I know full well that I am not the first person to write about the Detonics company and their flagship pistol: The Combat Master. The reason why I am doing this is that I have a connection to the company in a couple of areas. The first being that I was born and raised in Seattle and work only a couple of blocks from where the guns were once made. The second is that my Brother in law is a close personal friend of the MaCaw family.
I first heard the name Detonics when I was in college (getting my degree in Administration of Justice) in the late 80's. I had been exposed to guns before, but now I was spending time with real gun nuts and learning about firearms on a whole new level. I remember one of my classmates had purchased a Detonics Combat Master and was bragging about what a nice pistol they were.......
Detonics was one of the first compact 1911 pistols....but the name, gun and company share some interesting origins.
We will start with the name itself......the word Detonics was coined by Swedish explosive specialists Carl Hugo Johansson and Per Anders Persson to describe the physics of detonating high explosives and their mechanical effects (Johansson & Persson, 1970). This was to separate the physical action of detonation, from the physics involved. Combining the word "Detonate" with "Physics" they came up with "Detonics".
1980 ad for the Combat Master
How did this word end up on a 1911 pistol you ask? Well the original Detonics company and the men who designed the pistol were former employees of a company called Explosives Corporation of America (EXCOA). So being in the business of explosives, they knew something about the work of the two Swedish specialists. As a side note (if you didn't know) the Swedish have a large body of work in the explosives field, it was a Swede, by the name of Alfred Nobel, who invented Dynamite.
Explosives Corporation of America had an office and manufacturing plant in Issaquah, WA, just 25 miles or so from where I am writing this blog.
In the early 1970's EXCOA was downsizing and that left several of the players in our story without a job. Two of these men, Mike Maes and Sid Woodcock formed a new company, named Energy Sciences Corporation, to make many of the specialty explosives that EXCOA could not make profitably.
Sid had watched as co-workers Pat Yates and Ken Leggett modified Government model 1911s into custom compact pistols and asked them about building the pistol as a production unit, but I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps we should introduce the players:
Pat Yates: Explosives Engineer and all around gun enthusiast, he had wanted his own compact 1911 and decided to try and make one. This prototype was the beginning of the Detonics Combat Master.
Ken Leggett: Explosives Engineer and fellow gun enthusiast, he along with Pat built some compact 1911s from used military surplus pistols.
Mike Maes: Former EXCOA employee and co-founder of Energy Sciences Corporation.
Sid Woodcock: Besides being a former executive at EXCOA and co-founder of Energy Sciences Corporation, he was one of the early OSS (Office of Strategic Services) operatives and later worked under contract for the CIA, Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Defense, FBI, Secret Service and the Department of Justice.
He trained at Shaolin, China during World War II and trained at the Kodokan in Japan after the War.
He was a Grandmaster of Chin Na, an 8th Degree Black Belt in Shinobi.
He was the instructor of units from the U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Navy Seal Teams. He taught Bruce Lee joint locking techniques (in case you were not aware Bruce Lee lived in Seattle for a while).
He was also an expert in firearms and explosives and of all things, a watch maker (A Chinn, 2012).
You notice I use the word was, sadly Sid Woodcock is no longer with us...but imagine the stories he could tell if he was.
Jefferey Bealls: An Engineer at Detonics whose name, along with Sid and Pat were listed on the 1st patent for Detonics.
Ray Herriott: Gunsmith, went on to create the MechTech Carbine Conversions using 1911 and Glock frames
Richard Niemer: Gunsmith, worked later for Safari/Olympic Arms (Olympia, WA) developing their 1911 model (the Matchmaster).
Peter Dunn: Gunsmith & Production Engineer, he followed the company to Arizona and then Georgia.
When going back to the beginning of Detonics and their Combat Master pistol, we really need to give credit to gunsmith Armand Swensen. Armand had experimented with cutting down a Colt Government model 1911 with some success.
Although Armand may have not been the first person to chop & channel a 1911, he was the one the inspired Pat Yates.
Incidentally around the same time that Detonics was getting off the ground (1975) the Rock Island Arsenal (the one owned by the U.S. Government, not the Filipino company) created a compact 1911 prototype, which 10 years later became the "Officer's Model".
Pat simply wanted a compact pistol for himself and couldn't see paying an arm and a leg for a custom one when he could probably build one himself.
Yates purchased three surplus 1911s at Central Pawn (a landmark gun shop in Seattle on First Avenue between Spring and Madison streets, the shop closed in May of 2007) for a whopping $210 (remember this was 1972).
He began working on different ideas to shrink the size of the 1911. Ken Leggett joined in the fun and the two of them started working out the issues with shrinking John Browning's pistol.
Here are a couple of photos comparing the Combat Master to a standard Government Model:
While all this was going on, EXCOA had released some of their managers into the marketplace (as in laid them off) and two of them (Maes and Woodcock) formed a new company (Energy Sciences Corp).
Woodcock had been interested in the pistol that Yates and Leggett had been building. He convinced Yates that it should go into production and Energy Sciences Corp should build it.
Yates sold rights to the design to Detonics (a new subsidiary of ESC) and walked away with some money and the right to special discount pricing on production guns. The first patent for the downsized 1911 was filed on June 3rd, 1976.
Woodcock and Maes took the Detonics name from a book (mentioned above) that was published a few years prior and the company was off and running.
When starting my research I figured it would be easy to find where the original guns were made, the town of Bellevue, WA is not that large and has a pretty small industrial foot print.
