The Liebenberg Legacy

American Handgunner July/August 2002

By: Cameron Hopkins

After Feeding The Muse In South Africa, At Pachmayr’s And As The Driving Force Behind The S&W Performance Center, Liebenberg Is Back Doing What He Knows Best ... No-Limits Custom 1911 Work

Incubated like sand in an oyster, only to materialize one day as a pearl, Paul Liebenberg has emerged once again to create custom pistols. After resigning as manager of Pachmayr Gun Works’ custom shop in 1986, after shuttering his Pistol Dynamics, and as the founding director of Smith & Wesson’s Performance Center, Liebenberg once abandoned the 1911 to pioneer concepts of custom pistolsmithing. But now he’s back. Liebenberg’s career began in South Africa, where he customized 1911s for a thriving IPSC market. South Africa dominated IPSC in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Jimmy von Sorgenfrei won the world championship and Edith Almeda dominated the ladies’ category at the Bianchi Cup and any IPSC match she entered. Local shooters flocked to Liebenberg for custom gun work.

He was a willing teacher, mentoring the young Claudio Salassa, who would later follow Liebenberg to America and establish the Briley Pistol Division. Salassa himself pioneered numerous innovations in 1911 technology, and the mutual support of the old friends continues to this day.

Perhaps no deeper pool of pistolsmithing talent ever coexisted in one gunshop than it did at Roy Swayden’s Hoppes-scented confines in Johannesburg, where Liebenberg and Salassa worked together. At least not until Liebenberg’s next assignment.

His life as a pistolsmith in South Africa being a challenge because of embargoes on guns and gun parts, Liebenberg had no choice but to wield a TIG welder with a steady hand. Liebenberg and Salassa learned to improvise and became masters of welding their own parts. Welding a beavertail from nothing more than a stock grip tang was the norm.

Coming To America

Liebenberg read the writing on apartheid’s walls and left for America’s purple mountains and spacious skies — an immigrant. He was immediately hired by another ’smith of immigrant stock, Frank Pachmayr. In Pachmayr’s Los Angeles shop, Liebenberg reached the pinnacle of his prowess, absorbing what the kindly German imparted while blending in the improvisational skills he’d perfected in his homeland.

If the pairing of Liebenberg and Salassa was the “dream team” of pistolsmiths, imagine the thrill of walking into a shop and finding Liebenberg and Pachmayr at the same bench. Liebenberg worked as director of Pachmayr’s gunsmithing department, leading the Pachmayr Custom Shop to new heights by making Pachmayr’s Combat Special precisely the way the Old Man wanted it done.

Shortly before Liebenberg embarked on a curious ammunition project that would alter the course of the entire handgun industry, he was there to congratulate his friend when Pachmayr was awarded the Outstanding American Handgunner trophy in 1985.

Origin Of The .40 S&W

Few people outside Smith & Wesson’s walls know the true story of the .40 S&W’s origin. The genesis was a pistol Liebenberg built for a trimmed-down 10mm case firing a 180 gr. projectile 1,000 fps. And here is the real story.

Liebenberg was a world-class IPSC shooter, a former member of South Africa’s elite Springbok IPSC team. He shot world and national championships and the Bianchi Cup and always finished top 16, if not top five. He and another perennial top finisher, Tom Campbell of Smith & Wesson, became friends. Liebenberg told Campbell about the Centimeter, and from there the concept of the cartridge moved on to 2100 Roosevelt Avenue’s decision makers.

For Liebenberg, the Centimeter opened Springfield’s historic doors and he was recruited to build a new custom pistolsmithing division called the Performance Center. Meanwhile, with minor modifications, Winchester’s engineers matched the specifications of the cartridge, bringing forth in a joint venture with Smith & Wesson — the .40 S&W.

During an interim after new owners closed Pachmayr’s Custom Shop, Liebenberg built guns under contract for Pachamyr in his own shop called Pistol Dynamics. As well as building Combat Specials, he customized 1911 pistols for IPSC and introduced a breathtakingly accurate conversion called the Modular Pistol, for the Bianchi Cup.

The Impossible Pistol

Liebenberg mothballed Pistol Dynamics and moved his family east to Massachusetts in order to open S&W’s Performance Center. Without devolving into a list of accomplishments Liebenberg brought to the Performance Center, one story must be told — the origin of the Shorty Forty.

