nowlin bushing with the Wilson barrel for those two guns. This indicated that if you have a non-current Colt pistol or clone, you might need to do a bit of fitting with the Wilson bushing.
The Wilson barrel in the clunker gave a 2.7-inch grouping, nothing to write home about. This was not a reflection on the beautifully machined and finished Wilson product, just that the random set of dimensions of this particular combination didn’t give us tight groups. Luck was not with us here. If we eliminated the occasional flyer, groups were on the order of 2.3 inches. That was an improvement over the Springfield barrel, but not as good the luck of the draw provided by the Nowlin or Ed Brown combinations.
In the Fisher gun, we discovered initially that only the Wilson and Springfield barrels would fit easily. This might have been because its Chinese origins gave it slightly non-standard dimensions internally, but as we discovered, this was not much of a problem. The Wilson barrel gave a 1.6-inch group with the Black Hills ammunition. The group was located 3 inches higher than with the original barrel, and an inch to the right at 15 yards. So much for maintaining regulation with drop-in barrels.
Before we tried the Springfield barrel, we discovered that because of the slight amount of wear the Ed Brown barrel got from being shot in the other two guns, we were able to install it into the Fisher gun. Clearly, not much fitting would have been necessary to fit the brand-new Brown barrel to the Fisher gun. The Brown barrel grouped slightly better than the tightly fitted original Norinco barrel with the test ammunition, giving a very round 1.2-inch group, one of the best of the entire test. This group printed 4.5 inches higher than the control group, but at the same windage.
We put the Springfield barrel into the Fisher gun, and it dropped in very easily. It seemed to be a snug fit in the bushing. Our testing gave us 3.4 inches, the same as it had done in the old Colt clunker with the loose bushing.
Finally, after the Nowlin barrel had been fitted and fired in the other two guns, we were able to get it and its bushing into the Fisher gun. We thought this combination would be the finest of all. The nearly $200 “match-grade” barrel had given the best group of all in the Robar, and had done very well in the clunker. So in this tight gun we hoped for one-hole groups. For reasons unknown to us, the Nowlin barrel was a huge disappointment in the tightly fitted Fisher/Norinco. [IMGCAP(3)]
Instead of one-hole groups we got a spread of 2.8 inches.
In the Robar gun, we first installed the Nowlin barrel, and with it in place the Robar plunked its shots into an amazing 1.2-inch group. This was well less than half the group size made by the original barrel, and we were very surprised at this level of improvement. Only thing was, the gun lost its reliability. The bullets ran into the rear of the barrel ramp and stuck there. We tried many magazines, but we could not get reliable feeding with the 230-grain Black Hills JHP test ammo. Nearly every round stuck going into the chamber. Would we trade near-one-inch accuracy for reliability? Never!
We found the point of impact with the Nowlin barrel to be centered approximately one inch left of the point of aim, which was well within acceptable tolerances, and would be very easy to fix by drifting the rear sight to the side. However, we were only beginning our testing at this point, so we didn’t want to make any dire moves or assumptions. But we didn’t like this combination at all. We were reluctant to attempt making it work before we tried something else.
Slipping the Wilson barrel into the Robar, we got accuracy no better than with the original Colt barrel. We got 2.8 inches, versus 2.7 for the original. This was a disappointment.
Next up was the Ed Brown barrel, and it gave excellent results. We got 1.5-inch groups with it, and the clusters of holes indicated it could undoubtedly shoot better than we were holding. Reliability was perfect with the original Colt magazines, but not with just any magazine. Group center was an inch left of center, again easy to fix.
This left the Springfield barrel. We expected nothing special from the Springfield, and were not disappointed. We got 2.9-inch grouping, not what we were after, so rejected that barrel for this gun.
This left us three options for improving the Robar gun’s accuracy. We could ship the gun with its original Colt barrel off for accurizing. We could install the Ed Brown barrel and try to live with its level of accuracy, knowing the unreliable Nowlin gave better performance. Or we could try to fit the Nowlin. We chose the latter.
First, we polished the feed ramp at the back of the barrel, using a Dremel tool and a quarter-inch semi-soft emery polishing point. This gave it a mirror shine, but reliability was only slightly improved. We then discovered the back of the barrel overlapped the feed ramp in the frame. Using a small stone in the Dremel, we ground the needed steel away until there was no overlap of the barrel with the feed ramp in the frame. We took extreme care not to grind any of the supporting steel away at the bottom of the chamber. Then we polished everything to mirror brightness, reassembled the gun and tried it for functioning. We found reliability with the test ammunition to be outstanding, but it’ll take the firing of about 1,000 rounds without malfunctions to prove reliability in this package. But as a result, the gun’s grouping ability was nearly three times as good as when we started. The entire fitting job took nearly two hours, but we were going very slowly.
