The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

[Interview] Triple Threat: A.J. Zito Of Practical Performance

The names A.J. Zito and Practical Performance are conspicuously absent from the list of household names you’re probably used to seeing when it comes to subject matter experts in this industry. But, make no mistake, Zito has been working diligently for years to hone his abilities as a master-class shooter, gunsmith, and professional trainer. 

Few people we’ve come across possess both the technical and tactical know-how that A.J. has managed to cultivate in a career dedicated to the construction and use of pistols in high-performance and duty/defensive situations. Not only can he build guns, but he can also shoot them well and convey knowledge to newer shooters looking to follow the same path. 

We recently took the opportunity to sit down with him and find out more about how he came to his current position and level of skill-at-arms, which he has chosen to impart to the next generation of both gunsmiths and pistoleros.

RECOIL: Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you first got into shooting.

A.J. ZITO: I grew up in a small-ish town outside Chicago called St. Charles. I really didn’t get into shooting until college and then after the military. I spent most of my time on a farm, so we had guns and shot shotguns a fair bit in high school, but that was about it. I was always interested in it. I remember seeing shooting shows on ESPN as a kid and other shows, but there wasn’t anything around us that was available. The shooting sports weren’t a thing out by me. I really wish they had been.

RECOIL: You went to Norwich University, one of the country’s few private military academies. How did you decide on that direction?

AZ: Yeah, that’s kind of a comedy of errors that ended up working out for the best. I had applied to a couple other senior military colleges and didn’t get in. When I contacted them about why, it turned out my guidance counselor sent the wrong transcripts. Unfortunately, it was too late to fix the issue with the other schools, but I hadn’t applied to Norwich yet. So, we corrected that issue, and to Vermont I went. It ended up giving me different avenues that I pursued while there that none of the other schools had. In retrospect, it was probably the best thing that could have happened.

Zito's time as Cadet at Norwich University. Photo courtesy of Eric Belleville.

RECOIL: What was your experience like there, and what did you do after graduation?

AZ: All things have their moments, both good and bad. While I was there, I was really able to throw myself into mountaineering, which is the biggest thing I’m grateful for during my time there. I learned there that I love technical skills, and the Mountain Cold Weather Company there really let me dive into that with ropes and systems. That said, I’m a terrible rock climber [laughs]. I got my commission the day before I graduated Norwich, so about two weeks after graduation I headed to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

RECOIL: How long were you in the military, and what kind of assignments did you get while you were in?

AZ: Just over three years. My first job was as a Fire Direction Officer for 155mm howitzers. Basically, I calculated ballistics for cannons. Then, when we deployed, we transitioned to an infantry company mission. We did your standard door kicker stuff, but I also had some cool opportunities to work with other folks while I was there. When we came back, I left my job as a platoon leader there and finished out as a Fire Support Officer for an infantry company.

Zito serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

RECOIL: What made you decide to separate from active duty, and what did you transition into after?

AZ: It was pretty clear that the Army and I were no longer a good fit. So, as soon as I got out, I started applying for different jobs in the private sector. At the same time, I really started attending training classes focused on shooting and private security, executive protection, and PSD work. So, I started working some of those gigs here.

RECOIL: What kind of training and assignments did you get during your time in the private security world?

AZ: I got to do some neat stuff within protective intelligence. Things like scientific content analysis with human behavior and handwriting analysis, which was super cool to me. I spent a lot of time working protective diamonds and a bunch of other stuff in training. Assignment-wise was far less exciting [laughs]. I worked some anti-stalker stuff and some corporate “high-risk terminations,” which sounds way cooler than it actually is. I did spend some time training up to teach high-angle rescue and rope systems as well, which was a bit amusing to me. I thought I had been hired onto a PSD, and when I got to the train-up, it turned out I was there because of my mountaineering experience. Oh well.

In addition to being a shooter and trainer, Zito is also a trained gunsmith specializing in 1911-style handguns.

