The Original Mini 1911 The Detonics Combat Master
February 25, 2008
Photo’s Courtesy of Ken Lunde
The Detonics Combat Master has a had a very interesting history. I’d like to present some history of this pistol before getting on to shooting and handling characteristics. Courtesy of “The Sight 1911”
The Detonics Story
Material gathered by Rick Brenemen
The Detonics Combat Master was the first really small and compact 1911-pattern pistol to be produced in significant numbers. Law enforcement fell in love with it immediately due to its diminutive size and quality. It received “star quality” when Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice was seen carrying one in a leg holster in the show. Far more important than the media exposure was the revolutionary reliability work done inside the pistol. The Detonics introduced the bulged barrel end so that the pistol did not require a bushing. It also incorporated double and triple recoil springs. It was the first production 1911-pattern which was throated and ramped for hollowpoints. The high price and limited market for the pistol doomed the company. Those fortunate enough to own a Detonics pistol treasure them.
“The concept of the original Detonics was simply a stainless single action pistol. The big guns came after the little gun. Detonics was actually started with the Combat Master. Before Detonics, mini-pistols were all built by hand; they were cut-down Colts. The driving force behind the original company was to build a small, manufacturable production .45 ACP pistol and that was Sid Woodcock’s baby. He was the daddy of the Combat Master. He came up with that idea sitting around on a beach with Chuck Lyford somewhere down in South America in the mid ‘70’s. So Chuck introduced Sid to some money people in Seattle, and Detonics was started.”
Robbie Barrkman, 1991
“(Woodcock) got together with some friends and set about to improve the basic Colt/Browning design in such a manner that a gun could be mass-produced with not only the classic custom modifications already in place, but of a reduced size for easier concealment and reengineered to be more reliable and easily managed than the original. The firm that grew out of this attempt to make good better was Detonics (.45 Associates) of Seattle, Washington. Detonics originally offered a blued, ordnance steel Colt/Browning-style .45 of about the same size as a Walther PP. The gun featured a beveled magazine well, hammers of various peculiar shapes, a pre-pinned grip safety, a butt shortened to handle a six-round magazine rather than a seven (which could still accept full-size magazines as spares), a slide and barrel length much shorter than Colt’s Commander and slicked-up internal parts which allowed the gun to handle hollowpoints and hardball with equal aplomb. The barrel was bulged at the muzzle to facilitate the bushingless design, self-centering to mate with the slide. The (Colt) standard single recoil spring was replaced by a recoil spring guide with (two, and later three) separate counter-wound recoil springs. The six-round magazine featured a loaded magazine indicator. This was advertising hype to compensate for necessity. To give full support for a six-round capacity in so small a magazine, it was necessary that with the gun fully loaded a thumbnail-sized piece would protrude from the rear of the magazine base plate, to disappear again once the magazine went one round lighter. The first of these guns used cut-down Colt parts. The little guns caught on. Soon, various models were offered – adjustable sights, .38 Super and 9mm, etc. Then Detonics did something really radical. Detonics began to offer the little gun – by now known as the Combat Master – in stainless steel.”
Jerry Ahern, Petersen’s Handguns, 7/90
“The Detonics pistol, now in limited production and geared for full production the first of the year (1975) at Detonics .45 Associates, Seattle, is a short, compact, all-steel, single-action, single-column variation of the Browning/Colt of 1911. Various parts (slide-stop and thumb-safety assembly, magazine release, trigger, sear, disconnector, etc.) are interchangeable. While the butt is too short to include the standard seven-shot Colt magazine, such magazines are entirely functional and might be preferably carried as spares. The little gun is 6 ¾” long by 4 5/8″ inches deep, and its width is exactly that of the service auto. The . . . rear sight is set oddly forward, reducing the sight radius to a bare 4 inches. Admitting that this is no target pistol, it does seem odd to deliberately aggravate what is already a drawback. The Detonics pistol is a strong, simple, rather heavy – due to its all-steel construction – example of the type, with the distinct virtue of utilizing many standard Colt parts and employing neither exotic nor untried mechanical systems. Standard price $399.”
