By Roy Huntington, American Handgunner
Photos By Chuck Pittman, Inc.
It’s easy to figuratively grab a rattle-can of “Dark Earth” and spray last year’s model of just about anything and suddenly you have a “Hot new product!” But not really. And frankly, I think there’s too much of that going on today in the head-long rush to come up with a “new” product every week. The overwhelming tide of social media and web-based advertising seems to demand manufacturers constantly reinvent themselves and their wares. But the key word there is “seems” and in fact there’s no need to offer thinly disguised old products as new, or even new products which are instantly irrelevant — simply to play along with the perception “new” is, somehow … better. Buyers spot it, instantly, when the new isn’t even close to better.
Enter Les Baer — and his team — of Les Baer custom. A classic case of thinking things through — first. They’ve never been prone to tossing out new products on a whim. Their latest, the 9mm Black Baer we tested, is solidly based on top performing designs from their shop, while offering a few new options. And, to keep things interesting, we’ve included Baer’s relatively new Boss .45. While it’s sort of apples and oranges, it nonetheless shows how family history can be expanded in new directions. Sort of what a 4.25″ 9mm can learn from a 5″ 1911, if you will.
Left: Boss .45 ACP
Right: Black Baer 9mm
The lineup of products at Les Baer Custom isn’t huge. And that’s for a reason. I’ve known Les for well over 20 years and one thing I’ve noticed, time after time, is when a new product is finally introduced it’s well-sorted right from the start, with no teething pains for new owners. The guns work, are always, without fail, amazingly accurate, lock-up more solidly than 99.9 percent of the other guns out there and show just what a blending of no-error machine work and hand-fitting can accomplish.
And the most remarkable part to me? The virtual 100 percent consistency of the work. Every gun, every time, regardless of caliber or style or options or accessories is 100 percent. If you buy five guns they will all work the same. All the triggers will feel the same, all the sights will align correctly, all the actions will lock up uniformly and all the finishes will look correct. Every gun, every time, all the time. It’s called reliability, and you can take it to the bank.
Les Baer’s Black Baer 9mm.
Where’s It From?
Les hung his shingle out in 1976, going full time in 1981 as a builder of mostly PPC revolvers, rifles and XP100’s and Contenders. Les said he went to an IPSC match in 1983 and thought it was a lot more fun than boring target shooting or silhouette shooting, which was popular then. It changed his direction and he began to build 1911 pistols.
“I mostly just taught myself, with help from Bob Day, in those days,” Les explained. “Bob had been in the Air Force and was an armorer. One day I called him after reading an article and told him, ‘You don’t know me from Adam but I want to ask you some questions.’ For some reason — and he was always sorta’ gruff sounding — he said, ‘Okay, what are you doing and what do you want?’ I told him I was starting to do 1911 work, and then asked him a million questions. For some reason he took me under his wing. Over the years, I could call him at midnight and he’d pick up the phone. Bob was killed in a plane wreck about nine years ago and I miss him still. He really helped to get me up to speed in those early days of building all our own parts and doing all the fitting the hard way.”
Les grew his knowledge by reading, as he says, “all the books,” building plenty of guns, shooting them and tossing the parts he messed up.
“I became good friends with barrel maker Fred Kart back then. He knows more about barrels than anybody else in the world. Gil Hebard, famous for his catalogs and gun store, was an old friend too. Gil was famous as a target shooter. He was the first guy to give me an open account for my small business and I’ll always be appreciative of that trust. It was friends in the industry like these guys who helped me at every turn — and helped to give me roots extending throughout the industry. It’s something younger people coming into the business need to remember — to make good friends and to keep them for years.”
Over the years Les grew his business, turning it into the dynamo called Les Baer Custom. His reputation for personally being involved in every step of the design, creation, tooling, production and testing of every design — and every gun — is the backbone of what he’s built.
“I have a no-compromise attitude,” Les told me. “It’s either 100 percent right, done correctly or we don’t do it. Period.”
A 9mm Compact
Les won’t make a gun with less than a 4.25″ barrel/slide. “It’s just too hard to get those small guns to run 100 percent. Some people can come close, but close isn’t good enough for me. When we decided to move on this shorter 9mm gun, we kept the same 4.25″ length of the Commanche model, but in 9mm.”
It’s just as easy to conceal a 4.25″ slide as it is to conceal a 3.5″ one and frankly, I agree with Les it’s easier to assure a longer slide will run at maximum reliability. Our experiences with the Black Bear as well as numerous other 4.25″ guns from his shop shows this to be the case. They all just perk along with no emergencies or surprises.
Les was being pressured by his loyal customers to produce this shorter 9mm, even though he already lists longer guns in the caliber. The explosion in interest in 9mm 1911’s, along with us aging boomers (lower recoil is easier on “still-shooting 75-year-olds”) caused Les to answer the need with the Black Baer.
Basically, they’ve combined their existing success with the “Commander”-sized Commanche model (4.25″ barrel) chambering it in 9mm. The Black Baer even offers the remarkable Baer accuracy guarantee of 3″ groups at 50 yards. This from a concealable, daily carry 1911.
Keep in mind the Baer commitment to quality applies to each model, from the highest end engraved gun to his latest like the Black Baer.
“We do this the same way they did it in the 1930’s with each step hand-fitted by people who actually know what they are doing. Unlike some shops where each gun is built by one gunsmith — okay if they really know what they’re doing — we have specialists who concentrate on what they do best. If it’s barrel fitting, slide-to-frame fitting, checkering or any other specific step, it goes to the person who is best qualified to handle it.
“Factor in we actually do manufacture our own frames and slides right here. We start with finely crafted unfitted parts which just need an expert’s eye to come together. And we don’t use any lapping compound here, there’s none in the shop at all. It’s all done with hand tools until it’s right.”
