Monthly Archives: June 2021

A Gripping Tale

S&W .38 Double Action Safety Hammerless with Desert Ironwood grips

A few years back I started making pistol grips for revolvers, mostly because I liked a lot of revolvers no one makes grips for. Over the years I got better at it, and occasionally made a set of grips for friends.

People have increasingly asked me if I want to sell grips. Now, I like making grips and it’s a lot less hard on my aging body than making swords. But inletting the grips to fit over the frame is pretty labor-intensive, and labor is far-and-away the most expensive component of most hand-crafted items. In short I couldn’t charge enough for the grips to make them worth what I would have to sell them for.

What I needed was a way to inlet the grips that didn’t require as much labor. I looked at various options, and discovered that small CNC routers were not awfully expensive. After sorting through reviews and such I made my choice- a Sainsmart G3018 PROver.

About $400 from Amazon including shipping and a few accessories.

When it arrived a few things became apparent. It’s a bit smaller than I expected, something like 1-1/2′ wide. It’s big enough, so that’s fine. The second thing I realized was that Sainsmart and I have very different ideas of what constitutes ‘simple assembly.’ In fairness if you have an advanced degree in engineering or regularly assemble satellite buses it’s pretty easy, and the directions aren’t hopelessly bad. Your Mileage May Vary.

The last thing was that the software that’s bundled with it is junk. It simply doesn’t work on either of my computers (one of them a state-of-the-art gaming laptop.) I tried to find out how to make it work, and the best I could discover was a fellow who said, ‘It just started working. I don’t know why.’ This will not do.

Much teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling later I realized to was simply a GRBL controller, and there are plenty of them out there. I tried several and settled on the Sourcerabbit GRBL sender. Easy to use, free and, most importantly, it actually works. As an aside I love that I get to use Gerbil-control software; plays into the ‘Mad Scientist’ trope nicely.

Then things got expensive. With the learning curve on CAD software it was apparent that the way forward was to use a 3D scanner. I finally bought a unit from SOL (about $800) that would do the trick. I made a 3D model to use as a ‘blank’ for K-frame square-butt grips and proceeded, which meant learning to use CAD software on top of everything else.

The SOL 3D scanner. Does good work and is (relatively) easy to use. Don’t let that fool you, there is definitely a learning-curve!

We will draw the curtains of charity over the events that followed. Suffice it to say that it was a process of Trial and Error; it was a trial that was mostly in error. I did eventually get things working, and a dozen prototypes later I had my first set of grip-blanks… which required extensive hand-fitting and ultimately didn’t work. Back to the drawing , uh, keyboard.

The grip blank with the gun I am using for fitting- a custom 3″ S&W M&P

Learning from experience I made a new physical model, scanned it and set the machine to work. There were some bobbles, but eventually it worked. The grips fit perfectly with less than a minute of fitting. I can live with that.

One thing to point out- this process, from scanned model to a usable grip-blank, took a week. The thing is the CNC router is not fast when it comes to a complex model like this; the first run took over eight hours for half of a grip. As I learned the machine and software this got faster, but each grip-half still takes 2-1/2 hours. That’s acceptable given that setting up the machine and starting it takes about 3 minutes per half, and I don’t have to charge for the labor because I can walk away and do other things.

Once I have a right and left grip blank I cut the final shape, sand the contours on the belt-sander and go to hand-sanding. All of the external shaping and finishing is done by hand, but the labor costs of that are manageable, and I’ll be able to offer the grips at a competitive price. Achievement Unlocked: Potentially Viable Business.

The first set of grips in Birdseye Maple. Big for this gun, but a longer-barreled gun or L-frame ought to look about right.

Actually selling them is going to be a whole ‘nuther challenge. I reckon Linda will set up a website, then we have to figure out how to drive traffic to it etc. We’ll open that can of worms another day. In the meantime I’m going to work on grips for N-frames, K-frame round-butts and who knows what else.

grip set number 2, in American Holly. Spendy stuff, but I love the look of it!

I’m pushing 60; making swords and my various misadventures in martial arts demos, martial sports, theatrical fighting etc. have not been kind to my body. Making grips may provide a less brutal way of supplementing my income. While I’m not going to use this blog to push these, I will be posting a link to the eventual web-page here.

