Gun Digest

Early Customization of the 1911 Pistol

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A .38 Special MK III Government Model
A .38 Special MK III Government Model

Jim Clark was known as one of the best bull's eye shooters of his era. But he left his mark on the shooting world in another way, developing 1911 pistols that excelled in competition.

These days we have I.D.P.A., U.S.P.S.A, and a plethora of other acronyms, but in the beginning the game was bullseye.

To my knowledge, bullseye is the only shooting sport mandated by law. That’s right—law! Title 10 of the United States Code, Section 4312 states:

(a) An annual competition called the “National Matches” and consisting of rifle and pistol matches for a National Trophy, medals and other prizes shall be held as prescribed by the Secretary of the Army.

(b) The National Matches are open to members of the Armed Forces, National Guard, Reserve Officers Training Corps, Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps, Citizens’ Military Training Camps, Citizen’s Air Training Camps, and rifle clubs and to civilians.

(c) A Small Arms Firing School shall be held in connection with the National Matches.

(d) Competition for which trophies and medals are provided by the National Rifle Association of America shall be held in connection with the National Matches.

The NRA National Championships have a rich history, and the 1911 really made its presence felt in the grand competition’s post-WWII era. With a ton of surplus guns on hand and the many having been smuggled home by G.I.s, it was a natural to modify the 1911 for bullseye.

The way bullseye works is simple. You have three guns, pistol or revolver, chambered in .22 rimfire, .32-caliber or larger, and a .45-caliber. The course of fire is pretty simple.

An elegant version of a
Fitz-style open trigger guard

First there is the “slow-fire” match, in which the competitor has 10 minutes to shoot 10 shots at a range of 50 yards. Next up is the “timed-fire” stage. At a range of 25 yards, strings of five shots must be completed in 20 seconds. The “rapid-fire” stage is exactly the same as the timed-fire, but the time is cut in half for each string, thus allowing 10 seconds for each. This is course of fire is shot three times, once with the .22 rimfire, once with the .32 or larger centerfire and once with the .45 centerfire.

Most competitors just use a .22 pistol and a 1911 in .45ACP, the latter fulfilling the requirements for both the .32-caliber and .45-caliber divisions. This saves money on equipment. This is not to say that some do not use .32s created specifically for the purpose of bullseye; Walther, Benelli and Pardini, as well as others, produce .32s just for the sport. These fine .32s notwithstanding, the 1911 chambered in .45 ACP rules the roost. As I said, in the post-World War II era, there was an abundance of surplus 1911s, as well as tens of thousands smuggled home by G.I.s. It wasn’t long before gunsmiths were customizing them.

One of them was a fellow named Jim Clark. He had been a Marine in the Pacific, a tough duty tour on its own, but Clark was also a scout/sniper. He had been assigned to the newly formed 4th Division, which had the distinction of being the first to go directly into battle from the United States. Jim saw action at a tiny pair of islands named Roi-Namur. When I say tiny, I mean Roi was 1,250 yards at its widest part and Namur was 900 yards—yet they had more than 3,000 Japanese soldiers defending them.

The U.S. Navy pounded the islands, before the Marines landed; there was a shocking number still alive to resist. After securing those islands, Clark was among those sent to Saipan. His Springfield 1903 was damaged along the way, so he scrounged an M1 and some optics. He spotted some Japanese troops trying to escape the invading Marines over a thousand yards away. Once he found his groove, he had over 300 hits.

Surviving a gunshot wound while saving a buddy, Clark spent months rehabilitating a paralyzed arm before he was discharged. A couple years later, back in Shreveport and going to school, a friend invited him to go to a bullseye match. He promptly borrowed the required guns and learned the rules. In his very first match, he scored a 78 percent. He’d enjoyed it much and decided to pursue the sport. When he went to his first match sponsored by the National Rifle Association, he qualified as a Sharpshooter. His next match he qualified as an Expert. His next match a Master. Unworldly ability.

If bullseye had a rock star, it was Jim Clark. Everything about him seemed bigger than life. (Indeed, he and Bill Blankenship were arguably the greatest civilian bullseye shooters in history.) As Clark’s reputation grew and his name continued to appear in the record books, more and more people approached him to buy his guns.

If such requests happened after a match, he would gladly sell his pistols for a nice profit, then return home and use his gunsmithing prowess to build more for the next match. When a friend loaned him the money to set up shop, Jim’s reputation as a shooter made him an instant success. As the only civilian-trained shooter to win the National Bullseye Championship, his guns were in high demand.

Detail of an old added muzzle weight.

Now, many men would set about to making guns and be content to ride their own reputations into the sunset. Not Jim. His innovations and inventions were numerous. One of Clark’s innovations was the long slide. He had been thinking about how to add more weight to the muzzle and elongate the sight radius. Most people were hanging weights off the sides of their guns and adding front sight extensions that pushed the front sights forward of the muzzle.

Jim didn’t like those ideas, so, when he came across a barrel of slides at an Army surplus store, he bought them all for a dime a piece. With these, he would cut the slide of another gun and extend it. This accomplished everything he wanted, both a longer sight radius and a more muzzle-heavy gun. To Jim, he was just finding a way to get the job done, but, thanks to his creativity, we now call him a visionary.

Of course, while an innovator and a genius in his own right, Jim Clark is also a man who helped other gunsmiths. It is safe to say that his reach went far beyond the guns that came through his shop, Clark Customs, and, today, it is difficult to find a gunsmith who doesn’t have appreciation for the man. Truly, here is where one can consider the custom 1911 to have been born.

This article is an excerpt from The Custom 1911.

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