C&S Pathfinder 9mm

By Ronald Dorman

Day three of the 2001 SHOT Show found me meandering aimlessly up and down the isles at the New Orleans Convention Center trying to find something to get excited about. The week hadn't been a total waste, mind you. The Show is always a great place to catch up with old friends or finally meet face to face with those whom I knew only through phone calls and emails exchanged during the previous year. Truth be told, I had seen a few new products that I liked very much.

I had just decided to forgo another $12 hotdog lunch in favor of a complimentary pack of trail mix when it hit me like a bolt from the blue. I hadn't been to see Bill Laughridge yet. A brief look at my ever present floor map and I was off at a dash to the other side of the convention center to the Cylinder & Slide booth.

I found Bill behind his counter complete with trademark moustache and misfit grin. We talked for a while, catching up on the happenings since our last visit, until anticipation finally got the better of me and I had to ask "So Bill, what have you got hidden behind the counter this year?" With a conspiratorial smirk and a feigned glance over his shoulder to make sum the coast was clear, Bill reached under the display case and produced a work of art.  It was obvious that the gun before me had been born a Browning  Hi-Power, but in true Darwinian fashion (and with a little help from Cylinder & Slide) it had completed the evolutionary cycle and now occupied a seat at the top of the food chain. In simplest terms, it was a 9mm Hi-Power whose frame and slide had been reduced to Goldilocks proportions: not too long, not too short, but just right.  Naturally; there was a grocery list of custom modifications and features that had been added to the gun as well, but well get to that. After noticing the new dimensions the next feature to catch my eye was the word pathfinders tastefully etched into the right side of The slide, accompanied by the world famous torch insignia of the U.S. Army Airborne Pathfinders. "Yep" Bill said, following my eye "I dedicated it to the Pathfinders. First in, last out, I figure they've earned it.

Pathfinder History

After a series of deadly mishaps involving airborne insertions during the beginning of World War II the U.S.Army determined that a small group of skilled, motivated soldiers was needed to covertly insert into an area prior to the assault force in order to help safely guide transport aircraft and gliders to their intended destinations. England already had such units in operation, so their program was used as a model. The first Pathfinder unit was comprised of volunteers from the 82nd Airborne Division's 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. They were quickly trained to use colonel lights, flares, and smoke to mark drop zones and landing zones. They were also taught to provide radio checkpoints to the pilots above to aid in navigation. This experimental Pathfinder team was first used during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. The lone volunteers lumped into hostile territory ahead of the main force to mark drop zones and set up what were, at the time, highly classified radar horning devices which guided aircraft exactly to their intended targets. Based upon the success of their first mission. the unit continued to grow over the proceeding years and the Pathfinders went on to participate in every major airborne operation of the war, including D-Day.

 With the end of the war in 1945, the U.S. began to radically downsize the military and most all of the Pathfinder units were discarded. In 1947, the Air Force asserted that only Air Force soldiers should be responsible for guiding aircraft and performing Pathfinder tasks, so the Air Resupply and Communications Service was created by the AF to take responsibility for these missions. These new Air Force units went onto become the fabled Combat Control Teams of today.

It looked as though the Pathfinders were going to be resigned to history, but fate had another plan. With America's increasing involvement in Korea and Vietnam, the military's airborne vehicle of choice became the helicopter as opposed to the transport plane. While airplanes may have been the province of the Air Force, helicopters belonged part and parcel to the U.S. Army. Once again the call went out for a few brave souls to lead the pack and light the way and with that the Pathfinders were reborn. The 11th Air Assault Division was the first group to form a new Pathfinder unit. Other Pathfinder units were formed afterward and, acting , in four to five man teams, they secured, marked, cleared, and established drop zones and landing zones. They also provided initial aircraft guidance and air traffic control. Their service during Vietnam was exemplary. Inserting covertly sometimes days in advance into very hostile areas, they carried the torch and lit the way for the airmobile might of the U.S. Army.

Pathfinder Training

The Pathfinders continue their tradition of excellence today. Their school is located at Fort Benning's Lillyman Hall and Is comprised of three weeks of extremely challenging and diverse training. They are trained in airborne (HALO-LALO), small boat, foot, and vehicle insertion techniques. They learn air traffic control, DZ/LZ marking techniques, how to use computed air release points, as well as the skills to work undetected behind enemy lines for hours or even weeks. They are capable of using explosives to destroy obstacles, relaying enemy troop movement, and utilizing laser targeting devices to designate targets of opportunity. They can provide covering fire for paratroopers descending under the canopy and are quite capable of supporting a main assault force once it's on the ground. More recently, Pathfinders have even been deployed to support United States domestic law enforcement agencies during counter narcotics operations.

The Pathfinder insignia is a golden torch burning with red flames held aloft by a set of wings against a black background. It was originated by the Pathfinder teams of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division during World War II, as a symbol of their assigned task. It represents the Olympic torch of ancient Greece, which was carded throughout the countryside by a very select few runners chosen for their stamina, intelligence, and courage. The flaming torch carried aloft by the runner was a signal for all citizens to set aside their labors and gather to watch The greatest of all contests, The Olympic Games. For the Pathfinders, the torch is a symbol of those few great men chosen to light the way so that others may follow. The wings represent descent from the sky, and the black background represents the darkness of night.

