brisk autumn morning we found ourselves at an almost
anonymous storefront in Fremont, Nebraska. Go
Cornhuskers! Four hopefuls appeared ready for class that
Monday: Kyle Farris, aspiring USPSA shooter from Ohio;
retired Colorado graphics designer Larry Arave; Tim
Archer, active duty Army recruiter from Kansas; and Bob
Rodgers, Florida Keys bonefish guide/outdoor
writer/photographer. Each of us with a full complement
of new tools, many of which we not only didn't know the
use for, we weren't even sure of their names.
Laughridge was already there, about five feet, six
inches of retired master sergeant, a banty rooster
sporting a handlebar mustache wide enough to steer a
Harley. Your first impression-this guy is an original.
mastery of gunsmithing arose from his own initiative; he
started gun repair as a hobby while working for a
sporting goods store. He says he read many books, made
many mistakes, and "mined many guns."
Fortunately he received tips and pointers from a few
old-timers like Jim Clark, Bob Chow and Armand Swenson.
Those were the good old days when big outfits like
Remington and Winchester would put on seminars for
smiths. The factory guys demonstrated the latest in
how-to, and the seminars would draw all the old-time
smiths in the area. Bill says it seemed like many of
them only worked on guns when they needed enough money
to fish, hunt, and drink.
launched his pistolsmithing business 25 years ago, has
taught for over 20 years, likes it, and would consider
adding a revolver class if enough folks show interest.
He teaches an occasional course in San Diego when demand
dictates, but they usually take place at his shop in
mentioned the class was intense? We jumped right in,
unpacking our tools as Bill broke out new Caspian slides
and frames, Bar-Sto barrels, and other goodies. We were
going to learn to do everything that can be done to a
1911, short of checkering and millwork. Fit a bushing?
You bet. Install a barrel and grip safety? Check. Tune
and polish the extractor, ream the chamber and re-crown
the barrel? Yes, yes and yes. At that point I wondered
what we would do for the rest of the week, because I was
sure I'd be done building mine by early Wednesday.
learned that Bill's approach to pistolsmithing focuses
on the big view. When fitting
parts of a gun together, you can't look just at the part
you're fitting, you need to look at the whole gun. Right
off the bat, we also found it was highly unlikely we
would get the same measurement twice using our dial
calipers. Bill taught us to "feel" the jaws
close evenly and to always measure parts in our hands,
never in a vise.
explain what we were going to do next, why and how,
giving us a quick demo. Then he'd run around the table
like a gopher on a treadmill trying to stop everyone
from completely screwing the pooch, as we desperately
tried to mimic his ability. When he took hold of a file
and began to shape the metal, Bill's hands seemed to
become the metal. Experience, in the flesh. So, are
gunsmiths worth what they charge? A resounding yes!
real fun came when it was time to lower and flare back
the ejection port. Bill had warned us to practice filing
before we came to school, but now I wish he had
more about practicing with the Dremel. My only
previous use of it had been to pop in a polishing bob
and make something "purty." We chucked in a
carbide cutting tip, and after being cautioned not to
get any of the cut chips in our hands, which we
immediately did anyway, set about making a nice smooth
ejection port look like the crooked road to hell.
who sat directly across the bench, had an instant
runaway. We all stopped to admire the custom touch his
pistol sported when the carbide tip ran darn near the
entire length of his slide. The three of us who hadn't
screwed up that badly-yet-smugly went back to
straightening the divots we were making in our own
slides. Then the time came to put a stone in theDremel
and flare back the port. I generously took Larry's spot
in the hot seat by applying my first pass with the stone
below the ejection port. "Stop!" Bill charged
around the table and turned my horrible mistake into a
nice looking rollover notch. After I returned home I
completed it by lowering the port a few (several, okay
many) more thousandths. My excuse, if anyone notices, is
that since I reload I want my brass coming out of the
gun dent-free. That's my story...
end of the first day we were already so far behind that
Bill decided to release us for dinner, then have us
return and work until 9:00. The next morning I came in
early at 8:00 to get an extra hour of catch-up. Hmmm,
maybe I won't finish up on Wednesday after all. That set
the tone for this longest week. You will manage a couple
brief breaks each day for food.
evening, graciously hosted by Bill's office staff,
Sharon and Pat, we all straggled up Main Street to the
local Lodge. One dollar for grilled hamburgers, even
onion rings! Those ladies succeeded in making everyone
feel right at home. Need something, forget a tool?
