Recently I was accorded an opportunity to travel to Toronto, Canada, to visit the Para-Ordnance firearms factory. It was a bit of a trek, but because of my personal preference for this company’s pistols as well as my admiration for the president of Para-Ordnance, Ted Szabo, there was no way I could decline the invitation. Consequently, on the appointed date I went to Toronto, and on a chilly Wednesday morning in late March I made my way to the factory.
The factory is an unassuming building in what appears to be a modest business and industrial park. This is my personal conjecture, but it is my guess that the company prefers not to blatantly advertise what takes place within the walls for security reasons. It had been agreed beforehand that I would not be allowed to take photographs; Para-Ordnance said they would take photos of anything I wanted that isn’t proprietary or in development, but they are careful not to allow photographs to show the faces of their employees. This may be a result of an unintended consequence of Canada’s strict handgun laws, coupled with their gun registry. As guns (and especially handguns) become harder to obtain, criminals have taken to obtaining gun registry information and are targeting honest firearms owners who have complied with the law and registered their guns. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see that enterprising criminals in search of a source of firearms would not hesitate to kidnap an employee or threaten his/her family if it might get them some shiny new Para-Ordnance 1911 pistols.
My host for the day was George Wedge, Para’s Manager of Quality. George proved to be a thoroughly knowledgeable and very entertaining host and guide. I was surprised (I don’t know why, but I was) to learn that George was recruited by Para-Ordnance from the aerospace industry. Understandably, then, manufacturing to extremely close tolerances (they typically work to a tolerance of 0.001 inch, but they set up the CNC machines to 0.0001 inch) is nothing out of the ordinary for George.
I was also surprised to learn that, although all manufacturing is done in Canada, which uses the metric system, the manufacturing process still uses the English system. Moreover, the original Browning design drawings are the “bible,” the reference standard, for all dimensions and parts that have not been modified or redesigned by Para-Ordnance. George indicated that modern manufacturing and machining processes and technologies have allowed them to tighten up many tolerances, but the original drawings still serve as their baseline, thus ensuring complete interchangeability with “standard” parts.
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The CNC machine "line" in the Para-Ordnance factory
The manufacturing process at Para-Ordnance is a fascinating combination of total automation (in the form of massive and obscenely costly CNC machines) and pure manual skill. For example, at one point I watched a machine that machines the slideways onto a rack of 24 frames all in one loading, to a precision of +/- 0.003 inches, with no human intervention other than mounting the frames to the rack and pushing the button.
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Frames mounted on CNC machine
Nearby was a machine that mills the cocking serrations into slides … 12 slides at a time. Yet just a few feet away from these operations, skilled technicians assemble the parts into pistols, and these operations are completely manual.
Even though Para has tightened tolerances compared to what was possible in 1911, tolerances are still tolerances and not every part is exactly the same. Final assembly is done just like in a semi-custom gun shop. The technician has a bin of parts in front of him. He trial fits several parts to each frame, then selects for that pistol the part that provides the best, smoothest fit in that particular frame. The assembly technicians have an array of good, old-fashioned hand tools and can do a final ream to critical pin holes to ensure that things fit as intended.
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Pistol being hand assembled at workbench
Thus, although much of the machining is automated, each Para-Ordnance pistol is, in the final analysis, hand-built using components selected by skilled workers to provide the best action possible. It makes for an interesting mix of high-tech and “no-tech” and explains why Para-Ordnance pistols have an enviable reputation for reliability.
George also explained to me that the factory operates on a TQM (Total Quality Management) principal, in which the operator or technician at each station is responsible for checking each part as it goes through that stage or station. What this means is that each pistol is subjected to at least 60 to 80 quality control checks during manufacture, and then to a final inspection after assembly. In addition, after final assembly each pistol is test fired to assure proper operation, by a technician who has enough experience (according to George) to know when a pistol just doesn’t “feel” right. Only after passing the test firing is a pistol considered finished and accepted.
