Sok it to me, Baby! The weird and wonderful Sokolovsky Automaster

The Sokolovsky Automaster was promoted, shortly before its entry into production, as the “Rolls Royce of .45 Auto Pistols.” The pistol was starkly beautiful in an angular, Modernist way. Indeed, the design might be called Brutalist, although we don’t think the Brutalists ever escaped from architecture into industrial design, did they? And frankly, the Sokolovsky was very attractive with its smooth stainless finish. It was a child of the 1980s, when angular industrial design (think DeLorean and Countach) was all the rage. The gun was completely devoid of any external hint of the knobs, buttons, levers, pins  and screws that collectively comprise the human interface, and mechanical axles and pivots, of its contemporaries.

It was designed by Paul Sokolovsky of Sunnyvale, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Sokolovsky was employed as an engineer by Valley semiconductor powerhouse Advanced Micro Devices, and a search of his name at the US Patent and Trademark Office shows an interesting mix of patents for firearms innovations — apparently a sideline — along with patents for AMD that involved either microchip production — even a machine optimized to tape 90º corners on boxes! About Sokolovsky personally we don’t know much. A search of the Social Security Death Index reveals a Paul J. Sokolovsky who was born on 24 April 1926 and passed away at the age of 82 on 1 December, 2008, in Auburn, California. His Social Security number (060-26-3226) was issued in New York. This seems to be our guy.

more thorough search expands his middle initial from J. to “John” and has him living in Palo Alto from 31 December 1996 to 13 November 2000, but maintaining residences in both Sunnyvale (from 1980) and Auburn (from 1993) until the summer before his death. We also have evidence, here and there, that he was an avid target shooter, and that his handgun was an attempt to make a better bullseye pistol than the then-reigning modified 1911.

It takes a bold man to improve on a John M. Browning design. Sokolovsky’s clean-sheet design pays homage in styling to the Browning classic, and offers a similar grip angle and trigger position, but differs in almost all aspects of its operation. No parts interchange.

The ads with the Rolls-Royce comparison ran in 1983, inviting correspondence to “Sokolovsky Corp., Sport Arms,” at a Sunnyvale PO Box. The ad shows one of the gun’s unique features, its smooth sides. At a glance, it appears that the sole user interface is the trigger, but that’s not exactly so. It’s the triggersSokolovsky may have intended to make different models — one prototype is marked, “Model TP,” perhaps for “target pistol” — but the few survivors whose images have been published seem to closely resemble one another.

The Sokolovsky Automaster is large and heavy, much larger than a 1911. It weighed nearly four pounds, and with each part machined from billet stainless, was extremely expensive even when new – $5,000 in 1984-90 dollars. These things together, and its target-shooting orientation, combined to limit its market and only 45 or so were ever made, including prototypes. They do not come up for sale often enough for a market value to be estimated.

The pistol is striker-fired, like many of John M. Browning’s early-20th-Century designs. A look at the back of the pistol is reminiscent of a Browning Model 1910 or a Baby Browning .25, among others. When cocked, the striker protrudes through a small hole in the back of the frame, behind the slide. The line between the frame and the slide shows very tight fitting, more reminiscent of a matching-numbers Luger than any truly mass-produced handgun.

Pretty With a Purpose

All of these pictures are courtesy the National Firearms Museum. And they all embiggen to giant size — even the ones that are already “large”.

Unlike most firearms that are marked in simple block letters, the markings on the Sokolovsky are in script. They are marked with the company name and applicable patents (at least the initial 4,203,348) on the left side, and the model name and serial number on the right side.

The other end of the firearm is just as striking in appearance. The muzzle has a smooth crown, and retracting the slide shows that the barrel is a thick bull barrel. Unlike the 1911, the Sokolovsky barrel doesn’t tip, one of many reasons for the pistol’s demonstrated superior accuracy.

The slide is wider than the receiver, but the slide rides on internal, SIG-style rails. Along its top, it had a rib, into which the sights were integrated. The adjustment screws on the rear sight are the only exposed screws on the entire handgun (there is also a barely visible, under close observation, pin athwart the rib holding the nose of the sight assembly in position). The angle of the slide serrations and of the back end of the slide match the angle of the grip’s front strap; the rear strap is raked at a sharper angle, which is a little reminiscent of the 9mm Radom VIS-35, a Browning system gun that was the Polish service pistol in World War II. What appears at a glance to be a grip safety is merely a removable backstrap.

