by Bob Rodgers
Originally Published in Combat Handguns
September 2002

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It began slowly, innocently and like many addictions, seemed harmless.

Change grip screws to hex heads, dress up those grip panels, install an ambi-safety-STOP! "Part Requires Gunsmith Fit," along with the usual disclaimers that keep mothers encouraging their kids to attend law school. But still, the siren beckoned.

The list of "necessary" tinkering continued: New sights, hex head magazine release, recoil spring, sear spring, main spring, adjust trigger pull-you get the idea. Then I saw the ad by Cylinder & Slide, about master pistolsmith Bill Laughridge's outfit in Nebraska, with an offer of a five-day intensive course during which students would build their own 1911 .45 pistol. There was only one thing to do-enroll.

Getting Started

Adding up the costs of tools plus gun (parts) plus class, the price was steep but still not a bad deal. After all, here was a chance to get a complete set of "Just The Right Tools," no more and no less, to do almost everything that could be done to a 1911 short of milling and lathe operations. The tools could be used over and over, and unless I completely blew it, I'd end up with a custom 1911 filled with some of the best parts available. The First Step-buying them, and Bill insisted that we get all the right stuff. No substitutes. Brownells, the largest gunsmith supply company in the country, is very accustomed to handling these persnickety orders and kindly arranged to ship my purchases directly to Cylinder & Slide. I boxed up my Dremel tool, files, and paraphernalia and shipped them, too. That cut down dramatically on what we had to lug through airports!

Then one 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.

Bill 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.

His 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.

Bill 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 Fremont, Nebraska.

Have I 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.

The Laughridge Way

We soon 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.

He would 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!

My first 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 emphasized 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.

Larry, 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...

By the 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.

One 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.

Barrel 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.

We found, 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.

Everyday 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.

"Concealed 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.

Finally, 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.

If you 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."

Expect 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!

I 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.

It's 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!