The test firing, incidentally, includes for each pistol a “proof round” that is loaded to “+P+ plus 30%” pressure. (By the way, these proof rounds are not available for sale to the general public) Any pistol and any barrel that makes it past the proof round test is unlikely to “kaboom” in a lifetime of shooting standard pressure loads.
Coming from a background of architecture and industrial engineering, I am accustomed to laying out large factories to provide for an orderly and linear flow of materials into the building, through the manufacturing process, and out the shipping dock doors. I did not see this at Para-Ordnance. Although I am certain that there is a system and a logical flow, it is not apparent to a casual visitor. Certainly, each technician appeared to know exactly what he was doing. The factory did not offer the appearance of total chaos. However, I simply couldn’t determine what the flow diagram through the factory might be. Whatever it is, though, it seems to be working, because at various points throughout the facility I saw racks upon racks of slides, frames, and finished pistols giving mute testimony to the fact that they do manufacture pistols here.
The big CNC machines that are probably the core of the operation strike me as being nothing other than black magic. Controlled completely by computer logic, these monsters machine groups of many parts (frames, slides, or barrels as the case may be) faster and yet more accurately than can be done by skilled machinists working on traditional equipment. In order to hold the tolerances for the parts to plus-or-minus 0.001 inches, George explained that when each CNC machine is set up for a run the “head” (the cutter) must be positioned with a precision of 0.0001 inches (one ten-thousandth of an inch) so that the machine will be able to find the parts and make the cuts in the required locations. My feeble brain cannot begin to comprehend how these machines can be made, but … there they are, and they obviously work and work well.
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One of several CNC machines
In another part of their effort to control both quality and cost, Para-Ordnance does virtually all of its tool and die making in-house. There is a small area set aside in the shop portion of the building where master tool and die makers create the cutters and machinery to turn chunks of steel (and aluminum alloy) into Para-Ordnance pistols. The tool and die making shop is also the model shop, where president and chief designer Ted Szabo creates his prototypes for new ideas.
One of the aerospace technologies introduced at Para-Ordnance with the help of George Wedge is non-destructive testing of critical parts. A key component of all new Para pistols, for example, is their proprietary Power Extractor. In an effort to find a simple way to explain what the difference is between a conventional 1911 extractor and the Para Power Extractor, I mentioned to George that I describe it as “an external extractor that’s mounted internally.” He laughed and said that’s a good description. The power extractor is larger at the “working” end than a conventional extractor. In fact, where the conventional extractor fits in a stepped bore that is smaller at the breech face end than at the back of the slide, the bore for the Power Extractor maintains the same larger diameter all the way from the back of the slide to the breech face. The extractor itself is two pieces that fit together at a hinged joint, with a spring-loaded plunger connecting them to maintain and control extractor tension. Because the extractor is so critical to proper functioning of the pistol, George introduced Fluorescent Penetrant Inspection (FPI) for checking these parts. The parts are treated with a fluorescent dye, then examined under ultraviolet light. The dye migrates to and collects at any microscopic cracks or flaws in the metal, and the concentration of fluorescent dye shows up very clearly when exposed to ultraviolet light.
George also showed me another machine, which is used to test the hardness of various parts. This machines is (again a simplistic description for my feeble mind to get a grasp on the concept) essentially a large hydraulic press that operates a calibrated punch. By testing how much pressure is required to make a specific indentation in the metal, the operator can determine the hardness of the metal on a Rockwell scale.
In the final assembly area George showed me yet another gauge that can be used to check lug engagement between the slide and barrel. This allows the technician to determine if the particular combination of frame, barrel and slide has been assembled with the correct length link. Para uses four different link lengths, to achieve the correct fit between slide and barrel when tolerances result in a “standard” link not providing the proper lockup.
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Final assembly area
When we reached the finishing area I mentioned to George that a Forum member had posted awhile ago that Para’s guns are “painted.” George confirmed my supposition that “Para Kote” (as they call their finish coating) is far from being just “paint.” I called it a two-component polymer finish, which to me means that there is a can of base coat material, and when this is prepared for application a second component (a catalyst or hardener or activator) is added. George prefers to call it a “multi-component” polymer coating, because the base coating is comprised of multiple polymers. Either way you describe it, this is a high-tech coating that is far removed from being just “paint.”