The Nowlin barrel cost just under $190 plus fitting time. If we had sent the gun off to Don Fisher, for example, he’d charge $75 to weld and fit the original barrel, and the gun would be out of our hands for some time. Shipping costs would have be added, and could amount to nearly $100 with insurance. Thus the overall costs would be similar.
Gun Tests Recommends
Based on our test results, it would seem that slide-to-frame fit is less than critical, but barrel-to-slide (including barrel-to-bushing) fit is very important for best accuracy. We believe slide-to-frame fitting would be more important for retaining accuracy than as a means to get accuracy in the first place. Tightly fitted guns can hold their accuracy over more shots (see sidebar).
It would probably be a mistake to put a costly barrel into the old 1911 Colt, because (we’re told) its steel is not as good as that of 1911A1 Colts. While you may get excellent accuracy at first, as we certainly did, the gun would probably wear more quickly than a newer one, and would soon lose its gilt-edged accuracy. On a gun this old, we’d put the Springfield barrel into it with a newer, tighter bushing, and call it adequate.
We found an amazingly accurate barrel for the Robar gun in the Nowlin, and with a reasonable (for us) amount of fitting, it became reliable. Although the Brown barrel’s reliability gave us confidence that it could be made to work perfectly in the Robar pistol, we decided to try to make the most accurate barrel work and get the most for our efforts. Of course, unless you have a handful of expensive barrels to play with, as we did, you won’t be able to pick and choose, so we’d recommend going with the Ed Brown barrel, as it gave the highest average accuracy overall. Finally, the Fisher gun and the Ed Brown barrel seemed to be a match made for each other. The Brown barrel beat the performance of the original Chinese barrel, was visibly better made, totally smooth internally, and in fact picked up very little lead in some post-test shooting with cast-bullet handloads. If the owner had any qualms about that Chinese barrel, we’d suggest he drop the Brown into it immediately.
Thus, with our general ratings in hand, we now turn to our recommendations: Ed Brown .45 ACP Government Barrel Kit, $185. Buy It. The Brown barrel was easy to fit into all three guns and gave the best average accuracy of all. It gave the outright best grouping in two of our three test guns, and was second-best (to the Nowlin) in the third. The Brown cost just $5 less than the only other barrel that challenged it, the Nowlin. In a nutshell, the Ed Brown barrel was our overall winner and number-one first choice for drop-in barrels for 1911 .45-caliber pistols.
Nowlin Mfg. 1911 Auto Match-Grade ECM Barrel Kit, $190. Conditional Buy. The Nowlin did nearly as well as the Brown barrel in the clunker, and shot some of the tightest groups of the whole test in the Robar gun. It was easy enough to fit into all three guns, and a little feed-ramp work made it reliable in the Robar. Overall, it gave the second-highest average groups, which paired with its $5 additional cost, made us rate the Nowlin second to the Brown.
Wilson Combat 1911 Auto Drop-In Barrel & Bushing, $150. Conditional Buy. The Wilson barrel worked second-best (to the Brown) in the tight Fisher-built gun. The workmanship on this barrel was perhaps the best of all five barrels, and the polishing on the feed ramp was shiny, nicely contoured, and perfectly executed, and was much better done than any of the others, in our estimation. It was very easy to fit its bushing into the Colt, but—because of the luck of the draw—it gave third-best overall average groups.
Springfield 1911 Auto Standard Barrel, $83: Conditional Buy. The plain-Jane Springfield tube gave adequate results in the clunker, and would be a viable replacement for an old barrel in any unfitted 1911 pistol. This barrel shot nearly as well as the original Colt barrel in the Robar gun. It’s well worth its $83 cost if you simply need a good replacement barrel, and don’t expect miracles. Still, if you want at least a chance at top performance, spend twice the money and go for the Brown.
Storm Lake Machine 1911 Auto Pre-Fit Barrel Kit, $140: Don’t Buy It. Our sample was incorrectly machined, and never should have left the factory. We can’t recommend the one we had since it didn’t fit our guns.