[Guest Post] Wilson Combat Factory Tour

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[ This guest post was written by Brian Nelson. ]

The name Wilson Combat is no doubt familiar to the hordes of 1911-lovers (myself included) as the makers of the best custom 1911s around. I was lucky enough to be given a tour of their custom shop in Berryville, Arkansas. First I’d like to thank John May for showing me around, and all the guys at Wilson for letting some teenage blogger pester them with questions.

Warehouse

The heart of every manufacturing company is its warehouse. Wilson makes components and accessories not only for their own guns, but also for retail sale. The parts are kept separate and carefully organized.

Components

Everyone knows to build the best of anything, be it pies or pistols, you have to use the best components. Wilson not only makes some of the best components, but if they can’t make the best part they’ll outsource it to someone who can. For instance, an Oklahoma company that makes oil well parts also makes a darn good extractor; Wilson sells it as their “Bullet Proof” extractor.

Of course, Wilson does make the majority of parts themselves. Here are some of their QD sling mounts being made on a CNC. Wilson also uses the CNC to make most of their parts, including slides.

The part starts as a block of steel. The steel is then loaded into the machine…
…Cut (with lots of coolant) to shape …
… And unloaded. These studs still have one more cut to be made so they’ll clamp onto a picatinny rail.

Build Process

Everything in a Wilson Combat 1911 is hand-fitted by experienced gunsmiths. Their process is separated into 3 operations with 3 different gunsmiths, “A-op”, “B-op” and Prep. Each gunsmith is given a bin of all the parts he’ll need to build either for a specific model or for a custom build. Typically the Wilson gunsmiths will finish around twelve 1911s in a day, but it varies depending on what model they’re building.

The “A-op” comes first. Here a gunsmith carefully fits the slide, barrel, and frame.

A gunsmith measures barrel hood width. He’s already measured the cut in the slide for its width.
Cutting the barrel hood to fit the slide.

The “B-op” is next: Here another gunsmith fits all the small parts, does a trigger job and all the reliability work (ramping the barrel, fitting the extractor, etc.).

A “B-op” gunsmith trues up the hammer hooks to lighten up the trigger.
A (very un-) professional hand model tests the (very short) reset on a finished “B-op” gun.

After “B-op”, the gun is essentially built. “Prep” is where the gun is prepared for finishing; all the sharp edges are dressed, the rear of the slide is contoured, and all the prep work for finishing is done.

The rear of the slide is contoured.
The “Prep” room. It’s set up with a row of bench grinders and blasting cabinets set up with all the different grits needed to prep a 1911 for finish.

A fourth operation, which I didn’t mention earlier, is called “Steve”. As Wilson Combat Sales Director John May told me “Every company needs to have a Steve hidden in the back. Every time he calls in sick, we find out another thing Steve does that we take for granted”. For instance, who puts the medallions in the grips?

One thing I noticed at the Wilson shop as opposed to other 1911 makers is that everything is done to the satisfaction of experienced (some 2nd generation) gunsmiths and shooters, not just to be CNC’ed within specifications. They separate the build process into three operations not just to streamline production (Wilson makes about 2500 1911s a year), but also to have not one, but three sets of eyes and hands check the work of the gunsmith before him. And that’s just what goes into their rack-grade guns.

Super Grade Guns

That’s right, that’s just a rack-grade gun. Wilson also offers a “Super Grade” line of 1911s, each built by a master pistolsmith to be the best 1911 you can buy. Everything is done by hand by some of the best gunsmiths in the industry. Oh, and good luck getting into one for less than $4000.00.

Engraving

Recently Wilson invested in a laser-engraving machine. That means they can etch their logo and whatever else they need onto a gun consistently and without risking the gun.

The laser engraver. Note the checklist: it’d suck to go to all that effort to build a “Wolson xombat” gun.

Test-Fire

After the guns are finished and engraved, they are all reassembled and test-fired. And speaking of test-firing, Wilson test fires at least 108 rounds with varied FMJ, Hollowpoint, and Lead Semi-Wadcutters. This is done to not only check for 100% reliability, but also to adjust any sights and ensure it’ll shoot a group smaller than a quarter. Just to compare, STI International, another leading 1911 maker, only puts one full magazine through any one of their guns, checking only for function. At the same time, STI makes a lot more guns in a year than Wilson.

Because Wilson test-fires their guns so much, year-round (and Arkansas winters can get pretty cold), they set up one heck of a test-fire range.

That’s just one of Wilson’s test-fire bays. They go out to 25, 50, and 100 yards (for rifles), and are separated by caliber. Why are they separated by caliber? Simple. See that chute coming down from the bench? That’s set up to collect brass when it hits the net separating the bays. Separating the bays by caliber makes it unnecessary to sort out all the brass (which they later reload into more test-fire ammo). Also, as I mentioned before, Wilson tests their guns so that they’ll shoot a group smaller than a quarter at 25 yards. What I didn’t mention is that they don’t use a Ransom Rest (you have to be a shooter to work for Wilson Combat!).

