Handgun Radio 172 - A Brief History of Custom Handguns & Competition with Daniel Watters

Hello and welcome to Handgun Radio! I’m your host Ryan Michad from the wild woods of Central Maine, and this is your home for all the news, information and discussion in the handgunning world. 

This week, we talk about custom handguns and competition from 1950 to 2000 with Daniel Watters!

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Gonna skip the week in review as i didn’t do anything related to firearms and we have a really awesome main topic ahead of us!

Drink Segment: This was an old experiment I’m revisiting.   It can be considered the love child between a Gimlet and a Singapore sling.
0.5oz Cherry Brandy
1oz Lime Juice
2oz Gin
A few dashes of Angostura Bitters
Shake and serve up or on the rocks.

I may have to come up with a name for this.

Main Topic: A Brief History of Custom Handguns & Competition with Daniel Watters

Classic Bullseye

    .22 Rimfire
    Centerfire (no caliber floor until the Askins incident in 1937, then raised to .32)
.    .45 ACP  (both semi-autos and revolvers allowed)
    Service Pistol (minimal external modifications allowed)  


    First documented service interest in National Match pistols arises in 1920.  However, this is limited primarily to reducing the minimum trigger pull regulations and adding slightly larger sights (⅛” sights versus issue 1/10”.)

    “Fitz from Colt” (J. Henry Fitzgerald) quickly sets up shop at large matches, fitting factory select “match” barrels and larger sights, as well as performing trigger jobs for competitors.



    Colt National Match pistols commercially introduced. (1932)



The rise of the civilian pistolsmiths (Pre-WW2)

    Archibald Brinkerhoff

    Archibald R. Brinkerhoff was the Jim Boland/Ned Christensen of the pre-WW2 pistolsmiths. Unfortunately, he died in 1946 before Bullseye shooting enjoyed its post-war resurgence.

Brinkerhoff patented a torsion hammer spring arrangement as well as a sear depressor system. Between the two developments, Brinkerhoff could rework the frame to be more user-friendly to shooters with smaller fingers, and safely achieve sub-3 pound trigger pulls without the hammer following.

US Patent #1,711,874 - Spring Actions for Firearm Hammers

US Patent #1,807,727 - Safety Lock for Firearms

The drawing of the reworked frame in the first patent is grossly exaggerated, but I hate to think what it would cost for a modern gunsmith to duplicate the frame modifications of the pistol in the article. Still, the concept is rather neat as you could rework the mainspring housing any way you wanted since its purpose is reduced to holding the grip safety and sear spring in place.

Brinkerhoff submitted one of his modified M1911 pistols to the US Army's Chief of Ordnance back in 1933. However, Ordnance was only interested in Brinkerhoff's recoil buffer system. The design inserted a spring-loaded plunger into a GI-length guide rod. The plunger would impact the interior of the recoil spring plug when the slide cycled. Oddly, Brinkerhoff never patented the design, and it was widely copied after his death. Another fellow even patented it in the late 1940s!

There is another Brinkerhoff pictured in the book "US Military Match and Marksmanship Automatic Pistols." From the photos, you can see that Brinkerhoff fabricated a custom magazine slam-pad to match the recontoured frame and stocks. In addition, there is a photo of a custom Brinkerhoff trigger that is fitted with a spring-loaded plunger to reduce the vertical movement of the trigger within the frame. The modern equivalent would be the Castillo's Custom Actions trigger.)

    King Gun Sight (Dean W. King)



    Frank Pachmayr


    A.E. Berdon




    While the patent drawing shows this adapted to a rifle, Berdon performed the same modification to his M1911 pistols.

    Trigger pull compensation for firearms

    J.D. Buchanan


    Jesse Harpe

This post on LTW has a copy of a 1942 vintage article by the early M1911 pistolsmith Jesse Harpe. Note his early self-branded parts, fabricating his own thick-flange barrel bushing, matching spring plug, and barrel links.  Also note the number of modifications that are already standard: trigger overtravel stops, reducing trigger play in the frame, tightening slide to frame fit, and fitting the lower barrel lug tight to the slide stop pin. 


