SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE IN 1918, SEVEN GERMAN SOLDIERS with fixed bayonets charged a Tennessee-born American infantry sergeant. The sergeant, in the split second before his impalement, drew his Colt 1911 .45-caliber automatic pistol.
If he'd drawn a six-shooter, you would never have heard of Sergeant York.
That feat of arms - it was the key part of a hard day's work that won Alvin York the Congressional Medal of Honor and made him the greatest American hero of World War I - seems like a burnished acorn from the fabled past, when our view of our nation was so unambiguous that we could praise unreservedly those who killed in its name on foreign fields.
Yet as ancient as it seems, one element remains shockingly modern: the Government Model .45-caliber automatic pistol, still manufactured the same s it ever was, not only by colt but by a host of clone manufacturers, the original patent having long since expired. In fact, the weapon, though controversially replaced by the 9-millimeter Beretta for Army service in 1986, continues in frontline service to military and law enforcement personnel the world over.
Even more astonishing, a heavily modified version of the gun has become the centerpiece in an elaborate sporting event called "action shooting"; and for a final astonishment, try this: For many shooters, those modifications are performed, at great expense, in the basement of a house in a quiet neighborhood in Ellicott City, where a large, gentle man named Steven Woods has been quietly acquiring a reputation as one of the most gifted custom pistolsmiths in the country.
Yet to see his house, you know you're in the heart of the heart of the suburbs: a trim suburban-development house, wood and brick and conformity on a cul-de-sac behind a screen of trees.
Inside, everything feels regulation-suburb, with a vaguely Oriental feel to the furnishings. Books, a fireplace, nice furniture, everything neat. Exactly the sort of place in which you'd figure a married guy and dad with a master's degree in psychology who worked for a decade in the state human services system would end up. Kitchen is neat and clean; there's a den with a computer and a TV.
It's only when you head downstairs that the pattern begins to deviate, and you sense you're at the threshold of an unexpected world. Turn right at the foot of the stairs and you're in an office with a large vault, and issues of American Handgunner and the Shotgun News are lying around. Progress another few feet into a clean, will-lighted room; you're in a shop with several large milling and drilling machines, air compressor hoses, cans, gizmos, hand tools. It looks as if it could be used for the production of widgets, but - whatever - it's clearly a well-ordered palace of business.
It is here that Woods makes his living as a solitary craftsman, with something of the craftsman's arrogance, and without the necessity that so many men feel for compromise or accommodation. And it's paying off. His reputation is spreading; he is being covered by national magazines; inquiries come to him from around the world. People approach him, he doesn't approach them. They wait a year or more for him to attend their needs; when their time finally rolls around, they pay him up to $2,000 for a few dozen hours of labor-intensive work. And they are always very happy with what he does.
But Steve Woods isn't a general gunsmith, and he's not even a pistolsmith, in the general sense; rather he takes Sergeant York's time-proven instrument of death and turns it into something the sergeant himself wouldn't recognize.
He begins with the standard Colt Government Model 1911 handgun, designed by John M. Browning at the turn of the century and adapted by the Army 11 years later, and he virtually reinvents the thing. What comes out of the process after the long, long wait and the money is a pistol that's been resculpted, so that it fits the hand better; honed and fitted, so that its parts mesh more perfectly; stabilized, so that its barrel returns to a same place each time. And when requested, it's been fitted with an anti-muzzle rise compensator, which harnesses the gun's own explosive gasses to work against its tendency to buck when fired.
More than fancy, the gun is exceedingly accurate and exceedingly reliable. But the compensated gun is not intended for the quiet discipline of bull's-eye shooting (for which he also builds winning guns). Rather, the Woods top-of-the-line compensated pistol, with all the bells and whistles, is for use in a relatively new and increasingly popular species of shooting sport that demands fast, accurate strings of rounds at multiple targets.