A visit to Les Baer Custom: guns magazine visits Les Baer Custom and finds the secret to great guns is still careful hand work

Guns Magazine, Jan, 2003 by Charles E. Petty

The miracles of modern manufacturing methods have made it possible to produce Government Model pistols that are far superior to those of days gone by. And this fact has led to a widespread misunderstanding about the guns that come from Les Baer.

Most people, myself included, think of his guns as "semi-custom," where production parts are tweaked to get better fit and accuracy.

We couldn't have been more wrong.

I knew this almost from the minute I walked through the door of his shop in Hillsdale, Ill. It was like nothing I expected. I thought I'd see lots of machines. Instead I saw lots of files. Yep, those hand-operated things that cut metal.

It was a throwback to the Air Force shop where I trained over 40 years ago. The facility is filled with workbenches bearing tool boxes loaded with files, stones, scrapers and reamers. All these tools are operated not by air or electricity but by the hands of somebody who knows how to use them.

Building A Baer

Let me tell you how the system works.

Baer operates in a constant backorder situation, but the wait for one of his pistols is considerably less than we have grown used to. When an order reaches the top of the pile, all of the parts needed to build that gun are placed in a tray holding eight guns.

The tray fits comfortably atop a rolling cart where it will remain until it's finished. From the stock room, it goes into the shop where it will move from one bench to the next until every operation is completed. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, for the parts that go into the tray need some explanation.

The guns from Les Baer are not simply accurized pistols that someone else made. Every component that goes into the gun is either manufactured by Baer or made to his specifications by a vendor, often with molds or tooling owned by Baer.

At first, frames and slides were provided by a vendor, but in 1993 Baer purchased a machine shop in his home town of Allentown, Pa., and by mid '94 he was making those too. The shop has grown to occupy 28,000 square feet and holds 16 CNC machine centers.

The Foundation -- Frame To Slide Fit

The building of a gun begins with the fitting of slide to frame. As they come into the shop these two parts won't go together at all. Using a gauge, a few thousandths is removed from the frame rails until the slide just begins to fit onto the frame. It is then lapped the rest of the way to a smooth, snug fit with no horizontal or vertical movement.

Another area of careful hand work is the front strap checkering. The frames come in with the checkering started by a machine, but the 30 lpi pattern is completed by hand. The next step involves the external fitting of the safety, beavertail and mainspring housing. These parts are blended to the frame by polishing as needed.

The barrel and how it is fitted is the heart and soul of any accurate Govt. Model pistol. Baer's barrels are made by Kart -- although they're marked Baer -- and are beautifully made. During my gun-smithing days it took a long time to fit a barrel due to the differences in dimensions from one part to another.

Starting with beautifully uniform components, barrel fitting at the Les Baer shop goes much faster... although the task is no less demanding.

"Best On The Market"

Kart makes these barrels to Baer's specification, but uses his own proprietary rifling design. "I've been buying barrels from Kart since 1976," said Baer, "and he makes the best pistol barrel on the market."

There are multiple steps to fitting the barrel. The bushing will not even think of starting onto the barrel so it is reamed to a preset dimension. Then the bushing is fitted to the slide.

In my opinion, the fit of bushing to slide on the Baer guns is, if anything, too tight. A bushing wrench is positively mandatory and it had best not be flimsy plastic. Baer wisely includes a good one with his pistols.

The next step in barrel fitting is to cut the headspace extension for both width and length, so that it fits the slide with little or no space. That done, the bottom lugs are cut with a standard hand-rotated cutter which leaves the fit impossibly tight.

From this point the final fit is achieved by hand -- file and try... file and try -- until it is just right. The last bit is done by gentle polishing of both the lugs and slide stop. This is exactly how I was taught to do it all those years ago.

Next, the sights are installed and a final polish is done to blend all the edges, such as fitting the back of the extractor and ejector flush with the slide. From there, it's off to finishing.

Finishing Touches

Blueing is done on-site, but plating and Baercoat[R], (a durable, self-lubricating finish) are done by vendors.

When the nearly completed pistol comes back from finishing, the internal fitting of the beavertail and thumb safety is done, the barrel ramp is polished, everything is checked out and the trigger job is finished.

The demand is much too heavy for Les Baer himself to build guns anymore, but he personally test-fires each and every one -- sometimes as much as 100 rounds. After this they are cleaned, inspected once more, drenched in Break-Free[TM] and sent off to the customer.

When all is said and done, over 40 man hours of labor are involved in every pistol.

Over quite a few years I have tested a number of Baer pistols and examined dozens more belonging to friends, or which were found in gun shop showcases. The thing that impresses me most is the consistent quality of the work. Baer bristled when, at the start of my visit, I referred to his guns as, "semi-custom." There is nothing semi about them.

Some Thoughts On Value

Forgive me for a moment of editorial opinion that is mine... and mine alone. It really wasn't all that long ago that you could buy a nice used Colt Government Model for $50. In 1965 I charged $100 to completely accurize the gun, including a set of Bomar sights. I wasn't alone back then, that was simply the going rate.

And the guns most of us did back then would shoot every bit as well as one for which, today, you might pay more than 20 times as much. When I hear of someone charging thousands of dollars above the basic cost of the gun, I want to say bad words.

There may come a time when someone's work is that valuable but I don't think we've gotten there just yet. Maybe for a fine engraver and lots of gold, but not for a basic accuracy job that is -- let's be real here -- unchanged from the principles set down in the 1950s.

I consider myself a pretty good judge of craftsmanship and my job gives me the chance to examine lots of custom guns. Sometimes what I see is disappointing.

Looking Past The Shine

The important points I look for are not visible from the outside. You've got to field strip the gun to see them. I want to see the bottom barrel lugs cut to provide full and even contact with the slide stop pin.

The headspace extension on the barrel should fit the slide with little or no daylight visible, and the bushing fit between slide and barrel must provide the correct forward lockup. Some of the most expensive pistols I've seen suffer in these areas, however lovely they may be on the outside.

Right now, I bet that some of you are making the analogy of the Beemer and the Bug. Both will get you from point A to point B, but there is a difference in how they do so. The thing doesn't hold up with guns though. Sure leather seats and oodles of horsepower cost more but where do we find something comparable in this pistol.

To be certain, there's some "eyewash" common to both (leather seats or ivory grips for example), but neither of those improve the utility of the product at all. They look nice and cost more but beyond that do nothing better than less expensive options.

When we talk about custom pistols there's no such thing as list price, but all the good 'smiths have packages that have the same features. Here we can compare apples and apples.

The bottom line is I find Baer's prices to be middle-of-the-road and sometimes even a little low. But you won't find anything low or middle about the workmanship and performance of these guns. They're not cheap. But at least here, you get what you pay for.