The big handgun manufacturing company, then the largest in the world, held staff meetings. Monotonous and dry, they required Liebenberg’s presence, for he was director of the Performance Center. Preferring to be at his bench, he chaffed at the bureaucracy. But realizing that staff meetings lubricate the corporate machine, he sat through them.

One day he proposed a compact version of the Model 4006, a 6906-sized .40 S&W. And the senior engineer dismissed it with an arrogant wave of his manicured hand.

“Impossible,” he sniffed. “The peak pressure is far too high and the slide velocity is off the scale. It will never work.”

Seething at the haughty manner with which this technocrat dismissed him, Liebenberg set to work. Calling on the totality of his experience as a pistolsmith, Liebenberg modified a frame into a compact configuration, machined a new slide, fitted the two and went to the test range. Satisfied with the result, he went to the next staff meeting cradling his creation.

“There’s the impossible,” Liebenberg said, and slapped the first Shorty Forty on the polished wood table in front of the engineer. He and other engineers huddled over the gun like nuns inspecting a novitiate, but they could find no flaw. Liebenberg changed the geometry of the 4006 to accommodate the pressures of the .40 S&W, allowing the cartridge to not just function with a short barrel and slide, but making it purr. The Shorty Forty became the single best-selling pistol ever produced by the Performance Center, and the basis for the currently produced Model 4013.

Time passed, new owners came and went, Smith & Wesson evolved. The Performance Center developed into a lucrative business, catering to a coterie of specialized distributors who bought everything Liebenberg and his colleagues created in a series of Limited Edition releases.

Promoted Upstairs

Upper management decided Liebenberg was too valuable to allocate to mere gunsmithing. With the Performance Center off and profitably running, Liebenberg was named Director of International Product Development, assigned to create models for Smith’s overseas customers. But then came the bad times. Smith & Wesson’s British owners sold-out to threats of a massive HUD lawsuit, signing an agreement that capitulated to Bill Clinton’s anti-gun agenda. The NRA launched a vicious attack on the historic American gunmaker, calling for a consumer boycott. Sales plummeted. Layoffs were inevitable.

Liebenberg survived the first two cuts. When the third string of pink slips set sail, his was among them. In a perverse sense, we should be grateful Liebenberg was fired. Because once again we have the single most talented pistolsmith working on the gun that truly deserves his attention, the glorious 1911 Colt.

Liebenberg resurrected Pistol Dynamics, the short-lived custom pistolsmithing business he once ran. Now located in Florida, he no sooner received the pink slip than he made the move south. Pistol Dynamics offers custom pistols built individually by Liebenberg himself, and a line of what Liebenberg calls “performance pistols” built on a custom-production basis.

A Welcoming Colt

To welcome the prodigal pistolsmith back to the bench where he belongs, we sent the seasoned master a “commercial” Colt to be customized as a Liebenberg Signature Model. Commercial Colts were made from 1913 until the introduction of the Series 70 and were, essentially, rejected Government Models thrown aside to be repolished and refitted for sale to the commercial trade.

Commercial Colts come with a “C” in the serial number, known to collectors as either C-suffix or C-prefix guns. The Colt we sent Liebenberg was a C-suffix made in 1963 and a perfect example of a classic commercial Colt — a horribly out-of-spec reject.

Without Liebenberg’s South African experience of cobbling together the worst of guns into superlative custom pistols and fabricating his own parts with a TIG welder, this vintage Colt probably would have become a doorstop for some gun safe. It was hardly a collector-grade piece, and was capable of being revitalized with only the most extensive work.

But from the sow’s ear came a silken Colt, beautifully restored and rebuilt into the very pinnacle of a Pistol Dynamics offering — a signed and numbered Liebenberg Signature Model. Like the Pachmayr Combat Specials he built in Los Angeles, all Liebenberg Signature Models come with their own serialized numbers registered with Pistol Dynamics. This is LSM number nine.

The old Colt is embellished with a number of Liebenberg’s trademark modifications features. First, regard the beavertail. Unusual, is it not? Pistol Dynamics offers a line of Liebenberg-designed custom parts and accessories for the 1911 pistol, called Pistol Dynamics Performance Products. A new style of beavertail called the “pocketed beavertail,” this beavertail is a handmade version of what will become a Pistol Dynamics Performance Product.

Look closely at the mag funnel. Can you see the microscopic line where the funnel is slotted into the frame? Not just welded on or dangling by the grip screw escutcheon, the new mag funnel is so exquisitely fit that, once again, the old master has redefined the genre. In fact, the frame-locked is a collaboration design between Salassa and Liebenberg. Look for other pistolsmiths to mimic this innovative fit.