The return of the National Matches (Post-WW2)

    New crop of civilian pistolsmiths begin to replace those who did not continue after WW2



    John Giles 


    Jim Clark, Sr.  

    Here is a 1960-vintage profile of gunsmith and Bullseye champion Jim Clark, Sr. by Grits Gresham.

    Alton Dinan


    Austin Behlert

Bob Chow


    Richard Shockey

Recoil reducer and accuracy improver

    Apparatus for improving the accuracy of a firearm

    George Elliason

The birth of the .38 Special Wadcutter conversions for the M1911 (~1950)

Renewed military interest results in official service-built National Match pistols.  This results in a major increase in technical expertise and the production of match grade parts. (1954-1968)



First integrally ramped M1911 barrel  (Clark -1955)
Factory responses - Colt Gold Cup National Match (1957) 

Factory responses to .38 Wadcutter conversions - Colt Gold Cup National Match Mid-Range (1960) & S&W Model 52 (1961)

    Automatic pistol firing mechanism

    Single or double action firearm
    Firearm with a pivotable barrel having a spherical hump engaging a slide member

Shockey identifies the headspacing issue with the .38 Super (1961)

    In the June 1961 issue of The American Rifleman, John F. Rollins and Richard L. Shockey identified the head spacing issue in their article "Accurizing the Colt Super .38." Shockey ended up sleeving the factory chamber and recutting it to headspace on the chamber mouth.

Longslide conversions (Clark -1962)

New adjustable sight options for the M1911

    Micro Gun Sight
    S&W K-frame rear
    Elliason designs (HEG/Triangle, Colt/Elliason, Kensight, BoMar)

First aftermarket full-length guide rod for the M1911 (Max Atchisson - ~1962)

Pachmayr Signature Model conversion (Frank Pachmayr, George Hoening, and Edward Miller)


    Here are all of the patents for the Pachmayr Signature Model conversion.

Pistol barrel mounting structure

Gun barrel locating structure

Gun head space takeup elements

Gun barrel bushing structures

Gun slide guiding devices

Mounting structure for pistol barrels

Gun having movably mounted barrel

Gun recoil spring assembly

Jeff Cooper and the Creation of Practical Shooting Sports
    Big Bear Leatherslaps (~1956), Bear Valley Gunslingers (~1959) & Southwest Combat Pistol League (~1963)




The rise of the practical gunsmiths and “combat conversions” 


    First extended M1911 thumb safety (No later than 1958)

    Armand Swenson (1965)


Pistol safety mechanism adapted for right or left hand operation

    Gun sight

    Automatic slide guard

    George Sheldon


    Paris Theodore - ASP


Grips for Handguns    



    Jim Hoag


    Austin Behlert 


    Gun sight

    Adjustable gun trigger mechanism
    Pachmayr Combat Special (Tom Dornhaus and Craig Wetstein - 1972)


    Bar-Sto Precision Machine match barrels (Irv Stone, Jr. - 1967)


The official creation of IPSC (May 1976) and the rise of new pistolsmiths


    Charlie Kelsey - Devel

    Mini-39        http://americanhandgunner.com/1979issues/HMJ79.pdf#page=24
Mini-59        http://americanhandgunner.com/1980issues/HSO80.pdf#page=42
Gammon    https://americanhandgunner.com/1982issues/HJF82.pdf#page=33
8-rd magazine    https://americanhandgunner.com/1983issues/HMA83.pdf#page=33
    Gammon II    http://americanhandgunner.com/1984issues/HSO84.pdf#page=42