Jeff Cooper, Guns & Ammo, 12/74
“This remarkable pistol is the smallest, lowest recoil single action .45 caliber semi-automatic in the world. The Detonics .45 is a premium quality professional tool for the serious handgun expert and combat shooter. It is capable of providing the brute force stopping power of the standard-sized .45 in a size no larger than a snub-nosed .38, or “pocket” 9mm auto. The Detonics .45 has an advanced mechanism which reduces the apparent recoil remarkably below the full-sized .45. This awesomely powerful pistol is smaller, more easily concealed, and has greater short/medium range rapid fire accuracy than any single action .45 weapon available today. This masterpiece of combat design is gaining recognition as the finest defensive handgun in the world today.”
Detonics .45 Instruction Manual, 4/80
“The carbon steel production guns start at (serial) number 2000. The first 1999 numbers have been set aside for presentation and commemorative models. So, to determine the true production number of your pistol, subtract 2000 from your serial number. Stainless steel production numbers start at number 10,000.”
Detonics Instruction Manual
“Although there are six different models available to the general buying public, a Detonics is a Detonics is a Detonics. Only finish, type of material used and adjustable rear sight differentiate one model from another. The plain-Jane entrant is the Combat Master Mark I, attired in a matte blue finish, fixed sights, with a retail price of $369 (1980). Stepping up a notch, the Mark II is a fixed-sight model dressed in a satin nickel finish with a price tag of $390. The Mark III is handsome in its hard chrome appearance with fixed sights and sells for $488. Variation number IV is resplendent in a mirror-bright blue finish and adjustable rear sight, and $499 will allow the buyer to take one home. The Mark V is a brushed-finish, stainless steel model with fixed sights and will sell for $498 ($626, 1983). And, finally, the top-of-the-line model is the Presentation-grade, Professional Mark VI which boosts the price to $575 ($635, 1983)[There was eventually also a sightless Mark VII, also $635 in 1983].”
Art Blatt, Guns & Ammo, 5/80
“The original Detonics pistol, a modified and much smaller version of the Colt Model 1911, made it initial appearance in 1977. Billed as the world’s smallest single-action autoloader chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge, the Detonics Mark I was an instant hit with law enforcement officers. Not content with their original little .45 ACP powerhouse, the Detonics people went back to the drawing board and created a new cartridge that is a real blaster. The .451 Detonics Magnum is virtually identical in (external) dimensions to the .45 ACP, except for case length. The .451 Detonics is only some .050″ longer, but the added capacity is enough to allow considerably heavier powder charges to be used without exceeding safe pressure limits. According to the loading manual, four different propellants will produce velocities exceeding 1,300 feet per second from a 185-grain bullet. The Detonics manual specifically states that seating depth is critical. Overall cartridge length must lie between 1.220 and 1.235 inches, using bullets no longer than .558 inch. Average velocity for all four loads was 1,188fps vs. an average of 1,284 for velocities given in the manual. Since we did not use maximum loads, it may be assumed that velocities in the neighborhood of 1,300fps would be possible with careful load development. If a velocity in excess of 1,300fps is truly attainable with a 185-grain slug, the .451 Detonics would produce a muzzle energy of more than 700 foot pounds – a remarkable improvement of raw power over a factory-loaded .45 ACP. The base price of the pistol is $754 (1984).”
Ralph Glaze, Guns & Ammo, 2/84
“Detonics, specialists in stainless-steel for going on two decades, changed hands. An agreement was reached in early December ’86 between Diane McCarthy, Detonics’ General Manager, Ed “Tim” Lasater, Sales Manager and Energy Sciences Corp., for McCarthy and Lasater to take over the complete business, including all the Detonics handguns. McCarthy retains her title, while Lasater becomes President and CEO.”
