No Compromises, No corners Cut, EVER.

No Compromises, No Corners Cut, EVER.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Custom Gun as Art

Can the custom gun or rifle be legitimately regarded as a form of art?  I believe it can, and presently, I state my case. 

The custom gun or rifle demonstrates the maker's mastery of his craft, his ability to move steel and wood to create an object that is not only functional but aesthetically pleasing as well.  Much like a handmade watch or a piece of handmade furniture, one can appreciate not only its function, but also the craftsmanship that is wrought upon every piece that makes up the whole.  That is not to say that it is just an assemblage of well made parts, for the truly custom gun must be of a unified design.  It must be aesthetically pleasing as a whole, with no single aspect of it standing out from the rest.  It should be as pleasing visually as it is functionally and ergonomically.  Sleekness of line is of little value if it does not comfortably fit the user or perform to expectations.  Acceptable accuracy and reliability without pleasing form can be had in an "off the rack" rifle.  Extreme accuracy at he expense of all else can be found in the custom rifles built for benchrest competition, and while bench rest rifles could be regarded as a sort of "industrial art", that isn't the art form that is the present subject.  Much time and treasure is spent on optimizing the ergonomics and reliability of military rifles but they can hardly be regarded as art, even though they are capable of evoking a wide range of emotional responses from those who see them.  Military rifles also fall into the category of weapons, which the custom sporting gun or rifle most certainly is not.

The custom gun is an expression of the maker's imagination as well as his ability to work with the media of metal and wood.  This is most evident in the completely unique, hand made gun.  Much like the sculptor who sees the statue inside the block of marble, the gunmaker sees each part inside the block of steel or wood.  Unlike the sculptor's single piece though, the gunmaker's many pieces must all fit together and function as many interrelated mechanisms, for guns can be (and often are) quite mechanically complex.  Each of these parts in a truly high quality custom gun must be fit with precision and finished to the highest standards, and much like the highest quality timepieces, this work is done by hand.  Beside having mastery of the physical tools of his trade, the gunmaker/artist must also have almost encyclopedic knowledge of the materials with which he works.  The proper steels from which the varied parts are to be made demand a knowledge of metallurgy, heat treatment, welding, soldering and brazing.  Knowledge of the characteristics of the various species of wood with which the gun is stocked is also a necessity, as well as the various finishing processes for each material.  As arduous as this work is, it often pales in comparison to the design work that precedes it, and that is where the gunmaker/artist can allow his imagination to take flight, to come up with something unique, aesthetically and functionally.  The satisfaction of creating something that had literally not existed prior, of taking formless raw material and through seemingly countless hours of labor and inevitable setbacks, conjuring something that is equal parts sculpture and tool, is difficult to convey.  There is, almost literally, a piece of the gunmaker in every one of his creations, for it is a mentally, physically and emotionally draining process.  Luckily, there are those who can appreciate this, people who desire to posses something unique, not as a "status symbol" but simply for the pleasure they derive from it.  I am very grateful for those patrons, regardless of whom they choose to patronize. 

Often, even those individuals who would not consider themselves "gun people" will appreciate the shapes, the forms, the craftsmanship and details of a custom gun.  They can appreciate the harmony and balance in its design, the textures of the different surfaces and finishes and they can wonder about the time, effort and methods that went into its creation.

Yes, I think that a custom gun definitely qualifies as art.

I purposely did not mention engraving because although it is frequently used as embellishment on guns, I believe it to be an art form unto itself.  I also believe that not all custom guns need such embellishment because the handmade custom gun, much like the handmade timepiece, can stand on its own aesthetic merits.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Un-Checkering a Fox's Cheeks

Here's an early A grade Fox with multiple issues.  Much internal rust, inop safety, inletting that had been "fixed" and checkered stock cheeks (no doubt courtesy of the same farrier that fixed the inletting) and a few dents in the wood.  I had to make a couple of screws and pins as well as a cocking slide spring and install a Silver's #3 pad to replace the beat-up whatever-it-was that was on there.  All pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.  The cheek repair is the interesting part of the job and the reason it's up here.  There isn't much to show beyond the before and after photos.