At one station in the factory I saw a rack of recently finished pistols in Para’s new “Midnight Blue” colour. When I first saw them under the fluorescent lighting in the factory I thought they were black. It wasn’t until George held one up next to a black pistol that it was obvious they were, indeed, blue. I am generally not a fan of guns in odd colours, and I have not kept it a secret from Para-Ordnance that, while I greatly admire the company and I love the Para pistols I currently own, I think many of their new colour schemes are nothing short of ugly. Well … cancel that when referring to Midnight Blue. These pistols were monochromatic, with no bright accents to disrupt the business-like appearance. The midnight blue colour itself is closely akin to the rich, deep blues we used to see when firearms were “blued.” In short, these pistols were beautiful.
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Completed pistols (less grip panels)
At one corner of the shop area is a fully enclosed and sound-proofed room that is Para’s firing range. This is where each and every pistol is test fired before it is allowed to be shipped. It is also where prototypes are fired for evaluation purposes. A highlight of my visit was being allowed to see, hold, fondle and even shoot an early production prototype of the new “downsized” .45 G.A.P. 1911 pistol that Para-Ordnance will soon be releasing. Ted Szabo confirmed that this pistol will be going into production. It will be constructed on the LDA platform, rather than the single action platform, because it is a small pistol intended for concealment, and the LDA platform allows the pistol to use a bobbed hammer and no beavertail on the grip safety.
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Pistols waiting to be test fired
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M1911.ORG's roving reporter trying out a Para in .45 G.A.P.
Unfortunately, I had nothing with which to compare the new pistol for size. It is smaller than any of Para’s current production pistols. Because the .45 G.A.P. cartridge is shorter than a .45 ACP cartridge, Para was able to reduce the overall length of the frame and slide by 0.102 inches. In the frame, this was taken out as a vertical slice right up the magazine well, resulting in a grip frame that is shorter than a standard 1911 by the aforementioned 0.102 inches, and has a grip circumference approximately 0.20 inches smaller than a standard 1911. That may not sound like a lot, but imagine holding a pistol with a grip that leaves your fingers a quarter of an inch short of touching your palm as you hold the pistol. Now imagine holding the same pistol, but with a grip small enough that your fingertips touch your palm.
The difference is significant, and the hand feels it immediately upon picking up the pistol. I hope to be able to compare this pistol against smaller pistols like the Colt Mustang when M1911.ORG receives a production pistol for extended testing. My “familiarization” was limited to just two magazines – 12 rounds, total. On the basis of that very limited exposure to the pistol, I found it to be comfortable to hold and easy to shoot. I was shooting at a target that already had so many holes in it that there was no hope of determining if the gun was hitting anywhere near point of aim. That will have to come when we conduct our in-depth review in the near future. For now, suffice it to say that I really like this little pistol, even though I don’t see any future for the .45 G.A.P. cartridge. It is my hope that Para-Ordnance will follow the introduction of this new little 1911 in .45 G.A.P. with a version chambered for 9mm Parabellum. Such a pistol would be an ideal pocket or backup pistol, filling the void in the marketplace that was created when Colt dropped the Government .380, Mustang, and Pocket 9 pistols from their catalog.
As my visit drew to a close, we sat down in George’s office to pull together everything I had seen. Tacked to the wall behind him was a poster showing what I thought was the complete line of Para-Ordnance pistols, and I was astonished to see just how many there were. I was even more astonished, then, when George mentioned that the poster, even though it is a 2006 poster, is already out of date. Para-Ordnance currently has in their Production Capability an incredible 80 or 82 different models, although they are only currently offering for sale about 55 to 60 models.
I left the Para-Ordnance factory even more impressed by their products and the inventive genius of Ted Szabo than I was before my arrival in Toronto. On behalf of myself and M1911.ORG I thank Ted, George, and Para-Ordnance for making the tour possible. We at M1911.ORG hope that our readers will find this field report to be of interest.