If you read any firearm magazine, browse Internet gun forums or admire fine custom guns, it’s fair to assume you’ve come across a company called Wilson Combat. Their high end products and outstanding reputation for superb customer service have built a solid brand-name that many shooters recognize. Today, Wilson Combat makes high end 1911 handguns, specialized AR-15 rifles and shotguns, different gun parts, magazines, suppressors, and various accessories from holsters to training videos. Wilson Combat even has a fine ammunition line for handgun and tactical rifles. But how did it all start? What’s the origin of Wilson Combat? And what’s the secret of their success? In this article we’ll go back in time to examine Wilson Combat’s history.
The year is 1972. A gallon of fuel costs $0.55 and Gold hits a record of $70 an ounce (hard to believe, isn’t it?). The average price of a new home is $27,500, and on average folks earns $11,700 yearly. President Nixon directs NASA to start the Space Shuttle Program, as the last of our ground troop leave Vietnam and the FBI hires its first female agent. Terrorist attacks are rampant, from Israel’s international Airport where terrorist kill 26 people and injure dozens, to the Munich Olympic Games, where the Black September group murders 11 Israeli athletes. That tragic and highly visible event triggered the formation of GSG9—the German elite Special Operations and Counter Terrorism unit. On a lighter note, the Godfather and Dirty Harry dominate cinemas, the Dow passes 1000, and… Bill Wilson graduates from high school. He starts, or rather continues, his tinkering and tweaking of semi-automatic handguns and revolvers’ actions. And that’s where our story begins, with a young man, his exceptional potential, and the backdrop of beautiful Arkansas.
Bill Wilson, the man behind Wilson Combat, began his professional career not as a gunsmith but, following in his father’s footsteps, as a jewelry and watch repairer. The fine motor skills and precision he was taught, especially while working on small parts, were soon to stand him in good stead but not in the way they were intended. It was Wilson’s passion for guns and shooting that led him to take up competition shooting and gunsmithing, and that’s where the Wilson Combat story starts.
At the time, the 1911 were rough by today’s standards, their sharp edges snagging in all the wrong places, and accuracy and reliability leaving a lot to be desired. As part of his competitive experience, Bill Wilson began to systematically improve and refine the 1911’s he was shooting. The results were obvious. His fellow competitors saw his guns and requested that Bill Wilson work on their guns too. Eventually Wilson started spending more and more time tweaking, rebuilding, polishing and refining 1911’s for a growing circle of customers. In hindsight, these were the early customers of Wilson Combat.
In the fall of 1977 what started as a sideline became a full-time profession and the beginning of a legendary business, when Bill Wilson opened the Wilson’s Gun Shop, now known as Wilson Combat. While growing his new business, Bill Wilson continued competing and collecting many titles, both local and national. As a shooter he stood out for his ability to combine speed and accuracy. I was a young pup when Bill dominated the Arkansas competition scene, but I did get a chance to see him shoot. When I bought my Wilson handgun I also ordered a few of their DVDs, because I wanted to see Bill Wilson and Ken Hackathorn in action. The videos were filmed years after these two legendary shooters stopped competing, and yet Bill Wilson was still so fast that it was impossible to see the details of his presentation when engaging multiple targets (unless you ran the video at slow motion). And his speed was only rivaled by his accuracy. As an interesting side note, in one of the scenarios (a fairly complicated one), Hackathorn managed to shoot faster and more accurately than Bill Wilson, something that a younger and fitter, Lenny McCgill, couldn’t out perform in the entire video. You can sum it up with a WOW!
While competing, Bill Wilson and his fellow competitors learned (the hard way), that no matter how good your 1911, a poorly built magazine will always find a way to prevent your gun from firing. At the time, bad magazines with cracking lips were the standard, and malfunction drills were as common as pulling the trigger. Losing a major championship because of a magazine malfunction must have been highly frustrating, not to mention annoying. But imagine the utter disaster that such a failure could lead to in handguns used by Special Forces, Counter Terrorism Teams, Hostage Rescue Units and, a bit closer to home– in self-defense scenarios.
