If you’ve got a 1911 and you want to add a red dot, fear not! It’s easy. I recently mounted a Vortex Venom on a Clark Custom 1911. All I needed were a few tools, an EGW mount and a little advice. All can be acquired from Brownells.
But let’s take a step back.
I love the .38 wadcutter round. I like its light recoil, accuracy and the perfect little circles it punches in paper. When a friend was ready to unload a Clark Custom “Long Slide” (6”) 1911 configured in .38 Special, I jumped at the chance to buy it. Produced largely in the 1960’s and 70’s, these are target pistols with traditional Bo-Mar iron sights.
So why did I need a red dot? I can still shoot with iron sights respectably but as a baby boomer, unlike vintage wine, my eyes are not improving with age.
Some Clark History
Before discussing how to add the optic, I thought it appropriate to discuss the genesis of Clark’s .38 wadcutter. For those of you not familiar with Shreveport, LA-based, Clark Custom, this humble family enterprise has produced some of the best Bullseye guns of the last century. According to legend, when the founder, Jim Clark, a WWII Marine Corp veteran, was called back into service in 1951 during the Korean war he spent considerable time at Camp Pendleton, California, gunsmithing Marine competitive shooters’ .45 pistols.
It’s said he encountered a .38 Colt Super that had been converted to a .38 Special wadcutter and was thoroughly captivated by it.
Years later, when he established his shop, Clark started fashioning his own .38 Specials, both in 6” and 5” versions. In those days the long slides were not mass produced. In fact, they weren’t produced at all, so he rolled his own by welding the end cut from a military slide to a second slide in order to fabricate the long heavy slide of a .38 wadcutter (or a .45) bullseye gun.
Likewise, he had to manufacture his own six-inch barrels. He did so by drilling and reaming the cut off rear end of military barrels to accept six inch barrels machined from premium Douglas barrel blanks. Subsequently, after the long slide guns became popular, Clark had others fabricate the long slide blanks for further production.
If you look carefully at a Clark Custom long slide you can discern where one end of the slide was welded to the other. There’s a faint difference in the bluing.
Clark was not only an inventive gunsmith (having been awarded American Pistolsmith of the Year) he was also an exceptional shooter. He won the National Pistol Championship in 1958 — the only civilian ever to accomplish this feat as well as the National civilian title five times.
Adding the Dot or Not
Before messing with this classic gun, I thought it best to do diligence.
I called Clark Custom to ask what was entailed in adding a red dot and was fortunate enough to speak to Logan Clark, the grandson of Jim Clark.
I was told, it was simple enough to remove the rear sight but there might be consequences. First and foremost, accuracy could suffer. That’s because an “accuracy tuner” is integrated into the old-fashioned Bo-Mar rear sight. Operated by two screws (the ones closes to the ejection port) the tuner puts pressure on the barrel to keep it snug against the slide when in battery.
Clark’s solution to removing the old fashioned rear sight was to add his own red dot mount which also has an accuracy tuner.
Sounds reasonable but in order to mount the Clark adapter you had to tap a few more holes in the slide to affix this mount.
I didn’t like that idea for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to add a Red Dot without having to adulterate the original Clark in any way. After all, it’s a collector’s item. The second reason was that I wanted this to be a DIY project.
I asked Clark if it was possible that the gun didn’t need the accuracy tuner—that the barrel to slide fit might be accurate enough without it. He said this could be the case and suggested I loosen up the two hex screws and “un-tune” the gun and see what happens.
I did just that and was able to get decent (under 2″) groups at 25 yards off the bench. As far as I was concerned, the gun was plenty accurate—even without the accuracy tuner.
Thus, I didn’t need to go with the Clark mount. There was another 1911 sight mount available from a company called EGW which didn’t entail tapping more holes. I had used EGW parts in the past and was extremely impressed with their quality and engineering. The company specializes in fabricating competition-quality parts for 1911s and other firearms.
All Systems Go
The next step was to acquire the parts.
The EGW mount was designed for red dots from Docter and, the Vortex Venom. I opted for the Venom which works great and has a very reasonable price point ($229). It’s also super light (1.1 oz)–light enough so that it didn’t interfere with the slide’s cycling. The weight of the optic combined with the mount is less than half of the original Bo-Mar unit. This is important because adding even more weight to the slide could mean having to change out the recoil spring.
The Vortex Venom red dot was crisp and its 3 MOA dot is ideal in my estimation, for 25 and 50 target shooting. I like a precise dot that allows me to specifically cover the bullseye–and no more. It has two modes–auto, which adjusts to ambient light and manual, which is user adjusted. It will automatically shut off (in auto mode) but not in manual. To turn it on, you simply press one of the arrows and to turn it off, you hold the down arrow for five seconds.
I own four different Vortex optics and have found them to be dependable and durable. I shoot with one of the best marksman in the state (a former Camp Perry winner) and he uses a Venom on his high end 1911s. If its good enough for him, it’s more than good enough for me. Their tech support is excellent, should you need it, and they have a lifetime guarantee.
Getting the rear sight on the old Clark was not difficult. The sight is easily removed by unscrewing the Allen head screws and the altitude adjustment screw. Beneath this assembly is one more hex screw and the whole shebang comes off. You’re left with a slide that has four tapped holes. I noted that the EGW mount covered three of the four holes. The fourth was located just behind the ejection port. Before adding the mount I wasn’t sure if it was necessary to plug all the holes.
I contacted George Smith, the founder of EGW who knows a thing or two about gunsmithing. George said that I shouldn’t be concerned about the three holes that mount covers because they enter the tunnel for the firing pin. “Not a big deal,” he said, “actually dirt comes in from the chamber area so the holes on top do not represent a danger unless I take the gun to a beach.” We agreed that this was not likely.
I left the three tapped holes open but decided for aesthetic reasons to cap the fourth with a 6-40 plug screw, also from Brownells.
So I placed the slide in my vice, protecting the sides with wood. I was careful not to cinch it down too much–just hard enough keep the slide stationary. I carefully tapped the mount in with a small brass mallet from left to right, trying not to damage the finish. I did manage to take off a little of the coating but covered with a little Birchwood Casey “Superblack”. No one was the wiser. (As my colleague pointed out, a real gunsmith would not have left any marks or blemishes on the parts).
It went on with a little effort and I measured it with a caliper to make certain it was mounted smack in the middle of the slide. After a little tweaking the job was done.
I then placed the Vortex Venom atop the mount with a touch of blue Loctite and voila, my Clark had been transformed into a 21st century firearm.
Shooting and Ammo Prep
So how did the darn thing shoot?
After getting the red dot mounted I had about two hours until range closed that afternoon. I sprinted out to Kokohead Range and got the gun sighted in without much ado. After doing so, my second group off the bench was under 1 1/2″ at 25 yards. Was I pleased? You bet. Could I do even better? Unquestionably.
There are a number of good loads for this particular gun but my tried and true was 3.1 gn of 231 powder over a Zero Bullet. I found this worked best for semi-autos using conventional 5 inch slides (rather than the 6″). I also loaded 2.8-2.9 gr of Bullseye, which is considered a classic load for this bullet and proved equally accurate and was slightly stronger. The Clark has a lot of slide to push around.
But there was a snag. I was shooting accurately, however it had trouble cycling. Once in a while the slide would get stuck, but after close inspection I realized it wasn’t always the light load at fault. I was using shell casings way past their prime. The tolerances on the barrel were really tight to the point where if the cases weren’t perfectly sized, they would stick in the chamber. Some of the cases were just too tired and stretched out.
Thus the issue had more to do with the cases rather than the load. What I discovered was an old lesson that I’ve been preaching in these columns.
My refrain has been, “use decent brass”. I decided to follow my own advice and acquired some new Starline .38 Special brass. I tweaked the sizing die, just to make sure and loaded up a bunch of the new brass. Not to my surprise, the gun cycled like a champ.
What about the bullet?
There are some excellent wadcutters out there but I like Zero, which makes an excellent hollow-based, swaged, wadcutter. I’ve used it in several .38 semi-autos with success. The head of production at the company, Fred Stallings, told me that over the past few weeks the manufacturing process of his HBWC bullets have been improved and he thinks they are better than ever.
The bottom line is that the venerable Clark. 38, fitted with modern optics, was still was extremely accurate even without the old Bo-Mar tuner. Just as important;y, the pistol is eminently more usable for my aging eyes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives.” Fortunately that’s not the case for traditional American firearms.
This is the kind of modification anyone can do with the right tools and the right advice. I did derive pleasure from being to do this on my own, which is what a DIY project is all about.