Detonics Mk.1 Combat Master .45

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Around 1970 a fellow named Pat Yates yearned for a compact, accurate .45 Auto as a concealed carry piece. There were no commercial offerings that fit the bill, so he obtained several 1911s from a pawn shop and set to work, cutting, welding and probably making blood sacrifices to dark gods. In a short time he had achieved his goal. The grip was shortened 3/4″, the slide by 1-1/2″. The magazine held six rounds.  As his preference was to carry hammer-down on a loaded chamber he dispensed with the grip safety and manual safety, instead moving the sight and inch or so forwards and milling away the back of the slide to facilitate thumb-cocking, creating the distinctive profile of the gun.  He dispensed with the barrel-bushing, using a semi-conical bull-barrel. The recoil plug was inserted from the rear of the slide stirrup, and three springs circled the full-length guide-rod. Extra flat grips completed the package.

The gun functioned well with a variety of ammunition and had remarkably little felt recoil for such a small gun in such a large caliber.  Sid Woodcock was so impressed with the one-off gun that in 1974 he purchased the rights to produce it. Pat loaned them his prototype and did a series of design drawings to help patent the gun’s unique features. Pat later admitted he thought they were crazy- what kind of lunatic would want so much power in such a small package? Other than him, of course.

The original production guns were cut and welded just like the prototype, but before too long they were having bespoke slides and frames made by Essex.  The production guns also differed from the prototype in several respects, not the least being the addition of a conventional 1911-style manual safety. The also added a screw to the end of the guide-rod, making it a captured recoil spring assembly.

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The disassembled gun, showing the bull-barrel and captured recoil spring assembly

The bull-barrel is important; it doesn’t just allow the gun to dispense with the barrel-bushing. Whenever the gun is in battery the muzzle bears on the same two points, which makes for improved consistency and accuracy.

In addition to the Combat Master they produced several other models, all but one based on the 1911 pattern and using their bull-barrel system. I’m not going to give you the full history of Detonics; suffice to say that by 1986 they were out of business. A combination of a poor sales strategy and bad management decisions did them in.  They have been resurrected more than once since, but never with any great success.

I worked for Detonics in 1984, mainly assembling their Pocket 9 pistols- but that’s a whole different story. I had a few Detonics guns in the 1980’s and loved them, but always wound up parting with them, very much to my regret. Linda was well aware of this history, and for my birthday last month she bought me this gun- a Mk.1 Combat Master made in the 1980s. It’s fitted with custom grips and a Wolfe spring, but other than that it is quite stock.

Peter Dunn, who worked for Detonics for many years and is now the ‘go-to’ guy for all things Combat Master, now works at Ben’s Loans in Renton, WA. and gave it a good once -over. A tweak here and there and he pronounced it a good gun, and so it has proven to be. We’ve put several hundred rounds through it at this point, and I am quite happy with its reliability and accuracy.

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Two seven-yard rapid -fire groups.  This gun is brilliant!

Linda loves shooting it too. You’d think that a .45 this compact would have some serious recoil, but a lot of people find the Combat Master more pleasant to shoot than a full-size 1911! The slide is quite a lot lighter than a stock gun, so the slide velocity is quite high. While the muzzle jumps but it comes right back on target very quickly. The short duration of the stroke and the speed of recovery fools the mind, makes the recoil feel lighter than it is.

I remembered loving these guns, but over the years I had forgotten just how good they are; shooting this gun has been like coming home after being too long away. A friend recently provided me with several magazines, so after I make some appropriate leather this gun will become my main EDC.

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In these days of super-compact polymer wonder-guns the Detonics may seem like a bit of a dinosaur with its single-action mechanism and steel frame, but it was the first of its kind and even now, almost fifty years later, it has a lot to offer.

 

Michael Tinker Pearce  25July2018

 

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Range Report 10 July 18- Hits and Misses

Tuesday at Champion Arms shooting range is Ladies Night, where women shoot free when accompanied by another shooter. We packed up quite a lot of ammo this time- two new loads in .45 ACP, a new load in .450 Adams and my first attempt at loading .32 ACP.

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The .32 ACP was so that Linda could try out a new gun- an NAA Guardian .32. Only slightly larger than most .25 autos, Linda was contemplating it as a replacement for her beloved Colt Jr. .25.  It’s a rather different beast than the Colt, being double-action only. The trigger pull is smooth and reasonably light but very long. I loaded some 73gr. FMC over 2.1gr. of Red Dot powder with a CCI500 primer, and we purchased a box of Fiocchi 73gr. ball for comparison.