Maybe it’ll work out, maybe not… but it’s been an interesting learning experience. Hopefully it will be a profitable one as well.

Stay safe, and take care.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 June 2021

A Sight to Behold

Big-Dot tritium sight by XS Sight Systems.

Disclosure– this is a product review. The product was provided to me free of charge, though not by the manufacturer. To the best of my knowledge the manufacturer was unaware of this review at the time of publication.

Some time back my friend Mike pointed these sights out to me. It looked interesting and like it would be fast to acquire a sight picture. To aim you center the ball over the line.

The sight picture. From XS sights promotional material.

I looked over their website and they offer a variety of options for many popular pistols. They have a selection of rifle and shotgun sights as well, but I was mostly intrigued by the pistol sights. They aren’t cheap, but by no means out-of-line. The price of the set-up I was interested in ran $119 dollars. Not bad, but more than I wished to spend on something I wasn’t sure of.

I told this to Mike, who is perhaps a bigger gun-geek than I am, and he happened to have a rear sight for the Government model 1911a1 and a Standard front sight cut for a Novak Dovetail that were surplus-to-need and very graciously sent them to me.

They arrived last week and I wasted no time getting into the shop. I removed the custom front sight, and clamping the slide between pieces of leather in the vice I got out the files and set to work. I carefully filed the top of the slide for the dovetail, checking the fit carefully as I went.

Not the most elegant dovetail I’ve done, and I probably should have at least blown the dust off before I took the picture…

A quick note on this kind of work- a file only cuts in one direction, pushing away from you. If you want to keep your cuts flat and true don’t saw at the work-piece; it’s too easy to angle the file slightly on the back-stroke. It also dulls the file; remember, you are cutting steel here. Sharp things cut better, easier and more precisely than dull things.

I’ve never worked with a tritium sight before, and that tiny glass vial made me nervous. I filed the dovetail to a snug fit. I don’t have a sight-pusher, and the idea of hammering with anything but a dead-blow hammer and a brass drift set my teeth on edge. Pretty sure I was erring on the side of caution, but so be it. The sights arrived with a small tube of red adhesive, and I used that to add to the sight’s security.

The rear dovetail was a tiny bit small for the sight, which is fine. Easier to remove material than to add it, and after a few strokes of the file I was able to drive it into place. No tritium in this one, so it was a less nervous proposition and is a very tight fit.

The sights mounted on the ‘Street Racer.’ Yes, I made another set of new grips.

Looking good, but there seemed to be an issue… The rear sight looked like it would make the gun shoot very high. I resolved to bear that in mind when test-firing. It’s an easy fix, but it was even easier to simply use a 6-o’clock hold.

It is a very fast sight. The front sight is very easy to pick up as the gun is brought on target and lining up is quick and easy. I’ve heard that these sights lack accuracy, and i could see it would be easy to be slightly misaligned. A self-defense gun is for close-up work though, so I wasn’t sure this would be a real problem.

As an aside the tritium insert in the front sight is good, and while it’s no powered red-dot it’s visible enough to be useful even in twilight conditions.

I gave the adhesive twenty-four hours to cure just to be on the safe side, then it was off to the range.

Cut To The Chase, Tinker. Do They Work?

I got to Champion Arms, got some targets and a lane and commenced to testing. Yep, they work.

First shots on the left, Middle is second verse, same as the first. third target is repeated mag-dumps.

I started at seven yards with the gun at low rest, brought it up quickly and fired as the sights came on target. The POI is a bit high; I was using a 6-o’clock hold and most shots were an inch or two high. Not bad at all. I taped the hole and repeated the exercise with similar results. The last pic is the result of several mag-dumps. Hitting a bit to the right; either I had the sights set slightly wrong or likely enough it was just me. Times being what they are my ammo supply was limited so I called it good after forty rounds or so.

This accuracy was at least as good as I would manage with normal sights, and according to the shot timer the rounds were going on target a bit faster on average, 1-2 tenths of a second or so. As a sight for self defense shooting they work just fine. If I can produce groups like this the first time I used them I’m a happy camper, and it can only get better with practice.

Next time I’ll shoot at fifteen and twenty-five yards and see how they work at longer range. If they do as well as I expect these will become a permanent addition to the gun.