    Bill Wilson 

    Ed Brown


    Bill Laughridge - Cylinder & Slide


    Steve Nastoff


    Richard Heinie


    Jim Boland

    Bruce Gray


    Les Baer


    Wayne Novak


    Paul Liebenberg    


The IPSC Arms Race Begins


    Extended ported barrels
    Williams Quick-Comp (~1978)
Clark Pin Gun (1979)
    Plaxco Comp (1980)
    Wilson Accu-Comp C (1981)
    Wilson Accu-Comp LE (1984)
Wilson Accu-Comp DP (1988)

Growth of the Aftermarket Parts Industry

    Caspian Arms (1983)

Rise of the .38 Super/Major 9

The birth of the Major PF .38 Super owes a certain amount of credit to Jeff Cooper's wildcat "Super 9" covered in the December 1973 issue of Guns & Ammo. Cooper gave quite a bit of credit to others who had been hot-rodding the .38 Super: gunwriters George Nonte and Mason Williams, gunsmith Terry Tussey, and John Adams of SAECO Bullet Moulds. At the time, Cooper noted that the downside to hot-rodding .38 Super was the unsupported barrel, and potential for case web failure. The base pistol was a .38 Super Colt Commander customized by Jim Hoag with a ~6.5" Bar-Sto barrel. Cooper originally started with hot .38 Super rounds loaded by John Adams. In the long barrel, Adams could get to roughly 1,600 fps with a 125gr projectile before the .38 Super cases began to blow. To improve the strength of the case web, Whit Collins suggested that Cooper try .223 Remington brass cut to .38 Super length. The change in cases allowed the Super 9 wildcat to achieve ~1,750 fps with the same 125gr projectiles. However, Cooper never saw this as a competition pistol, but as a lightweight/long range trail pistol.

In the November/December 1980 issue of American Handgunner, Dick Thomas noted that in 1977 Ken Hackathorn had floated the idea of building a .38 Super competition pistol. This might have been in response to 1977 IPSC World Shoot, which some folks claimed that been set up by the Rhodesian hosts to favor the higher capacity of the Browning Hi-Power. Note that the winner was Rhodesian Dave Westerhout using a BHP. Thomas developed a load with Speer's 125gr JSP that achieved 1,380 fps. This was sufficient to make Major on Hackathorn's ballistic pendulum. He considered recoil to be low, with the trade off being additional flash and blast. Thomas believed that the high velocity would simplify the lead on moving targets, and reduce the need to hold over on 60yd targets. Not mentioned was the fact that the .38 Super gave two extra shots over the .45 ACP.

Bruce Gray claims that he built his first .38 Super competition pistol for a customer in late 1978, followed by a second pistol for himself. They used 173gr cast bullets to achieve Major PF on the ballistic pendulums of the era. In response, some local clubs banned their pistols outright, while other clubs raised the threshold for Major PF to 185. Gray claims that he was told that the organizers of the 1981 US Nationals would not allow the pistol to be scored as Major no matter how it performed ballistically.

In any case, Gray's .38 Super pistols brought him to the attention of Charles Kelsey of Devel. Gray worked with Kelsey on the development of the .38 Super Gammon II, which was campaigned by Chip McCormick and Mark Duncan in 1983. Kelsey had plans for a dedicated Major PF wildcat, the 9mm Devel, using a strengthened case, but this never reached mass production.

The Super's popularity really took off when Rob Leatham and Brian Enos started campaigning Wilson Combat-built .38 Supers in 1984, with Leatham winning the 1984 US Nationals.

From around 1980 to 1993, IPSC and USPSA only allowed flush flt magazines for the M1911. While solid bumper pads were kosher, you could not use an an extended tube or a hollow baseplate to expand the capacity of the pistol. So the only way to increase your magazine capacity in the single-stack M1911 was to either use a Devel (pre-Shooting Star) follower and/or swap to a smaller caliber.

In response to the rise of the .38 Super, match directors began to increase the round counts of stages to force reloads upon the .38 Super shooters, who then held a 1-3 round advantage over their .45 ACP brethren. To counter this, gamers then scrambled to find a 9x19mm high-capacity pistol that would remain together when loaded to Major PF. You had gunsmiths playing with "Major 9" in the HK P7M13 (Bruce Gray), the Browning Hi-Power (Cylinder & Slide), and the CZ75 (Don Fisher.)

