No Compromises, No corners Cut, EVER.

No Compromises, No Corners Cut, EVER.


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Random Thoughts of a Dinosaur

Gunmaker vs. Gun Builder:

 I was reading an article in one of my favorite gun magazines about an up-and-coming gunmaker and was a bit taken aback by his response when asked by the author about his methods.  The author asked if his methods were similar to those taught to apprentices in the English trade of old (I'm paraphrasing).  His response was that they were not, and then he went on to describe how he designs each part of the gun (a quite conventionally designed gun, mind you) in "virtual reality" on a computer, using a solid modeling program and then the digital files are sent to an outside vendor to be produced using computer-controlled machinery.  The writer then states that the parts arrive "NEARLY FINISHED".  I know that everyone says that CNC is just "another tool in the gunmaker's toolbox" but I can't help but wonder: When a part or parts arrive needing little more than polishing in order to be assembled into a functioning gun, ready for engraving and finishing, is it really gunmaking?  Lest you think I exaggerate about how close to finished these parts really are, you might have a look at the website of one of the UK's leading suppliers of components to the trade.  Some of the shotgun parts "kits" are actually functioning guns, almost ready for stocking and finishing.  When a gunmaker purchases one of these component kits and stocks and finishes it (if he actually even does those operations himself), and then puts his name on it as the gunmaker, is this not a bit disingenuous?   I'm all for using machinery to save on the unskilled "donkey work", like roughing out a major component rather than using a hacksaw, but when the "gunmaker" no longer even has to shape the external contours, or indeed even touch a file to them, is he really a gunmaker?  I can hear it now: Shut up old man, your hammer and chisels are obsolete!  We don't have to do that anymore!  That may be so, but isn't part of the appeal of a best gun the artisanal aspect of it?  "Not having to do it" is the whole point.  I'm sorry, but assembling and finishing "nearly finished" parts does not take the skills of an artisan, a craftsman perhaps.  It would seem to me that the client is paying for something that he is not receiving when buying a CNC best.  There are those who (rightly) sneer at machine-made "engraving" but see no issue with a machine-made best gun.  A certain amount of hand work has always been implicit in the making of a best gun and I don't mean just hand polishing.  Since these gunmakers first create the gun in "virtual reality" on the computer screen, maybe we should refer to them as virtual gunmakers.  After all being shit-hot at playing Pole Position doesn't make you a real Formula One driver and being great at playing Call of Duty doesn't make you a real Navy SEAL.

How Many Gunmakers Does it Take to....?

The action comes from one "supplier", in the old days the locks came from another but now more than likely, they come from the action maker, the barrels come from another.  The gunmaker maybe assembles all of these components into functionality himself and then sends the works off to the stocker, after which it may go to the "finisher" if the gunmaker does not do this operation himself, then the gunmaker disassembles it all and sends the barrels off to be blacked, the frame to be color hardened, the stock and forend go to the checkerer, who knows who finishes the wood and, finally, everything comes back and the gunmaker assembles it with HIS name on it (I guess because there isn't space for everyone else's names).  Gunmakers will tell you that "everyone does it this way".  I've actually been told that no one can do everything himself.
That's bullshit.

Did You Ever Wonder.....?

Why the British refer to screwdrivers as "turnscrews" while they refer to screws as "pins"?  Why not call the screwdriver a "turnpin" (probably because it looks too much like turnip when you see it)?  Perhaps we should just call it a screwdriver.  Admittedly not as haute as "turnscrew" but it describes the function just as well.  Why not also just call every threaded fastener that is driven with a bladed tool a... wait for it... "screw"?  That could work, it may even catch on.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Franz Jaeger BLE

This one came in for the repair of a dent in the right barrel, to have the chokes adjusted and replacement of a missing ebony and ivory inlay in the stock.  Since looking at photos of the first two procedures would be pretty boring, I only documented the replacement of the inlay.

Here is a photo of the stock, as it came in.

