By Jeremy D. Clough, American Handgunner
The best guns aren’t guns at all — they’re ideas. In addition to good parts carefully selected and well-fit — they possess a philosophical underpinning giving the gun a cohesiveness and unity transcending mere function. In the case of the Cabot 1911, this underpinning is deeply rooted in the idea of American exceptionalism, and in a belief system governing both Cabot and the company with whom they collaborate in making their 1911, Penn United.
In all candor, this was not the first thing I thought about when I saw a Cabot 1911 at the NRA Show in 2011 when the pistol debuted. Frankly, I was shocked at the price tag, starting around $4,000. Fast forward a year, and I found myself in the Pennsylvania countryside north of Pittsburgh, sitting in a conference room with Cabot Guns President Rob Bianchin and Barry Barton, the VP of Penn United, the high-precision manufacturer where Cabot pistols are actually made. Before we got into the nuts and bolts of the gun, I needed to learn something about the company.
Why They Are
Penn United was founded by Robert Becker, Charles Barton and Carl Jones, who began operating a machine shop in a 3-bay garage. The business now employs some 600 people, as well as operating LIGHT (Learning Institute for the Growth of High Technology) an onsite training facility teaching the craft to employees of both Penn United and other companies alike, and manufacturing carbide tooling and precision parts ranging from aerospace and medical industries to computer parts.
Between what they actually make and the tooling they produce, they’re fond of saying, whether you know it or not, Penn United touches your life every day. They don’t just make things, they make the things that make things. As a company intensely focused on its employees, they also shape the people — who make the things.
The employees all share in the company’s profits. “Ordinary people do the extraordinary things in this world, they just do it without a lot of fanfare,” Bianchin tells me, as we sit at the conference room’s masterfully inlaid wooden table — made by founder Carl Jones. He then adds “We want to support each other; every single person here is valued.”
“It’s everybody in the shop carrying the load everyday,” echoes Bill Jones, President of Penn United and Carl Jones’ son, “I’m just the conductor.” Perhaps also because of his own experience at the company — he started by sweeping floors at the garage shop, and had to work at another machine shop before his father would hire him at the new facility — Jones shows a genuine appreciation for the people who work there. When the economy took a sharp downturn in 2008, leaving some of the machines and their operators idle, he looked for a project to give the employees something to do — something they could be proud of, something to boost morale.
The Gun Project
Once the decision was made to build a gun — a first for Penn United — there were two things which really weren’t even questions. First, the gun would be a 1911. And second, it would be the best they could make it. “This is the 1911,” I was told. “We are not making a gun. We are reproducing history in today’s world.”
Cost was no object, because the gun was never intended to be sold. The original idea was to simply give the employees a rallying project during a time of economic uncertainty. Part of the morale-building exercise was to build a gun reflecting not only how they work, but also how they thought. It would showcase the American tradesman, and the gun would be all-American. Not only is it machined in the US, the billet steel used (4140 for carbon, 420 stainless) is American, all the way down to the source origination, which they verify using the Buy American Act.
The wood? Grown in the US. In fact, some of the walnut comes from trees milled by Bill Jones, who runs a small mill in his spare time. And if your pistol comes with a supple sheet of leather for cleaning — you guessed it, that’s from a local deer. When they say all-American, they mean it.
This is the result of a high-tech machining company deciding they’d like to make a 1911!
Millionths Of An Inch
The actual manufacture of the pistol is a natural outflow of the company’s core competency — precision. As makers of carbide tools, they’re used to working in measurements going down to the millionths of an inch — dimensions so small they can be changed by the heat from your hand. This doesn’t mean the moving parts in the gun are only separated by tolerances that small; it means when they select the size they want to make a part (say, a slide rail), that’s pretty much what it is.
It bears mentioning the Cabot 1911 could never have sprung into life in any other environment. The technology and CNC equipment required to manufacture parts to this degree of precision is unbelievably expensive. Many of the individual machines run near the half-million dollar mark. From a business perspective, it would be absolutely impossible to fund a manufacturing facility like this from scratch and ever expect to make enough money to stay in business.
This focus on precision is also what led to what those familiar with the 1911 world can only call a radical approach to building the gun — there’s no hand work. I observed this firsthand after I toured the factory, seeing the waterjet where the blocks of certified steel are roughed out into the profile of a 1911 is only one amazing procedure. There are CNC machines, and the grinding technology capable of holding 20 millionths of an inch (ten times more accurate than most CNC machines). Wire EDM machines cutting the irregular shapes, the polishing department where men with loupes polish the finished parts to an impossibly fine surface finish, and the testing area where the finished components are individually measured with a computer-controlled touch probe at all critical dimensions, begin to flesh out what I’m talking about here. After that, and still more than a little mesmerized by what I had seen, Bianchin walked me into the assembly area to meet Ray Rozic.
