M1911.ORG Visits Caspian Arms

By Harwood Loomis

Earlier in the Summer, I realized that a trip to visit family in northern New England was going to have me staying about an hour away from Wolcott, Vermont—which happens to be the home of Caspian Arms, Ltd., maker of 1911 frames, slides, and small parts. After a bit of consideration, I picked up the telephone and found myself speaking with Gary Smith, the Sales Manager at Caspian Arms. I asked Gary if it might be possible for me to visit the factory on behalf of M1911.ORG and do a write-up on Caspian. Perhaps on the theory that any publicity is better than no publicity, Gary readily agreed to allow me to visit, and we set a date and time.

It would have been difficult to choose a prettier drive. My route from “base” to Caspian took me from New Hampshire across the Connecticut River and a few miles north on Interstate 91, where I left the Interstate system and proceeded west through the rolling hills of Vermont. It was a bucolic countryside, although the day was overcast enough to make it not worth trying to take photographs. Everything went fine until I arrived at Wolcott … and realized that I had just driven through Wolcott, without seeing a hint of Caspian Arms, which was supposed to be located just off the main road on the east side of town.

Since I was already late, I decided to forego the “guy syndrome,” swallow my pride, and ask directions. I stopped at a small gas station/snack bar/general store and asked the woman behind the register if she might know where Caspian Arms was located. Happily she did, and she told me. I recognized the landmark she mentioned, so I was able to find the turn-off on the way back through town.

I don’t honestly know what I expected the Caspian factory to look like … a “factory,” perhaps … but I was a bit surprised as the road seemed to be reaching an end and the last building I saw looked for all the world like a wooden barn, complete with weathered, gray board siding. As I approached, though, there was a banner proclaiming “Caspian,” so I cleverly deduced that I had probably found the right place.

Once inside, Gary Smith himself met me, and introduced me to the rest of the staff in the front office. Caspian’s headquarters is the kind of place I could love to work in, and that would drive my wife stark raving bonkers. The office is basically an open office, with sales, marketing, administration, and small parts packaging all taking place in one room and somewhat intermingled. A vacant chair was found, someone procured a cup of tea for me, and I sat down to pick Gary’s brain about Caspian Arms.


Caspian Arms is actually a subsidiary of Foster Industries, which is named after the company founder, Cal Foster. Mr. Foster initially founded the company under the name Green Mountain Machine. In 1983 the name was changed to Caspian Arms. Gary said that when Cal Foster was looking for a new name for the company, he happened to visit Caspian Lake, the largest and cleanest lake in Vermont. He was taken by the name, so he appropriated it for his company. The company was originally located in a nearby town and moved to the present quarters nine years ago.

Foster Industries began, as many small shops do, performing general machining. Their entry into firearms came in the form of contracts to provide frames for both Randall Arms and the original Detonics. As fate would have it, both went bankrupt at about the same time, and Foster decided to turn the suddenly available production capacity to producing 1911 frames for themselves. The current operation occupies 7,500 square feet and produces between 2,500 and 3,000 1911 frames per year under Caspian’s own name. They also provide frames for other makers and for custom gunsmiths, but Gary was not at liberty to divulge the names of his clients. He said they produce and sell a lot more slides than they do frames. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Caspian makes slides for Glocks as well as for 1911s.

In addition to frames and slides, Caspian has developed their own line of small parts, all machined from steel bar stock. One of the parts Gary was proud to show off was a new type of ambidextrous thumb safety for the 1911. Caspian’s design uses the hammer pin to retain the right side lever, and has a positive stop to prevent shearing off the cross pin, no matter how hard the right side safety paddle is pressed down. The base pin extends the full width of the frame, so the left side safety always works. Gary said they introduced this design at the 2009 S.H.O.T. Show in Orlando, and that it is already being copied.

Gary went on to say that most competitive slides come from Korea and arrive in the United States in a semi-finished state. He pointed out that one of the drawbacks of these “offshore” slides is that the locking lugs are cut perpendicular to the slide. Because of the angle of the barrel when in battery, the locking lugs should be cut at an angle of approximately one degree. Caspian’s slides are cut to the one-degree angle. The breech face of Caspian slides is likewise cut to the correct angle rather than being perpendicular to the axis of the slide.

