I don’t have a single friend who counts himself as a football or basketball fan. All that tiresome cheerleading and tedious teamwork. Interspecies friendships based on common interests are possible. Man and gundog. Man and racehorse. Maybe even man and trained monkey. Most definitely man and his big-game adversary, but relationships with sub-human beasts can only go so far. For instance, I don’t think friendship between man and liberal Democrat is a possibility.
Besides guns, my friends have a wide variety of secondary interests, all of which are defined by great dollops of solitude and individual style, and flourish in environments of man-against-man, man-against-nature, man-against-himself, just the sort of thing you would expect from a lone-gunman type. Those with a taste for speed, at least relative speed, and an appreciation for the beauty of line are passionate about airplanes, automobiles or boats of both the wind-driven and engine-propelled variety.
Legendary 1911 gunsmith Armand Swenson was a boat-man.
Speedboat racers know Swenson only as the designer and builder of a radical hydroplane boat-of-the-future. One of the most unusual boat designs in history, Swenson’s hydroplane was powered by an aircraft engine and piloted by an automobile race driver. The boat’s racing career was brief and disappointing, but Swenson’s design innovations were so original that, 40 years after he built it in his own backyard, the boat was installed in the Seattle Hydroplane History Museum.
To gun-knowledgeable hunters, it was Armand Swenson’s way with custom bolt-action hunting rifles that earned him acclaim, though he sought to keep his rifle-building business quiet for fear of being swamped. He liked solitude.
The talent which produced Swenson’s greatest historical legacy, however, and with which his name is and will be associated more than any other, was his ability to coax the very best out of John Browning’s 1911 pistol. Swenson was one of the earliest pioneers of that small group of talented gunsmiths dedicated to the big semiauto, and he was driven by an obsession for continuous improvements in accuracy, reliability and handling. Swenson approached his job with the traditional tools of the custom gunsmith -- refined craftsmanship, talented hands and eyes, and an unusual capacity for the design equivalent of dignified understatement. He had an appreciation for the beauty of line.
When Swenson’s 1911s first attracted nationwide attention, the term “race gun” had not yet been coined, nor had the bizarre design requirements yet been invented that would make the race gun about as useful on the street as an open-wheeled race car. Any leanings Swenson might have had toward the experimental, the radical, the interesting but impractical, he kept out of his gun work. That’s what boats were for. Pistols, on the other hand, were serious business. Swenson made 1911s that were accurate and reliable, in a time when many considered those two qualities mutually exclusive. He made 1911s that were good-looking and practical, pioneered better sights (he used S&W K-frame revolver rear sights before the big Bo-Mars were dreamt of), developed the concept of melting the slide and manufactured the first ambidextrous thumb safeties. He proved that you could chop and channel the big government .45 down to concealed-carry size without giving up absolutely reliable functioning. Otherwise, what would be the point? He built a lot of very beautiful guns, and he built a lot of them for cops, as practical a market as anyone could imagine.
Fellow gunsmith Terry Tussey of California, who was greatly influenced by Armand Swenson’s body of work, once summed up his success thusly: “Armand combined classic good looks with function ... Armand always made form and function blend.”
Today, there is again widespread agreement that the most desirable 1911 is an expertly refined version of the basic form-follows-function fighting gun. The quintessential Swenson touch, were it available in this day and age, would undoubtedly be in the greatest possible demand. If you get lucky enough to find a vintage Swenson gun for sale, a rare occasion today, you better buy it before the line forming behind you gets restless. Because, as a well-known shooter said to me recently, “They don’t make ‘em like Armand Swenson anymore.”
Well, maybe they don’t and maybe they do. There might be a new Armand Swenson out there that you just haven’t heard about yet. One possibility I know about might be working out of his famous father’s handgun shop in Arizona, still under the age of 30, with more high-speed experience under his belt that most pistolsmiths twice his age, may already be turning out some very interesting 1911s. He might be out there alright, and his name might be Kase Reeder.
“I started working on guns with my dad before I was old enough to see over the gunshop counter,” Kase told me recently. “I’ve been hunting with him that long too, just about everywhere in the US and to Africa several times. I started hunting with handguns. Then, when we started going to Africa a lot, I got into real big rifles. I had a .505 Gibbs when I was 15. At one point I was loading it with 700-grain bullets at 2200 feet per second. When I was a teenager, I wanted the biggest thing I could shoot. I’d shoot 30 rounds out of that .505 in an afternoon’s practice and it was about all I could handle. I developed my own African cartridge. We call it the 450 KNR (KNR for Kase Nelson Reeder). It’s basically a 470 Nitro Express necked down to .458.
“Eventually, I developed a real bad flinch and went back down to a .375 H&H to try to get rid of it. I finally went back to pistols. I’ve hunted with .45 Win Mag Grizzlys, Automags, big revolvers and T/Cs -– all the guns my dad has built and hunted with. I’ve always liked hunting with big automatics. The Grizzly was my favorite for a long time. I hunted Tennessee wild boar, sheep, lots of things with them. Certain times of the year you couldn’t get close enough to hunt with any open-sighted gun, so I got into scope-sighted revolvers and T/Cs.
“I shot IPSC for several years, including the 3-Gun Nationals, and decided I like to shoot a .45 better than anything. I hunt with a .378 GNR (Gary Nelson Reeder) or a .410 GNR, but I like a .45 for everything else.
“When I was a kid hanging around the shop we always had a lot of great gunsmiths working there, including some great 1911 gunsmiths, and I would watch everything they did. I bought several Armand Swenson .45s at gunshows and I used to take them completely apart and play with them so I could see exactly why and how Swenson did what he did. I read everything the classic 1911 builders wrote. I built my first IPSC gun on a Para-Ordnance frame, which was kind of cheating. I built one on a Springfield. I even shot with an AMT longslide for a while. I like building and shooting stock guns, properly designed tactical guns, not race guns. But I finally had to decide whether I was going to spend my time building them or competing with them, because those are both full-time jobs if you do them at a serious level.
“Right now I’m building some IPSC/IDPA-ready guns on Commander frames. And I like to build more specialized guns for people who know what they want. I just built a 40-caliber gun on a 10mm Delta Elite, did some work on the extractor and magazine and such, so all the owner has to do to go from 10mm carry to 40-caliber competition is change the mainspring. I’m also working on some more “one-asterisk” models and a nifty little three-inch backup.
“The classic .45 is coming back into the spotlight again, and I’m happy to focus my energies there. Basically, I’d say that I like to build an all-around gun, a quality gun you can carry 24 hours a day and still go shoot a match with when you feel like it.”
Sounds to me like the kind of gun Armand Swenson would be building if he were alive today. For that matter, it sounds like the kind of gun Kase’s dad, Gary Reeder, was building earlier in his career, before market forces drew him inexorably along the path of big-bore hunting T/Cs and Rugers and fast-handling cowboy action sixguns.
“I’ll always be a big fan of the 1911,” Gary says. “In fact, I’m building one right now for a 50-caliber hunting cartridge I’ve come up with. But the defensive 1911, the tactical gun, the .45 ACP for daily wear and all-around use -– that’s something Kase has a particular genius for. He already has a lot of orders from some very gun-savvy guys, he’s got a lot of good ideas, his workmanship is first class, and he’s a workaholic just like me. I expect I’ll retire and work out of his shop one of these days.”
Clearly, the line of development from John Browning through extraordinary gunsmiths like Armand Swenson to rising stars like Kase Reeder and undoubtedly a few more we haven’t heard from yet remains unbroken. The everlasting challenge of the near-perfect 1911 will never cease to attract the highest new talents successive generations of gunmakers can produce. You can bet your boat on that.