The stock, before:

The stock, after:
All of the wood is flush with, or proud of, the metal and the flat-topped checkering is correct for an A grade.  There is no faux "graining", painting or any other superficial grain matching technique used.  What you see goes all the way through.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Holland & Holland Hammer Paradox

Here is an H&H Paradox hammergun that needed some attention as it's been, shall we say, well used.  The owner bought it from Australia and it came in its original case with all accessories except the bullet sizer, which is quite an important element in the feeding of the gun.  As for the gun, it was missing the rear sling swivel (the base was still there at least), the triggerplate screw suffered the ham-fisted wielding of an ill-fitting screwdriver, sticking strikers, a bent left hammer and quite a hitch in the trigger pull of the left lock.  It desperately needed a thorough cleaning as well.

The triggerplate screw:

The surviving front sling swivel was measured in order to make the matching rear part.

Once work on the gun was finished, I began on the bullet sizer.  The unit that I designed and made is functionally identical to the factory tool but different in configuration.  It sizes the bullet to .735" diameter.  That's not a grease groove in the bullets, it's there to give the lead in the driving bands somewhere to go when the bullet hits the rifling.

Here are a couple of photos of the gun.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Best vs. Production: The Debate (Apparently) Rages On

Apparently, the term "best gun" and what it means, is a subject of debate lately on certain gun forums.  While it is amusing (and a bit cringey) to hear people extoll Parker (or any other maker) as the "Purdey or Boss" of American guns, it's simply not even remotely accurate.  Where American doubles are concerned, there was no equivalent to Purdey and certainly not Boss. Ever. Full stop.

In yet another attempt at educating the unaware, I will endeavor to define what makes a best a best.
I will not cover strengths or deficiencies in the design of any particular gun, nor will I get into the sidelock versus boxlock nonsense.  The idea that a boxlock, by definition, can't be a best is simply haughty ignorance.  My intent is to provide a basic outline of the differences between a mass-market production item and a best quality gun.

- First of all is craftsmanship.  This is above all else what sets a best gun apart from other guns.  Craftsmanship, by definition, can only exist in a largely hand made product.  Assembly is not the same as craftsmanship.
American double gun makers went to great lengths to eliminate as much hand work as possible from the manufacture of their products.  This made complete sense from a business standpoint because highly skilled labor (such as actual gunmakers) has always been scarce and therefore expensive.
Machine-made guns, by definition therefore, can never qualify as a best gun and ALL American doubles were almost entirely machine-made.  What little hand fitting that was necessary was rarely, if ever, done to the standards of best quality. 
Frames were shaped in large part (in some cases entirely) by machine, whereas a true best frame would be sculpted by hand, using hammer, chisels, scrapers, files and supreme skill, with the cost of time being of secondary concern to quality. 
Other than wiring the ribs in preparation for soldering, a typical production gun's barrels were entirely made by machine, including boring, choking and chambering. 
The production gun's stock and forend were machine-inletted (sometimes entirely) and their external contours were machine-made as well, where the best gun was/is stocked, by hand, from the blank with the inletting being as close to a negative image of the metalwork as is possible.
Parker were the hands-down masters of the machine-made double, with 85-plus percent of the gun being machine-made, including the above-mentioned frame shaping, barrel-making and stocking.  This is to (reasonably) be expected from a company with much experience in the manufacture of other mass-market consumer goods.  That may have made them the best machine-made gun but not a best gun by any measure.  Lest the reader think that I'm "picking on" American guns, let me add that there are more than one English maker of "bests" that I would no longer categorize as such, exactly because so much of their product has been turned over to automated manufacture in recent years.  Bests are made from parts that were made by craftsmen, who believed that there are no unimportant parts in a gun and even if no one were ever going to see them, those parts are made to the highest standard.  Production guns are assembled from bins of parts that are good enough to be just that, good enough.

- Second is ornamentation.  Ornamentation, usually engraving, has nothing whatsoever to do with a gun being a best.  A true best-quality gun is exactly that long before the engraver makes his first cut.  A best gun is still a best even if it's never engraved but if it is (and most are), the engraving will be done to the highest standards.  American makers of the "classic era" seem to have confused high standard with high coverage.  Some of the "highest grade" American doubles sport engraving that, shall we say, wasn't the art form's highest expression (but at least you got a lot of it). 
Where wood is concerned, the checkering of some high grade American guns was very good indeed.  When it was good it was the equal of any.  The wood finish is another story however.  It must always be remembered that high grade American doubles were still production items, so countless hours applying a flawless finish was simply not on the agenda.  A quickly applied film-type finish was used on the lower grade guns while high grades simply got a wipe with oil, leaving the pores unfilled.  The "legendary" Model 21 was finished with varnish.  An actual oil finish, as would be found on a best, can take weeks or even months to apply properly.  This was never, and would never be, an option for a production gun. 
Metal finishes are the next agenda item in this category and that includes surface preparation for the finish as well, which is where the production gun differs from the truly handmade gun.  The production gun's surfaces were finished (polished) on powered machinery that included wheels and belts of differing grits and contours.  Again, this was a time and cost saving measure.  The best quality gun is entirely polished by hand, inside and out, with particular attention paid to maintaining flats, contours and sharp edges.  While the rust bluing and color case hardening processes are similar, it is the preparation that makes all of the difference in the finished product.

