October 19, 2021
Few things strike terror into the heart like the words “amateur gunsmith.” The British have a word for it: bodger, usually preceded by “bloody,” as in, “the bloody bodgers have been at it.” The common American term is “shade tree gunsmith,” although why the poor tree gets dragged into it, I don’t know.
Two other words in the same category are “amateur stockmaker.” There is something about an unblemished piece of nice walnut that brings out the sculptor/carver/checkerer in an otherwise presumably sane person. From various experiences with such people over the years, I believe—although I cannot prove it—that there is a connection with northern climes and long winter evenings.
Some years ago, in Canada, I had a chance to buy a Winchester ’86 for about half its value because a previous owner, finding himself in possession of a jackknife, had carved different designs into every square inch of the stock. It was hideous. I later had the rifle restocked and completely restored by Doug Turnbull, wrote a story about it, and received hate mail accusing me of destroying “a priceless piece of folk art.”
The experience caused me to look askance whenever I see a gun for sale and the description includes the words “amateur carving” or “amateur checkering.” A year or so ago, I was at Rock Island, sitting in the auction hall, when up on the screen flashed a Stevens 44 in Schützen form. It had somehow escaped my attention in the catalog, and I had seconds to make up my mind. (A typical item at Rock Island will sell in 20 seconds or less. I’ve timed it.) The price seemed low, so I bid, and I got it.
Big mistake. I then looked it up in the catalog and my heart sank when I saw “amateur checkering.” Sure enough, when I examined it in person, it had one of the most execrable jobs of checkering I’ve ever seen. Lines not parallel, rampant overruns, diamonds uneven. And this atrocity covered the forend, pistol grip, and, even, the comb. As it turned out, that was the least of its problems, but it was the one that remained after I’d had its mechanism repaired and the buttstock rejointed to the action.
For months, it sat in my office, haunting me. Finally, I took it to Brian Board, a noted stockmaker and wood specialist. He pondered the problem for a while—months, actually—and finally decided that he could simply scrape the checkering down to the wood and refinish it. This he did, and the resulting rifle looks like it just left the factory in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. Honest. I wouldn’t have believed it. Obviously, we think checkering is cut much deeper than it really is.
But it doesn’t always work that way.
Another time, also at Rock Island, a pair of Winchester Low Walls were offered as one lot, and one of them had amateur carving—no further explanation—so I didn’t even bother to look at them. By fortuitous coincidence, however, about two or three rifles down the rack was one that I was interested in, went to look at it, and the one Low Wall caught my eye.
I picked it up, and I won’t say I fell in love with it instantly, but it was sure interesting, and I kept coming back to look at it for the next two days. When it went on the block, I landed it.
The rifle was not merely interesting. It was, in my experience, unique. I don’t know its history for sure, but here is what I surmised. At one time, a century or more ago, it was owned by a leatherworker who amused himself by giving the stock a stippling treatment very similar to what we find on fine leather goods from the early 1900s. The stippled and tooled part of the stock was then darkened with something (who knows what?) to give it the appearance of leather inlay.
It is very, very well done, and when you hold the rifle, it gives the impression that you are holding tooled leather, not wood. With its long octagonal barrel, the rifle is a dignified old gentleman from a bygone age.
One such experience does not change my mind about amateur gun work, but it does prove two things: You never know until you look—and never prejudge.