RECOIL: At what point did you decide to transition from a professional gun carrier to a professional gun builder?

AZ: Well, I was working for a school out of Colorado. We had issued guns for the program, and no one on staff was even a glorified armorer. So, naturally, the guns kept going down and needed fixing. I was already doing most of my own gun work at the time, so somehow it fell to me to get the guns back up and running. While I was sitting there, contemplating the life choices that had gotten me to that point, I was thinking how contracting was dying down to a point where I needed something else to do between jobs. I figured since I had an interest in the mechanics of guns and I was already working on my own, maybe I’d look into gunsmithing to fill the time. By the time I got out of gunsmithing school, life had changed so much that gunsmithing had become my main gig.

RECOIL: Where did you go to gunsmithing school, and how long was the pipeline?

AZ: I went to Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. The main program was two years, and then I did a follow-on year, which is like their “master’s” program. It really is a year to let you focus and specialize on one thing. For me, obviously, it was 1911s.

RECOIL: What kinds of specific skills did you learn as a gunsmith? What lessons did you take with you from the program that still guide you today?

AZ: That’s a lot to unpack right there. The biggest would be learning how to run a mill and a lathe. Knowing how to machine, even at a basic level, was huge. A big thing too was learning how to fix your mistakes. The head of the program always said that that was when you were a real gunsmith. That’s definitely been a lesson I’ve kept with me. Another is to learn that at some point, you’re going to make a mistake. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake. And when you’re confident in your ability to fix a mistake, you tend to be a little more free with trying things that may make your builds better.

Zito in his natural environment — working with students on the range.

RECOIL: What guidance would you give to someone who wants to pursue gunsmithing as a career?

AZ: Gunsmithing is a dying art. If you want to make it, you need to be one of the best at what you do. You need to have a high level of attention to detail. Also, you’re not going to nail it your first time out. You have to make mistakes in order to learn. Accept that early on, and your progress will go much faster.

RECOIL: What drew you specifically to the 1911/2011-style platform? Were you always interested in these specific pistols or was it something you discovered in the course of your career?

AZ: I’ve always been a 1911 guy. It was the pistol I really first learned to shoot. There’s just always been something about it that I’ve been drawn to. Without getting too zen with it, the 1911 has a soul like no other platform. As far as a 2011, I bought my first in 2012 or so, carried it for quite some time, and have always been a fan of it.  When I got into gunsmithing, it was a natural progression that I ended up specializing in them.

RECOIL: Pistols based on the 1911 template, both single and double stack, have experienced an eruption in popularity over the last couple of years. What are your thoughts on why this happened?

AZ: That’s a great question. I think the high-end 1911, for most, became something like a myth. Almost Excalibur-like. Kids heard stories about 1911s that never malfunction and hit 1-inch squares at 50 yards, but people never actually saw them. They were only exposed to budget, production-style guns that perpetuated the stereotype that 1911s don’t run. Then, a younger group of shooters got introduced to some higher-end guns, and they thought they’d found Excalibur. So they put it on social media, and word started to spread about how these guns do actually exist. Then, they learned that 1911s don’t only come in God’s caliber (.45 ACP), but 9mm too. Then, they figured out they have ones that hold more than 10 rounds. And then — the big clincher — STI released their Gen 2 magazine,and that was that. Now, you had a gun that, off the shelf, had a really good trigger, held 17/18 rounds, was semi-affordable, and it was more reliable than your off- the-shelf plastic-fantastic wonderblaster. Every shooter with an IG account got themselves one, and here we are today. Had STI/Staccato not released that magazine when they did, I don’t think we would be seeing the type of resurgence we do on the platform. And for us gunsmiths, all it means is that we don’t have to tune magazines much anymore.

RECOIL: Do you prefer single-stacks to double-stacks? Why or why not?

AZ: I still prefer my single-stacks. It’s not lost on me that there is definitely an advantage to more bullets per mag, but when it comes down to it, I prefer the single-stack. The difference in grip shape is a primary reason for me, because of the size and shape of my hands. I like the slightly slimmer frame and the balance of the gun just a bit more in recoil than the double-stacks.

