Craft Gunmaking, 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).  I can not comprehend the idea of taking credit for the work of others, much less doing it pridefully.  Gunmakers will tell you that "everyone does it this way".  I've actually been told that no one can do everything himself.   That's flat out 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.


  1. I am incredibly fortunate to have a Vicknair custom shotgun and it is a best in all regards. I know that every contour of the gun is one of a kind and the many mechanical amenities began in Dewey’s mind and were manifested through his hands. It may seem hokey to some, but the gun has a feel and “soul” that a kit gun will never have. When the gun is floating between my hands, I am with an object that is the creative legacy of a man...not a computer.

  2. Dewey, It's my understanding that the "How many gunmakers does it take to...?" scenario was/is a common practice in Great Britain and that a hell of a lot of older English "marked" guns started life in Belgium. Some of those guns were completely finished, less the maker's name.

  3. I don't know about Belgium but in the heyday of the English gun trade, a lot of London guns came from Birmingham. Today, many come from Spain and Italy. You're right that the practice as described was used by many of the large manufacturers and it's smart business when large production is the goal. The issue I have is with individuals that refer to themselves as gunmakers when many are effectively jobbers/gunsmiths. Maybe I'm being pedantic or just bitter (maybe I'm a bitter pedant) but I think that if you can't (or won't) actually make the gun, you shouldn't call yourself a gunmaker. I think that some like to refer to themselves as "gunmaker" rather than "gunsmith" because the former has more gravitas, I don't know. Maybe "gunbuilder" is the more correct term for it. It would be like you buying your blades in, already shaped. I know you would never put your name on such a knife because you clearly care about your craft. I spent a few years as a modelmaker in the product-development industry and saw the rise of "digital solid modeling". It's definitely a skill, but it's not modelmaking, yet they refer to themselves as such. I even became somewhat proficient with Solidworks back then in order to design some parts for a motorcycle I was building but I never actually thought that I had "made" those parts. I designed them but I didn't make them. When a "gunmaker" buys in a basically functional and completely shaped barreled action from someplace like Mayfair, he can't even take credit for designing anything. Maybe it's the fact that I do what I do more for the sake of doing it, with profit being of secondary concern. Maybe people will say that I feel "threatened" by technology. The latter isn't the case because even though I definitely appreciate the capabilities of CAD/CAM, I just don't think it's "right" to use it in a craft that is supposed to be artisanal and then pass the results off as such.

  4. Lee,
    I just want to add, for the sake of being absolutely clear: I mean no disrespect to the people of Mayfair Engineering and my comments are not directed at them or any other supplier of parts and components. They are simply a business supplying a demand.

  5. Dewey,
    I'm in agreement with everything you have written.
    Regarding my reference to Belgium, I recently completed reading Wal Winfer's third volume of British Single Shot Rifles and he touches on the Belgian connection. Wal includes an excerpt of an editorial from the January 1902 issue of Arms and Explosives, a trade newspaper, criticizing the importation of and sale of Belgian goods under British gunmakers names.
    As an FYI, when I first became interested in making knives I bought two pre-ground blades. I never did anything with them because doing just the handle work didn't hold my interest. I wanted to make complete knives of my own design. Eventually I traded the two blades off.