March 01, 2021
I knew Jim Clark to be a polite and kind southern gentleman. I first met him in the late 1970s when I worked for Gil Hebard, his good friend and fellow NRA Bullseye pistol champion. At that time,
I was a lowly high school kid, and all I knew about Jim was that he had won a bunch of pistol matches and that he was a top-notch pistolsmith. Regardless, the few times I was in his presence, he treated me with good-natured humility. I respected him for that. Later, I learned a lot more about the man, and I came to respect him even more.
James Edwin Clark was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 15, 1923. Three years later his father abandoned his family. His mother eventually remarried, but in order to help out with the family’s grim financial situation, at an early age, Jim worked at whatever odd jobs he could get. By the time he was in high school, the family had moved to Shreveport, Louisiana. His stepfather wouldn’t allow any guns, so Jim didn’t learn to shoot until he joined the high school’s rifle team. He soon found out that he was good at it, but it didn’t come easily; he had to work at it, all while holding down a part-time job at the local A&P store. He also was good at mechanical drawing and hoped to one day be an architect.
Fresh out of high school, Jim tried to sign up for the Navy because he wanted to be a pilot. That didn’t work out, so he joined the Marines instead. They put him on the rifle team and trained him to be a sniper. He saw action during World War II in Saipan and Roi Namur, making many incredible shots (for example, on one day alone, he fired 300 long-range shots and hit 100 percent of his targets once he had the range figured out). Eventually, he was wounded while rescuing another Marine.
After his discharge in 1945, Jim enrolled in college, majoring in architecture, and he also started working part-time in a gunshop. Did I say he was hard-working?
He first tried NRA Bullseye competition in 1947 with guns borrowed from an acquaintance. He qualified as Sharp Shooter, made Expert in his second match and Master in his third. He evolved into one of the greatest competitors we’ve ever seen. Of course, he worked at that, too.
Some of his pistol-shooting achievements include winning the U.S. Open Pistol Championship in 1958 (he was the only civilian to do that during his almost 30 years of competition shooting), winning the National senior title five times, and becoming the fourth man in history to break a score of 2650 (out of a possible 2700).
Jim also pioneered and mastered the use of, and the building of, competition-grade Model 1911 pistols chambered for .38 Special. That was no easy endeavor. It’s a bit too complicated to go into in this limited space. Suffice it to say, shooting the very accurate and soft-shooting .38 Special “revolver” round in an autoloading pistol offered an edge to top competitors, and Jim was one of the very few pistolsmiths who figured out how to convert Model 1911s for it.
Jim started his own gunshop in 1951 and eventually hung up his competition pistols in 1975. After that he focused all his energy on his pistol-accurizing business. He developed many innovative parts and techniques for building some of the very best competition pistols ever made. His Clark Custom Guns company became one of the premier custom houses in the United States, all undoubtedly due to his hard work.
In 1985 Jim received the Pistolsmith of the Year Award from the American Pistolsmiths Guild, and in 1990 he received the Outstanding American Handgunner Award. Although Jim passed away on January 7, 2000, Clark Custom Guns is still in business. His daughter, Kay Clark Miculek, and late son, Jim Jr. (both champion shooters in their own right), ran the business for several years, and now it’s owned and operated by the third generation of the Clark family.
I was lucky to have met Jim, and I’m very proud to own one of his .38 Special Model 1911s. He worked diligently throughout his life to achieve the goals he set for himself, even becoming a pilot, although not for the Navy.
James E. Clark definitely was one hard-working handgun hero.