Both types of ammunition functioned flawlessly, with my hand-loads having slightly less felt recoil- not that either load had much. This is not an easy gun to shoot well with it’s one-finger grip, DAO trigger and microscopic sights.  Groups at seven yards were not spectacular, but I am pretty sure they could be dialed in with practice. Many would correctly point out that this gun is designed for use at arm’s length distances and that the inability to print good groups is not really relevant to the mission.

The gun is very well-made, and came with a spare magazine. All-stainless construction makes it heavy for it’s size, but this is all to the good as it helps tame recoil. Also, heavy for it’s size is not damning- it’s seriously small. Recoil is practically non-existent, but it does want to jump around while shooting. This was a problem for Linda; something about the shape of the handle caused it to gouge her painfully, making it quite unpleasant for her to fire. Since I wasn’t particularly into it we’ll be shuffling this little gun along. Mind you there is nothing wrong with the gun, it simply doesn’t suit us.

Next up was the Detonics Mk.1 Combat Master .45. Linda loves shooting this gun, and ran several magazines through it.  This time out she was stringing her groups vertically- hardly tragic, but not what she was hoping for. She also did this with the Frankengun (my 1911a1.)  She’s had a bad back all day and was getting a headache, so we chalked it up to just an off day and she retired from the range.

I ran a couple boxes of mixed loads through the gun, which slurped them up with gusto and asked for more. The first of my hand-loads used a 200gr LRNFP bullet over 4.0gr. of Red Dot.  The other is a Montana Gold 185gr. JHP over 5.4gr. of Red Dot. Both used CCI 500 large-pistol primers. The 200gr. load was very pleasant to shoot from the Detonics.  The 185gr HP loads were a bit less laid back, but still easy enough on the hands.

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Two rapid-fire groups at seven yards
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Deliberate fire at seven yards with the 185gr. JHPs. The 9 was the target- Mission Accomplished.

After this trip I think this gun is ready for prime-time. I’ll need to make a good IWB holster and a mag-pouch for it.

On to the revolvers. When I switched from hollow-base bullets to conventional bullets the Webley RIC started key-holing shots, so I decided to produce some hollow-base bullets.  I built a set of simple tools to turn 200gr. RNFP bullets into hollow-base semi-wadcutters-

I loaded these over 4.0gr. of Unique with a CCI300 primer and tried them out. These actually produced more recoil than the previous 200gr LRN hollow-base bullets with the same charge and primer. Maybe this is a function of the much greater bearing surface? I don’t know, but in the future I’ll back down the powder charge a bit and see how that works out.

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Rapid-fire at seven yards. I’m pulling to the right… need to work on that!

I brought along a pair of .32 revolvers as well- a S&W m1903 (5th Change) .32 Hand Ejector and a Colt Detective Special in .32 Colt New Police. They both actually fire the same cartridge- .32 S&W Long- but Colt could not suffer the thought of writing ‘S&W’ on their gun, so they put a different bullet in and pretended it was a different cartridge.

Both guns are a delight to shoot- the Colt a bit more so because of it’s ample grip and better sights. For this trip I loaded 96gr. LFP bullets over 2.5gr. of Red Dot with the CCI 300 primer. This proved to be a nice, soft-shooting load in both guns, as I had hoped; I really wanted to entice Linda with these guns, but her back had sidelined her before we got to them.

 

Both targets were shot standing/unsupported using the double-action trigger. I was targeting the nine in the picture on the right. The sights on this gun are terrible, and the grip is not great in my big hands but I can make it work. Still, a set of target grips may be in this gun’s future…

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Much rapid-fire at seven yards

It was a shame Linda retired early, but other than that it was a great trip to the range. New loads tried, shot some guns I had been neglecting and got in some much needed stress-relief.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 10 July 18

 

 

 

The Iver Johnson Automatic Safety Hammerless Model 1

 

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A Gentleman’s Companions

THE HISTORY STUFF

Iver Johnson’s Arms and Cycle works was formed under that name in 1891 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. In 1894 launched the production of their ‘Safety Automatic’ revolvers, and shortly thereafter launched hammerless versions of these guns. The ‘Safety’ referred to the use of a transfer-bar safety, which allowed the gun to be carried with the hammer down on a loaded chamber. The Automatic portion of the name referred to the fact that it automatically ejected the cartridges when the revolver was opened.

