Exclusive: Black Powder, Toupees And The M1911
Father Johnson acquires an apprentice
Fiction, By Jeremy D. Clough
We called him Father Johnson, but not for the customary reasons, and certainly not to his face. A weathered-looking 50 when I first met him, he had that certain tightness around the eyes that comes only from hard experience, and could have easily passed for ten years on either side of his actual age. He may have only been five-nine, but his silent air of authority made him stand a full six foot, if you follow me. When people used to say I was too young for something, I was fond of retorting I was “high mileage.” If there’s any truth to that phrase, it’d be fair to say Father Johnson’s odometer had rolled over a time or two.
His full beard had gone almost completely grey, and his hands and arms were heavily muscled and veined from years of working stubborn metal with a file in his hand. The mustache on his upper lip shadowed the Swisher Sweet that was perpetually smoldering between his lips. For all I know, he smoked the same one for all the three years I apprenticed at his bench.
Like many other men in the profession of persuading metal to do things it doesn’t want to, he also cursed fervently and comprehensively; almost, dare I say, eloquently. For him, a sentence without a reference to excrement was like Christmas without a tree — thus the ironic twist in my shooting buddies and me nicknaming him “Father Johnson.” And he pretty much defined the word “curmudgeon.” He wasn’t old enough to be in my 1950’s-era Webster’s, but they tell me newer editions have his picture. He had a standard response anytime he saw a new M1911 part, whatever it was. “You don’t need that bull,” he’d grunt, his gravelly voice blurring “you don’t,” into “y’on’t.”
He also built some of the finest .45’s I’ve ever seen, and in that small Tennessee town, he was the acknowledged guru of custom pistolcraft. I’d grown up going into gun shops with my dad, but until we moved during my sophomore year in high school, I’d never seen anything like this one: pigeonhole shelving behind the counter held yellow blocks of Super Vel ammo and white-and-red, palm-scuffed Pachmayr grip boxes. An FN FAL-armed soldier in a framed Rhodesian Army recruitment poster beckoned one to “Be a Man Among Men.” A shield-shaped patch from the Southwestern Combat Pistol League was thumb-tacked prominently in the upper corner of a corkboard covered with many others.
There were the obligatory long gun racks along the wall, and the L-shaped glass counter that filled most of two walls held magnificent works of art: tuned S&W revolvers, built Springfields and Colt M1911s with matching customized .22 conversions — Colt conversions, mind you — pistols with seamlessly-fit beavertails and their slides hand-polished to a hard shine. When you held one reverently in your hands, you could see the exposed beams of the high ceiling in the deep, blued finish.
I hadn’t meant to tell him I wanted to be a pistolsmith, but it kind of slipped out one day when I was in there after school with a couple of my buddies. I was looking at a well-worn King’s M1911, and I don’t remember if I said I wished I could do that kind of work, or if I was presumptuous enough to critique the gun, but whatever I said got his attention. He fixed me with a hard, piercing look, and I instantly reddened. My buddies instinctively backed away.
Father Johnson held out his hand, palm up. Expecting to be ordered to give him the gun back, I was surprised when he instead demanded, “Gimme your hand.” I did, and he grasped it and leaned over, inspecting it closely. He nodded in faint approval as he saw the pale scar on the web of my hand where my .45’s hammer had bitten me time and again. Turning my hand over, he ran his fingertip across the yellowed calluses at the base of my fingers, and peered at the dozen or so small file cuts on my fingers. He grunted, gave me my hand back, and was silent.
It was a month or more of after-school visits before I got the courage to bring it up again. “Would you —” I began, then froze and tried again, “would you mind looking at a pistol I’ve been working on?” He nodded and reached for his magnified visor, and I began to unfold the shop rag wrapped around the .45 I’d brought in. When I think back on how crude those early efforts of mine were, I marvel at just how measured his assessment was.
“You got the right idea… ,” He grunted, his voice trailing off, as he ran a thumb down the wavering checkering I’d cut into the front-strap of my wounded Colt. “You shoulda blended that right there,” he said, pointing his visor to where the rear of the slide sat proud to the frame. “See here… ,” he leaned down for one of his pistols from the glass cabinet so he could show me the difference, and my education had begun.
The next trip, he corrected the roving lines where I had tried to bevel the sharp edges of the slide I brought in. He beckoned for it with a terse “Gimme that,” and, holding it tight against the Brownell’s apron that covered his knee, began to recut the bevel with a file. So it went: as the work I was attempting began to get more involved, one day, with a raspy “Come on,” he finally led me into the back room where the shop was.
After that, it was a regular thing: Saturdays and almost every day after school, that’s where I could be found, aproned, visored, filing my heart out.
It was a wonderful place, that shop, and it smelled of Dykem marking fluid and Hoppe’s No. 9, with a faint bouquet of smoke. In predictable disarray, it was packed with shelves and trays full of parts — cigar boxes of original Swenson thumb safeties, revolver barrels packed into pencil cups, a sheaf of rifle stocks in various degrees of finish propped in a corner near the spotless lathe and Bridgeport mill. Like the public part of the shop, the seemingly-random items all meant something to those steeped enough in firearms lore to recognize their meaning.
