Retro Custom Guns: The Gunsmithing Trend

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A pair of custom S&W revolvers fitted with faux ivory grips by
gunsmith Dave Laubert of Defensive Creations.

Custom gunsmiths are working overtime to create cool retro guns. The trend has been going on for a few years. It seems gun owners are looking more to craftsmanship than mass production. With the passing of some of the innovative gunsmiths from the ’70s and ’80s like Jim Clark, Armand Swenson, Jim Boland and Charley Kelsey, the rush was on to buy a piece of their art. Not unlike original art if one can’t get the original, they commission a copy or look for a new gunsmith to create their vision of cool.

This is driving prices up as well as creating long wait times for custom gunsmiths. The 1911, S&W revolvers, Colt SAA and Browning Hi-Power guns have never been so popular.

A great example of the craftsmanship that elevated firearms to status symbols over 150 years ago.

A newly made “pin gun” built Colt 1911 in the style of Jim Hoag by Greg Derr.

Cool Factor

Dave Laubert owner of Defensive Creations Gunsmithing put it this way, “I would imagine it all has to do with the demographic of the people behind the resurgence. The firearms industry is a little bored with the proliferation of plastic guns because they have no soul and are just not that interesting. Revolvers, like 1911s, have history and they are sexy because they are usually finely finished steel and exotic woods as the original designers meant them to be. They require skill, craftsmanship and passion to manufacture.

“Now I don’t want it to seem I am bashing the plastic guns — I am not. But they are tools just like the 1/2″ wrench or 10mm socket in your toolbox. If you lose it or break it, you just go to the store and buy another one.

“Guns made of steel and wood will stand the test of time as they always have! They are the icons just like old muscle cars. Technology may have made things slightly better, but the allure and attractiveness has been lost. A 2021 pickup will haul your ass around just as well, if not better than a 1961 Chevy truck, but the ’61 is way cooler!”

Dave makes some of the coolest custom S&W revolvers in the country. He’s had a run of great 3″ K-Frames converted from 4″ models. They are fitted with better sights he custom makes. The bluing and exotic wood grips are elegant — worthy of passing down a generation. You should check out his work.

A newly minted clone of an Armand Swenson Colt 1911 using Swenson’s
signature features with modern parts by Greg Derr.

Custom 1911s

I’ve had many requests to create custom 1911s with features that mimic work from the ’60s and ’70s like frame stippling, retro rear sights and square trigger guards. Many clients want the old school features but with modern parts and tolerances. For example, a client wanted an ’80s vintage “Bowling Pin Gun” like the one he saw on the cover of American Handgunner built by Jim Hogue. He could not find a used gun in the condition he wanted. So, he had me make a clone. It featured all the things Hoag would have put into a gun, but maybe a bit better quality selection of parts. Back then it was all Colt or a few Kings or Wilson aftermarket options. Today we have precise EDM and CNC cut treated parts from bar stock steel and barrels oversized in all dimensions.

Gunsmiths like Ted Yost handcraft 1911s fit for royalty with elegant wood grips and custom inlaid walnut boxes fitted for the gun and custom tools. Smiths like Ted are rare. He treats his work like a painter thinking of every brush stroke and its relation to all the other strokes on his canvas. He also knows when enough is enough. Knowing when to not touch a part or feature is often overlooked by many new smiths who can’t grasp the concept of “simple elegance.” Sure, there are fully engraved guns that bedazzle — the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is full of them, but we’re talking guns to shoot here, not ones to handle with white gloves.

I know there are plenty of uses for new age guns made of space age materials, but most shooters at one time or another want a classic gun. Think of it as having a Sunday best for those special occasions when you need to feel something special in your hands. Like taking a classic car out for a drive, it just feels good, and you get … those looks.

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