I cleaned the old glue from the pocket and then deepened it overall in order to give the glue joint a bit more purchase on the new inlay. 

You're probably wondering about that chunk of beef bone, I'll explain.  That is what I use in place of ivory because I don't use actual ivory for any application.  The beef bone is a waste product and the ends of the femur are big enough to get just about anything short of pistol grips from.  It machines, polishes, smells, looks and is indistinguishable from actual ivory.  If you think that you can tell the difference, you're quite incorrect.

 The finished job,

Here are some photos of a chunk of bone that I used to make the "ivory" portion of the inlay.  As I said, it works exactly like ivory in every way, including the smell and the ability to take a mirror polish.  There are quite a lot of beads in that piece alone.


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Definitions

Words have definitions for a reason but like so many things in the gun world, the meanings of certain words have become, shall we say, "elastic".  Personally, I believe that a particular word's definition is written in stone, otherwise there is little point to having language at all.  Here are some of the gun world's more flexibly defined words.

Restoration:
 (actual meaning) - to return an item to its "as new" condition and configuration

(gun world meaning) - to sloppily refinish, usually including rounded corners and edges of metal and wood, smeared engraving, funneled screw and pin holes and incorrect finishes, often combined with half-assed repairs 

"As new" is not better than new, nor is it what typically passes for a restoration by the vast majority of the practitioners in this business.  A gun can only be correctly restored if the workman has detailed knowledge of how each part was prepped for finishing, the processes used at the factory for applying the finishes, the material the parts were made from and how they were heat-treated (if at all).  No factory-made gun ever left the factory as a perfect specimen of gunmaking (not even close, typically).  All factories tolerated less than perfect work in many aspects of the finished product.  A correct restoration will show these same "mistakes", where appropriate.  I did this type of work for a long time and am quite happy to say that I do it no longer.

Upgrade:
For this one, the gun world meaning is really the only one that matters.

(gun world meaning) - to take a low or field grade gun and embellish/finish it in a way that, as closely as possible, mimics a factory-offered higher grade version of the same gun

That pretty much covers what an upgrade is as far as guns are concerned.  Some however, might also refer to these as "custom" guns, which they most certainly are not, in any manner.  I've never seen the point to expending the time and energy necessary to create an upgrade, mainly because I've never been particularly impressed with anything "high grade" offered by a factory, which is why I never have, and never will, create an "upgrade" gun.  Slavishly copying something that already exists, especially something that was factory-produced, seems more than a bit unimaginative to me.

Custom:
(actual meaning) - made, or done, to order for a particular customer, unique*

(gun world meaning) - any deviation from original, no matter how trivial

This is one that gets misused possibly even more than restoration.  An AR-15, assembled with store-bought parts and accessories and spray-painted in a stars-and-stripes motif (I won't even get into flag etiquette)? Custom!   A shotgun with crappy aftermarket engraving?  Custom!   Any "factory custom" that can be ordered out of the catalog?  Custom!   A Winchester Model 70 with an aftermarket stock?  Custom!   A "windowed" and stippled Glock? Custom!
None of the above examples actually qualify as a custom gun.  They might qualify as "personalized" or "custom-ized" but nothing more.  If Joe Sixpack can duplicate it with a Discover card and a Dremel, it probably doesn't qualify.
A true custom gun (or anything else) is by definition unique*. 

*Unique: being the only one of its kind, unlike anything else

Mint Condition:
(actual meaning) - as new, like a freshly minted coin

(gun world meaning) - just about any condition, depending upon who is selling it

Actual mint-condition guns (old ones at least) aren't really that common.  What is common is for people to refer to guns that are anywhere from 85-95 percent condition as "mint".  These people are often dealers trying to justify an inflated asking price, or collectors trying to justify their paying an inflated asking price.  Also, no matter the condition, ANY discernible repair automatically removes a gun from the mint category.