After mentioning that the parts all interchange, Rozic handed me a receiver and slide at random from their rack near the wall, and invited me to try them. I slipped the slide effortlessly on the frame, and it glided smoothly back and forth with virtually no play. They handed me another — same thing. And then a third, which barely started and stuck in place, refusing to go further. Rozic reached for it. When he pushed a little harder, the slide went back. He worked it a few times, then handed it back to me, where I found it slick as glass. Bluing buildup, he said.
He and Bianchin showed me finished pistols in all the different configurations they make, including their intriguing left-hand pistol, a feat only a handful of other makers have ever attempted. “We’ve decided to send you a Jones,” Bianchin tells me.
Jeremy had this spectacular 0.43″ 25-yard group with Zero ammo.
My Test Gun
The flagship of the Cabot line, and named after the beloved founder of Penn United who passed away in 2006, the visual elements of the Jones pistol come from architect Tom Pierce, who added the three distinctive “Trinity stripes,” in the cocking serrations.
Gloriously, drippingly black, the test gun came in a clear acrylic locking case serving as a display case. Topped with white dot Novak sights — adjustable rear, dovetail front — the slide of the Jones is flattopped and serrated, with a distinctive, near-full profile barrel bushing. The end of the full-length guide rod (the only feature I’d omit) has a star machined into it, a theme reappearing in the trigger in place of the customary round lightening holes. Even the edges that look square have been lightly broken to make the gun user-friendly. Through the lowered and lightly flaired ejection port you can see the words “KART 45 NM,” giving credit where it’s due to the famed barrel maker, and when you jack the slide, the gleaming mirror finish on both the pistol’s feed ramps is impossible to miss.
The receiver is similarly well-appointed. The frontstrap and mainspring housing are both well-checkered at 20 lines per inch, and the magazine well is appropriately beveled around its rear and sides. The controls consist of a broad, extended ambidextrous thumb safety and a well-shaped beavertail, with a speedbump and a barely-noticeable step where the rear of the frame meets it. The trigger has a rounded, knurled face like the original M1911A1 trigger, and drops the Commander-style hammer crisply after perhaps 1/16″ takeup. There is no creep, no overtravel — it feels perfect.
Cabot uses water jet cutting technology to render the raw barstock frames. Note the additional steel used for jig fixturing, machined off later.
Cabot can hold tolerances in millionths of an inch, so holding to 1/10,000 is easy!
On the range, it does what you would expect, ringing my 25-yard 4 5/8″ steel plate regularly when shot by hand, from a modified Weaver position. While I usually run test guns without cleaning or oiling them, I found the Jones did need a little oil on the slide rails after a couple hundred rounds, reminding me of the first time I had the slide rails tightened on a pistol. The gunsmith looked at me sternly and said, “You can never shoot this pistol without oil again.” Point taken — precision requires lubrication. Otherwise, it ran flawlessly for somewhere between 300 and 400 rounds, feeding everything from ball to jacketed hollowpoint without hesitation, including 100 rounds of my dirty-burning cast lead handloads.
In initial Ransom Rest testing, the Jones averaged just under 3″ for all rounds tested, with a best group of a little over 1.5″. Since those results were significantly below what Cabot expects based on their own in-house testing, they sent me a second pistol for testing, as well as a second barrel for the first gun, since they had discovered some consistency issues with the barrels used at the time the first pistol was built.
Back in the Ransom Rest with its new barrel, the average dropped to 2.3″, which is exactly what the second pistol did as well, with a superb .43″ best group. In all fairness to the gun, the hardball load tested shot between 3″ and 4″, and had I removed that one load from the test numbers, the results would have been far better. In all honesty, using just the best shooting ammo, these guns deliver consistent accuracy in the 1.5″ or less — usually less — range, at 25 yards.
As an aside, for those of us who’ve spent many years hard-fitting 1911 barrels and know what’s usually required to make an 1911 shoot well, the fact Cabot was able to send me an off-the-shelf barrel that dropped into the gun, functioned and cut the group size that much is simply astounding, and a true testament to how precisely the pistols are made.
In addition to the bravery and dedication of the American citizen-soldier, part of what won World War II was America’s ability to out-produce Germany. If you have any doubt of that, read Clawson or one of the other books detailing how quickly companies like Remingon Rand tooled up to make pistols. It’s a combination of the hand holding the gun and the hand making it which has kept America exceptional in many ways.
Cabot has taken that proud manufacturing heritage combining technology and the tradesmen who make it work, and distilled it into a finely-built 1911 I can only describe as exceptional.
Photos By Robbie Barrkman