Pistolsmithing: True Gunsmiths Embrace Their Creative Side


Sometimes photos are all you have to reference when recreating a vintage pistol.

A while back, my editor Tom McHale asked me, “What is the difference between a gunsmith and an armorer”? I kinda gave him the short answer about getting your oil changed at a drive-through and getting new pistons in your truck. It gave me a lot to think about.

I look at it this way; part of the job of pistolsmithing is being an armorer and changing sights, replacing broken parts and correcting ejection or extraction issues. Essential work but necessary, particularly when working with firearms — no need for an owner to tinker.

Closing up all the part join lines and gaps is possible with parts like
the Harrison Design oversized ejector and an EGW extractor.

Creative Juices

Then there is the creative and innovative part of pistolsmithing. Modifying or creating parts to fit a need, adding features that never existed, or just plain metal sculpting. This is the part that excites me. The challenge of making something new or outside the box gets my blood flowing. Don’t get me wrong, we all need work to pay the bills and keep the lights on, but it’s fun to try new things every once in a while.

I have great admiration for the 1970s and ’80s pistolsmiths; this was when the 1911 evolved into the most popular gun in the country. Pistolsmiths like Bill Wilson, Wayne Novak, Jim Boland and Armand Swenson turned the 1911 shooting community on its head. I was in my 20s and couldn’t wait for American Handgunner to arrive. Each month the bar was raised a bit higher. Boland would be featured with his wild .38 Super, cut and welded everywhere, making the Colt 1911 almost unrecognizable. Wilson would come out with a two-tone Carry Comp. Swenson modified a hard-chromed Colt Combat Commander with an S&W revolver sight and square trigger guard. There were plenty of other smiths who were doing their best to keep up — but innovation is challenging.

A 1/8" slot milled in the slide will receive the front sight for silver soldering.
It will be shaped and regulated for zero later.

The vintage S&W rear sight and EGW’s reproduction grip safety installed and blended.

A Birth Year Devel Inspiration

Having finished a few long projects, I wanted to try something a bit creative. One of my clients has desired a Devel Gammon — another wild 1911-based creation. That will take a while. But in my research for the Gammon, I came across another 1911 by the creative minds at Devel, a Colt Combat Commander modified for defensive tactics. The pistol was fitted with an S&W 439 rear sight, welded front sight, ambi safety, high-rise beavertail grip safety, etc. It also featured a giant mag release paddle. Devel, owned by the late Charley Kelsey, did a lot of wild innovations to several gun platforms. Some were adopted or co-opted by manufacturers.

I had a 1974 Combat Commander in the safe I was saving for a client — his birth year gun. I thought a great way to use it was for a Devel clone or tribute.

This is where the artsy, creative stuff happens. I wanted this project to look period correct but better. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there was very little in the way of oversized parts and the welding was primitive. To start, I sourced new parts in keeping with the period look but went with high-quality oversized pieces. The sear, hammer and disconnector are bar stock EDM cut. The barrel is a Kart. The thumb safety and grip safety are reproductions from Evolution Gun Works (EGW). I only had photos to work with, so I guessed a few things.

The checkering is machine cut at 20 lines per inch. The grips I saw on the original were fully checkered but lacked real character. I bought a set of ironwood grips from Jon Aho at High Figure Grips. This was the first set I have purchased from him — they have spectacular grain. I will be modifying them to fit the large mag release paddle. The S&W rear sight was sourced from a used parts dealer. For the unique mag release paddle, I called on Brandan Bunker at Bunker Arms, who has CNC production capabilities. He is making the parts and engraving them — something I cannot do myself.

To add some authenticity to the project, I got a pair of original Devel magazines from internet friends. Fitting everything was not too difficult from a gunsmithing angle. I spent much time closing all the gaps in the slide to frame fit the ejector and extractor gaps as viewed from the rear. The color photos showed the finish as parkerized, but I think I’ll go with a matte Ionbond finish for more durability.

I had a lot of fun making it; I hope he likes it.

For more info: HighFigureGrips.com, EGWGuns.com, BunkerArms.com, Brownells.com, GunPartsCorp.com, HarrisonCustom.com

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