The Black Baer is standard with a national match frame, slide and supported chamber barrel, hand checkering, modestly extended safety, beveled mag well, top quality action parts with a 4-pound trigger pull, lowered and flared ejection port, flat mainspring housing and rounded edges. The finish is called “Dupont S” coating offering corrosion resistance and the gun comes standard with Black Recon grips. There are other custom touches and if you want a list, visit their website. Suffice to say it has anything and everything you’d likely need — and nothing you don’t. Take away everything not a 1911 and this is what would remain.
I like the business-like finish and grips and all-steel heft causing it to sit solidly in your grip. The sights are highly visible and have tritium inserts. Like all of Baer’s guns, it has a distinctive “feel” in the hand, one of solidarity and functional efficiency. It reminds me of a 230-pound, 10-year veteran police beat partner I used to know. We all loved to see him show up when we called for a cover unit.
“You rang?” he’d say quietly, grinning.
Yeah, I rang.
There’s a quiet confidence seeming to ooze from the tight seams of this gun. Speaking of that, there’s no movement, as in none, zero, zip, nada, between the slide, frame and barrel. You can push, pull, twist and frustrate yourself trying, but nothing will move. That certainly explains why it shoots 3″ at 50 yards (or 7/8″ at 25 in our tests), yet it does it all reliably and without fanfare.
I have to tell you, after about 500 or so rounds of all sorts the Black Baer is not only just plain delightful to shoot but it truly is one of those “point your finger and slay at a distance” guns. You bring it up, it hangs solidly, you aim it, press that crisp trigger (it just breaks, with no roll-off) and a hole appears wherever you need it to appear, as far away as you can reliably see.
I have a torso-shaped target at 50 yards outside my office door. From my bench I could ring the head virtually every shot. Bang, clang, bang, clang, bang, clang, etc. Repeat as required. The only time it missed was when the idiot on the trigger (me) messed up the press.
While it ate anything fed, including that ultra-high velocity, feathery lightweight ammo popular these days, it really sang with American Eagle and Black Hills 124-grain and Federal 147-grain sub-sonic. The 7/8″ group I mentioned was the Federal, but I’ll bet any good quality ammo will out-perform the ability of most mortals to shoot it. At least in this gun.
If I did the Mas Ayoob thing where he deletes the two worst bullet holes from a 5-shot group and then measures the remaining three — it really does show essentially what a gun would deliver from a machine rest — some groups would have been in the .5″ range and even a tad smaller. Hard to believe and amazing, I know, but simply the truth. Try it yourself. Or, as the Packard ads used to say, “Ask the man who owns one.”
I called Les and told him, expecting him to say, “Wow, that’s amazing!” or “Hey, great shooting for an editor.”
Instead he laughed, “I know that, I told you, didn’t I? What … you doubted me or sumthin’? Geez.”
Geez is right.
The darling of all this is the Black Baer, but I wanted to balance the books with a 5″ .45 and thought the newish Boss .45 would be fun. Basically it’s a Premier II but with some extras to ramp the game up. Les is a madman when it comes to American muscle cars and his all-time favorite is the Boss 429 Mustang. With the changes done here, Les felt it made this new model the “Boss” of his custom pistols, hence the name.
Along with the normal host of custom features, the Boss has a red fiber optic front sight, adjustable rear, ambi-safety, rear-cocking serrations, hard-chromed frame (I love that retro look), a special tactical package and other goodies. Like the other guns he makes, the Boss delivers laser-like accuracy and has that same “hard-fit” translating into reliability and “even years later” accuracy. I have an early Baer Thunder Ranch Special (three digit number) with well over 40,000 rounds through it at this point and it shoots as tightly as it did when I first got it all those years ago.
I hate to beat a dead horse, as it were, but it all spells confidence, and confidence is important when the chips are down. I’d have carried this gun in a duty holster in a second in my days as a cop.
Accuracy was along the lines of the Black Baer only the holes were bigger. The 50-yard head shots were a piece of cake, even easier I think, and the bigger bullet did clang nicely. The Boss has that same 3″ at 50 guarantee. For fun, I emptied a few mags at my 100-yard gong. Once I got the elevation dialed in it was just a matter of pressing correctly if I wanted to hear the clang. I do need to shoot this gun seriously at 100 yards on a target. I’ll let you know what I learn in another article later.
What’d We Learn?
“It’s quality driving us today,” Les told me. “I’m a tyrant when it comes to it. I can’t and won’t compromise, and because of that I’m proud of what we ship out from this shop. I test every gun personally and nothing leaves until it’s exactly right. And you have my word on that.”
I think the blending of high-end machining with talented hand-fitting is what makes the Baer guns stand-out. Factor in the vast institutional knowledge Les and his crew bring to the table, and you have a magic formula. Few shops are willing to go to these lengths today. And, actually making his frames and slides in his own shop, as opposed to having them made to their specs outside, as most shops do, allows Les to control everything from start to finish. There’s no accepting something from an outside vendor which is “almost” perfect. It’s got to meet the Baer perfection quotient right in front of his eyes — or it doesn’t go a step further.
No compromise. Seems like a good idea to me.
If you’re in the mood for a top-performing 9mm 1911, made a tad easier to conceal and able to engage a zombie at 50 yards easily, you may have just found your gun in the Black Baer. At $3,159 for the Black Baer and a remarkably affordable $2,560 for the Boss, for less than the cost of many single custom 1911’s, you have the best of both worlds.
And now, a teaser. Les confided to me he’s coming out with a 10mm with a 6″ slide/barrel, based on the Premier II with a fiber optic front sight. Need a 100-yard boar pistol? You may have just found it.
Pricing for a Les Baer pistols start at $1,500 – Click here to see a full price list.