By Greg Moats, American Handgunner
Photos: Matthew Mellor
I stood in Armand Swenson’s garage looking at the stacks of boxed 1911’s lining all three walls people had sent to him for custom builds. It was 1975 and Armand said, “Laddy (the name he called everyone younger than himself), if everyone who sent me a .45 saying they wanted to carry it in Vietnam had really gone to Vietnam, we’d have won the war within a year. They just wanted their guns built quick.” I have no idea what Armand’s lead time was at that point but as a 23-year-old Marine lieutenant, anything beyond two paydays was too long for me to wait. I learned immediate gratification and custom-built pistols were mutually exclusive.
Forty-plus years later, the 1911’s popularity is greater than ever and 1911 manufacturers are as common as Kardashian melt-downs and often equally newsworthy. However, there are still a few customizers producing museum-quality bespoken guns that would exceed our shooting-predecessor’s wildest dreams. Not surprisingly, the fruits of their labor can run north of $8,000 and take five or more years to produce. They’re not for the bargain hunter with a short attention span.
One such artisan is Joe Chambers, a name familiar to readers of Handgunner due in no small part to the cover feature on his “Lefty/Righty” 1911’s (March/April 2012). The pair of 1911’s gracing the cover of the issue sold for more than I paid for my first house. While the gun market hasn’t kept up with the housing market, a truly custom-built gun can have you contemplating a second mortgage. Building guns one at a time to his extreme level of refined finish limits the quantity Joe can produce. His work isn’t inexpensive and it isn’t quick — but it is nearly flawless.
Front and rear texturing (think of the “treebark” type look and feel) is stock on the WMG, as is an excellent trigger and 1.5″ accuracy guarantee at 50 yards!
The rear sight is a sort of combination of the old King-Tappan rear sight and John Harrison’s USGI blade. Simple but very effective. Slide to frame tolerances are identical to the custom builds.
An Affordable Gun?
Joe got his start working on Bullseye guns. Spending time on the line at Camp Perry fitting barrels and doing trigger jobs refined his skills and warped his definition of “acceptable accuracy.” Where a typical slide-to-frame fit on a factory 1911 will run .005″, Chambers fits his to .0002″ (.0005″ for two-tone or stainless guns). The price and wait time for a Chambers Custom pistol has narrowed his market to those wanting the best and aren’t consumed by the desire for immediate gratification — until now.
According to Joe, a couple of years ago, American Handgunner editor, Roy Huntington casually suggested Joe produce a more modest gun with all of the functionality, but less bling than his custom builds. This would allow Joe to better compete with the boutique manufacturers and introduce entry-level aficionados to a way to get one of Joe’s guns rather than just dream on. As a test, Joe built a few for friends and some as law enforcement carry guns. The word spread, orders came pouring in and he soon found building the Spartan-finished guns was cutting into the production time of his full-house custom pieces. While they took less time to build, the difference wasn’t enough to justify the roughly 50-percent decreased selling price.
The solution to the time commitment lay in making “batches” of 10 identical guns, three or four times a year. Having 10 guns simultaneously come on the market every three or four months would scratch the itch of immediate gratification. Making the guns identical, with limited but important features, would decrease the cost of manufacturing without sacrificing his standards of fit and functionality. Such was the birth of what Chambers has coined, the “Working Man’s Gun” (WMG).
The Chambers Custom “Working Man’s Gun” (WMG) has the same fit and performance of Joe’s high-end custom builds but at a more affordable price for some. Grips are Kensight Sharkskin grips, a polymer with an aggressive texture, similar to real sharkskin.
The WMG pistols are built in lots often at the same bench Joe builds his “cost-as-much-as-a-house” custom builds. The same tools, fixtures, jugs and attention to detail by Joe is shown to the WMG line as his customs. And you can send your WMG back anytime for more upgrades as your budget allows.
All of the tolerances, fit and parts of the WMG are identical to the most expensive gun Joe builds, and no MIM parts will be used. The resultant accuracy will also be equal to his one-off builds. Joe guarantees 1.5″ groups at 50 yards with suggested loads (1.1″ for 9mm/.38 Super)! While a three minute-of-angle handgun in the hands of a “three minute-of-buick shooter (like myself) may be wasted potential, it does provide confidence.
The first few runs of WMG’s will be matte-blued carbon steel guns in .45 ACP. Two-tone and stainless guns may someday be produced, as may 9mm chamberings, but for the foreseeable future WMG’s will all be matte-blued .45’s. They will come with Chamber’s dovetail-fit rear blade — a morphed combination of the old King-Tappan rear sight and John Harrison’s USGI blade. Each pistol will have a long, solid trigger set at 3 lbs. 8 oz. (yes, Joe can be very precise). All WMG’s will have a forged, flat mainspring housing that, along with the front strap of the frame, will be stippled to about 60-grit roughness. Each gun will be fitted with a single sided extended thumb safety and a grip safety designed by Joe having a slightly more protruding “memory bump” than is typical. Like an Abrams tank, the WMG is high-tech precision on the inside but ruggedly Spartan on the outside.
The best feature of the WMG however is it may be sent back to Chambers at any time for enhancement of virtually any feature Joe offers on his top-of-line builds. The gun comes with an ala-carte menu of options with the prices guaranteed for 18 months from original delivery. Want a Stan Chen mag well, pattern cuts on the front and back straps, French, ball or Browning cuts on the slide, adjustable sights, short, skeletonized or flat trigger and a shiny, mirror finish when your budget allows? Send it back and Joe will transform it into a one-off, custom-build. The WMG will satiate the immediate gratification urge, while still being a custom-built gun. It’s the best of both worlds from one of the world’s best craftsman.
Following Roy Huntington’s advice, the WMG will sell for $3,995 plus shipping, making it competitive with the boutique manufacturers. The first “batch” is expected to be completed by the time you’re reading this. Immediate gratification and custom-built pistols may no longer be mutually exclusive. I wish Swenson had thought of this back in the ’70’s!
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