Combat Handguns, 6/87
“The original Bellevue, Washington company ultimately floundered, and a group of investors led by Lyford bought Detonics assets out of bankruptcy. Lyford knew Robbie (Barrkman) from the latter’s tenure at Gunsite, and contacted him about getting involved with the new company.”
Waldo Lydecker, Guns Magazine, 8/91
“I said, ‘Well, you guys aren’t doing very much. What are you looking for? What are you trying to do? I really didn’t think it would work out, but promised to give it 100 per cent. They agreed, and in July of 1989 New Detonics was in business in Phoenix.
Robbie Barrkman, 1991
Detonics’ line of guns expanded from the Combat Master to include the Commander-sized Servicemaster, Government-sized Scoremaster, and the compensated, race-gun style Compmaster. I don’t really know how or why the company finally failed. All of the reviews of Detonics guns, as late as 1991 were positively glowing. They were VERY expensive. The Combat Master cost $400 when a Colt Commander cost $250. The top-of-the-line Compmaster target pistol, similar to the various custom “pin guns”, was over $1600 in 1991!
From this point in Detonics history the company once again was closed. Detonics was resurrected again when Jerry Ahern purchased the company and assumed control of the company as CEO. It was renamed Detonics USA and remained in business until 2007 when the company was again sold. The current owners have relocated operations to Milstadt,IL. The press release concerning the new owners may be viewed on Michael Blane’s blog http://michaelbane.blogspot.com/2007/11/details-on-detonics-sale.html
My history with the Detonics Combat Master:
My interest in the Combat Master started from of all things reading Jerry Aherns popular novel series “The Survivalist”. I kept reading about this hero in his books that carried two Detonics Combat Masters. I had read a couple of reviews in gun magazines about this pistol so my curiosity got the better of me. It took a month just to find one and almost chocked when I found out what the price was. In 1983 these pistols were selling for right at $500 which in 1983 dollars was about equal to $1500 or so today if not more. I was finally able to acquire one for a fairly reasonable price. At that time the Sunday Arkansas Democrat ran gun ads which covered almost two pages usually. Ah the good old days:-) I found a used blue steel version which was one of the very early ones from the mid 1970’s. In 1982 I finally found a stainless version which was a Mark IV.
These guns had some very uniques features which you can discern from reading the history of these guns. I had no problem with the lack of a grip safety since John Brownings original design didn’t have one until the military insisted on it. One thing that I didn’t care for or understand was the rear sight being set so far forward and the top rear of the slide having a cutout. The intent was the designers never intended for this pistol to be carried in condition one or cocked and locked. What you were supposed to do was to draw and use the thumb of the left hand to cock the hammer as you came up on target. Certainly not an idea I would advise never the less that was the intention of the designers. The pistol was also breaking ground in recoil control by incorporating two then three springs in the guide rod. Recoil was surprisingly comfortable for such a small pistol.Of course the 32 oz weight didn’t hurt either. This was also one of the first if not the first to use stainless steel construction. The problem with stainless steels of the time was called gawling or friction between slide and frame. By using two slightly different types of stainless that problem was resolved.
On to shooting. You would be very surprised at the accuracy of such a short sight radius pistol. At 4 inches that’s a very short sight radius. For the intended purpose it works like a charm. Out to 15 yards you can achieve groups of two inches which for a short range defensive pistol is very good indeed. At distances that most shootings take place (7yards or so) this little pistol points very well and is reliable in the extreme. It’s also very controllable with the addition of the third recoil spring. Recoil I found was about like shooting a 9mm with a +p or +p+ load. As far as holding this little gem you do have to wrap your little finger under the grip.
As always we shooters tend to do a lot of trading and I’m no exception. These are two guns I wish I had kept. In closing if you ever get a chance to pick one of these up at a reasonable price it’s a good investment. Since many of the parts are interchangeable with standard 1911 parts repair should be of no concern. The only part that one should buy a couple of extras would be the recoil guide and extra springs. I hope you’ve enjoyed the review of the history behind this groundbreaking design.
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