Seeking to address this issue, Bill Wilson reached out to Bill Rogers (of Rogers Shooting School), a former FBI agent, a master shooter and a brilliant inventor. The combined knowledge and experience of these two brilliant men led to the first rock solid and durable 1911 magazine. Bill Wilson, with the help of Ken Hackathorn, put the Wilson-Rogers magazine through rigorous real-world testing. Hackathorn, a champion shooter and former small arms trainer for the U.S. Army’s most elite unit, commonly referred to as Delta Force, summarized the experience as follows:
”Back in 1980, Bill Wilson asked me to test some of his new Wilson-Rogers .45 magazines. He explained that he felt they had solved the problem of cracked feed lips and that their new magazines fed much more reliably than any others on the market. Well, its 30 years later now and I’m still using some of those original 6 prototype magazines that Bill sent me… Through the years they have proven without a doubt to be the most reliable and durable 1911 magazines on the market. I have personally used specimens from various production runs through the years and have yet to see any quality variation or have one let me down in any way. They are my first and only choice as well as the choice of the elite Special Forces units I train. I trust my life to a Wilson Combat® pistol and 8-round Wilson magazines; so can you
Wilson Combat continued on the road of innovation and quality. To assure that his guns were built with the best possible parts, Bill Wilson bought high end and very expensive CNC machines, with the result that his handguns reached a new pinnacle of excellence. Wilson Combat produced not just firearms but took on the challenge of introducing unique parts such as Accu-Comp compensators, Bulletproof unbreakable ejector for the 1911, and the SHOK-BUFF frame saver/recoil buffers.
A few years ago Wilson Combat decided to modernize the frame of the 1911, which traditionally was made out of steel or some such alloy. In a bold move, they produced the KZ-45 polymer frame 1911, with 11rounds of .45 ACP in a standard 1911 form factor. Some traditionalist suffered minor heart-attacks, but most people saw the KZ-45 as a step forward—keeping the well-tested and even loved form factor, while increasing magazine capacity and reducing the weight of the platform. Love it or hate it—it’s innovative and bold.
Another big milestone for Wilson Combat and its creator, Bill Wilson, came in 2002. For his innovation, excellence and outstanding firearms, Bill Wilson was recognized by the American Pistolsmiths Guild, an exclusive club of the very finest gunsmiths in the world, and he was awarded the honor of PISTOLSMITH OF THE YEAR. That rare honor recognized what each of Bill Wilsons’s customer already new—Wilson Combat stood for unmatched excellence and quality. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to see these great masters of their trade honoring this industrious man. His well-deserved pride was well-earned.
Building superb firearms isn’t the only area where Wilson Combat shines. From the very start Bill Wilson insisted that his customer service will be second to none. Since humans can make mistakes, the company instituted a policy to address any potential failure. Despite its fame and accolades, Wilson Combat doesn’t assume that the customer is always wrong; in short, its high level of customer service has remained high to this day.
In summary, lots of companies today say they strive for excellence, where in reality they just strive for a quick sale with the best possible marketing spin. So how do we know Wilson Combat is really as good as they say? Well, I’m a Wilson Combat customer. I had a minor problem with my handgun. I called up, spoke to a very polite and very knowledgeable guy. In a few short moments he decided that they needed my gun. Wilson Combat paid for me to ship the gun to them, and within a few days it was shipped back to me. How much did the repair cost me? Exactly $0. Furthermore, while competing with my Wilson, I had scratched it pretty badly and had scratched the magwell too. Imagine my surprise when I opened the package to find my gun with the problem fixed—and the scratches gone because the gun was fully coated again. How’s that for customer service and excellence?
Today Wilson Combat is a very successful business, employing more than 50 highly skilled employees, who combine several life-times of gunsmithing experience between them. These good folks continue the tradition of excellence and innovation Wilson Combat is famed for, putting their name on every gun they ship—no anonymous “Inspector 9”. With all his accomplishments, Bill Wilson teaches one all-important lesson: Following in your father’s footsteps is not always the right thing. Follow your heart, pursue your passions, and live out your dreams.
Stay safe, by staying alert,
Dan S. Defense