Final Thoughts

I think these sights work as advertised, and I like them quite well. As a low-profile alternative to an optic on a defensive pistol I think they are a good choice. Should you try them? If you are a skilled shooter I would say yes, definitely. In the follow-up I’ll be having Linda and perhaps a few other folks try them and see how it works for them.

Stay safe, and take care.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 18 June 2021

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Building a ‘Street-Racer’ Part 1

There are Street Guns and Race Guns, and while there are areas where they cross over they are very different things.

Street Guns are for duty, concealed-carry and self-defense. These might be stock or customized to suit the user. Generally if modified the changes are things that will enhance rather than reduce it’s core function. Improved sights, weapon lights or lasers, improved trigger, modifications to enhance reliability. Changes where they make sense in light of the gun’s mission, but that don’t make the gun large, bulky or heavy enough to impede it’s ability to be carried and/or concealed. What gets changed and how is highly individual and depends a lot on personal preference, personal circumstances and platform. Increasingly production guns are incorporating many of these improvements out of the box.

Custom S&W M&P with the barrel shortened to 3″, a custom front sight, bobbed hammer and custom grips. It might not be your idea of what such a gun should be, but it doesn’t have to be; it just needs to suit it’s user’s needs.

Then there are ‘Race-Guns,’ purpose-built guns for competition. These are modified to maximize their assets in a specific use, typically speed-shooting or combat pistol competition. Many of the goals are the same as the Street Gun; the ability to deliver hits rapidly and accurately for one thing. Things like enhanced sights and improved triggers are important. Things like weapon lights, lasers etc. are not; they don’t fit the mission. Expanded magazine wells, special grip configurations like thumb-rests for the off-hand, muzzle compensators. Things increase the size, shape and weight of the weapon enough to compromise it’s ability to be carried for self-defense or duty. Reliability is important, but for some might not carry the overriding importance that it does in a self-defense pistol. Lightening cuts in a slide are great for a race gun, but are a no-no on a duty pistol because they can admit environmental gunk into the action. Race guns are optimized to excel in the specific conditions that pertain to their form of competition.

STI 9mm Open Division 2011. Exaggerated mag-well extension, compensator, fixed optics mount and rifle-style optic, off-hand thumb rest. A delight in competition, a nightmare for carry.

I haven’t been regularly competing in years, but pre-COVID I was getting interested in Action Shooting International matches. These are a casual, low-intensity version of combat pistol competition where the primary challenge is to yourself and your skills, not the other participants. Fun without a lot of pressure and competitive drive.

I was modifying a 1911 as a carry-gun, and thought about those matches. Now, I don’t often carry a full-sized 1911, and when I do it’s not duty-style carry where the gun is exposed to the environment for hours and hours every single day. Maybe what would best suit my needs was a hybrid; compact and reliable enough for EDC, but with some specialized enhancements aimed at competition performance. IOW a sort of ‘Street Racer.’

The Starting Point

Sometime around the dawn if history a friend of mine named Lee set out to built his ‘ultimate’ 1911a1. He got a Systema Colt frame (made under license in Argentina and very good quality) and a government surplus ‘match’ slide. He filled it with good quality parts, a beavertail, commander hammer, long trigger with an overtravel screw, Pachmayr grips… all the then-fashionable mods for a serious ‘fighting’ 1911a1.

My friend Lee’s vision of the ultimate fighting 1911a1. It’s a good shooter alright. This was rapid-fire at seven yards.

To my mind he made only two genuinely questionable decisions about this pistol; he kept the GI sights, and he sent it out for a (then) high-tech Teflon coating in what I can only describe as ‘Baby-Shit Green.’ The picture above doesn’t do it justice; the color is truly hideous.

The coating is a pretty good finish, and was all the rage at the time but it took a while to get back to him. Lee needed a carry gun in the meantime, so he got a Glock 23 (Gen 2 I think) and he was off and running. By the time he got the 1911a1 back he was all about Glocks. The green monster sat in a box, completely disassembled for years. Then one night he brought it with him when he came to dinner and sheepishly asked if I could re-assemble it for him. In short order it was a gun again, and he gave it to me as a gift, along with extra magazines manuals and some accessories.

