The Classic Swenson…
By Jason Burton
(Click on images for larger version...)
Anyone who has read enough gun periodicals or has been around custom 1911s at any length has undoubtedly seen countless references to Armand Swenson and with good reason. As many have mentioned before, Swenson was one of the greatest and probably most important 1911 ‘smiths since Browning himself. Not necessarily because Swenson’s work was cosmetically perfect or without fault but because he was, to a greater or lesser extent, the first to really bring out the custom 1911 in the fashion that we know it today… or at least the first person to be widely recognized as such. While parts, techniques, technology, and the overall build of the custom 1911 have no doubt been elevated to a standard much higher than anything Swenson did the heart and sole of the custom 1911 is still firmly routed and can be traced back to Armand Swenson’s work. Swenson paved the way for the “bulls-eye accurate and combat reliable” 1911s we have come to know and every custom maker working today owes him for that…. at least a little.
Over the last couple of years I have been lucky enough to gather up a few fine examples of Swenson’s work and in the process I’ve learned quite a bit about the man. The gun I chose for this writing is what I believe to be, for the most part, the classic Swenson formula for a fighting 1911. While customers could pick and choose the modifications they desired the majority of the 5” Swenson guns I have seen follow the same basic recipe.
The gun pictured here is based on a 1976 vintage 5” Series 70 Colt … or as a friend and fellow Swenson owner would say “a proper Colt”. To the best of my knowledge this gun is an unfired example of Swenson’s work built sometime before 1980 that, as I was told, was originally commissioned by a gentleman who was an LEO in Alameda, CA and who later went on to become the Sheriff of Alameda County. While Swenson did build guns on other frames and slides (mostly USGI and one Caspian frame that I know of for sure) the majority of his guns were built on “C” stamped commercial or Series 70 Colts. The surplus USGI guns were also used and Jim Hoag once told me that he and Armand would buy them through the NRA, for around $17, and built them up into good working guns. Swenson guns incorporated the basic modifications necessary on a fighting pistol that were well summed up by Jeff Cooper. One will find that all of Swenson’s guns have sights one can see, a very usable trigger, are without a sharp edge, and most importantly are very reliable. While those traits are nothing new to many shooters, in the early 1960’s those things were not something shooters expected in a 1911…. Swenson helped to change all that.
While Swenson did many things to the 1911 to help change the shooting public’s idea and conceptions about the gun many of his contributions go unnoted today by the Kimber buying masses…. many of which have never even heard of Armand Swenson. Swenson was among the first to widely use 30lpi front strap checkering… remember that the next time you pick up your Kimber Super-Duper Pro Tactical II Belly Whomper.
One can also give credit for the extended thumb safety and also that ambi-safety thingy all the gun shop commandos are always trying to sell you… ‘cause Swenson invented those too.
In the early days before Swenson was having his safeties cast out of stainless steel he would build his single sided extended thumb safety and his ambi-safety by hand… yep by hand. Swenson would weld up the pad on USGI thumb safeties and then cut them back to the length and width he desired. That ladies and gentleman is more than just innovation, that is dedication and that is not only what helps to make Swenson such an important figure in the history of the custom 1911 but also what keeps driving the market in general… dedication to ones craft. Fact of the matter is that Swenson more or less created the market. While Colt had been producing what can be called custom 1911s for years Swenson took it to a higher level and shooters around the world can pay him a bit of homage for their Kimbers, Wilson’s, Brown’s, Baer’s, all the way up through the current custom makers working today.
Accuracy was one of the classic traits of a Swenson gun. Many of the guns Swenson built utilized a stock Colt barrel matted to an oversized bushing. Swenson would later use after-market barrels, like a Bar-Sto, but a great many of his guns were equipped with a re-worked Colt barrel that he would weld up at both the muzzle and barrel feet and then re-cut to more exacting and tighter tolerances. Swenson understood that consistent lock-up was a key to accuracy and another way he would insure a consistent fit was by adding his signature “barrel positioner”.
By drilling a hole in the center of the ejection port on the left side of the slide and then welding in place a small piece of metal that protruded into the ejection port Swenson would add the barrel positioner. By shaping and cutting the barrel positioner down Swenson could control where the barrel topped out and insure no play in the hood area.
While today, with the availability of quality-oversized aftermarket barrels, this technology is no longer needed it clearly shows the depth of understanding and desire to improve the 1911 that Swenson possessed. For Swenson modifying the 1911 was not only about making the gun “custom” it was also about making it better. Swenson would test fire every gun that left his shop and would often take his customers out for their guns initial shooting session… and boy would the guns shoot. If Swenson couldn’t get the guns to print tight one-hole groups offhand at distances of 20 yards, back to the shop it would go for a bit more fitting.
The classic Swenson will wear a useable set of sights and for most customers S&W K-frame sights were the order of the day.
Swenson would add a second lug to the body of the sight to ensure it did not shear off during recoil and would help to make the guns a bit more personal by stamping the first initial of the owners last name into this second lug. Swenson generally used either a ramped front sight with a red insert or a serrated ramped front sight as seen on this gun.
The front sights would be firmly affixed before the final finishing and he would later serrate and cut them to size once he had the gun dialed in. After that he would cold blue the face and top of the front sight and this combined with the white outline K-frame rear sight would give the shooter a very useable, although somewhat shallow, sight picture.
Swenson understood that because many of his guns were hard chromed glare off of the “white” finish maybe an issue. He would often serrate or even checker the rear face of the slide, except the extractor and ejector, to help cut down on any offending light.
However the real trick modification popularized by Swenson was hand matting the top of the slide and then bordering the matting… unfortunately this gun has neither.
Swenson guns were all well dehorned without looking over melted. Swenson would trim back the spur hammer to help prevent hammer bite and would also lightly bevel any offending edges of the slide and frame to insure a gun that wouldn’t tear up a user’s hands or holsters.
Swenson would add a light bevel to the magazine well to ease magazine changes but one of the most recognizable Swenson modifications was the squared and checkered trigger guard.
Many shooters would grip the front of the trigger guard with the index finger of the support hand and squaring off and checkering the surface was thought to have helped the shooter maintain a bit more control of the gun during firing. Most current shooting disciplines no longer incorporate a forward finger hold but in the past this was common fare and as Swenson built his guns with the shooter in mind squaring and checkering a trigger guard was one of his trade mark touches…. another example of innovation through understanding.
As one would expect Swenson equipped his guns with very useable triggers. All of the Swenson guns I own left his shop with trigger pull that breaks at a clean 4lbs. and most utilize stock Colt “NM” components that have been reworked. They are all crisp and as designed insure that our last physical control over the bullet doesn’t get in the way or disrupt a perfect sight picture. Even after the advent of after market triggers Swenson would still often use a stock Colt part that he would peen on both the top and bottom of the trigger shoe to produce a tighter fit in the frame. Swenson would also add an over-travel stop to the trigger and sometime affix it the stop permanently in place with a cross pin through the over-travel screw.
As I mentioned before Swenson was a fan of hard chrome, with good reason, and IMO the classic Swenson will wear this finish. One of the reasons many Swenson guns have faired so well over the years is because they were finished with a durable coat of hard chrome. Swenson built a great many guns for both law enforcement and the military and many of those guns found their way to SEA where the harsh environment would have played hell on a nicely blued gun.
Even though it doesn’t have all of Swenson’s available modifications, the gun pictured here embodies and represents what made Armand Swenson such a driving force in what was at the time a fledgling industry. With or without the interesting history of the piece, I feel this gun best represents Swenson’s definition of a fighting pistol…. the “classic” Swenson pistol.