Unblinking Eye
Pat Yates, Sid Woodcock, and the Detonics Combat Master

 

Pat Yates, Sid Woodcock, and the Detonics Combat Master
by Ed Buffaloe
 

I thought long and hard before sitting down to write this piece.  Does the world really need another article on the Detonics Combat Master pistol?  Possibly not, but I was interested enough to read everything I could find on the gun and I discovered there is a certain amount of misinformation out there.  I read Allen J. Chinn’s book, Combat Master: Sid Woodcock and Detonics, and thought it could use a review.  Plus, I recently acquired a Detonics Combat Master of my own and thought I thought I ought to write a brief evaluation of it.  So my article began to formulate itself along the lines of a history of development, a brief book review, and a range report for a classic Combat Master.
 

The Detonics Combat Master is well known as the first reliable compact .45 ACP pistol that was smaller than the Colt Commander.  It’s short grip and unusual profile make it instantly recognizable.  The Combat Master is still highly regarded even 40 years after it was first made.

Detonics MK. IV with Bobbed Hammer SN-I5630

Detonics MK. IV with Bobbed Hammer

Patrick Yates began work on the prototype for the Detonics Combat Master pistol probably sometime in 1972 as part of his personal quest for an accurate, reliable, compact .45 caliber sidearm for personal carry.  At the time, Patrick was an engineer working for the Explosives Corporation of America, and he had a friend named Ken Leggett who also worked there and also had an interest in building a compact .45 pistol.  Ken apparently made the first attempt, but ultimately it was Patrick who came up with a workable design.  In 2002 Patrick wrote a brief memoir published as Pat Yates: From Concept to Prototype in which he tells the story of the development of the Combat Master pistol.  A number of sources (including Chinn) state that Sid Woodcock designed the Detonics Combat Master, but in reality all he did was to encourage Patrick Yates in his efforts and then bought the design from him.

Yates worked with three used Colt 1911s he bought at a pawn shop, cutting and welding as necessary.  The grip height was shortened by about 3/4 inch and the barrel and slide length were reduced by an inch and a half.  He eliminated the barrel bushing and made the barrel cone-shaped so it would always lock in the same position when the slide was in battery.  He used three recoil springs, one inside the other, with the coil direction
Fig. 5 from U.S. Patent 249,800

Fig. 5 from U.S. Patent 249,800

reversed, over a guide rod capped at the front by a reversed recoil spring plug which also had cuts that made it into a stiff recoil buffer spring itself.  He eliminated both the grip safety and the manual safety, redesigned the hammer to have a near vertical spur, and moved the rear sight forward nearly an inch so he could mill the rear portion of the slide at an angle from the rear sight to the hammer, to allow for easier/faster cocking.  The rear of the ejection port was cut away to allow for clean ejection through the fast-cycling short slide.  Yates used very low profile front and rear sights, and added extra-thin smooth grip plates.  Since he carried the gun with a round chambered and the hammer down, he added an extra-strength firing-pin spring to reduce the possibility that the gun might fire if dropped.  He stated that his prototype pistol was still working fine 30 years after he built it.

According to Yates, Sid Woodcock had been a manager at the Explosives Corporation of America, but had left to form his own explosives company which he called Detonics.  Yates sold Woodcock the rights to the gun in 1974.  As he says:  “Sid...convinced me the little .45 was worth patenting and producing, so I sold the rights to Detonics, helped them fight through the patent flail, prepared for them a set of engineering drawings of the complete gun and offered whatever assistance I could manage in getting it into production.”  Yates loaned Detonics his prototype pistol for a year or more until they could make a working prototype of their own. 

The final Detonics design differed from the prototype in several ways, including no hammer spur, no recoil buffer, two instead of three recoil springs (a few guns were produced with three, and eventually the company returned to the three-spring design), a full-magazine indicator, and many other small details.  The hammer, slide, frame, and grip plates are necessarily unique to the Combat Master, but the slide stop, manual safety, magazine release, trigger, sear, and disconnector are all interchangeable with standard Colt parts.  Colt magazines will work in the Detonics as well.