Look through these pages for a picture that shows the mag release button. See anything peculiar? The hole on the left side of the frame has been counter-bored to allow the button to sink just a little bit further, insuring a positive release of the magazine. Look at the button itself. Can you tell that it’s been cut on a slight angle and then handcheckered at 50 lpi? This is to prevent the thumb from slipping off during a fast mag change.

But now for the ultimate new improvement of the 1911 from Liebenberg, his new front sight. It looks as though it’s been machined into the slide longitudinally, and not dovetailed for left-to-right movement as other pistolsmiths now consider de rigueur. How could Liebenberg ignore such a stricture, leaving his front sight “fixed” and unable to be drifted sideways to make windage changes?

Instead, Liebenberg chose to make the front sight interchangeable with a clever new barrel bushing design that locks the front sight into its recess. The front sight is an elevation adjustment tool, not a windage tool. The rear sight should be moved to adjust for lateral shot dispersion; the front sight should be changed to alter the vertical point-of-impact.

Liebenberg’s front sight is interchangeable by the customer. “I can supply a new front sight over the phone,” Liebenberg said. “The customer can call and tell me he needs to raise or lower his point-of-impact by such-and-such and I will make the necessary calculations, make him a new front sight and send it to him. He only needs to remove the barrel bushing, remove the front sight and replace it with a new one. A tritium dot, a fiber optic, a new height, anything can be supplied.”

The rear sight is a Bo-Mar combat sight, sunken into the slide or, as Liebenberg terms it, “pocket machined.” Needless to say, the Bo-Mar adjustable unit remains the finest, most rugged sight for the Government Model pistol. As it was before, when Liebenberg was machining them into Pachmayr Combat Specials.

Signature Touches

A handmade Liebenberg Signature Model is loaded with features. The frontstrap checkering is cut by hand, 20 lpi; beautiful hand-formed diamonds, row after flawless row. The mainspring housing is also handcheckered at 20 lpi. The squared trigger guard, handcheckered at 30 lpi, is a favorite of the expatriate South African.

“I made a replacement part (because the original was unserviceable) and welded it in place,” Liebenberg said. “I did a mild square-and-checker to enhance the lines of the gun. The Colt 1911 is a very angular gun and I like squared trigger guards, not to hang onto necessarily, but more for the aesthetic blend with the rest of the line,” Liebenberg explained.

Aesthetics reach a pinnacle of perfection on a Liebenberg custom gun — just ask Marc Krebs, C.T. Brian, Larry Vickers or any of the talented generation of younger pistolsmiths who candidly admit that they learned about aesthetics from admiring Liebenberg’s work in the pages of American Handgunner.

Consider the forward cocking serrations. Liebenberg duplicated the National Match style of serrations that came on the slide of this commercial Colt.

“Even though I’m starting to hate front-mounted pinch checks,” he said. “I decided to add them because I loved the old square serrations on the rear of this slide. We matched the cutters and the angle to make sure they worked aesthetically.”

Consider the finished work. The flats are flat, the edges are defined, the blends of different surfaces are seamless. The polishing is itself a work of art.

“I spent a considerable amount of time getting the lines of the frame and upper trigger guard straight,” Liebenberg explains. “I did not polish this gun on a wheel. The entire gun was draw-filed and hand-polished with various cork-backed manual tools.”

Consider the little things. The top of the slide is “decked and lined” at 50 lpi. The classic three-hole aluminum trigger is polished smooth and bright. The Ed Brown ambi safeties are radiused and blended. The rear of the slide is handcheckered at 50 lpi. The checkering on the head of the extractor matches perfectly with the microscopic checkering lines of the slide, a not insignificant feat.

Consider the hammer. It is a modified Commander hammer, with a beveled hole and handcut checkering, just like the old masters used to make. After so many iterations of hammer holes from so many pistolsmiths, isn’t it refreshing to see a classic Commander hammer in all its simplicity? Once again, the good Mr. Liebenberg shows us what taste and elegance on a 1911 is all about.

Inside

As masterful as Liebenberg’s cosmetic work may be, it is inside the 1911 where his true talents lie. No one, and I do mean no one, has a better understanding of the mechanical function of semiautomatic pistols in general, and the 1911 in particular, than Paul S. Liebenberg. Goodnight nurse, the man can custom-tune the timing of the gun and reconfigure the essential geometry of the locking system.

