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Almost Fiction: The only Harley 45

By Sam Jones

“What do you know about the Harley 45?” asked my friend Ed.

“Some. They built that engine from the 1930s clear into the ’70s. During the war they made a zillion of them as cannon fodder,” was my answer.

“No, I am not talking about the 45 cubic inch flathead motorcycle; I am asking about the gun, the .45 caliber pistol.”

“A Harley pistol; I don’t think they ever made such thing. I know they made some kind of casings for bombs, but a pistol? Never heard of anything like that.” I was surprised.

“This friend of mine says his grandfather worked in the machine shop for Harley-Davidson and his grandmother has the Harley pistol.”

“No, she is mistaken. Harley never made a pistol! If they did it, would be a museum piece worth a ton.”

“My friend says she showed it to him and it was a .45 caliber ACP, 1911, government-type semi-automatic pistol that had Harley-Davidson machined on the slide.”

“No. I still don’t think so. I know that during World War II the Army wanted more government .45 1911s than Colt could produce, so Springfield, Remington and even the Singer Sewing Machine Company made them under license. But, she must have some kind of fake.”

“His grandma tells the story about her husband working for Harley before the war. Like the other companies, Harley wanted to build the .45 pistol under license. He was put in charge of making the tooling. He manufactured two. But before they could proof the guns for the army and acquire the contract, he was drafted. When that happened, with him gone, the factory dropped the project and decided to concentrate on building the 45 cubic inch flathead WLA military motorcycle. He left one prototype with her and he took the other with him as his personal sidearm. He died at Anzio and it was lost. She kept the second pistol in his tool box. Months ago she went through his things and found the .45 and now she wonders if it was worth anything.”

“This story is hard to believe. I’ve read a dozen books about the different things they’ve made, have known old timers who worked at the Harley factory for years and I’ve never heard anything about a pistol. Harley has imported motorcycles from Italy and put their name on them; they have built golf carts, 3-wheelers and scooters, and even bought into the RV business. But firearms… no… I’ve never heard one word about firearms.”

“Well, he says he has seen it and held it. It’s a 1911 Government .45 ACP semi-auto just like every other one he’s ever shot.”

Ed’s story was too good to be true, but I was hooked. “OK; you’ve got my attention. What does she want to do with the pistol?”

“She wants to know what it might be worth. Maybe she would sell it. And her grandson, my friend, wants her to get a fair price.”

“Can we go see her?”

“Sure. We could go today if you want.”

“Now?” I was salivating like a thirsty man coming off the desert within sight of a bar that sported a big neon sign that said “COLD BEER.” Within an hour Ed and I met his friend and his grandmother. We were polite as she offered us tea and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

While we were drinking the tea and eating cookies she got up and brought over a photograph of her late husband. In front of a lathe, in his Army uniform holding the pistol, he was standing next to Walter Davidson who had autographed the photo, “Thanks for building our other .45, Walter.”

“I guess you boys want to see the pistol, don’t you.” She got up and waited for an answer.

“Yes, we would, if it is not too much trouble.”

“No trouble. I have it right in here. I’ve been keeping it in the bedroom.” She was gone for a moment and reappeared with an object wrapped in an oily tea towel. “Here it is. I guess my grandson has told you about my husband building it under license at the Harley factory during the war.”

I took the object from her, unwrapping it from the confines of the towel. It was indeed a Government 1911 .45 ACP pistol with the name Harley-Davidson machined in the slide. Like all the .45s I’d seen from the era, it was parkerized with fixed sights and the name was done exactly the same as other World War II-contract Colts. If it was a fake it was a good one. But with the photo of her husband and Walter Davidson and his signature, she had the provenance to prove it was the real deal.

“Mum, I don’t know what to tell you. I think this is a museum piece and worth a great deal of money; far more money than I could offer you. This should be in a safe and insured, not wrapped in a towel.”

“For many years it was in my husband’s tool box. Only lately have I gotten it out and shot it.”

“You shoot this?”

“Of course. Now I keep it by my bed for protection. I thought about selling it but I’ve changed my mind. It makes me feel close to my husband. I hope I have not inconvenienced you boys.”

“No, Mum not at all. I feel honored just to have held this one-off piece of history.”

We excused ourselves and I asked the grandson to keep me informed of her wishes and on her well being. He agreed that he would.

That was three years ago.

A year ago I had a call that she had passed away and he was going to go through her things and have an estate sale. I was first in line to help with the sale. We emptied the house, the garage and the shop and the Harley Davidson 1911 .45 ACP was not to be found.

Since then I’ve told this story many times and like the urban legend about the farmer finding a barn full of Harley war bikes in crates, covered in cosmoline, brand new and never been shipped… my story goes down as a fable. But I know better. I saw the photo and held the pistol. So, like the treasure hunters that continue to prospect the Superstition Mountains looking for the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, I search. I continue to follow leads and someday I’ll track it down.

 

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