Early hammer

Early Spur-less Hammer

Late hammer

Late Spur Hammer

In 1976 Jeff Cooper received an early production Combat Master (serial number 2100) to review for Guns & Ammo.  His article appeared in November of 1976 and as far as I can tell was the first mention of the gun anywhere.  The gun he tested had the spurless hammer shown in the patents, but did not have the screw to retain the plug on the end of the recoil spring assembly.  Cooper seems to have regarded the concept of carrying the gun in condition two, with the hammer down on a loaded chamber, as uninformed at the very least, and didn’t like the rear sight moved forward.  He much preferred to shoot the gun with a Colt magazine inserted so he had some place to put his little finger.  In the article he straightforwardly noted every problem he had with the gun, but overall he was impressed with its accuracy and low recoil.

The Detonics does not appear in Gun Digest until 1978, listed at $395, which was quite expensive, as the blued Colt Government Model and Combat Commander in the same issue were each listed at $235.  George C. Nonte gives the Detonics a few paragraphs in his “Handgun Report” in that same 1978 issue.  He says:  “This is a production gun, using a cast-steel frame designed expressly for it.  It is not simply a cut-and-welded Colt.  Workmanship on production examples seen is good and they appear to handle well--though the big-handed may find the butt uncomfortably short.”  Nonte later reviewed the Combat Master in the July/August 1979 issue of American Handgunner, but I see no need to quote from it here, other than to note that early Detonics pistols had some reliability issues which were apparently worked out by the time of Nonte’s test in early 1979. 
Detonics Combat Master Exploded View

Detonics Combat Master Exploded View

At the time of Nonte’s review the price for the blued Combat Master was $445.  In 1981, when Evan P. Marshall reviewed the stainless steel Mark VI the price had risen to $579.

In his 1987 book, Great Combat Handguns, Leroy Thompson says of the Combat Master: “I rate the Detonics...as the best combat handgun on the market for someone needing good knockdown power and concealability in the same package.  No other gun offers this combination as efficiently...and, despite the expense, one gets an ‘off the shelf’ quality usually associated only with specialist customization.”

The original Detonics company lasted from 1976 until 1986, and is said to have made 17,000 guns in this period.  The company went into receivership and its assets were purchased in 1987 by Bruce McCaw.  The company was re-named New Detonics and was moved to Phoenix, Arizona (though I have seen photographs of a gun marked New Detonics, Bellview, Wa.).  The New Detonics company only lasted until 1992.  Eventually, in 2004 the novelist Jerry Ahern (who penned ‘The Survivalist’ series of post-apocalyptic sci-fi/adventure books) bought the company and moved it to Pendergrass, Georgia.  In 2007 Ahern sold the company to Bruce Siddle and Dr. Steve Stahle, who moved it to Millstadt, Illinois and re-named it Detonics Defense.  At the time of this writing, the company appears to be moribund--the website lists no current products.  (The information in this paragraph was taken from Rick Hacker’s excellent but brief 2017 article in the online NRA Shooting Illustrated.)

Allen J. Chinn faults the sales strategy of the original company for its demise, which was to try to get as many sales outlets as possible to accept six guns on consignment.  Of course, this meant that guns were going out but money was not necessarily coming in.  The eighties of the twentieth century were a time of very high inflation, and a small company like Detonics could not count on economies of scale like Colt or Smith & Wesson or Ruger.  Plus a great many of the early guns came back to the factory for tweaking and tuning by the company gunsmiths, an additional expense the company could ill afford but could not avoid.

The Patents

U.S. patent Des. 249,800 was filed on 3 June 1976 by Patrick Yates, Sidney H. Woodcock, and Jeffrey R. Beals.  The patent was granted on 3 October 1978.  The “Des.” prefix means it is a design patent which covers only the external “ornamental” design.

Figure 1 from Patent 4,173,169
Figure 2 from Patent 4,173,169

Figures 1 and 2 from U.S. Patent 4,173,169
filed 9 May 1977.

U.S. patent 4,173,169 was filed on 9 May 1977 by the same trio of Yates, Woodcock, and Beals, and was granted on 6 November 1979.  The essential claims of this patent, as reflected in the production Combat Master, are the cone-shaped barrel with two locking lugs, the dual recoil springs fixed to the guide rod by a plug and screw, the small spurless hammer, and the scalloped slide in front of the hammer to allow easier cocking with the thumb.  Other potential features are discussed and illustrated in the patent, but were not implemented in the production gun.