An example: as Liebenberg test fired the pistol, he noticed a slight discoloration on a spent case, soot blackened more than usual, indicating the timing was slightly off. He diagnosed and corrected the “problem” so the gun was perfectly timed to function with moderate loads.

Liebenberg’s command of the 1911’s physics is reflected in his unique design for a barrel link, known as the “Wide Link.” Liebenberg’s system utilizes a custom slide stop pin and hole.

“The slide stop hole was reamed and then an oversized and ground slide stop pin and Wide Link were fitted with optimized geometry that will do a good job of barrel stability, both in and out of battery. The timing was set for a moderate power factor,” the master pistolsmith noted.

The Wide Link was fitted to a Bar-Sto stainless barrel from the busy little shop in Twentynine Palms, Calif. Irv Stone III carries forth the tradition of accuracy and quality started by his legendary father, Irv Stone Jr. All of the country’s top pistolsmiths, from Vickers to Liebenberg, Heinie to Nastoff, name as their first choice in barrels the acronym for Barbara Stone: Bar-Sto.

The Bar-Sto was fit perfectly by measuring the hood cutout in the slide and matching it so the barrel hood keyed perfectly with the slide. Mated to the barrel was a bushing custom made by Pistol Dynamics. It is a conventional bushing — not one of the spherical bushings that Liebenberg and Salassa perfected — but it incorporates an extension that retains the front sight, as we noted previously.

The fit is finger-tight, wrench-loose. In other words, I could tighten the bushing with my fingers, but I needed a wrench to loosen it. With some shooting-in, the bushing will become finger-loose as well.

The recoil spring tunnel was ball-cut for precise concentricity. The disconnector notch was polished as smooth as Egyptian anthracite. All tooling marks were polished out. The inside of the slide was literally shining.

Interestingly, Liebenberg did not touch the slide-to-frame fit. It was perfect as it came from the dog-eared Colt box. He did, however, have to re-cut the sear and hammer surfaces to compensate for slightly off-spec hole locations in the frame. Elliptical, off-set and downright crooked sear and disconnector holes were not uncommon on commercial Colts.

The trigger breaks at a crystalline 3 pounds, like snapping an icicle. The trigger take-up is just right, not too mushy and not too short. Over-travel is nonexistent. The ejector is a long Commander style, with the nose radiused.

As I reassembled the old Colt, I marveled at how the inside of a Liebenberg gun is better finished than the outside of many guns. The man is truly a master.

The Finest Hour

Now entering his fifth decade on this insignificant pebble, Paul Liebenberg is building the finest guns of his long and distinguished career. He remains a visionary and a consummate craftsman, but his repertoire of capabilities has only now come to its apex in his midlife.

Liebenberg is at the noon of his talent. The skills he learned in his youth — welding and fabricating parts from scratch — have been enhanced with the experience he gained working with Frank Pachmayr. His ability to manage a custom shop on a large scale production basis came at the Smith & Wesson Performance Center. And his years as a designer of specialized products for Smith’s foreign customers have put the final hone on his razor.

The synergy is here, now. Pistol Dynamics is offering custom built 1911s, Browning Hi-Powers and other models for the collector, enthusiast, competitor, police officer and specialized military needs. Liebenberg himself is building handmade 1911s for discriminating customers, serialized and signed with distinctive white-filled engraving. Real engraving too, not just some acid-etched moniker.

And of course there is one more thing, a morsel I saved for the end. Pistol Dynamics will offer an exact duplicate of the legendary Pachmayr Combat Special, built to the very same specifications that Liebenberg followed when he worked for Frank Pachmayr. The gun, built on a yet-to-be-named premium brand of 1911, will be called the Liebenberg Combat Special.

Pistol Dynamics Performance Handguns will be available by the latter half of 2002 as soon as Liebenberg is able to get his new Florida-based facility up to speed. Orders for handmade Liebenberg Signature Models are currently being accepted.

On a sabbatical for the past 11 years from his workbench and checkering file, Paul Liebenberg is back. Pistol Dynamics will be the next quantum leap forward in the custom pistolsmithing business, just as Bill Wilson’s operation was in the 1980s. For those who lamented missing the chance to own an original Liebenberg, you just got a reprieve.

Pistol Dynamics, 2510 Kirby Ave., Unit 109, Palm Bay, FL 32905; phone: (321) 733-1266; e-mail: info@pistoldynamics.com; www.pistoldynamics.com