I love a machine shop, I love guns, and I love me some Texas. So it was a lot of fun for me to visit STI, the manufacturer of exceptional 1911 and 2011 pistols in Georgetown, Texas. I’ve reviewed STI’s guns quite a bit here, although not formally. My recent post on everyday carry reliability was written after firing 2,000 rounds without lube and without cleaning through my daily carry pistol, an STI Duty One 4.0. It didn’t hiccup a bit, and still shot better groups than I could. STI prides themselves on making guns that run right, right out of the box. That has certainly been my experience, and why I carry one . . .
STI has long been a staple of the competitive shooting circuit. For years they defined the term “race gun”, and still make great race guns today, although the sports that cater to that type of shooting seem to be losing popularity to other kinds of competition these days.
Today they sell, as a percentage, fewer race guns and more guns that are appropriate for 3-Gun competition, IDPA, and home defense. STI’s “The Edge” is currently their top-selling gun, but Jens Krogh, director of sales and marketing for STI, believes that may soon move to the Hex Tac series.
STI, an employee-owned company, has been in business for 39 years and has about 75 employees, about 50 of them directly involved in gun making. This is the company that invented the 2011 platform, as well as EDM hammers. STI has an internal series of production checks where each employee tests the last employee’s work. Since they are an ESOP, that means that you check your coworker’s product, because if that worker screws up, they are taking money out of your pocket. Quality is a team effort.
Any time I talk to a manufacturer, which was a big part of my job in economic development, I always ask about the number of employees that actually use the company’s product. That question is especially important for firearms manufacturers. For STI, Krogh told me that 75% of their employees purchased their guns during their last employee sale, and about 20% are “hard-core shooters” in their words.
Currently, STI makes about 10,000 guns per year. They hope to double that over the next year, and the market certainly can handle it. Demand is still strong for handguns, but to achieve that kind of increase, a lot has to change. First off, they have changed their marketing pretty drastically. A new website and a new catalog is out, and their booth at SHOT Show was entirely different.
Their older material included some pretty awesome art, much of it done in-house by Rabbit Boyett. But that advertising was focused on the top of the market, higher end competitors. Their new focus is on home defense and daily carry, as well as 3-Gun and law enforcement.
Another change is that they have reduced the number of models they offer by about 30%. Right now STI claims that if you order a gun from one of their dealers such as Dawson Precision, you should be able to pick it up within four days, as long as your state and federal overlords approve.
As far as making the guns, there’s nothing too shocking in the process itself. The stock metal for the parts, frame and slides comes in and is flattened then machined down. Mostly HAAS machines take the guns down, bit by bit, to within about 1,000th of an inch larger than they need to be.
With the exception of the grips, all of the small parts are done in-house by wire EDM. There’s no MIM here. Although I think it’s come a long way, especially the MIM parts that Ruger is turning out, MIM’s still not up to the quality of EDM. 2011 double stack magazines are made and tested completely by hand. Again, that ESOP team quality really shows here. Especially if you screw something up once it’s a serialized firearm. An error after that scraps the gun, and everyone loses.
Once frame and slide are machined down, the magic happens. Parts are then hand-fit to feel. Mr. Krogh told me there is about eight hours of hand-fitting that goes into every gun. Someone sits there with parts and lapping compound and works them until they feel right. That’s takes patience and experience.
Since STI says they don’t intend to hire a lot more people in their ramp up, it’s hard to see how this much hand fitting is going to continue, but they insist it will. The plan is to consider outsourcing some small parts to qualified manufacturers if necessary, and to re-prioritize some machines for efficiency. They’ve been at this almost as long as I’ve been alive, so I’ll trust them to get that right until proven otherwise.
Finally, every single gun is shot in-house. Krogh says that each gun gets at least two magazines shot through it, and they run a mix of budget ammo. They take the attitude that “if it will run this ammo, it will run anything.” So far, that’s been my experience with their guns. They also have a full-on smith shop here where they can customize any finish or add-on you can think of. Although it will add cost and time, if you can dream it, they can build it.