It all started with a 1911-A1. I had long been a fan of Colt's venerable single-action semiautomatic Government model since I first fired one as a 17 year-old Marine recruit. In the years since I bought a number of Colts and assorted clones from Springfield Armory. In the spring of 1992 I decided to build my own. I used an Essex Arms frame, a Colt slide and painstakingly stippled the front strap with a steel punch. I stoned and hand-fitted all the small parts from Wilson Combat and installed a set of Bo-Mar sights. To finish this special piece off, I made a set of Stag grips and spent a good 40 hours of polishing the internals, about the only work I did not do myself, was sending it out to Checkmate refinishing in Brooksville, Florida to be reblued when it was done. As proud I was of my finished piece, I knew it would pale in comparison to one built by a master pistol smith. One of my friends at the time didn't think so.
"Donny" was part owner of a gun shop who I knew through work. At the time I was working as a ballistician for Ranger Ammunition in Holiday, Florida. Donny was convinced that I was going to go on to be a great gunsmith and wanted my first 1911 for his personal collection.
I couldn't sell the piece outright, it represented months of eating Ramen noodles and buying parts like the old Johnny Cash song: “One Piece at a Time". I could not put a cash price on my first effort at a custom 1911-A1. Donny, however, was relentless and knew he would eventually get that old warhorse for himself.
As fate would have it, I worked for Donny on the weekends at the local gun show circuit. As big a fan I was of 1911's, I was a bigger fan of big bore revolvers, specifically the .41 Remington Magnums. A bit of an obsolete caliber, even back in the early 90's, I had come across a 14" Thompson Center Contender with a 4X Burris Scope that I used for Hog hunting. This lead to me picking up a Ruger Blackhawk, a Dan Wesson revolver, and a rare Ruger Redhawk for my “.41 fix”. I thought about finding a Desert Eagle in the same caliber and perhaps a Smith &Wesson N-Frame. Once Donny found this out, he started a hunt of his own, unbeknownst to me.
Sometime in early 1994 a young woman from New York moved down to the West Coast of Florida. After hearing about a particularly brutal local crime wave involving carjacking’s and home invasions, her father, a retired police officer gave her a 3" S&W Model 657 made for Lew Horton. She was good with the revolver at the range and kept it in her home for protection. After taking a Concealed Weapon Course to obtain her Florida CCW, she found the gun too large to carry and traded it in to Donny for a smaller piece. Donny now knew that he had something I couldn't say, "No" to.
Donny showed me the gun, its large stainless steel frame, its hand carved Pau-Ferro combat grips and a trigger that broke like glass. I knew I had to have it as soon as he placed it in my hand and I closed the cylinder. Being perpetually short of cash I asked, "How much?"
"I'll take that custom 1911 you built last year."
It took me 5 whole seconds to say, "Yes".
The S&W 657 was a dream come true for me, it was a large gun, but I was able to carry it comfortably, in a tradition going back to the Marine Corps, I gave all my special guns a girl's name, as I opened the action to check the serial number, I noted the serial number had the prefix "ANN". Her name was going to be "Annie".
Annie was a constant companion; she rode on my hip every day for years. I shot her every week when I went to the range, I bought speed loaders for her to use in competition and even with the 3" barrel, she was a stellar performer only outclassed by a few other guns. In one instance she saved my life, in another she almost killed me. Or I should say, someone else almost killed me with her.
Halloween night 1995, I was in a costume on a dare from my buddy, Paul. I was sitting in the passenger seat of his car on the way to a bar. As we drove through a residential neighborhood, we could hear teenagers making a ruckus and assumed it was just "kids having fun". We stopped at a light and suddenly the car was surrounded by youths wielding baseball bats.
At this point I should mention that Paul’s dare was for the two of us to dress in drag for the party, so we probably looked like too large middle-aged women sitting in a Lincoln convertible. The youths probably thought we looked like easy marks, we thought it was just a Halloween prank until I was a golf putter come at the windshield.
I couldn't comfortably carry in the outfit I was wearing, so Annie was "in a purse". I reached in, pulled her out and leveled her at the assailant, placing the orange-insert front sight in the center of his face. "Take another step and you're dead."
His eyes got wide as saucers; he threw down the putter and ran off yelling to his buddies that these old ladies were “packing heat”. As quick as they were upon us, they vanished. I got out of the car and picked up the golf club, a $100 Ping. Someone was going to have to explain to their dad what happened to their putter. In this age before cellphones we drove to a gas station and called 911, letting them know about kids attacking cars. It was Paul's neighborhood so he followed up with the local police and from what I remember an arrest was made. As thankful as I was for having Annie with me I was more thankful I didn't have to drop the hammer on some kid.
A few months later I came home and left Annie sitting on my kitchen table. Another buddy came by, "Mark", a 26 year-old Army Sergeant home on leave. I went in the next room to watch the news and Mark sat in my kitchen petting my dog, Seamus. Little did I know that he saw Annie on the table and picked her up.
I've always been a little off when it comes to hearing gunshots, unlike most people; I always think they're firecrackers at first. I heard a loud bang and thought Mark was being a goofball and lighting off a firecracker in my house to screw with the dog. I got up to say something and heard Seamus howling and saw Mark holding his hands over his ears. I smelled burning W296 and looked to my right to see a perfect 0.410" hole in my kitchen wall. Right in line with my head!
Luckily, I kept Annie loaded with Winchester Silvertips and the 175 grain hollow point slug hit a stud in the wall, expanded, spent all its energy and dropped down into the baseboard. I turned to Mark and said "WTF, dude?"