25-yard 5-shot group.

Not Just 1911s

Yes, Wilson Combat are the makers of primo 1911 handguns. But that’s not all they make, no-sir-ee. They also do Remington 870 shotguns and AR-15 rifles. They’ve also recently branched out into offering ammo and have been making good-looking knives since 2000.

**Scatterguns. Technically. **

In the year 2000, Wilson bought “Scatter Technologies” and they now make the best custom Remington 870s to be found, under the new name “Scattergun Technologies”. Their scatterguns are so good that they are relied upon every day by U.S. Border Patrol officers. And, as far as I can tell, they’re the only 870 makers who offer a 14’’ (NFA Item, Short Barreled Shotgun) barrel as a standard option (you can still get the non-SBS 18’’ barrel). They also offer aftermarket accessories for the 870.

Cut along the dotted line…Remington 18’’ barrels about to be cut down to 14.5’’.

Wilson also offers the “Remington Steal” package for a customer-supplied 870. Basically they take a beater 870 and make it “tactical”. This means replacing the furniture with new synthetic stocks, putting their proprietary “Trak-Lock” sights on, putting a +2 magazine tube on, and finally refinish the entire shotgun so it looks new and rugged. They’ll also convert a 2 ¾’’ gun into a 3’’ gun at no extra charge.

Remington Steal, before.
Some beater 870s soon to become “Tactical”.
A rack of new factory Remingtons that will become donor guns for the “Steal”. The unused parts will either be sold or discarded.
Remington Steal, after. All yours for $479.00.

More ARs?

Yes, Wilson makes AR-15 rifles. Nothing too unique except that they offer them in some new and interesting calibers, like the .300 AAC BLK and their new proprietary 7.62x40WT round. Wilson also makes their own AR accessories, such as the TRIM quad-rail, drop-in trigger, and various lower receiver accessories. They also make titanium suppressors and a muzzle brake that doubles as a Quick-Detach mount for them.

SBR Tactical in 7.62x40WT. Featuring the TRIM Rail, Whisper Titanium suppressor, and Wilson’s own triggerguard.

Ammo

Recently Wilson branched out into the ammo-making business. Their stated goal is to produce “Accurate, Low Muzzle-Flash, Reliable Ammo”. Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find inaccurate, unreliable factory ammunition, but I haven’t seen any ammo that’s designed to be low muzzle-flash. It kind of makes sense for Concealed Carry, as it doesn’t do you any good to be blinded after your first shot, but it doesn’t make much difference for regular shooting.

Wilson recently came out with a new round, the 7.62x40mm Wilson Tactical. Basically it creates 7.62x39mm ballistics into an AR-15 style rifle. They make ammo offer brass and dies for the new round, and it takes common .308 caliber bullets. I’ll be writing another post about that soon. Another thing about Wilson ammo; It’s checked with a white glove. Ever round is gauged and examined by hand. Their “Dinged and Scratched” ammo rejects look better than my Match grade reloads.

A row of Dillon Super 1050s on meticulously organized workbenches. The loader in the foreground is set up for the new 7.62x40WT round.
One of Wilson Ammo’s two Ammo Load automated reloading presses. This one is set up for .45 ACP.

Conclusion

I know the Wilson Combat shop impressed me, and I’ve seen high-end 1911s being built before. The quality components that go into a Wilson, combined with the amount of hand-fitting that is done to one, all combine to make a pricey ($2600.00+), high-end gun that is well worth the price.

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  • arifonzie

    Excellent post, very interesting. I’d like to hear more about “Steve”!
    Well done brian,nice to see a “teenager” make such an effort and show such interest.

  • James

    Wow!

    I’m very impressed with this article. I love seeing how companies work behind the scenes.

  • Cameron

    Very interesting piece, thank you! A Wilson Combat is certainly on my someday, pie-in-the-sky list. Looks like very good work goes into their products.

  • charles222

    Very cool! I don’t suppose Wilson makes an 11-87 variant?

  • fw226

    Hmm. I want to know more about the 870 work they do. Anyone here taken them up on that?

  • greasyjohn

    Remington Steal is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

  • Andy from CT

    I really like Wilson 1911′s and products. That’s a sincere statement.

    Too bad they can’t make their 10mm mags work like their .45 mags.

    Okay, it appears my sarcasm knows no bounds. Well it’s true. Never, I mean NEVER had an issue with their .45 mags. I swear by them. Their 10mm mags? I swear AT them. So tight to load. And IF you get the 9th round in (when brand new), good luck seating it in your 10mm 1911.

    After a couple of months of loading and unloading I can generally get the 9th round in there. One of the three is harder than most and still won’t seat.

    And if you think this is a fluke? I went through the same exact thing back in 1995 with my first Delta Elite. But once the springs wore to wear I could seat the mag I never had a problem.