Lee has since passed away, all too soon, and the gun has been a memorial to his life and our friendship. Despite the crappy GI sights it’s a good shooter, but it never really did it for me; this was Lee’s idea of a fighting .45, not mine. I’d shoot it now and again, but mostly it languished in the safe. Linda asked me about this and I explained. She pointed out that I was constantly modifying guns; why not this one? Well, because it was Lee’s thing and I didn’t want to change it. “Honey,” she said. “Lee has met you. He’d have been fascinated to see what you would do to make it your own.”

Being Linda she was of course correct, so I had a donor-gun.

First Things First

Being a man of many interests and limited time (not to mention finances) it didn’t happen overnight. The gun was equipped with a Pachmayr arched mainspring housing, and I much prefer a flat one. Jim Bensinger was dropping by Caspian, so he snagged a flat stainless one for me. This immediately improved the gun for me, and I stippled it with a punch for texture.

Next was the slide and sights. The green is awful, and having the whole gun uniformly that color? No. I stripped the slide, and because it was an ugly tool-marked mess under the green I flattened the sides and’ for good measure, flat-topped it. I finished it with rust-blue then added a narrow bronze front sight. Then I attacked the GI rear sight with a 30 LPI checkering file to improve its visibility. OK, now we’re cooking!

The bronze front sight isn’t ideal, but it picks up light well in a variety of conditions and had the advantage of costing nothing except a little time and a tiny amount of silver-solder.
The rear sight, de-burred and with 30 LPI grooves. Much better! Because I flat-topped the slide both the front and rear sights stand a bit taller, but not too tall. The slide is relieved behind the sight to facilitate thumb-cocking; it’s not a feature I need, but I like it so I included it.

The gun came to me, as you can see in the first photo, with Pachmayr wrap-around grips. I had, uh, ‘enhanced’ these by gluing a piece of eraser underneath to form a finger-groove which works fine, but I don’t prefer Pachmayrs on a concealed-carry gun. The ‘grabbyness’ of the material can stick to a light cover garment and cause the gun to print.

I made a set of smooth Goncalo Alves wood grips to replace them. They’re smooth because I don’t grip the sides of the gun; I grip front-to back with my thumb riding the safety. Speaking of which…

The gun came to me with a GI safety, which I’m OK with, but for carry and competition it needed an ambidextrous safety. I found a Remington factory one online for $25 and snagged it. It uses a forward projection of the safety under the grip to hold the left-hand safety in place, so the grip needed to be altered to accommodate that. A couple other small alterations and I was in business. Now the gun had Dumbo Ears.

The safeties came with a very aggressive shape and some sharp edges, but hey, I’m me. I narrowed the off-side and reshaped and smoothed the edges a bit. Now the safety is comfortable but hasn’t lost any function.

The new safety, modified for comfort and a bit more concealable.

Of course now, with the plain grip frame at the front it wasn’t as ‘grippy’ as the Pachmayrs, so I stripped the gun and gently clamped it into my engraving vice. I grabbed a 20 line-per-inch checkering file and had at it.

20 LPI checkering. Sub-professional but effective.

The results are not perfect, but they are effective. Hey, it was only the second time I used a checkering file! I’ll get better. I colored the checkering with Oxpho Blue and moved on.

Now I had a gun with a checkered front-strap and a stippled mainspring housing. That wouldn’t do, so I sanded off the stippling on the belt grinder, then matched the contour of the housing to the frame and it was time for the 20 LPI checkering file again.


Practice may not make perfect but it makes better. I suppose I’ll have it coated at some point so it doesn’t stand out, but there’s no urgency there. Now it feels like when I grip the gun it grips me back. Best of all there are no hotspots or places where it pokes me; it’s comfy. I’ll shoot a comfy gun more.

Coming Soon to a Bubba Near You!

There’s more coming, but I’m waiting on some things to arrive. Mike Harris is sending me some high-visibility night sights to try out, so that’s one thing. Since the gun is currently chambered for .400 Cor Bon it needs to revert to being a .45. There’s a lot to recommend the .400 cartridge, but it’s going to be harder on the gun long-term and I already have match and defensive loads worked up for .45ACP. Besides, I just like it. It’s old, fat and slow; I can relate.

That’s it for now. Stay safe and take care.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 13 June 2021