My first discovery was an address for a business named Detonics Small Arms LTD, I looked up the address on Google and found it was a residence, further digging revealed that this is or was the residence of Michael Maes.
According to the Washington State Dept. of Revenue, the company known as Detonics Small Arms LTD is still in business. Apparently formed in 1981, perhaps to maintain patent rights to the designs?
The current business address (again according to the WA Dept of Revenue) is at Seattle Tower Suite 2500, 1218 3rd Ave. Seattle WA., same as the original address for the 1st iteration of the company. Although I am not sure the space is still rented to the company.
You can also see all the licenses issued to the various enterprises that came and went.
The 1st name on the list "Detonics 45 Associates" was opened on June 1st 1976 and closed on September 30th 1982. The address given was the "Penthouse- Sea Tower". This is no doubt the same as the 1218 4rd Ave Suite 2500 address.
The Seattle Tower is a landmark building, it looks a lot like the building from Ghostbusters.....a couple of weird coincidences... both the Seattle Tower and 55 Central Park West (the building from Ghostbusters) were built the same year....and the Seattle Tower is supposedly haunted....OK back to the story
I had read that the original guns had a Bellevue, WA roll stamp and that the guns were made in Bellevue, see below: This later changed to a Seattle, WA roll mark, for reasons unknown to me.
I have been long fascinated by history and the factories where guns were once made helps tell the story, see my post on old gun factories here.
I wanted to know where the Detonics guns were built, but kept running into dead ends.
After some frustration I decided to look for the address on pieces of company literature, such as Owner's manuals....I found what I was looking for:
The address listed is 13456 S.E. 27th Place Bellevue, WA 98005..... this address is only 2 blocks or so from my office. It is the white building with the black roof in the picture below.
After Detonics moved, Viking Instruments made high end compasses there. The building is still called the "Viking Building" but is now leased to multiple tenants.
The original Detonics company (the Seattle based one) produced pistols from 1976 to 1987.
The first production models were named The Combat Master, which introduced some new design features including the use of a flared barrel that needed no bushing, double and even triple recoil springs (needed due to the short travel of the slide) and a ramped chamber to work with hollow points. Many different options and finishes were offered, including some without sights.
The first 1,999 guns were delivered to friends, investors and industry people for review. The normal production guns started at serial number 2,000. The stainless guns started at serial number 10,000.
Here is one of the first 1000 guns sold to the public (serial number range 2000-2999)
Here is a listing of the Combat Master production models
There is debate about whether or not any guns were actually made for the CIA, which is typical of any information regarding the CIA, no one really knows or those that do know cannot confirm nor deny the existence of anything related to an alleged operation......
The Combat Master was 6 3/4" long overall, 4 5/8" tall and 1 1/4" wide, it weighed in at 34 ounces. The barrel was 3 1/2" long and shortened magazine held 6 rounds (one less than the standard Government model).
Other features included a shortened and pinned in place grip safety (no longer acting as a safety), an abbreviated hammer and custom stocks (many seem to have Pachmayr grips, I'm not sure if the factory supplied those or not).
The grip frame and magazine were shorter than that of the Colt Officer's model, here they are for comparison:
The line of guns expanded beyond the Combat Master to include some full size 1911 pistols and even some double action pistols and an experimental double action revolver.
It appears that in 1987 production dropped to a level no longer profitable and the business was reorganized (and separated from its parent company, Energy Sciences Corp.).
More than 1000 people invested in the new venture named New Detonics Corp. One of the principle investors was a millionaire by the name of Bruce McCaw (of McCaw Cellular).
The effort to keep the guns in production was spearheaded by a man named Robby Barkum, which you may know from his company Robar, who provides custom gun finishes.
The New Detonics Corp. was relocated to Phoenix, AZ.
By the spring of 1992 the company closed down and the assets sold at auction.
The current Detonics company is named Detonics Defense Technologies LLC and is based out of Millstadt, IL
According to Bigger Hammer, many parts on the Combat Master are interchangeable with standard 1911 parts
Combat Master parts that are compatible with standard Colt Government Model production:
Extractor, firing pin and spring, magazine catch/spring/lock, slide stop/safety plunger assembly, plunger tube, trigger, mainspring housing, mainspring cap, mainspring housing pin retainer, mainspring cap pin, mainspring housing pin, stock screw/bushing, safety lock, hammer pin, sear pin, slide stop, barrel link/pin, disconnector, sear, hammer, hammer strut pin.
Combat Master parts that are different from similar Government Model parts:
Frame, slide, barrel, rear sight, firing pin stop, “grip plate” (grip safety), sear spring, magazine, stock panels, recoil spring guide, recoil spring cap (plug), recoil springs (two or three, depending on model).
Combat Master parts that are in addition to those above:
Recoil spring guide screw.
Sources for replacement parts, non-Colt standard:
“grip plate”, sear spring and hammer strut – Essex Arms
recoil springs – single, Wolff; dual, King’s Gun Works (Officers ACP recoil spring set).
stock panels – Gun Parts Corp.; “slim-line” grips, Brownells.
magazines – Metalform
barrels – Storm Lake Machine
firing pin stop – standard stop can be fitted, and cut flush with top of slide
The Firearm Blog
Johansson, C.H.; Persson, P.A. (1970) Detonics of High Explosives. New York, NY: Academic Press
Chinn, A (2012) Combat Master Sid Woodcock and Detonics. Raleigh, NC: Lulu.com