Mike Cumpston Visits the STI Factory

 

by Mike Cumpston

photography by Mike Cumpston

November 15th, 2007

 

 

 

With the introduction of the Texican Single Action Army revolver, STI Inc. broadened its already wide footprint in the world -wide shooting industry. Company founder Vergil Tripp pioneered the use of  Electric Discharge  Machining (EDM) for production of the lock components of the 1911 pistols that dominate the International Practical Shooting Conference (IPSC) action shooting game. He also developed the modular 2011 frame selling kits to the foremost custom gunsmiths and eventually producing competition-ready complete pistols.  Under the leadership of President and CEO, David Skinner, STI has become a dominant force in the growth of action shooting sports world-wide. The watch words, "Power, Speed, Accuracy", make IPSC competition a harsh crucible for the equipment involved. The practitioners of the sport and other action shooting venues are likely to fire 30,000 rounds and more of high intensity cartridges in the course of a year. Rapid and sustained fire are the order of the day and money and reputations ride on the reliability of the chosen handguns.

There is much cross- pollination in the handgun community and inevitably the reputation earned by STI carried over to the police and military arenas around the world. About five years ago STI began a concerted sally into that realm, introducing new models geared toward the most sophisticated elements and even branching out into concealment arms for the discerning private citizen.

The excitement generated by the prospect of a traditionally styled single action from a company noted for ultra-precision manufacturing standards motivated me to contact company rep, Rabbit Boyett who extended an invitation for a factory tour. The more hot-shot of the gun scribes had gobbled up all the available column inches vis--vis the Texican but Jeff Quinn gave me a push down Interstate 35 for a side bar on the STI operation. The main industrial plant housing the 1911 and 2011 production facilities is located in Georgetown, Texas - just north of Austin on the Interstate 35 corridor, now a tentacle of the Central Texas Urban/Industrial Dimerge for those rare, twisted individuals who like to read urban sociology texts. It is ideally located vis--vis a large, high-quality labor force, business-friendly political climate, an active shooting community and a brain trust of skilled artisans either actively aligned with STI or following their own, but none the less beneficial, trajectories.

Rabbit met me at the front door and spirited me on an excursion beginning at the loading dock door and culminating in the office of the company president where I able to launch inane questions at Mr. David L. Skinner.  Along the way, we were joined by Donnie Robbins, shop supervisor and a graduate of the aero-space industry, Freno Worley, EDM magician and overseer of the 2011 operations and a large community of personable, skilled and highly motivated owner-employees. STI is a profit-sharing enterprise and every member of the staff is fully invested in the profit motive and enjoys the sure knowledge of accomplishment that comes with employing personal skills in a productive environment. 

Raw material arrives in rectangular billets of 4140 steel, is cut to length, surface ground to precise dimensions and heat-treated after minimum machining.  Some of the tooling dates to the World War II era but current EDM and Computer Assisted Design and Manufacture are at the heart of the operation.  Quality assurance is visible at each stage and each operator is responsible for assuring that the major substructures are within specifications as they move from one operation to the next. Micrometers, calipers and gages are much in evidence at every stage. Quality control supervisors monitor the major shops and the completed firearms are inspected and test fired by the quality control department. Where the manufacturing processes of the 19th and 20th centuries tended to marginalize the human component, the modern system brings the elements of intellect, hand, and eye back to the forefront. Setup, monitoring and operation of the CNC machinery and hand-work with low-tech tools are equally essential to the final outcome.

There is minimal outsourcing. The parts including frames, slides triggers, hammers and sears are manufactured in-house as are finish polish/bead blasting and bluing. The founder, Virgil Tripp applies industrial hard chrome at his facility in Alpine, Texas.  Frame construction includes some castings of the 1911design and in-house forging of steel and aluminum 1911 and 2011 modular frames.  STI makes its own double stack magazines for the 2011 framed pistols.  These very strongly constructed magazines hold between 12 and 22 rounds of ammunition depending on overall length, caliber and, per the FAC window at www.stiguns.com, the thumb strength of the individual user.  Double wide over most of their length, they taper to a single column at the top.  This provides enhanced reliability over traditional double stacks and, very likely, contributes to the durability of the feed lips.

STI has distributors on all continents and several islands. I counted thirty- seven countries, some with multiple distributorships, and 49 of the 50 United States (excluding only California). There is now an arrangement with Armscor of the Philippines for cooperative manufacture of the economy-priced "Spartan" and a distribution relationship with a Slovak company that builds a quality double action pistol.   Pauletta Skinner is the Sales and Export Manager, and it is painful to imagine the legal and bureaucratic labyrinth she confronts every day. With STI projected growth of 48 % by the end of 2007, it is a sure thing that her work is cut out for her.

For a complete company profile and products information see:

http://www.stiguns.com/

Mike Cumpston

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

STI is a major sponsor of world-wide IPSC competition. The pistols or custom guns made from the 2011 frame kits have the lion's share of the market among the top competitors. This demanding nature of the sport amounts to an on-going torture test.  STI does much of its market research at the matches soliciting competitors' comments on project and current products.

The shooter is the noted Lee Dimaculangan, an ISPC master currently shooting for the Army Marksmanship Unit.

 

 

Shop Supervisor Donnie Robbins meets a shipment of 4140 steel at the front door. First step is to cut the raw material to proper lengths for the various slides.

 

 

The upscale "Executive" is comparable to the popular "Edge"- a long-frame, full length dust cover variation on the 2011 frame theme. The front sight is one of Dave Dawson's fiber optics. The modular frame is a forged metal upper melded with a glass-filled polymer grip.  Salient points include compatibility with double stack magazines, reduced weight and a very user-friendly checkering pattern.

 

 

At the heart of the operation are these CAD/CAM milling machines that perform complex machining task with ultimate precision. Target production calls for 38-42 complete slides and 8-12 forged frames per day. A significant portion of the production is done on contract from other gun manufacturers who put their names on the final product.

 

 

Several frames loaded into the computer programmed mill.

 

 

 

 

Gunsmith gauging the lug depth on 1911 barrel. Quality assurance is a pervasive priority at all levels of the manufacturing process. All guns are test fired and subjected to final inspection before leaving the plant.

 

 

Computer driven machinery is not equal to some intricate tasks. There is no ultimate substitute for human intellect and manual skill.  Here adroit workers remove tool marks from frames-in-progress. In the lower frame, a skilled gunsmith in final assembly checks the fit of a ramped barrel to a completed frame.

 

 

The high-cap mags come off a WWII-era multi-ton press, and the halves are joined on this high-tech welder.

 

 

Magazine bodies are heat treated on site. There are several heat treating setups throughout the factory and even the slide billets are machined after hardening to prevent shrinkage.

 

 

Mike Cho is a fifteen year owner/employee of STI.  He supervises the magazine department.  Here, he removes internal weld flash from a double stack magazine.

 

 

In the final stages, skilled gunsmiths are very much in evidence. They assure proper fit of the lockwork and proper installation of the safety.

 

 

David L. Skinner, President and Chief Executive Officer. His business acumen and vision brought STI to the forefront of the high-tech handgun trade.

 

 

This is one of Bob Londrigan's (Brazos Custom Gunworks), interpretations on the 2011 pistol.

He is an STI factory distributor, active competitor and major supporter of IPSC shooting.

Brazos Custom Gunworks
11348 FM 56
Morgan, TX 76671
Phone: 254-622-2245
 http://www.brazoscustom.com
http://www.1911store.com