Custom tuning of the M1911 is not new, but, prior to Swenson, gunsmiths such as Bob Chow, Jim Clark and Al Dinan had focused solely on accuracy work for NRA Bullseye pistol competition. Along with lightening triggers and installing adjustable sights, the Government Model had never been customized specifically for combative purposes—a genre that later came to be known as “custom combat” gunsmithing—until a handful of pistolsmiths in Southern California began modifying the big slab-sided pistol for down-and-dirty use.
The late Armand Swenson remains the foremost of these pioneering pistolsmiths and the man who defined the custom combat .45 for evermore. A former state champion Golden Gloves boxer, the barrel-chested Swede worked a day job at Boeing. His hobby was building custom hunting rifles using surplus Mauser 98 actions and stocking them with elegant pieces of walnut. Swenson loved guns and he was a gifted craftsman—a rare combination. His other passion was speed. Armand designed high-speed racing boats in his off-time.
And back in 1965, things were indeed happening fast in Southern California. In a sleepy mountain resort called Big Bear, Jeff Cooper was holding “combat shooting” matches in the South West Combat Pistol League.
Ray Chapman was one of the top shots, using an M1911 against the likes of Jack Weaver, Thell Reed and Elden Carl. The exigencies of fast, close-range shooting in a sport with no alibis (unlike NRA Bullseye shooting where a jam wasn’t penalized) led to a need for a rather specific list of custom work to be performed on the Government Model.
Arnold “Al” Capone of King’s Gun Works in Los Angeles became a favorite of the local combat shooters, and it might well be argued that the first custom combat M1911s were built by Al Capone and one of his hired hands, a gunsmith who would receive great acclaim in his own right as the inventor of the long-slide M1911, Jim Hoag.
Meanwhile, word spread about Armand Swenson after several of his custom Mauser rifle customers brought their M1911s to his Gardena, Calif., shop. There the friendly Swede, who called everyone “Laddy,” readily took to the Model O. His modifications were not only eminently functional but also aesthetically pleasing. A Swenson gun from the 1960s looks just as dashingly serious today as it did then. In fact, no other custom M1911 has ever achieved such a distinctive “look” as a Swenson .45, a style so influential that pistolsmiths 40 years later still mimic the Swede’s trademark touches.
Combat Custom Features
Consider this beast we call the custom combat M1911. Many of Swenson’s customers were soldiers and Marines deploying to Vietnam. One of them, a West Point graduate who would become one of the foremost experts on military small arms before his untimely passing, was Chuck Karwan. Karwan, then a young lieutenant, carried a Swenson-modified Colt on his Vietnam tours.
What did a professional soldier such as Karwan and an active competitor such as Chapman both demand in a Colt pistol? Three qualities were most important: handling, reliability and durability. First and foremost was handling.
Swenson checkered the front strap at 30 lines per inch to give the shooter a better purchase with sweaty, wet or, yes, bloody hands. If checkering works on highly figured walnut stocks, why not on a pistol?
To prevent the reciprocating slide from pinching the web of the shooter’s hand, the tang of the grip safety was bobbed and radiused. (Later, enlarged grip safeties were made, known as “beavertail” safeties for their resemblance to an aquatic rodent’s tail.)
Swenson developed an ambidextrous thumb safety featuring enlarged levers for faster, more positive access to enable the pistol to be operated with the left hand only. He patented his invention, the first such design. Today any right-sided thumb safety is referred to generically as a “Swenson safety.”
In order to enhance the ability of the shooter to fire quickly and accurately, Swenson installed adjustable “K sights” pirated from Smith & Wesson K-frame revolvers. Later, Swenson developed the “Swen-Sight,” a high-profile fixed sight with a large, serrated blade. The tiny Colt stock front sight was always replaced with a dovetail serrated ramp front sight that Swenson machined individually.
Facilitating a secure, two-handed grip—as advocated by Cooper and perfected by Weaver—Swenson welded the front of the trigger guard into a square, then he finished it by hand-filing it to shape and checkering it. Chapman and, later, Ross Seyfried won combat shooting world championships using M1911s with squared trigger guards for better purchase by their left-hands’ index fingers.
For those with large hands, a long trigger was installed and the pull was adjusted to a crisp 4 pounds. Often a flat mainspring housing with a lanyard loop replaced the arched style that came standard on Colt Government Models.
To make reloading the pistol easier in the heat of competition or the chaos of combat, Swenson beveled the inside edges of the magazine well. Looking at early Swenson pistols today and comparing them to the gigantic magazine funnels on today’s M1911s, we’d think of the beveling as mild, but back then it was a novel innovation.
To increase accuracy, before the day of aftermarket match barrels, Swenson installed a rivet on the left slide of the slide to hold a small steel pad brazed to the inside of the slide that he filed to fit against the side of the barrel hood. This created tension on the barrel where it mates to the slide’s breech face, stabilizing the barrel and centering it. Swenson called it a “barrel tensioner.” Of course, the link was properly fitted, and an over-size bushing was made to fit the slide.