Range Report

Detonics MK. IV with Bobbed Hammer SN-I5630

Detonics MK. IV with Bobbed Hammer

It is difficult to precisely date my Combat Master.  It’s serial number is I5630 and it is marked on the right side DETONICS ASSOCS. / SEATTLE, WA.  The barrel is stamped COLT .45 AUTO N.M. over  MK.IV/SERIES ‘70, which may indicate that it is an early barrel made from Colt parts .  The left side of the slide is also marked PAT. PEND., which may indicate that it was made before the end of 1979 when the patent was granted.  It must originally have had the second style of hammer with the short curved spur, but the gun came to me with the hammer bobbed, so there is nothing to catch on clothing--I do not know who did this.  This gun has dual recoil springs.

The old Combat Master shot remarkably well.  I had one failure to extract with 230 grain Fiocchi hardball ammunition, although I fired another 30 rounds of the same ammo without a glitch.  Otherwise, the gun fed and ejected everything I put through it.  My preferred carry ammunition, the the 230 grain Federal Hydra Shok was digested flawlessly, as was the 185 grain Remington Golden Saber hollow point.  The old gun was accurate and grouped well.  Recoil was tolerable.  It is a bit heavy for me to carry on a regular basis.  Later I put some Pachmayr grips on the gun, and although they make the grip a bit fatter they do absorb recoil better.  For daily carry I prefer my Mag-na-ported Kahr CW-45, which holds the same number of rounds, but has a grip frame I can get my whole hand around and weighs a half-pound less fully loaded.  The Mag-na-ported Kahr has less apparent recoil and I prefer its double-action-only trigger.  But that doesn’t detract from the fine qualities of the Combat Master.  Those who prefer single-action carry and who appreciate the Colt 1911 will almost certainly favor the Detonics pistol.

Combat Master: Sid Woodcock and Detonics

I enjoyed reading this book, not because Allen Chinn is a great writer--he isn’t--but because Sid Woodcock (1933-2011) was a truly amazing and interesting person, worthy of having a book written about him, and also because of my curiosity about the history of Detonics. The book is written in a deadpan reportorial style, but is not without value or interest.  Chinn gives an outline of his own early martial arts and firearms training, explaining that he developed his own style of Chinese kung fu, started his own school, and in 1983 talked his way into a job in the sales department at Detonics.  Sid Woodcock was immediately interested in Chinn’s martial arts background because Sid himself was a black belt in several disciplines.

Chinn relates that Sid Woodcock had trained at the Shaolin temple while stationed in China with the OSS during World War II.  Woodcock was a grand master of Shaolin Kung Fu, a master of Chin Na (Chinese joint locking techniques), and an 8th degree black belt in Shinobi (ninjutsu).  After the war Sid took a black belt in judo at the Kodokan in Tokyo, Japan and had “an extensive background in Aiki-Jujitsu.” 
Detonics MK. IV Combat Master Field Stripped

Detonics MK. IV Combat Master Field Stripped

He had served as an instructor for the U.S. Army special forces and U.S. Navy seal teams, and as a consultant for the DOD, FBI, CIA, and U.S. Secret Service .  Sid knew pretty much everyone, including William Fairbairn, Rex Applegate, Jeff Cooper, and William Casey, as well as almost everyone in the West Coast martial arts world.

Chinn provides a lot of information about the Detonics company, his own suggestions for new products and better marketing, and the various models the company made in its eleven years in business.  He also manages to give some insight into Sid Woodcock in the form of anecdotes and copies of photographs Sid kept on his walls.  The book definitely makes me wish I had gotten to meet Sid myself.  Anyone with an interest in firearms, and anyone with an interest in martial arts, will enjoy reading this book.

 

Field Stripping the Detonics Combat Master

  1. Remove the magazine and make sure the chamber is empty.
  2. Push the slide back until the half moon cutout aligns with the rear of the slide latch.
  3. Press the rear of the slide latch (just above the trigger guard on the right side of the gun) and remove the latch from the left side.
  4. Draw the barrel, slide, and recoil spring assembly off the front of the frame.
  5. Remove the recoil spring from the slide.
  6. Fold down the barrel link and remove the barrel through the front of the slide.

Note on reassembly:  There is a bit of a trick to reassembling the Combat Master, since the captive recoil spring tends to push the barrel link to the rear.  My procedure is to hold the slide assembly upside down with the barrel pointed down so the link is in its forward position.  Then I carefully insert the frame onto the slide so the link stays upright, align the link with the hole in the frame, and insert the slide lock.


References

Copyright 2018 by Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.
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