One of our greatest gunsmiths.
Once in a great while, a very great while, I actually say something which bears repeating. One such statement is the fact the best thing about the firearms industry is not the firearms themselves but rather the quality of the people involved in our field. Never in my proverbial wildest dreams would I ever believe I would meet and get to know many of the men who taught me via the printed page as a young sixgunner. It has been my good pleasure over the past 45-plus years to meet some of the finest gentlemen in our industry. One such fellow was Jimmy Clark.
One of Taffin’s prized possessions is this Clark Custom Colt Combat Commander .45 ACP.
In 1990, I aided Chairman Hal Swiggett in presenting the Outstanding American Handgunner Awards Foundation bronze to Jimmy Clark. I was one of the nominees and Hal was grooming me to take over the organization. Normally the OAHAF banquet was held in conjunction with the NRA Show, however in this particular year the NRA Show was being held in California. Since California had just passed some particularly onerous anti-gun laws, Hal said no way were we going to spend any money in California. So he changed the location of the awards presentation to Jimmy Clark’s home area of Shreveport, La. The actual recipient of the award is kept secret until the banquet but this was a different situation. We let Jimmy know ahead of time so tickets could be purchased for his friends and family.
There were 10 nominees that year and I was the only one to accompany Hal to Shreveport. Later, Jimmy would work with me in coming up with custom handguns for future winners of the bronze and one memorable revolver was the Clark Custom Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum presented to Walter Walsh. That was 1997 and Walter, who is still active by the way, was 90 at the time and had to wait 30 days to receive his revolver as he was living in Virginia which had the one gun a month plan. The silliness of this can see by the fact Walter was a former FBI agent, combat Marine, a longtime shooting coach for the Olympics but he just wasn’t qualified to have more than one gun a month!
September in Shreveport is not a pleasant experience for someone from the Northwest. The weather was absolutely stifling in its heat and humidity. The banquet was held on Friday and I was set to fly back out on Monday and Jimmy Clark saved me from a terrible fate by taking me home for the weekend thus avoiding a boring several days stuck in a hotel. It stands out as one of the most memorable times in my life. I met all of Jimmy’s family including his wife, son Jim Jr., daughter Kay, as well as the gunsmiths in his shop.
On Saturday morning, I met a young fellow who was just starting to make a name for himself as a humble sixgunner, one Jerry Miculek. Bill Jordan also showed up that morning. I shot with Jerry early in the morning, he beat me of course, with both of us using his 8-3/8″ Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. We quit shooting at 9 a.m. when the temperature and humidity both hovered at 100 degrees F. In spite of the weather, it was a wonderful time with Jimmy, Jerry and Bill Jordan, who soon became a cherished friend as we worked together through the OAHAF. Jerry, of course, not only went on to become the fastest double-action shooter the world has ever known, he also married Jimmy’s daughter Kay.
The S&W 1950 Target .45 ACP (top) compared to the Clark-inspired
1955 Target (bottom). Note the heavier barrel on the 1955 Target.
Jimmy was born in Texas in 1923 and served in the Pacific as a Marine during WWII. He was called back for Korea and spent most of his time working on pistols for the military. He was one of the early pioneers of accurizing the .45 ACP and also one of the first to chamber the 1911 for the .38 Special. In fact Jimmy started his custom pistolsmithing business in the early 1950s by purchasing 20 Colt .38 Supers and converting them to .38 Special. He was also an early pioneer in the use of long-barrel/long-slide 1911s. All the time he was pistolsmithing he was also competing being the fifth man to break 2600 in the NRA course in 1950 and 10 years later was the fourth man to achieve 2650 out of a possible 2700.
He was an early advocate of then relatively new Ruger Mark I .22 Target Pistol winning the .22 Aggregate at Camp Perry in 1953 with a factory Ruger. At first he taped a lead weight under the barrel to add weight and then 2 years later he installed a custom Douglas bull barrel with an integral muzzlebrake. Jimmy was featured in Ruger’s advertising of the time which proclaimed “ultimate proof of Ruger performance.” Until his passing Ruger custom .22s were one of Jimmy’s biggest sellers.
I have three Clark guns, one is a Ruger 10/22 fitted with a match barrel and a Clark trigger, a second .22 is a 10″ MK II tuned and also fitted with a Clark trigger, and one of my most prized processions is a .45 ACP Clark Custom Colt Combat Commander. Jimmy had built this for a customer who for some reason was not satisfied. From a machine rest this magnificent little .45 will do 1″ at 50 yards and when Jimmy told me I could have it for cost I did not hesitate. He even allowed me to take the gun and make payments as I was able. Thank you, Jimmy!
In 1949, Jimmy did a short-action job on a Model 1917 S&W .45 ACP revolver. He had found he could shoot the revolver better than the 1911s available at the time. Unfortunately, as he was reloading, a double charge of powder snuck in and took the gun apart. In 1951, Jimmy bought two S&W 1950 Target .45 ACP revolvers, tuned the actions and found he had a revolver which would shoot jacketed bullets pretty well but as he says:
“… they were a disaster with our handload using the Hensley & Gibbs No. 130 cast bullet and 3.5 grains of Bullseye powder. I returned both revolvers to the factory explaining the problem. After several months, I received them back with very small groups the boys at the factory claimed to be fired at 50 yards. I again tried various loads with the same terrible results. The guns were retired and never fired again.”
In 1954, Jimmy was complaining to someone at the S&W booth not knowing he was talking to then President Carl Hellstrom about those 1950s. The discussion became quite heated and the president did not at first appreciate what Jimmy had to say and Jimmy thought that would be the end of it. But the more Hellstrom thought about it the more he felt Jimmy knew what he was talking about.
The following year, 1955, Jimmie won the Mid-Winter Matches and he was awarded a brand-new S&W 1955 Target. When Hellstrom presented the award he said: “You of all people winning one of these guns.” Jimmy, once again, told him he had purchased the 1950 Targets to shoot, and they would not. If this one would he would use it. Jimmy found it shot every bit as good as the 1911 autos.
Jimmy would later say: “I often take my old Model 1955 out of the safe and fire hardball ammo at long ranges. It is an excellent plinker at 100 yards or so at anything that floats along the banks of the Red River. Needless to say, it is one of my most prized possessions.”
The 1955 Target which Jimmy Clark “inspired” S&W to offer was basically an upgrade of the original 1950 Target .45. The barrel was changed to heavyweight bull-barrel-style and target trigger, target hammer and target stocks were added. I also believe they changed the rifling to better accept cast bullets. I’ve had considerable experience using cast bullets in three 1950 Targets, a 1955 Target, and the later Model 25.
They all shoot cast bullets exceptionally well, however I am very careful to choose my bullets, normally going heavier than the old 200-grain H&G 130, and also to size them according to the chamber’s throats on each one of these revolvers which are .454″ or larger. Jimmy probably stayed with the 200-grain bullet because of lighter recoil. If he had followed my path the 1950 Target might have shot well for him but then we would never have seen the 1955 Target. Sometimes things work out just the way they’re supposed to.
Not only is the 1955 Target an excellent gun in its own right, it is easy to see the blending of the 1955 Target .45 ACP with the 1950 Target .44 Special resulted in the original .44 Magnum. Elmer Keith may have inspired the cartridge but it certainly looks like Jimmy had a hand in bringing about the sixgun.
Clark Custom Guns, Inc.
336 Shootout Ln., Princeton, LA 71067
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