Cylinder &Slide Pathfinder

Bill agreed that he would ship me the Hi-Power as soon as he got back to the shop and that I could keep it for a few weeks. It arrived a few days later in a custom CM soft case complete with magazines and several replacement recoil springs. As I mentioned earlier, this particular gun was a full house custom with a grocery list of hand crafted modifications and additions. For those of you prone to impulse purchases, you might want to take this opportunity to give your Master Card to a trusted friend to hold onto for a few days.

The gun started off as your basic Browning Hi-Power MIKE in 9mm. Bill then shortened the slide by 518 of an inch and frame by 1/2 of an inch.  The slide was fitted with a Novak custom melded tritium equipped rear sight and a C&S dovetail tritium front sight.  The front sight was narrowed to .100 of an inch.  A Bar-Sto match grade barrel was installed and fitted to exacting tolerances and a screw-in barrel bushing was added. The top of the slide was then serrated to so lines per inch and the back of the slide was serrated to 40 lines per inch. Then the sides of the slide were treated to a master grade polish.

After shortening the frame, it was fitted with a wide combat trigger that was tuned to an exceedingly crisp 4.5 pounds and equipped with an over-travel stop. A Commander hammer was installed along with a CNC machined sear.  The frame itself was again modified to accept a high grip and the stock beavertail was removed in favor of a tactical beavertail.  The front and back strap were then stippled to facilitate a good non-slip grip and the magazine well was beveled to yield problem free reloads. An ambidextrous safety and extended slide stop were fitted to the frame and the entire gun was polished and deburred internally to ensure smooth operation. The only things left to do then from a mechanical standpoint were to radius and contour all of the external edges and corners, which Bill did with exacting precision. The word "PATHFINDER" was tastefully etched into the right side of the frame along with the famous torch insignia. Finally, the gun was topped off with a beautiful and extremely functional set of Spegel Cocobolo wood grips.

The Pathfinder comes with two custom fined MecGar 1 0-round magazines and tour recoil  springs. Conventional magazines will still function, but they'll protrude a bit from the bottom of the well. The recoil springs must be changed every 500 rounds to ensure proper function, as they are so short that they will fatigue and lose tension after the prescribed number of rounds. Also, +P ammunition cannot be fired in the Pathfinder. The energy that +P ammo generates will almost certainly destroy the pistol over time due to the impact of the slide on the frame. The Locking lugs could be damaged and the gun would become inoperable.

Shooting & Function

For those of you who may feel slighted by the lack of accuracy tables and chronograph charts compiled using every known make and model of 9mm ammunition manufactured in the free world, you have my sincere apologies. I've never really cared very much about how fast round A goes compared to round B, although I do admit to generally preferring heavy and slow to light and fast where handguns are concerned. And I Usually can't match the accuracy potential of most $500 handguns contently being produced when shooting offhand from the 25-yard line. I put somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 rounds of Winchester 124-grain FMJ and Winchester 147-grain SXT trough the Pathfinder, simply because that was the only kind of 9mm ammo I had on hand. Every single time I pulled the trigger, the gun went "BOOM", and assuming I did my job on the trigger the rounds flew exactly to my point-of-aim. Just how accurate is the gun? It's a lot more accurate than you or I. How reliable is the gun? Based solely on my experience, it functions extremely well.


That having been said, I have to tell you that this was a really fun gun to shoot. It felt great In my hand. It cycled quickly and smoothly. It pointed very naturally and the trigger was simply a thing of beauty. I enjoyed it on the static range, but the fun really started once I moved and began shooting it on the steel range. Head plates rang with the even cadence of a vintage telephone and pepper poppers offered no resistance during timed stress drills. The Pathfinder really is a work of art. It's painstakingly crafted and feels like a natural extension of the hand.

Final Notes

During a recent conversation over the phone with Bill, he made me promise to clarify a few things. The Pathfinder package can be performed on a Cylinder & Slide purchased Hi-Power or on your personal MKIII or pre-MKIII Browning. It can also be performed on any of the quality Hi-Power clones offered by FEG with excellent results. The price for the pistol I tested is, quite simply, not cheap It represents the pinnacle of a master pistolsmith's skill and was built sparring no expense with every conceivable option or accessory. The complete Pathfinder package, including shortening the slide and fame as well as the other requisite modifications and custom engraving can be performed on your Browning or clone for about $1,000. Even absent the bells and whistles, the Pathfinder Hi-Power is still a very efficient and beneficial design modification, and it is most certainly a fitting tribute to the brave few who have earned the right to be called Pathfinders.

This article is dedicated with respect and appreciation to those who light the way, both past and present.

(The author would like to thank the U.S. Airborne Pathfinders Association and SSG (ret.) Jim Peeler for their invaluable assistance).