The operating system of the Sokolovsky takes some understanding. In place of the normal controls, there are two shadow triggers, one on the left (which is the “safety trigger”) and one on the right (“the magazine release trigger”), that can be manipulated without manipulating the main trigger. At a glance these look almost like part of the frame, but they are moving parts that slide longitudinally just as the firing trigger does.

The slide stop was of the internal variety, functioning much like the one in the Luger pistol or SKS carbine, locking the slide back when the magazine follower activated a slide stop and releasing it, so long as the follower is no longer pressing on it (i.e. empty mag removed or replaced with a loaded one), with a tug on the slide.

A Series of Patented Innovations

Sokolovsky’s trigger is the subject of US Patent 4,203,348, “Firearm Apparatus.” It is complex enough to be hard to follow; it includes over two dozen images and makes 18 claims.  He (and/or the examiners) cited nine other patents, from unknowns as well as greats (Browning and Garand). He copied part of his trigger mechanism not from any firearm, but from the familiar mechanism of a retractable ballpoint pen. The Safety Trigger, when on “safe,” is in a forward position and blocks the firing mechanism of the gun mechanically. Actuating the Safety Trigger causes it to retract (like a ballpoint pen), allowing the weapon to fire, and providing a solid visual and tactile clue as to the firing readiness of the firearm. In addition, if the pistol is cocked, a pin protrudes from the rear of the frame behind the slide, a Browning-style cocking indicator.

The Magazine Release Trigger is more straightforward. It works on a pivoting bar, one end of which is fixed and the other of which contains a hook that holds the mag in place. It is spring-loaded and so has a “momentary” effect, and reverts to the forward position when finger pressure is released.

While the use of multiple triggers — “plural triggers” was Sokolovsky’s term — may seem to be a safety hazard, remember that this is not a duty weapon, it’s a target-shooting pistol.

The barrel is held to the frame by a series of spring detents, and fits snugly into three narrowed areas of the slide, but even after careful examination of the patents, how it actually locks is a mystery, unless it is unlocked, fixed in place, and the firearm relies on the pneumatic slide decelerator (described below) to delay blowback.

Another patented Sokolovsky invention is a spring guide that doubles as a decelerator, reducing recoil by forcing air through small holes in its rear. This is described straightforwardly in US Patent 4,388,855 Firearm pneumatic slide decelerator assembly. We can’t be sure this was actually used in production (if “production” is really the word) Automasters. But the patent illustration does show it in a clearly recognizable Automaster. It resembles the idea of the H&K P7 or the Gustloff VG1-5, but instead of relying on a volume of combustion gas to be metered out valve hole(s), it compresses ambient-pressure air through four metered valve holes arrayed around the rear end of the assembly. The chamber reloads with air after it returns, expanded, to full extension as the gun comes into battery again. Such a mechanism seems ill-suited for a combat arm, but might reset quickly enough for timed and rapid fire in bullseye terms.

Yet a third Sokolovsky innovation is described in US Patent 4,646,619, Singulating apparatus for a semiautomatic firearm. This is essentially the Sokolovsky sear, and it is designed to make the gun more drop-safe than previous striker-fired handguns while also greatly reducing trigger pull weight for higher accuracy. (This patent also references one of the greats, Václav Holek).

An exception to the stellar quality finish on most of the Sokolovsky Automaster is the rather crude-looking magazine on this toolroom prototype. It appears to be made from two 1911 mags spot-welded together to give an 8-round capacity.

The NRA’s National Firearms Museum holds a prototype, a pre-production gun and one of the production run, which is thought to comprise about 45 pistols all told. All of the museum guns were donations from Mr Sokolovsky during his life. The beautiful photos here are from the NRA NFM (and there are more pictures there), but their brief blurb on the firearm does not contain a lot of detail, which set us to digging. Researching the Sokolovsky has been a lot of fun, and we’re looking for an example for a closer examination. We understand that the Museum of Modern Art wants one, too. See why?

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