Many people, even 1911 aficionados, are unaware that Caspian Arms offers a proprietary double stack 1911 receiver. Gary reported that this was developed in conjunction with Wil Scheuman of Scheuman Barrels in 1992. It isn’t widely seen in the “consumer” market, but it is used by a number of serious competitors, and has been adopted by the United States Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU). The magazines are proprietary, not interchangeable with either ParaUSA or STI. Caspian currently has the magazines made for them in Europe, after having experienced problems with magazines produced for them by an American supplier.

The Shop

With some background information scribbled down, I was ready when Gary suggested that we take a look at the shop. The production area looked as modern as any machine shop, completely out of character with the exterior of the structure. Of one thing you can rest assured: Caspian Arms is NOT lacking in machining capacity. I counted 7 CNC milling machines, 7 CNC surface grinders, 5 manual horizontal (Cincinnati) milling machines, an incredible 17 vertical (Bridgeport) milling machines … and a gigantic, brand new CNC machining center that had just been delivered and was still being set up. Gary explained that the mix of CNC and conventional machines allows them both to make their own tooling, and also to perform some operations using a sequence of machines rather than all on one, which allows for correction of minor errors that might go undiscovered and uncorrected if one machine performed all the machining.

An overall view of the main machine shop area, with a veritable paradise of milling machines to drool over.

The newest CNC machine, still being set up at the time of our visit

The first horizontal milling machine I’ve ever seen

Gary introduced me to some of the machinists as we went through the facility, and I found everyone to be more than willing to set aside what they were working on and explain the sequence of operations at that particular machine or station. I had a distinct sense that the people of Caspian Arms enjoy their work and enjoy where they work, which means they care about their work. I did not have a sense from anyone I met that they were just putting in time or just going through the motions to make it to another quitting time.

One of two banks of CNC machining centers currently being used

Small Talk

After the factory tour we repaired to the office, whereupon I discovered that … these folks are REALLY into 1911s. I had brought with me the two pistols I own that were built on Caspian frames, so that Gary (and whoever else might be interested) could see what was being done with (or to) their products. After expressing suitable peasantries, Gary proceeded to bring out some pistols from his own, personal collection. These were not all Caspians; Colt was also heavily represented. At that point, Amy Sayers (Caspian’s Vice President) brought over her Colt 1911 to add to the mix. Seth Bishop, the voice you may hear on the telephone when you call Caspian, also allowed that he has built a few pistols on Caspian frames. Clearly, these are people who know and understand their product.

Gary’s pride and joy

It also became evident that they have given a lot of thought to their production. For example, I have always wondered why Caspian’s frames have smaller windows in the magazine well area than other 1911s. Gary explained that they have their raw frames investment cast by an outside supplier. Rather than have multiple types made up, they have ALL their frames produced with the integral magazine chute of their “Race Ready” model. To use this frame for a Government model, they just machine off the magazine chute. And to use this frame for an Officers-size pistol, they just cut the grip frame a bit shorter. The original M1911 “window” would not allow doing this, because the lower grip screw bushing would then fall in the “window” area. Caspian’s smaller window allows them to use the same frame for all applications. Simple, and ingenious.

The raw frame casting. All Caspian’s variations are made by carving material off this base casting

Gary also mentioned that Caspian manufactures their Commander and Officer size frames to the correct dimensions, with the slide rails and frame abutment set back approximately 0.086 inches (according to Gary … I had previously heard that the difference was 0.10 or 0.090 inches) compared to a Government model. Very few makers of shorter 1911s, it seems, pay attention to this critical detail. It is this attention to detail that has caused Caspian frames (and slides) to be held in such high regard by numbers of top-tier custom gunsmiths around the country.

With that, it was time to take my leave and allow Gary and the friendly folks at Caspian Arms to get back to work. I was not allowed to leave, however, until I had been properly adorned. I can now report that I have been there, taken the tour, and although I didn’t get the tee shirt … I did get the baseball cap.

On behalf of the M1911 Pistols Organization, I would like to extend our gratitude to Gary Smith and all the staff at Caspian Arms for allowing us to visit their facility.


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