    My question is this. If their .45 mags are so perfect (and for me they are) why can’t the 10mm mags be just as easy to load and seat to full capacity?

    The world may never know.

  • http://briankevinnelson.com Brian N.

    charles222

    No, Wilson doesn’t offer an 11-87, but I know one of their shooting team runs a Wilson-Tuned ’87 in 3-Gun. I’m sure they’ll work with you if you call them up.

  • http://briankevinnelson.com Brian N.

    BTW Charles, thank you for your service.

  • Tour18

    My first post on The Firearm Blog. This article is so good I felt compelled to compliment the Blogger. Thanks for a great read…

  • charles222

    Thanks for the tip on the 11-87 Brian. :)

  • http://briankevinnelson.com Brian N.

    Andy,

    Generally speaking, “9-round” .40 or 10mm single-stack mags are only good for 8. I would try downloading them and if that doesn’t work, order up some Tripp Research Cobramags. They’re the best around, but even they aren’t reliable with 9 rounds loaded.

    Greasyjohn,

    I agree, that’s probably the cheesiest pun in the shooting industry.

  • John

    “Nothing too unique except that they offer them in some new and interesting calibers, like the .300 AAC BLK and their new proprietary 7.62x40WT round.”

    It’s my understanding that the 7.62x40WT is NOT a proprietary round. The reamer specifications are openly available as are all of the specs for barrels and ammunition. I believe you should correct your article. Mr. Wilson worked with many others in the gun community to develop this wildcat. He hired one of the guys who was heavily involved in original development and innovation for this round.

    If you have information to the contrary, please correct me!

    Thanks.

  • Andy from CT

    Brian, thanks. But I will eventually have all three load and seat like I eventually got my first three to do 16 yeas ago. It just takes patience I suppose. But it shouldn’t.

    I had a S&W 1066 back in 1994 and those 9 round single stack mags were easy to load and they worked perfectly. In fact that 1066 is one of the pistols I kick myself every day for selling it all those years ago. I just can’t understand why Wilson (and from what you tell me, Tripp) can’t make one for a 1911 that isn’t perfect. Even if they extended the body a smidgen and used a slightly shorter bumper/basepad it would be the same length and work perfectly.

    If it were my company my motto wold be, “If we’re going to do it we’re going to do it right”. Make a 10mm mag that works just like the .45 mags or don’t make one at all. It’s like their attitude is, “Meh, 10mm is like 10% of our pistol sales so where not going to put in the extra effort to make our 10mm mags as good as our .45 mags.”

    And that just plain sucks.

  • http://www.wilsoncombat.com Bill Wilson

    John, you are completely correct. The 7.62 X 40WT is not a Wilson Combat proprietary cartridge. Anyone is free to chamber this round.

  • http://briankevinnelson.com Brian N.

    John,

    You’re right, I was incorrect in labeling the 7.62×40 as a “proprietary” round. I know the ammo and reamer specs are available, not sure about the barrels.

    Sorry,

    Brian N.

  • http://www.kennelson.com Ken Nelson

    Bill,

    My compliments to you and your colleagues at Wilson combat for how they treated Brian while he was there. It takes a leap to trust a young lad to present what he saw. I hope the piece reflects your company accurately. He has sent corrected wording to steve on the proprietary error, which stemmed from him misunderstanding what proprietary actually implied.

    Thanks,

    Ken Nelson
    Brian’s Dad

  • http://briankevinnelson.com Brian N.

    Andy,

    I agree that if you’re going to make something, you oughta make it right or not make it, but at the same time there are a lot of guys willing to buy a 9-round .40/10mm mag and download it.

    I guess you could make a slightly longer mag tube to make it work, but keep in mind that an 8-round .45 mag is already slightly extended. Or you could just market your “9-round” mags as 8-rounders :-)

    Brian

  • http://www.thegunzone.com/556dw.html Daniel E. Watters

    All of the flush-length 9 round 10mm and 10 round .38 Super magazines have always been a pain to load to capacity, not just Wilson. After all, these magazine tubes were originally designed to hold one less cartridge. Extra-capacity flush-length tubes exist because for many years USPSA had a rule banning extended magazine tubes. Under these rules, you could add a huge base pad, but you could not have the magazine tube extend the same length.

  • Another Bryan

    Don’t forget, Wilson Combat makes some great rifles in 6.8 SPC too, and some great ammo for them!

  • Jeff

    Wow! I know everything is custom, but the money they charge you would think that the factory would be 5S’d and some lean manufacturing concepts implemented. There is a lot of waste going on there that I can see by the pictures. And without even knowing the business, I can tell you the value added time to produce vs non value added is probably 10% at best! A value stream map will show that. Also, I’ll bet if if we saw the cost of poor quality, there would be a lot of handling damage. Why? because there is no flow in that factory, so parts and guns travel all over the place. That means things get dinged up. With what I stated above, I’ll bet he could knock $500 bucks off each pistol or he could make $500 more!