"I didn't know it was loaded! Why did you have a loaded gun sitting out?"
"It's my carry piece, you've seen it 100 times before, didn’t they teach you in the army to treat all guns as if they're loaded?"
"Why is the trigger so light? That's dangerous; I had that pointed at my head a few seconds before it went off!"
"So then you pointed it at mine? Not to be ignorant but that hole in the wall lines up with where I was sitting in the next room."
"I have to go, man."
"OK, bye, I guess if I was in the Army I'd have to hand you a stress card now or something, sorry, fresh out."
The worst part was that he dropped Annie and dented her rear sight blade, I vowed to get her fixed, but as I type this I'm glad that I didn't.
Through an unforeseen series of circumstances a few months later I ended up moving to South Florida. Short on cash I was forced to sell off some guns to finance the move. All my beloved .41 Magnums went, except for Annie. A few years later I met the woman who would be my wife and moved across the country to start over with her.
The only thing I didn't like about working in the firearms industry was the pay. When it came time to buy an engagement ring, I knew I would have to sell a gun to do it. Living under the restrictive laws of California and having already sold off my starter guns, I made a decision I knew I'd regret. I narrowed it down to one gun, the only gun I had in an oddball caliber and since CCW is almost a non-existent right in most of California, a gun I could no longer carry. Annie would be the gun I'd sell to buy a diamond for the new Mrs. Searson.
Fortunately, I found another wheel gun aficionado and he had cash. "Frank" bought my last .41 magnum revolver and a .41 magnum lever gun from me and promised me if he was ever going to sell it, he'd give me first dib’s on both, that was in 1998.
Over the years since then I had looked at a number of 3" N-Frames. Unable to find another .41 magnum, I picked up a 3" M29 in a similar configuration a few years ago. As nice as it was, it was not quite the same.
Aftermarket prices on these old guns have inflated almost three-fold in some instances.
I ran across Frank on Facebook over 10 years later. Coincidentally, I still had the manual from the .41 lever gun I sold him, I sent him an email and asked him if he still wanted it (and hoping I could persuade him into selling me back my revolver). He replied saying that he fell on hard times due to the economy and had to sell off most of his guns. He had sold Annie seven years earlier to a gun shop in Michigan. He had left California for Michigan around the same time I left for Nevada. It was disappointing news, but I chalked it up to not living with regret, it was just a gun, there's plenty more out there. Still, it would be nice to find another 3" .41 Magnum someday.
In May 2011 I was looking on Gunbroker.com for a pair of grips for my 3" .44 Magnum. I was completely dissatisfied with the magna grips on my N-Frame and wanted the old style finger grooves. Due to the haphazard nature of auction listings I'd learned over the years to search for oddball terms. I typed "657" into the search bar and quickly looked at the results.
I saw a familiar image come up with a $699 price tag. I clicked on the auction and noted the seller was in the same part of Michigan that Frank had moved to. I read further. He indicated that the gun had seen a lot of use and the rear sight blade would need to be replaced. As I looked at the digital pictures, I found myself saying, "No, it can't be..."
Toward the end of the auction, the seller listed the serial number it started with the "ANN" prefix.
I contacted the seller immediately. I told him I was 99% sure it was my old gun and asked him for some more information.
Unfortunately, all he was able to tell me was that his father had bought several Lew Horton N-Frames from a customer a few years ago, before they opened shop officially. He told me they didn't make many of these and likely all the .41’s had the "ANN" prefix. Luckily, I knew that wasn't the case. From all my research it appeared that Smith & Wesson just took available N-Frames and built guns on those, none of the Lew Horton guns I'd seen from that time period had any particular sequence apart from the first letter "A". Truth be told, I'd seen more in the "AME" sequence and only one with "ANN".
I got into a small bidding war with another collector and after a week I prevailed and was the high bidder. Annie was coming home to me for not much more than what I sold her for 14 years previous. I now had to come up with the cash as the seller would not take a credit card and had to get an FFL to him right away. The FFL was easily taken care of by my good friends at US Firearms Academy of Reno, Nevada. When I told the owner this story he said, “The same model?" I said, No, the same gun!"
To get the funds for Annie, I sold a custom Emerson knife, made by my good friend Ernest Emerson to an equally good friend and Usual Suspect, Tom Monahan, Senior Training Coordinator for the NRA. It couldn't be more fitting as to the type of knife and the recipient.
I had an upcoming shooting event and rear-sight be damned, I was determined that Annie was going to make it to that shoot. I drove to Fed Ex to overnight the payment. As I rolled in at 4:28 PM, the counterman said "Wow, just made it at less than 2 minutes". When he told me the cost to overnight the check, I reached into my pocket fished out the cash and came up 9 cents short.
The quick-thinking FedEx employee went into his own pocket and came up with a nickel. Someone in line handed me 3 pennies. The computer would not process the air bill until he added it manually. As he did, I breathed a sigh of relief. Some things were meant to be!
I counted down the days in transit until I got the call that my package was in. As they opened the box I saw my girl, sitting there looking the same as she did when I sold her off to buy a ring. The rear sight was a little more battered, the grips had some new scuffs, but I didn't mind. Annie always was a shooter and a carry piece and she would now return to that role. As I went to log her into my record book, I flipped back a few pages, the serial numbers were identical. Instead of adding a new entry, I edited out the “sale information”. It was the first time I’d ever had to do that in 25 years of gun collecting!
Smith & Wesson went so far as to replace the old school White Outline Rear Site free of charge this past summer.
Now, if i could only get a line on that 1911-A1 that started all this!