Things really came to a head when shooters sponsored by S&W and Springfield started to field hi-cap "Major 9" pistols. A few months prior to the 1990 Nationals and World Shoot, the USPSA BOD banned the use of 9x19mm at Major PF when loaded shorter than 1.25". The sponsored shooters quickly rechambered their pistols from 9x19mm to 9x21mm IMI. The joke was that they were using 9mm JLE (Just Long Enough).

Explosion of the Aftermarket Parts Industry

    Shooting Star / CMC (Chip McCormick and Virgil Tripp)
    EGW (1991 - George Smith)

Creation of Factory Custom Shops to Support Sponsored Shooters

    Springfield Custom Shop (Tim Dillon, Les Baer, Jack Weigand, and Dave Williams)
    S&W Performance Center (Paul Liebenberg and John French)

Rise of the Red Dot and M1911 Widebody Frames (1990)

The 1990 US Nationals were the last hoorah for the single-stack .38 Super, but added a new wrinkle in the form of red dot sights. The real equipment race was sparked a month later when Doug Koenig took the 1990 World Shoot with a red-dot equipped Springfield P9 in 9x21mm.

That is when you started to see major work at perfecting a high-capacity M1911 frame suitable for .38 Super. While Jim Boland and Otto Matyska had individually fabricated one-off high capacity M1911 frames in the 1980s, nothing was commercially available until the Para-Ordnance frame kits came on the market. However, their quality control was not always the best, nor did they have a .38 Super magazine available in the early days. About the only person trying to campaign the Para-Ord in its first few years was John Dixon. I seem to remember that he even had Para-Ord custom cast one out of beryllium copper. However, the first USPSA Nationals win for Para-Ord was in 1991 with Todd Jarrett using a pistol built by Blake Gann. The same year Jerry Barnhart used a Wilson Combat with a custom high-cap M1911 frame fabricated by George Huening. The Wilson/Huening pistol used CZ75 magazines.

The Caspian and CMC (pre-STI & SV Infinity) widebody frames hit the market in 1992. There was a loophole in the IPSC/USPSA magazine rule (7.05) that allowed non-flush magazines if the extended magazine was the standard equipment introduced with the pistol/frame. Caspian and CMC exploited this rule to increase their magazine capacity over the CZ75 and its clones.

The CMC frame kit's first USPSA Open Nationals win was in 1992. Jerry Barnhart's racegun was built by Wilson Combat. Matt McLearn used a Caspian widebody frame to win the 1993 USPSA Nationals and IPSC World Shoot.

The Backlash Ensues - IPSC Standard/USPSA Limited (1992)

Limited Division was formally introduced in USPSA around 1992 in response to the backlash against the optics and muzzle brakes. The latter were growing ever longer with multiple expansion chambers to use every bit of high pressure gases. Briefly, the Major PF caliber minimum in Limited was 0.354" just like in Open. The USPSA Board of Directors thought they were being clever when they imposed a production minimum for eligible pistols and required three manufacturers to produce Major PF loads for a cartridge to be legal. This ended the moment that S&W appeared ready to succeed with their Model 3566 and .356 TSW. Even as S&W was sending fliers out to dealers stating that this combo was Limited Division Major PF legal, the USPSA BOD quickly met and increased the minimum caliber for Limited Major PF to 0.400". (Personally, I think that the .357 SIG would have never been born if S&W had properly marketed the .356 TSW outside of competition use.)

The minimum production number rules for Limited Division kept the CMC and Caspian frame kits out of play for a few years. This changed once STI started making complete pistols in late August 1993. However, the minimum production rule basically meant that they were only legal just a few weeks ahead of the 1994 Limited Nationals. (The Para-Ordnance P16.40, introduced in early September 1993, suffered the same fate.) The Caspian frames weren't legal for Limited until 1998 after Fred Craig cranked out a large number of his "Fantom" models. That said, the Caspian frames were never really a big thing in Limited as their magazine width was not optimized for any cartridge larger than 9x23mm/.38 Super.