They were nothing if not prolific; they made 100,000 revolvers in their first year of production, which sold, depending on the model, for $4-$8. In succeeding years they made inexpensive solid-frame revolvers and single-barrel top-break shotguns as well.  They advertised prolifically, with a strong emphasis on the safety of these guns.

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THE GUN

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The gun we are discussing is an Automatic Safety Hammerless Model 1. It’s chambered in .32 S&W and holds five shots.  It uses their famous transfer-bar safety, and additionally has a trigger-safety that would later see use on the uber-popular Glock semi-automatic pistols. The locking mechanism is very strong, using a single side-lever to turn a solid bar to disengage.  Both of these features were eventually discontinued; the trigger-safety was removed and the lock was replaced with a simple T-Bar lock similar to S&W revolvers of the period. I expect that this was done in the interest of cost savings; the original lock was stronger and more fool-proof.

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The 19th C. ‘Glock-Safe’ trigger

I found this gun at Pinto’s Guns in Renton, WA. marked $100. It was there for months but I had little interest because… well, because it was an Iver Johnson and when it comes to top-breaks I am a total S&W snob. Hey, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step, right?  Anyway I eventually looked at it and was surprised and impressed at the quality. It locks up very tight and the trigger, while quite heavy, is very smooth. I have large hands but the grip is only slightly awkward for me; I may or may not remedy this with a custom grip.

The gun has a one-piece frame with no sideplate. All of the internals are accessed either from the bottom by removing the trigger-guard, or from the top by removing the hammer-shroud. The gun’s serial number indicates it was from the first year of production- 1894 or 95, depending on who you ask. The nickel on the frame is in quite good condition, the barrel rather less so, with significant loss of the plating in front of and above the cylinder. The bore is acceptable, with some light pitting, and the chambers are pristine.  I suspect that this gun was seldom, if ever, fired. Many arms of this type and period were bought, loaded and tucked in a drawer, then largely forgotten.

So, how does it shoot? Pretty well, actually. The smoothness of the trigger outweighs the heaviness, and the gun sits very low in the hand; this not only minimizes the already trivial recoil but makes the gun point very naturally.

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Not a large gun at all. Sits very low in the hand and points quite naturally.
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7-yard rapid-fire.  Slow, deliberate fire produced significantly better group. The gun does shoot slightly high, so a 6-o’clock hold should be used.

.32 S&W Centerfire

The cartridge this is chambered in is still available as a factory load. The original loading used black powder, and unlike other cartridges that switched to smokeless at the dawn of the 20th C., it continued to be loaded with black powder until World War 2.  Typical loads for this gun propelled an 85-95gr. projectile at about 700 fps. from a 3″ barrel. Modern commercial loads are rather slower than this, possibly to avoid liability issues in antique guns, but are adequate for target shooting and plinking.

There are many who insist that you only fire Black powder in this and guns of similar vintage. While this is not necessarily true it is the safest path, with the next best, in this caliber at least, being commercial ammo. This is available as round-nose lead only, and in a modest load carefully balanced not to damage antique- or poorly made- guns.   The original ammo for this gun was no powerhouse, but the modern loads are even more anemic. Of course any antique firearm should be carefully examined by an expert before firing, and if the gun is judged safe to fire at all, commercial offerings are liable to be safe.

SELF DEFENSE?

This gun, and literally millions of similar guns, were designed for self-defense. At the time many, perhaps even a majority, of households kept a small revolver around for this purpose. These small inexpensive revolvers were the gun of choice for people who weren’t into guns. They were sold across the counter in hardware stores or by mail-order through Sears and Montgomery Ward with little or no formality.  Most of them were never used on anything more serious than tin-cans if they were even fired at all.  But they were designed, marketed and made for self-defense, and there was a time when an awful lot of people relied on them.

So is this a suitable gun for self-defense? Yes, and at the same time very much no. Most people, when shot, give it up as a bad job and either run or sit/fall down. But the only way to stop a truly determined attacker is to break something they can’t function without, and your odds of accomplishing that with a gun firing the .32 S&W cartridge are less than average. This cartridge falls in the same category as pocket-guns in .22 and .25 Auto; better than nothing, but far from ideal. Using such a marginal caliber requires greater proficiency; something you will be unlikely to attain given the expensive and often hard to find ammunition. You can hand-load this cartridge, and I do, but for the time and effort required you’d be better off with something else to fill your self-defense needs.