RECOIL: What are some common issues you see in these types of pistols?

AZ: Lack of lubrication. This idea that 1911s don’t run dirty and you have to clean them every 200 rounds is absolute silliness. Properly built 1911/2011s will run for thousands of rounds between cleanings, though I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to keep those nice tolerances. They, however, do not like being run dry. I don’t know why this is such an issue for people. You wouldn’t drain the oil out of your car and then be upset and call it unreliable when the engine seized. Keep it wet, with oil, and life will be much easier.

RECOIL: What’s one modification you consider essential for your 1911s/2011s? What’s one you can do without?

AZ: Forward cocking serrations are an absolute must for me. Especially now, with the popularity of RDS-equipped guns, they’ve become even more crucial. I run a majority of tasks off of them and teach that as well. I could definitely do without comps/ports. In fact, I really prefer my guns without them. Some people really love that recoil impulse, but I ain’t that guy [laughs].

RECOIL: Some prospective buyers balk at the idea of spending $2,500 on a production 2011-style pistol, much less $5,000 or more on a hand-built one. What are your thoughts on entry-level double-stacks? Do you think we’ll see this market segment continue to grow?

AZ: Absolutely. Now that Staccato has kind of cracked the code on a relatively affordable 2011 that runs from the factory, I think we’re going to see a lot of other companies try to do the same but try to make them even more affordable. We’ve seen a few make the attempt, though so far, I haven’t seen any I would call successful. There are a couple coming out that I have high hopes for, but we’ll see if the execution is there. All that said, at the end of the day, there is a big difference between a $2,500 gun and a $5,500 gun, build-wise. Also, to those that balk at high-end guns, performance costs money. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and sign up your Prius for a Formula 1 event. We’re potentially talking about a tool that needs to save your life. I’m not a gambling man, so I’ll go ahead and stack the odds by getting literally the best tool I can get for the job.

RECOIL: You are ranked as a single-stack Master in USPSA and a multi-division Master in IDPA. Tell us about what it takes to get to that level of proficiency in a competition setting.

AZ: A lot of practice. No one, to my knowledge, just stumbles in to being a Master Class shooter in USPSA. It takes dedicated practice, both dry- and live-fire, in order to meet those requirements, and really it comes down to consistency — consistency in technique as well as recency. You can’t really do “power” practice sessions once in a while and expect to make the progress needed. That’s what I call a Class-Practice mentality. Lower-impact practice sessions done often are typically what it takes to make the progress necessary to achieve a truly high level of proficiency.

RECOIL: In addition to carrying a gun professionally and building them, you also do a lot of work as an instructor. How did this facet of your business evolve from gunsmithing?

AZ: It actually didn’t. I was teaching before I was ever a gunsmith, but the gunsmithing definitely changed the way I teach. When I went to school for gunsmithing, I really stopped teaching shooting. About the time I was getting ready to finish school, they offered me a job teaching gunsmithing at the college. It was apparent that, frankly speaking, 95 percent of gunsmiths aren’t really good shooters. What was also apparent was that most of the best gunsmiths seemed to also be good shooters. There’s definitely a connection there. So what I started to do was incorporate some gunsmithing knowledge into my shooting classes as well as some shooting knowledge into my gunsmithing classes. From that evolved things like my 1911 Driver class, which is truly a mix of gunsmithing and performance shooting. If I can teach you how the machine works, it will be easier for you to operate the machine at a higher level.

RECOIL: Where do you think your Practical Performance excels in the pistol training space?

