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Armand Swenson

The other day I showed some photos of pistols made by custom gunsmith Armand Swenson. Swensen was one of the most influential 1911 pistolsmiths of all time. He pioneered the genre of combat custom pistol work on the 1911. He invented the 1911 ambi safety and high visibility rear sight. He made metal checkering common along with the square trigger guard ( which isn’t so popular now) and the beveled mag well. He was the first to apply “french borders” to the slide and coined the term. The look of the modern combat/ custom-combat 1911 comes from his sense of style and ideas.


After WW2, Swenson left working for Boeing and started his own custom shop in Seattle where he built custom rifles. He set some early benchrest records using the custom rifles he made. Those rifles quickly became known for their quality, accuracy and beautiful metal work.

“One day an Air Force Colonel came into Armand’s shop with a 1911 pistol. he was a member of the Air Force pistol team and wanted Armand to look it over and see if he could make it more accurate and improve trigger pull. Swenson agreed to see what he could do with the pistol.

In the 60s, Armand came up with the idea for a shortened government mode. It used a full sized frame with a slide 1/8 inch shorter than the Colt Commander. He named this new creation the bobcat. By the mid 60s demand for his pistols became so great, he quit his day job designing yachts and became a full time pistol smith.

Swenson designing and refined many of his innovations in the following years. His most famous being the 1911 ambi safety.

The Swenson safety came about after a visit to Gunsite shooting school. He listened to the students talk about how much better it would be if the 1911 safety could be operated with either hand. After perfecting the design, he had the parts cast and the Swenson ambi safety was born.

He also developed the squared trigger guard. In order to not weaken the frame, the trigger guard needed to be heated and forged to shape, then properly heat treated. He then checkered the front vertical face with 30 lines per inch. At the time many shooters put their left index finger in that spot,wrongly believing it helped control recoil. It doesn’t. The squared look still sticks around as a lot of people still like the aesthetic.

Armand began checkering the front strap of metal framed 1911s with 30 lpi and using satin white hard chrome plating he learned from the yacht building experience. It was so attractive and durable most of his pistols came coated this way.

All of his pistols were noted for their superb accuracy. He developed his own way of fitting the barrels and unless the custom specifically asked for it, he used the factory Colt barrel.

Like I mentioned in the earlier post, Swenson was the first to fit S&W K frame sights to the 1911. Armand milled a slot in the slide , then drilled and tapped the slide for stock screws and added shear pins sp the sight always stayed in place. He made his own custom made front sights to go with the K frame adjustable rear sight.

As you can see above this one also has the “french Borders”. Narrow lines machined into the each side of the slide . He put a matte finish on top by beating the top with a machinist file very carefully.

Swenson also developed the “shok buff” as it’s now called. First using leather then polymer. Never intending for them to be used for anything other than training. I am not a fan because they come apart. Their value is debatable.

Notable people who owned and used his pistols included Jeff Cooper, Audie Murphy, Elmer Kieth among other actors. His shop was in California so it was no surprised they sought him out. The list also includes secret service officers, SWAT officers, members of SEAL team 5 who presented him with a special award for appreciation.


7 thoughts on “Armand Swenson”

  1. OK, some thoughts on Swenson 1911’s:

    – Swenson’s work is top-shelf stuff. If you inherit or acquire one, I would recommend keeping it.
    – Most of his pistols were built (as I recall talking to one of his friends) commercial Colt Series 70’s. Nothing fancy before he started.
    – Swenson’s barrel fitting was exquisite stuff before we had all these modern barrels that are machined slightly over-size to allow them to be fitted in. Swenson would weld up the circumference near the muzzle, and the lugs on the rear, to allow him to fit the barrel into the bushing and slide (respectively) to take up slop. Today, you can get over-sized barrels and over-sized bushings to allow you to just fit these things without welding anything.
    – On some of Swenson’s pistols, if you look inside the ejection port, on the left side, you’ll see a little pad of metal that he used to fit up the barrel’s top excursion as it went into battery.
    – Early on, when he would extend a safety lever, he’d weld it up, file it down, and then file in the grooves to match on the original part.
    – His favorite finish was that soft-fog chrome job. His guns were meant to be carried.
    – That finish in the bottom photo ( on the top of the FN Hi-Power slide) was something that he was known for – it was called “stippling” and I’m not wholly sure how he did it. I’ve tried to duplicate it with a needle scaler, and have gotten coarser results. I think if I had finer diameter needles in my needle scaler, I could get a finish like that. Or maybe I need to turn down the regulated air pressure on my scaler. That sort of finish has gone out of favor, as people have cheapened their work to use a blast cabinet and ceramic media, but it looks very high class. You need aluminum guards to protect the sides of the slide, and then you need to work carefully and evenly to not over-do it. He could have done it with a hand tool that I don’t know about. Old-time gunsmiths tended to use fewer power tools.

    I don’t know that there is much else I could add without a Swenson pistol in my hands to examine closely and tell people what I see. I’m working from memory of the last Swenson pistol I saw about 10 years ago…

    Reply
    • I read an article a while back and it said he used a rat tail file and a hammer to do the top. Said the file was used up after each gun so he had a box full of them.

      Reply
    • Armond was a kind man. Big paw hands that made the 1911 look tiny. Gracious as one can be as was his Mrs. He’d put a 1911 frame in a vise, In his shop, and file away. His hydroplane that he built, and raced, nearby. He was a boxer in his day too. The man was a giant in many ways and humble as the day is long. His list of clients included international government leaders. Their gold plated 1911s sitting on his workbench next to the regular folks autos. Thank you for the article. Nice journey back in time.

      Reply
  2. That’s just a beautiful pistol. In this day and age of goofy fish-scale slides and other abominations, the subtleties and clean lines of that work just sparkle and shine.

    Do want.

    Dyspept: If it works out, please give us a lookit, would ya?

    Reply

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