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IN THE END…

This gun and guns like it can be a lot of fun. They’re generally inexpensive to purchase, often mechanically interesting and fun to shoot.  But bear in mind that these guns were meant to spend a whole lot of time in a pocket or night-stand drawer, and are not designed to shoot thousands of rounds. They may well wear out more quickly than you expect if fired excessively. Best to shoot them occasionally and enjoy them for what they are- a tiny window into a particular era of modern history.

Ladies Night- Range Report 26 June 18

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Detonics Mk1 .45 and the Frankengun

In 1984 I worked for a little company in Bellevue, WA. called Detonics. They were the makers of the first mass-produced sub-compact .45, the Combat Master.  I owned a couple of these guns back in the 1980s and loved them.  I’ll be doing a post dedicated to this gun so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say I have always regretted parting with them, and this year Linda bought me this one for my Birthday. She got it off of Gunbroker and actually got a very good deal.  We picked it up last week and I ran a box of factory ball through it to test the gun and my six magazines and it worked very well indeed. I was much more concerned with function than accuracy that time out, but it seemed quite decent. This week we took it to the range to wring it out and for Linda to shoot it for the first time. We also took the Frankengun, Linda’s beloved Kahr E9 and her Colt Junior .25.

For reference purposes: the range has a no rapid-fire rule, and they suggest you limit yourself to one round per second. When I refer to ‘rapid-fire’ in the context of my range report I mean a bit faster than that but not full-on-as-fast-as-you-can-pull-the-trigger. Maybe three rounds every two seconds.

Tuesdays are Ladies Night at Champion Arms, so Linda got to shoot for free which is always nice. We started the festivities with the Detonics.  I loaded a bunch of 200gr. HG68 LSWCs over 4.0gr. of Red Dot for the trip, and these functioned flawlessly in the Detonics 6-round magazines. I also bought two Shooting Star 10-rounders, and these were a bit less happy; on two occasions rounds failed to fully feed from these magazines. More experimentation will be needed to determine if this if the specific load or a general problem of compatibility between these magazines and the Detonics.

The gun shoots dead to point-of-aim, which is always nice. At close range accuracy is excellent, but falls off with range. I don’t think this has to do with the gun itself, but rather the somewhat imprecise three-dot sights.  Hopefully with practice I’ll learn to use them better, but I can manage to keep the rounds on paper at 25 yards at least.

Linda has always like .45s, and this one is no exception. She had no difficulty with the recoil or sights at seven yards, though she’s a bit out of practice so she tends to throw a flyer now and again. I expect her consistency will improve the more she shoots.

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Linda at 7 yards- the tiny holes are from her Colt Junior .25

Linda found the gun quite pleasant to shoot. People expect these little guns to kick like a mule, but because of the way they are engineered and the loss of velocity from the shorter barrel they are surprisingly mild; many people experience less felt recoil than they do in a full-sized 1911.

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Here’s a ten-round seven yard group I shot using one of the ten-round magazines. Linda isn’t the only one that needs to work on their consistency…

We also shot Linda’s Colt Jr. She really loves this little gun, and I have to admit there is a lot to like for such a little gun.  The tiny single action puts rounds on target like a champ.

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Linda had no difficulty putting these rounds on target at 7 yards in a timely manner…
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…and it worked for me as well.

The highlight of the trip was not necessarily the shooting though; while we were shooting the Detonics the young fellow in the lane next to us asked about it, and Linda indicated that I should let him shoot it, which I did. He was awestruck; he found it remarkably easy to shoot and really enjoyed it. This led to his buddy shooting it, then the Colt and my full-size 1911, which also amazed him. He’d never shot a well-tuned 1911 before, and he was impressed with how smooth mine is, and how easy it was to shoot.

This led to me shooting his Canik TP9v2- I love those guns and had one until Linda’s BFF fell in love with it.  I also produced the S&W ‘Steampunk Snubby’ .38 and let them have a go. They were impressed with how smooth the trigger is and loved the grips.

At least one of these fellows will be looking into a Detonics, and they both had their horizons broadened significantly.  What I doubt they appreciated was that as much as they enjoyed themselves it was just as much fun for me. As much as I enjoy shooting and modding guns, having them appreciated and drawing young people deeper into the hobby is really satisfying.

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Seven yard rapidfire with the Frankengun

Michael Tinker Pearce,  a rather belated 01 July, 2018