While it suffered for the first few years due to the lack of approved widebody pistols, the 40 S&W ultimately became the Limited Division cartridge of choice due to its capacity advantage over the .45 ACP. However, STI soon began to exploit further loopholes. The STI Eagle 5.1's factory bull barrel ultimately led to approval of bull barrels across the board starting 1994. Coned barrels quickly pushed out the conventional bushing set-up. STI went on to add full-length dust covers and then heavy, long dust covers, leading to their approval in June 1996.

Loading tricks became the reverse of Open Division; shooters gravitated to heavy bullets with fast burning powders so pressures would be lower as the bullet left the barrel. Some went even further, with shooters using 250-260gr bullets in .45 ACP and 200-220gr bullets in .40 S&W and 10mm. The extra heavy bullets worked in the .40 M1911-pattern as most shooters were loading them long for more reliable feeding. You might ask why not go to the 10mm? Well, once-fired .40 S&W brass was a lot cheaper due to its popularity in police departments. Of course, trouble began when folks would try to duplicate these heavy bullet .40 S&W loads at shorter lengths so they would fit in a Glock or other stock pistols.

The 170mm magazine rule was passed in 1992, and went into effect on January 1, 1993 in both IPSC and USPSA. However, IPSC only allowed it Open Division, but not their Standard Division. In contrast, USPSA decided to allow it in Limited Division for a year. After the first year, the standard-length magazine rule was reapplied to double-stack frames, while still allowing single-stack frames to use 170mm magazines. In 1995, USPSA revisited the issue setting the maximum length to 140mm for double-stack frames in Limited.

Of course, stage round counts started to go out of sight. I think part of the USPSA BOD's logic for the 170mm single stack magazine Limited Division was that the M1911 .45 ACP shooters with 11rd magazines would be able to keep up with the wide-body M1911 frames. I suspect the 140mm dimension was based upon the lengths of the OEM 20rd magazines that had long been available for the Browning P35, SIG-Sauer P226, Beretta 92, and S&W Model 59-series. These extended magazines had long been used by Military and Police tactical teams.

Unfortunately, most of the 11rd .45 ACP single-stack magazines were junk, and the makers of the double-stack M1911 frames quickly developed extended magazines. Moreover, the "High Capacity Feeding Device" ban went into effect in September 1994. As a result, all of the extended single-stack magazine development went into 10rd magazines. However, a lot of double-stack M1911 shooters played hard and fast with the replacement parts loophole. We were extremely lucky that the Feds didn't clamp down. After all, years earlier, some ATF field offices had gone after pistols with optics mounts that were too close to the serial number. Needless to say, most optics mounts quickly standardized on the dust cover.

Backlash Part 2 - USPSA Limited Division Arms Race

Established pistolsmiths begin to drop out of USPSA in favor of carry pistols.

New shooting organizations formed by IPSC/USPSA alumni .

    1911 SSC (1994 - Richard Heinie, Russell Cluver, Frank James, Walt Rauch, Bob Houzenga, Jerry Glogoski, Steve Kalaman, Kerby Smith, and Bill Laughridge)


    IDPA (1996 - Bill Wilson, John Sayle, Ken Hackathorn, Dick Thomas, Walt Rauch, and Larry Vickers)

The Rise of the Pistolsmith Manufacturer

    Baer Custom - 1993

    Wilson Combat - 1996

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Daniel - Where can people find you?  Loose Rounds (http://looserounds.com/ and http://looserounds.com/556timeline/) & on Facebook at “The 5.56mm Timeline: A Chronology of Development” (https://www.facebook.com/The-556mm-Timeline-A-Chronology-of-Development-259763052133/)

Until next week, have fun and SAFE SHOOTING!!!!