There was one thing in the shop, though, that absolutely mystified me: a pedestal sitting behind the display counter that appeared to be the perch for some large bird. After I’d been working there for a couple months, I finally got courage to ask Father Johnson about it. I was sitting on a stool behind the counter, working in my lap as, per his instructions, I tried to make a round piece of steel square, then round again. “Tell me about the empty perch,” I said, gesturing toward it with a bastard file.
“Hmph,” he grunted. “It was for my falcon.” Then he looked away. It wasn’t a story he liked telling. Apparently, Father Johnson had experimented with falconry, spurred on by one of Col. Cooper’s articles admiring the mostly-lost art. After undergoing the lengthy training and licensing process, he’d gotten his own falcon, trained it, and inexplicably got into the routine of bringing it into the shop. Perhaps he was lonely in those early days before his work became known, or maybe he thought it would help the bird become socialized.
Either way, some animals are just meant to be outdoor pets. The perched falcon — a kestrel, to be exact — got in the habit of sporadically emitting a piercing cry that resulted in several pistols being dropped onto the glass counter by startled customers, and at least one accidental discharge. The final straw came, however, in what the regulars came to call the Toupee Incident, when the keen-eyed kestrel found himself distracted by a customer’s hairpiece.
Apparently the mixed grey-and-brown hair reminded him of a rabbit — and I say apparently, because really, who knows what a hawk is thinking — because he jumped off the perch, snapping the leather jesses that usually kept him in place, and was on the customer’s head in a flash, wings frantically beating the air as he attempted to pull the toupee free. By the time Father Johnson could intervene, the feisty raptor had the hairpiece on the ground, kneading it energetically with its taloned feet, and the customer could no longer be found.
Needless to say, that particular story ended with the bird being released back into the wild. Reticent as he was to answer my question, though, I took it as a subtle sign of his approval he did. Still, I lived in fear of the day I made a mistake. I knew it would happen eventually, but I couldn’t have guessed what it would be … or how he would fix it.
By the time summer had rolled around and I had more time to spend at the shop, he actually started letting me work on customer guns, starting with the simpler tasks of the M1911 — tasks where it’d be hard for me to make a mistake, and if I did, it wouldn’t be seen. Like polishing the inside of a mainspring housing, a subtle step that smoothing the hammer’s operation.
Basically a semi-rectangular block of steel with a large hole in it, open at one end and closed at the other, it holds the mainspring powering the hammer, and it’s held in place with a crosspin going through a smaller hole drilled near the closed end. The polishing process seemed simple enough: wrap some sandpaper around a wooden dowel: stick it in and twist it until your hand cramps, then finish the job out with a felt polishing bob in a Dremel tool.
All went well until the little polishing tool seized up in the housing, spinning it around in my hand and barking my fingers. Once I got the Dremel turned off, I couldn’t get the tool out. Twist and pull as I might, it was stuck fast. Even clamping its shaft into the vise and pulling didn’t help. After a half-hour of grunting and jerking, I was beaten. I took the housing out front, where Father Johnson was sitting on his stool behind the counter.
“What you got?” He asked, tilting his head back and looking at me below the lens of his visor. I handed it to him.
“I got a polishing bob stuck in it.”
“How’d you do that?”
“I don’t know. It just stopped.” He turned his head and eyed me contemplatively, a wisp of smoke rising past his grey visor.
“You do anything to try to get it out?” I told him what all I’d done.
“Well, come on,” he said gruffly, and abruptly stood up.
Back at his bench, he carefully clamped the housing sideways in his padded vise, with the shaft of the bit pointing across the room. One of the crosspin holes was pointing upwards, and he used a C-clamp to clamp a piece of block of brass firmly against the other one.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked. He ignored my question, and reached up to get a red can from the shelf where he kept his reloading equipment. I wasn’t sure what was in the can, but I could plainly see the “FFF” on the side.
Opening it up, he made a funnel out of a scrap of paper and began to trickle the black, granulated contents of the can into the open cross-pin hole, leaving a little pile there when the hole was full. Apparently satisfied, he screwed the lid firmly back on the red can.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
He looked up at me and ashed his little cigar into the trashcan, then took a long draw on it. “You really ain’t figured it out yet?” I shook my head.
Without breaking eye contact, he deftly dropped the cigar down to the mainspring housing and touched the glowing cherry to the pin hole he’d just packed with black powder. There was a spout of fire and a ssssssssBANG, and it went off, blowing the felt bob out the end of the housing and across the shop, where it cracked the face of a dial indicator and knocked it clean off the mill.
Father Johnson never blinked. As for me, I got to work off the cost of a new dial indicator, which in retrospect doesn’t seem quite fair. Nevertheless, it was the price of a lesson learned, and it was worth it — and I wasn’t even into the hard part of building a .45 yet.
Editor’s Note: We did a bit of an experiment here. About 20 years ago, sister publication GUNS ran a bit of fiction and it was well-received. I asked Jeremy Clough (a young man, very much like the one in this story) to see what he could do, and touch on some things we all might find strike a chord about our passion for handguns. I think he did a stand-up job.
If you enjoyed Jeremy’s bit of whimsy, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me. Tell me if you thought we wasted good internet space too. Then I’ll be the judge as to whether or not we’ll go here again. I, for one, am dying to know what happens next! Roy Huntington, Editor, American Handgunner