Provenance:
(actual meaning) - a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality

(gun world meaning) - a nebulous quality that causes an otherwise unremarkable gun to magically be worth many times its actual value, usually by virtue of once having been owned by a "celebrity"

The idea that any product's value increases due to once being owned by a celebrity has always puzzled me.  Mere ownership by a celebrity creates no material change in the product and, in a rational world, would have no affect upon the item's value.  For example, a Parker of whatever grade once owned by Clark Gable is still just a Parker of whatever grade.  A beat-up Fox HE once owned by a racist outdoor writer unknown to most people, is still a beat-up Fox HE.  These people had no hand in the creation of these items, they merely bought them, or the company gave them as "gifts" (a.k.a. advertising).  Owning Clark Gable's Parker isn't going to transform you into Clark Gable, nor is it likely to make you a better shot.

Traditional:
(actual meaning) - produced, done, or used in accordance with tradition

(gun world meaning) - produced, done, or used in accordance with tradition

You may have noticed that the gun world's meaning matches the actual meaning this time, which, for better or worse, is pretty much true.  An example of the positive influence of tradition can be found in the overall configuration of the English side-by-side gun.  Unfortunately, in the gunsmithing realm, "traditional  methods" still carry on in instances where they should clearly be relegated to the trash heap of history.  One example is the "witchcraft" of springmaking, and many of the traditional methods of that particular bit of gunsmithing can't be described as anything other than witchcraft.  This should not be so because metallurgy and heat treatment of steel (and all other metals) are actual sciences, long understood and reality based.  One would never know this to hear the multitude of methods for heat treating a spring (I will not even get into the things one hears when discussing the material selection for a spring).  One will hear tales of all manner of "special" ingredients like sperm oil, tempering oil, lime (for covering?), blood and such.  There will also be cautions about such ignorant nonsense as "keeping the spring dark" (whatever the f*** that means) and the ever popular (and idiotic) "you either have a spring or you don't".  What you will almost never hear is a rational, reality based discussion about the effects of various temperatures upon the finished part, soak times, the various media used for accurate and controllable tempering, etc.  Where the fabrication or manufacture of any part is concerned, luck and hope should never be factors in the outcome. Everyone that subscribes to any of these "traditional" methods have two things in common: they never know if they will actually have a functional spring, or if it is functional, how many cycles it will survive.  They also demonstrate supreme ignorance, especially when one considers that the actual information is so readily available that would completely eliminate the "luck factor" from this particular operation. 
Case hardening is another process that seems to be shrouded in an impenetrable fog of bullshit-scented mystery (at least in the gunsmithing world).  Again, one hears of "mystical" ingredients, even including urine and human bone.  What is not heard (or explained) is why such ingredients might be needed.  What do they do, chemically?  Don't bother to ask questions, it's traditional, that's why.  It's unfortunate that materials science and actual engineering have largely passed the gunsmithing industry by.  It's also baffling because the materials from which guns have always been made, as well as the processes used, are so well understood in every other industry in which those same materials and processes are employed.  I suspect that many gunsmiths hold on to these "mysterious" methods in order to give the appearance of being possessed of more knowledge than they actually have.  Far too much in the gunsmithing trade is done in the way "it's always been done" rather than in the way it should be done, that is in a thoughtful, logical manner.  Tradition should never trump logic when dealing with mechanical devices (or most other things).

Heretic:
(actual meaning) - a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted

(gun world meaning) - Me

This one should be obvious by now.
 

That's it for now but I suspect that this list will grow (just a hunch).

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

#005 Finally Finished

The "Anglicized" Fox is about to fly the coop.  The entire progression, from mint-in-the-box (literally) Utica Sterlingworth, to the gun you see here, is described here: https://vicknairgunsmithing.blogspot.com/2018/01/a-stunning-smallbore-sterlingworth.html , here: https://vicknairgunsmithing.blogspot.com/2018/01/anglicizing-fox.html , and here: https://vicknairgunsmithing.blogspot.com/2018/08/anglicizing-fox-update.html
Except for the engraving (done by Lee Griffiths), everything was done here.

The photos,

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: