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  #1  
Old 07-02-2020, 02:38 PM
JSP JSP is offline
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Unicorn or ? My "Thunder Ranch Special” story

Haven't been on the forum in a while, but thought I’d post a short story some might find interesting...

In the late 80’s and early 90’s I’d gotten heavily into 1911’s and handgun training, finding the platform to suit me better than any other handguns. I had most variations of the 1911 - Government, Commander and Officer sizes and enjoyed each for its merits.





In the mid 90’s I began seeing ads in the gun mags for “Thunder Ranch Coming Soon” and was intrigued as the location was near property I owned in the Hill Country of Texas. When Thunder opened in the mid 90’s, I was blessed to be able to attend several courses for rifle and pistol, including Handgun I, II and III which I shot with 1911’s and a Glock 21.

During that period, Clint Smith and Bill Wilson had contracted to produce a limited series of 50 (if I recall correctly) Thunder Ranch Special pistols. They were, of course, out of my price range but I remember Clint carrying his and I believe his late wife Deb also wore hers (Clint's was 001 and Deb's was 002 I think)

I really enjoyed the training at Thunder and wish I’d been able to attend even more courses. Great times and memories, not to mention skill sets skyrocketing.

In the late 90’s, brain dead from perusing a big gun show, I perked up on spotting a 1911 with a “Thunder Ranch Special” logo on the slide. It was lying on the table with a few other handguns and surprisingly not locked away in a case. I snatched it up to inspect and it had the TR logos as well as "Wilson Combat" on the opposite side of the slide. The bubba behind the table smiled and said “You’re the only guy who's recognized that pistol.”



I was intrigued, but despite the roll marks, it differed from what I remembered in the ads, sporting a newer set of Wilson sights, a smooth mainspring housing, single sided safety, cocobolo Wilson grips and a serial number higher than 50. Owner said he’d bought it from the Wilson’s table at another show. If it was a true Thunder Ranch Special, his price was good. I didn’t have the cash or inclination to gamble on something that appeared to be one thing but also differed and wandered on. I continued thinking about it, since the fit and feel were of a well built 1911 and the slide meant there was some thread of connection with Wilson somewhere in its past. I thought maybe an owner had sent in his TRS to have Wilson upgrade the sights, but the serial number wasn't right. It also could have been a home built gun with a guy who had access to engrave a fake slide.

That night I perused old magazines and found an article on the original TRS and yes, the limited edition had the older style Nite-Eyes, serial #'s of 1-50, ambi safety and Thunder Ranch logo grips, so I knew it wasn't one of the limited edition pistols. Nonetheless I was intrigued and decided to ask a few more questions on it.

The next day it was still there, the owner's story the same, but now anxious to deal as he needed last day cash from a slow show. I fondled it a while and it was tight and smooth and whoever had built it knew what they were doing. Being the 1911 slut I am, I decided to gamble and walked away with it, having buyer's remorse less than 2 tables further down the aisle.

Next morning I called Wilson Combat and was connected to John LaHue. I described what I had and shared the serial number. John said he'd do some digging and get back to me. The next day he called and said he'd tracked it down.

John said the pistol had been built in the Wilson shop by one of the Wilson gunsmiths as a personal gun, using an extra TRS slide for the pistol build. John said that though it had been built in the shop, they of course couldn't warranty it as a Wilson custom gun since it hadn't been purchased through them. However, he said that I should have complete confidence in it, since it was built in-house by one of their smiths using Wilson parts. Parts were warranted of course.



My exhale of relief upon news of snagging a pistol with Wilson genetics could be heard for blocks... Even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes.

John sent a nice verification letter for my records, detailing what he'd shared over the phone, including the gunsmith's name.

That afternoon I hit the range and it was everything I'd expect from a Wilson level pistol, one-hole accuracy and smooth as silk with a great trigger. I owned a Wilson 1996A2 at the time, a superb gun in itself, and it was certainly its equal in function and accuracy, but with better sights and finish.