AZ: As far as I know, I’m the only guy still building guns and actively teaching performance style shooting. I have made a lot of mistakes and gone down a lot of rabbit holes that didn’t pan out. I haven’t always been a Master Class shooter. I had to make mistakes and find my way to where I am. Because I’ve made those mistakes and gone down those roads, I feel I have a lot of experience and knowledge as to why things do or don’t work. It’s because I’ve done them. I remember what it’s like to not be able to hit an A-zone on a USPSA target at 7 yards because my technique was so bad. I remember what it was like to shoot where anything outside the eight-ring on a B-8 target was considered failure at any distance. I’ve made all the mistakes so you don’t have to [laughs]. I’m not sure a lot of other instructors can say that.

RECOIL: In addition to training under your own banner, you also do a lot of teaching with Scott Jedlinski of Modern Samurai Project. Tell us a little about your transition from iron sights to red-dots on pistols, and about how your relationship with MSP developed.

AZ: So here is my admission: transitioning to red-dots was actually pretty easy for me. I had just been to a class, and I was basically the only iron sight shooter there. I think this was 2015 or 2016. Anyway, it was apparent in that class that dots were a thing that I probably needed to get on board with, so when I got home I ordered up a dot and a M&P Pro to put it on. It was pretty apparent once I got them that basically everything was easier with the dot. I didn’t have the issue of finding the dot on the presentation, because I had spent a lot of time refining my presentation over the years with my irons. The biggest thing was I didn’t really have a ton of issues getting sucked into the dot. The reason 

was that for many years I had already been a primarily target-focused iron sighted shooter. This made the transition to the dot pretty easy for me. Don’t get me wrong, there were still times I struggled, but the initial transition to a dot was fairly simple. Well, back in 2017, a buddy of mine reached out to me to see if I had any interest in hosting this guy named Jedi for a red-dot class. I hadn’t really heard of him, but I’m always up for hosting new stuff so I reached out to him, and we set it up. I think we’ve since figured out that was the first MSP class outside Virginia. Anyway, we were fast friends immediately. We obviously both had a huge passion for shooting and for conveying information. In our conversations, and during that first class, it was apparent that a lot of our training methodologies and thought processes were very similar. Fast-forward several months later and Scott asked me if I’d be interested in helping him out as an assistant instructor for a pretty full class. I said yes, and we’ve been pretty much full steam ahead since then.

RECOIL: You’ve met more than a few students who have transitioned from striker-fired pistols (Glocks, P320s, and so on) to 2011s. What advice would you give to shooters looking to make the switch?

AZ: First off, welcome to performance! The best piece of advice I can give most shooters is you need to do less. The 1911/2011 is a far more efficient machine than you are used to using. You don’t need as much input as you did before. You don’t need to work as hard to manage your recoil; you don’t need as much pressure as you did before to manipulate your trigger. Do less.

RECOIL: What are some drills you’d recommend to readers who want to improve their concealed carry proficiency?

AZ: There are two that I really put a lot of weight into. The first is a classic “Bill drill.” At 7 yards, draw and fire six rounds to a USPSA A-zone, or whatever anatomical target you prefer. This drill requires that you get a good draw, a good grip, and see the sights for six rounds. If you can do that, clean, in 2.5 to 3 seconds, you’re doing pretty solid work. The other is some form of a throttle control drill. I do one on the MSP target at 5 yards where I draw and fire two rounds to the A-zone, two rounds to the 3×5 card in the head, and two rounds to a 1-inch square. This requires you to work different sight packages and different trigger manipulations based on the size of target you’re presented with. I think it’s a great way work those skills and the ability to move from one to the other. 

A.J. Zito’s Everyday Carry

  • Practical Performance 9mm 1911 with Holosun 507v2, SureFire X300 Ultra, and 147-grain
  • Winchester Ranger SXT
  • LAS Concealment Saya 2.0 Holster
  • Dawson Precision/Metalform magazines in original Raven Concealment pouches
  • Emerson CQC-15
  • Shivworks “China” Clinch Pick in Dark Star Sheath
  • SureFire Stiletto flashlight
  • North American Rescue Combat Application Tourniquet
  • Omega Speedmaster Automatic Chronometer Date
  • Brass Zippo lighter
  • Slim leather wallet

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