WAC Cover

by Phil Shave

Reprinted with permission from Washington Arms Collectors “Gun News” Febraury 2013

January 7, 2013. I catch Dan Coonan at work—the phone is ringing in the background and I can hearth sounds of work, but he’s willing to talk. This is the Dan Coonan, inventor of the legendary Coonan .357 Magnum semiauto pistol. You know, that pistol you’ve always wanted but could never find; the one that looks a lot like a 1911, but fires a revolver cartridge for goodness sake.

The original Coonan Model A pistol is the result of one of those college roommate arguments. Maybe you’ve had the same discussion: .357 vs. .45 ACP. Dan believed the 1911auto in .45 was a nearly ideal package of reliability, power and tactical advantage. His roommate argued for the effectiveness of the .357 magnum cartridge—after all it was George Patton who described his .357’s as killing guns, and this renowned effectiveness combined with the never-fail reliability of the revolver was obviously superior to the “modern”1911 package. A gravel pit shoot-out convinced the revolver shooter that the 1911 was quick to reload but he wouldn’t concede that the .45 was a superior cartridge. The takeaway for Dan Coonan was, why not build a .357 semiauto pistol.

College credits for a pistol design? Yes, the Coonan .357Magnum design was part of Dan Coonan’s Master’s thesis in Industrial & Technical Studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Three of the credits were for the magazine design and three for the pistol. This wasn’t his first design. As a drafting project Dan’s first design was a fixed barrel, gas operated pistol. The slide was locked with two arms connected to a locking block which was unlocked by gas pressure bled from a barrel port. The design was deemed impracticably Dan due to the bulkiness of the mechanism in a pistol.

Dan Coonan already possessed significant machinist training prior to college. His interest in building a gyrocopter at age 15 led him to apprentice with a man manufacturing parts for these and in this way he learned his way around all of the magnificent machines which build things. As Dan puts it, “with a Bridgeport mill and a lathe you can make anything….”He grew up with .22’s and was interested enough in shooting to enroll in the University of Minnesota ROTC program in order to shoot on the rifle team. His first pistol was a Ruger Single Six. He recalls being intrigued when he saw a friend’s dad with a locked open 1911. This was primarily a mechanical interest and at age 21 he acquired his own1911 to examine the operation of this classic pistol; this was a lightweight Colt Commander that he still owns.

Not content with merely designing a .357 magnum, he wanted to build at least one. Dan needed to see if the design was practical rather just a paper project. Barrels are an obvious problem—where do you get them? The first barrel had a brazed on lower lug—it survived two shots. The next barrel had a welded lug and managed an entire magazine. Eventually one welded barrel would last for 1000 rounds or more, but this was totally dependent on the quality of the weld which could vary. So Dan Coonan obtained a rifle barrel blank of large dimension that allowed him to machine the lower lug integral to the barrel and this was “good enough.” The first guns, known as Model A’s, used the traditional Browning designed pivoting barrel link. The guns are much like a 1911 and this was intentional, partly because of the difficulty of having quality parts made. Why reinvent those parts which are readily available and will serve the purpose?(Currently, 18 parts interchange with the 1911.)

One gun was not enough. Now Dan had a working prototype that he could show and he sought investors to begin limited production. The word “nightmare” is Dan’s brief description of the gun manufacturing business. They were always short of capital. Good parts were hard to get, and not delivered timely. The pistol was advertised in a Guns &Ammo of 1979, and the first gun delivered in 1981. Less than 2000 of the Model A pistols were made. Dan Coonan left the company in the early 1990’s, and a few years later the company was in bankruptcy.

Parts production work was preferable to building guns, and Dan Coonan liked this part of the business. He is also a gunsmith, building 1911’s for competition, so he remained in the firearms business even after Coonan failed. He produces gun parts for other manufacturers and distributors. He has manufactured over 70,000 AK receivers, mostly for Century Arms, thousands of G-3 receivers, and is renowned for his FAL receivers. The FAL receivers are now sold through Coonan Inc.

Several events coincided to bring back the Coonan .357Magnum pistol. Dan was contacted by a fellow who had purchased a huge safe at auction for $28; inside were leftover Coonan parts. Dan bought them all. Then some former investors sold him barrels and other parts. He had enough parts for perhaps 25 guns at that point. Then Dave Neville entered the picture. Dave learned that his daughter was attending school with Dan Coonan’s daughter and he struck up a relationship with Dan; Dave worked on Dan for four years and finally convinced him to join him in a new business—Coonan Inc. in 2009.

We’re interrupted for a moment by a staffer asking Dan about some parts. I remember that the pistol is central to this story and ask a few more questions. Never a fan of the Colt internal leaf spring extractor myself, I ask Dan why he changed his design to a pivoted and sprung extractor. His reply is pithy, “All modern pistols have external extractors.” And then he describes the flaws in the old internal leaf spring extractor and firing pin stop are such that the extractor is able to rotate and also move forward and back; the relationship between extractor and cartridge rim is never the same; leaf spring extractors break. I’ve always been a fan of pivoted triggers as found on the Star and Browning pistols rather than the 1911 slider and note that the Coonan departs from the 1911 here too. Coonan says that the pivot pin trigger is simpler to manufacture, while being easier to refine and giving a better trigger pull.

Magazine design is critical to a pistol that must feed a large, long, rimmed revolver cartridge. This nearly impossible task was accomplished with an articulated follower that changes cartridge angle as the magazine is filled so that the top round is always fed at a consistent angle. There are other tricks designed into the magazine and evidently they are effective because Dan states that the Coonan will feed just about any bullet weight and shape, from 110 to 180grains, JSP, JSP, semi-wad cutter, you name it. He knows of a customer who seats full wad cutters out a bit from thecae and successfully feeds these. The gun can accommodate both .357 and .38Special rounds with a recoil spring change (new guns come with both springs).

The new Coonan is the Model C and Dan says that this is a much better pistol. Fewer sharp edges, more refinement. The sights are now dovetailed into the slide. The Model C also uses the linkless lower lug, like the Browning High Power. We talked about future plans—Dan would like to offer a target sighted version with a Bomar-style adjustable sight. He almost hates to talk about polymer frames because it may seem to some that such a change would be imitative, but he notes that they offer some advantages and may allow them to market a less-costly version. Dan Coonan says they will always offer the all-steel version.

I look at my watch—we’ve talked for nearly two hours. Dan Coonan has been generous with his time and while I have more questions, I will save them for Feb23, when I can meet him in person at the Puyallup show.

Reprinted with permission from Washington Arms Collectors “Gun News” Febraury 2013

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