It just so happened I had a set of new ultra-thin Slim-Tech grips with the Thunder Ranch logo. Clint had been experimenting with slim grips and during one of my trips to Thunder had handed me his 1911 to see what I thought of them. Despite having big hands, I liked the feel and had bought a set in the pro shop. I replaced the Wilson cocobolo grips with the TR grips. Instead of "build it and they will come", I now say "buy Thunder Ranch Grips and the pistol will come"



So, in the royal lineage of Thunder Ranch Specials from Wilson, Les Baer and Nighthawk, of course a bastard child shows up in the mix...

I’m not sure whether to call it a "bastard" or a "unicorn", but its heritage is good. Time has proven it to be the one 1911 I’d probably keep if I had to let the rest go.



Thought some of you guys who were hanging around in the 80's and 90's might appreciate a retro memory bump.
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Old 07-02-2020, 03:35 PM
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Grandpas50AE Grandpas50AE is offline
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I've been around for a long time, and truly enjoyed your story of your "red-headed stepchild" (or unicorn if preferred). It is always interesting to come across these personal stories, as I know some of the smith's that have been at Wilson for their entire career or almost entire career, and occasionally see a "one-off" like this built by one of their smith's as one of their personal guns and end up in someone else's hands. Cool story! And welcome back from the long absence!
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Old 07-02-2020, 04:23 PM
James3612 James3612 is online now
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Great story. Do you think you would share the smith’s name? That would be interesting as well.
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Old 07-02-2020, 04:44 PM
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apipeguy apipeguy is online now
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Very good story and read, thank you. As James said it would be very interesting to read the smith’s name but also understand if you choose to keep that to yourself.

Again, thanks for the good read and photos.
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Old 07-02-2020, 05:23 PM
JSP JSP is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Grandpas50AE View Post
I've been around for a long time, and truly enjoyed your story of your "red-headed stepchild" (or unicorn if preferred). It is always interesting to come across these personal stories, as I know some of the smith's that have been at Wilson for their entire career or almost entire career, and occasionally see a "one-off" like this built by one of their smith's as one of their personal guns and end up in someone else's hands. Cool story! And welcome back from the long absence!
Thanks and glad you got a kick out of it - I think "red-headed stepchild" might be the better description


I decided to leave the pistolsmith's name out, since he may have a preference to remain unknown...
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Old 07-02-2020, 06:11 PM
JSP JSP is offline
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Since I referenced having a Wilson 1996A2 for comparison, here's a pic of mine from the 90's (used to be a studio photographer).

IIRC these were the first CNC milled semi-production 1911's with some critical hand fitting as well - if I'm remembering wrong hopefully someone will correct me.



I think this 1996A2 configuration was similar to the original Thunder Ranch Special as far as sights, ambi safety, etc, but obviously the TRS' were a higher grade build. I read the original TRS' used Caspian frames and my "red-headed unicorn" looks to have the Wilson frame that was probably the same used in the 96A2 series - if I had to guess.

The 1996A2 I have is an outstanding 1911 in its own right and the price for them fell about halfway between a stock factory 1911 and a base custom Wilson. The performance level of this one was and is definitely custom grade.
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Old 07-02-2020, 06:50 PM
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Grandpas50AE Grandpas50AE is offline
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Beautiful gun! It would not surprise me any if that A2 was built by Ron Phillips or Jim Wilson, both long-time employees of Wilson. Ron is a trouble-gun diagnostician last I checked, and Jim Wilson is a Supergrade smith. Love the "red-headed unicorn" label!
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Old 07-02-2020, 06:53 PM
aaronsappl aaronsappl is online now
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Very cool story to go with a fantastic 1911.
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Old 07-02-2020, 07:46 PM
EL Perdido EL Perdido is online now
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Wilson Combat Thunder Ranch Serial number 28 is on GB right now
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Old 07-03-2020, 12:44 PM
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Very neat story. Thank you for sharing.
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Old 07-03-2020, 02:18 PM
azguy1911 azguy1911 is offline
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Great post, thanks for the pictures and story
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Old 07-03-2020, 06:02 PM
JSP JSP is offline
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Gracias amigos!
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