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.
Against this context, Woods is an anomaly: He's a custom pistolsmith with a liberal heritage and a long history of community involvement, about as far as could be imagined from the redneck gun-nut stereotype with the beer belly and the AK-47 knockoff. He clearly had an inner life and has reflected at length on his chosen course; he seems to strive for perfection in the narrow confines of the frame of an automatic pistol almost as a safe haven from other matters.
Steve Woods is a bearish, exuberant man, perhaps the only custom pistolsmith in America who regularly quotes Laotzu. A typical morning finds him in the high theater of his craft, with two or three half-assembled guns on little trays, so that none of their pins or screws gets lost or mingled. Each is awaiting the arrival of match-grade barrels from a machinist in California who specializes in them, but is weeks behind on delivery. He takes time off to talk to a Texas customer about a project for 1991. ("I rebuild the whole top of the gun for you," he says, and as he talks, like any salesman his accent begins to take on the verbal coloration of his perspective customer until he's all Texas.)
He fits a slide to a frame, one of the most crucial tasks in upgrading the pistol. He grunts and taps with a small hammer, getting the frame rails peened to the proper height. He puts the slide in a hydraulic press, to crush it ever so gently to the proper dimension. Then he'll add lapping compound, an abrasive gunk that grinds against the metal, so that when he runs slide across frame, the two are mated together.
"Well, that's about right. Three hours," he says when the job is done and the slide rides upon its rails with jeweled smoothness.
Woods grew up in Colorado and Texas - flat prairie, a hunting paradise - the son of a career Air Fore officer and a social worker. He seems to have inherited half of his personality and half of his life from each parent, a perfect paradox of a man. Guns and hunting were a part of his environment, so much so that he can't even remember the first time he fired a gun. But he remembers the first time he fired a pistol. It was his father's Government Model 1911A1.
"It was a privilege of age and maturity in our household to fire a handgun," he says. "And when my dad, who was a hell of a deer hunter and is a great pistol shot, took me out to the range and let me fire his automatic into some phone books, it really impressed me. The bullet went through all the phone books and vanished: It was as if it went to a different planet." Yet at the same time, he was to enter, initially, a line of work that had to be the heritage of his mother's personality: human services, the interface between government responsibility and private need, the zone where bureaucrats try to help the disabled. And a part of him stubbornly clings to that sense of liberal tradition. Woods is definitely a man of two worlds, two cultures.
He left the rural gunner's culture when he was 14. The family moved east, to Rockville, after his father retired from the Air Force and went to work for IBM.
"It was quite a shock," he recalls. "You couldn't even shoot in the back yard." He went to Antioch, a liberal arts college in Ohio, dropped out, kicked around doing odd jobs, "experimented with lifestyles," as he puts it. Eventually, he took some courses a Prince George's Community College, and somehow gravitated toward the Prince George's County Street Crisis Intervention program, which in turn, through personal contacts, let him to a small college in the new town of Columbia.
So it was that Steve Woods, who had hunted deer and prairie dogs in rural Colorado, found himself at the Columbia campus of Antioch, then a kind of hotbed for social action, anti-war agitation, and a leading edge of the social experiment that was Columbia in its earliest (and now forgotten) days. He stayed around long enough to get a master's degree in clinical psychology, which taught him, among other things, "that I could never be a psychologist.
"I had no patience with people when they did stupid things. I didn't have the stuff. I wanted to rush people through. What I guess I really wanted to study was Steve Woods."
Instead he became a social services administrator, and worked for over a decade in a variety of social service programs, both private and state. Meanwhile, he married - his wife, Lorry, is a psychotherapist - and fathered a son, John, now 11.
But he began, as do many men in the 30s, to wear down.
"I was completely burned out over how we administer human services in the state of Maryland. I saw tremendous waste and systems that were built to segregate and protect staffs and clients from the realities of normal adult life. I had a great need to be independent. And at the same time I had learned a great deal of business in contract work inherent to vocational service and I realized what I wanted to do was own a small business.
"And what happened, to be quite frank, is that pistolsmithing became the choice of convenience. I did love handguns very, very much. But I could do it from home and it didn't require tons of money to get started."
His first step was to attend a National Rifle Association seminar in gunsmithing at Rochester Institute of Technology. He then began doing pickup work in pistol and revolver repair for three local gun shops. But it was at this time he notice that the growth in the shooting sports was primarily taking place in the handgun sport known as IPSC shooting, which demanded a custom weapon.
The initials are drawn form a sanctioning body known as the International Practical Shooting Confederation. This new gun sport is a kind of mock gunfighting built around speed-draws from holsters against time for accuracy with live ammunition. The scenarios, which evolved originally form a retired Marine colonel's desire to set up a shooting laboratory and discover exactly what happens in gunfights and what is the best way to win them, have wild-and-woolly titles like "Evening in Beirut" and "The Mozambique Drill." They may boast a high component of fantasy but they demand exquisitely crafted weapons and, at the upper levels, world-class handgunning skills.
And at those upper levels, IPSC shooting somewhat resembles the NASCAR circuit, complete to gaudy national championships, enormous cash prizes, celebrity shooter-athletes, and industry sponsorship. It is largely, like NASCAR, a Southern and Sun Belt phenomenon, but is practiced in the East as well.
"I was shocked at the market out there for custom guns," says Woods. "I took one look at it and thought, no more repair work for me. It was also a way to pursue excellence in a highly abstract form."
Stephen Hunter is The Sun's film critic. Photography by Patrick Sandor