They're all over it.
fitting was especially fun. Everybody's lower lugs ended
up looking like they had been filed by a baboon on
drugs. Eventually we got to the point where we achieved
lock-up, but it
was a miserable, sweaty, tense eight hours getting
there. But wait! We still had one last chance to ruin a
beautiful $200 barrel when we reamed the chamber. You
have to fe-ee-eel it start to cut.
on early morning catchup sessions, that if someone
looked stumped over a fine point, say polishing, and it
caught the eye of one of the shop pistolsmiths, we might
get an impromptu, thorough, and completely gratis
lesson. Bill pushed us hard, and sometimes he would give
us time limits on things like fitting a trigger
("It shouldn't take more than ten minutes.").
The truth be said, at ten minutes most of us just had it
starting into the frame.
at lunch we'd belly up for a quick sandwich with Bill to
cuss and discuss industry topics, like how
flavor-of-the-month pistolsmiths seem to come and go.
Bill believes that the
popularity of shooting matches ebbs and flows too,
correlating with the rise and fall of high profile
professional shooters. He feels pros tend to dominate
the matches and that this somewhat discourages amateur
shooters, the folks who actually support the sport.
However, he still likes to shoot shotgun field courses
like sporting clays.
carry is where it's at," Bill said. Over adult
beverages after class one night we learned he was one of
the first smiths to start "shrinking" .455.
One day he decided to make a real pocket .45. Although
consulting with Colt at the time (and he still does),
they weren't interested just then. So he built a tiny
1911-style .45 and called it The Adventurer. The name
came from those big 1957 Chryslers that packed major
power under the hood, the fastest production cars ever
made in 1957. He also builds a pocket-sized version of
the Browning Hi-Power, The Pathfinder. Living in
Fremont, Nebraska makes you familiar with the deeds of
pioneer John C. Fremont, AKA The Pathfinder.
on day five at almost 9 o'clock at night, we put our
sort-of finished pistols together one last time for
shipping home. Sharon would also box up our tools for
shipping, if needed. I'm pleased to say my pistol was
done, with the exception of completing the barrel fit,
thumb safety fit, grip safety fit, magazine well
blending, dehorning, sight installation, removing that
last bit of creep out of the trigger, adjusting sear
spring weight, and a couple minor things. Like I said,
done, sort of. Oh yeah, the disconnector notch needed
deepening. Then of course I decided to
put 20-line checkering on the front strap. And,
naturally, the gun needed a finish on it. My pick
for finishes ended up being a polymer called DuraGard,
and I chose Frank Duren of Duren Gunsmithing in
Republic, Missouri, for that job. An excellent decision,
he's a great guy to work with. When the pistol first
arrived from Nebraska I took it up to an IDPA shoot in
Miami, still in the white, to make sure that it ran. A
miracle it was flawless.
sign up for one of Bill Laughridge's very demanding
classes, you'll want to go prepared. Meaning you'll be a
lot happier with yourself if you know the nomenclature (Kuhnhausen's
Shop Manual serves as a quasi textbook) and have more
than a basic knowledge of how to file on metal before
attending. Bill's policy on filing is strict and to the
point: You need to learn to "file straight and true
to another surface before you attend the course."
very long class days, from about 8 am, in ready to
wrestle with some component that's giving you grief, to
around 9 pm. To sum up, participant consensus deemed the
class "great," "well worth it,"
"better than I expected," and could easily
have been twice as long for us novices. I'd have gladly
paid double to get the extra time!
guess the burning question is, "Will a one-week
course and all the right tools make me a
pistolsmith?" Absolutely, just like carving a rib
roast will qualify you for brain surgery. You will,
however, learn how a slide and frame go together, how to
fit a match grade barrel, how to fit
an oversized bushing to a frame, all the other
techniques it takes to build a functioning 1911. Later
when you get stumped, and you will get stumped, Bill
will talk you through your problem by phone. He doesn't
forget his litters once they leave the nest.
better to think of the course as a confidence builder;
the superior skills will only come with more time and
practice. That said, if you've ever even considered
taking a file, or worse yet, a Dremel tool to a pistol,
Bill's course could well save you the price of a new
gun. Best of all, the work you do will be done right!