- Third is what might be called the "intangibles" that supposedly make a best a best, things like cost, bragging rights, exclusivity, cache, etc.  Let me put that to rest here and now.  While some, or all, of these may drive the desire to own a best gun, none of these play any part in what makes a best gun.  Quite the opposite, the gun creates them, not the other way around.  If "intangibles" actually mattered, the cost of a certain German-made rehash of a failed American over/under might actually be justifiable.

So there it is, in short form.  A best is mostly hand made to highest standards, a production gun is mostly machine made to a price point.  With the arguable exception of the hammerless H&R, there were no handmade American doubles from the classic era.  This does not mean that some of those guns were not good, reliable, serviceable guns but none of them were, are, or ever will be a best gun.  It may be enjoyable to daydream about some long-gone white-haired gunmaker smoking the parts of your Parker/Fox/Winchester/Smith and fitting them exactly with no concern other than doing the job to perfection but it will always be just that, a daydream.  It never happened and he never existed.

Maybe a photographic representation of one versus the other might help.

Best work:
Production work:

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Beautiful Percussion Purdey

Here is a Purdey percussion double in 16 bore, made with the Wyatt/Purdey patent intercepting safety.  The gun is in outstanding, original condition, aside from some marks on the barrels.  I can only assume that these occurred during the removal of the breechplugs by an individual upon whom the benefits of opposable thumbs are clearly wasted.  The spring that powers the Wyatt interceptor in the right lock was also broken.  The owner could live with the marks in the barrels, given the gun's overall condition, but the lockwork needed to be put right.  That process will be detailed here.

The right side lock with the broken spring, and a bridle that had been scarred up by the wielding of an ill-fitting screwdriver by an uncaring slob of a gunsmiff.

You mean the screwdriver shouldn't be wider than the screwhead?, asks Bubba.  Left and right were similarly damaged.

The bridle after cleaning it up as much as practicable.

The spring that powers the safety sear is a single leaf with an eye that surrounds the foremost upper bridle post.  It also has a tab that keys into a slot in the lockplate to keep it from simply turning.  The leaf is .012" thick.  This is going to be fun.

I grabbed a piece of 7/32" thick 1095 and milled it a bit wider than the width of the original spring (including the locating tab).

Then the "eye" was drilled, in the mill, after locating the exact center.

The width is milled to within .010" of the finished size, leaving the locating tab "blank" standing.
The tab would be hand fit later.

The first side of the leaf is machined and the tool marks cleaned up by hand.

Given that the finished thickness of the leaf is .012", the question of how to hold the piece to remove the material from the second side arises.  The answer?  Soft solder.

The leaf is then machined to within .004" of final thickness.  It's finished by hand to remove any tool marks because I want the spring to (a) last more than a week, and (b) look like it should look.

The rest of the spring is filed up by hand, polished and the tip of the leaf curled as original.  Here it is next to the unbroken spring from the opposite lock.

The spring was hardened and tempered per the usual process, but with extreme care due to the fact that such a thin spring, after hardening, is apt to shatter just by looking at it too hard, to say nothing of dropping it or bending it in any way.  After tempering, it was polished and the lock reassembled.

Here's a video showing the operation of the safety sear.

The barrels, by James Purdey himself.

The inletting is what you'd expect: perfection.

A couple shots of the assembled gun.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Winchester '07

Here I'll detail making a new front sling eye for a Winchester 1907 Deluxe rifle.  The original went AWOL, which isn't that surprising considering the factory's method of attachment to the forend cap.
Externally, the new part is identical to the original but my attachment method uses an internal nut, contoured to fit the inside of the forend cap.  A small clearance cut is necessary in the forend wood to accommodate it but it's internal and completely hidden when the rifle is assembled.