September 23, 2010
Todd Johnson took the match-grade metal parts supplied by Rock River Arms, the best-quality Asian walnut supplied by Bill Dowtin, and turned them into a custom AR-15 the likes of which has never before been seen, and which is to be auctioned off to benefit the NSSF
The custom-rifle business as we know it really began in the 1920s — the Jazz Age — when Springfield military rifles were freely available and there was money to burn. Firms like Griffin & Howe pioneered both the sporterizing of military rifles and the development of the walnut stock design that evolved into the "American classic" we know today.
Here also was born the deep American love of beautiful walnut stocks and the feeling that the finest custom rifles are always fitted with lovely wood.
This is one area that, until now, the AR-15 has not penetrated. Although there are thousands of aftermarket accessories and replacement stocks, almost all are variations on the same composite theme.
How, we wondered, would an AR look with a tailored stock of the finest walnut known to man? Would it have the same appeal as a Mauser 98 when it is given the full-dress treatment? We decided to find out.
Because such a project had never been done to the best of anyone's knowledge, we were heading into unknown territory.
Bill Dowtin provided the immediate combination we needed: an importer of the best Asian walnut who is also an experienced maker of fine guns and a fan of the AR-15. Bill became the project manager.
Rock River Arms donated one of its target-quality AR-15s as the basic platform, and Bill produced three pieces of his most beautiful Armenian burl walnut for the buttstock, fore-end, and pistol grip.
We wanted to create an AR that could compete with the nicest custom hunting rifles, on both looks and performance. Yet the AR-15 is of military origin, and that could not be ignored. So for a scope we chose a dyed-in-the-wool tactical optic from NightForce that could easily double as a top-quality hunting scope. Although NightForce is known for its sniper and target scopes, the company has branched out into the hunting market, so the scope's resumé matched the rifle itself.
The real problem lay in creating stocks from walnut that would perform the same operational functions as a composite stock. On the AR-15, the fore and aft stocks house working parts, and these have to be accommodated in a material that was never intended for this purpose. This may sound easy. It's not.
To begin with, Bill stripped the composite stock parts from the rifle and shipped them, along with the walnut blanks, to stockmaker Jim Greenwood. Using the composite parts as patterns, Jim turned the three pieces to their basic shape and configuration on a pantograph. We then sent those pieces, along with the rifle, to gunmaker Todd Johnson in Texas.
Todd is a gunmaker who specializes in two rather disparate areas: Mauser 98s and combat 1911s. He appreciates fine walnut on the one hand yet understands the demands of semiauto operation on the other. Todd set to work to fit all three parts to the rifle.
Actually, there were four parts, since two tubular pieces comprise the fore-end, or "handguard" in AR vernacular. Even determining what was required of those pieces was difficult, never mind executing it. It was a long, hair-graying experience fitting the two pieces so they would be sufficiently small to hold comfortably in the hand, fit around the rifle's metal under-parts properly, and look as much as possible like one piece.
And did I mention the deadline? All of this had to be accomplished in nine short weeks.
Building the walnut handguard was a hair-graying experience, requiring much unforgiving hand-fitting.
The pistol grip was probably the easiest of the three parts, followed by the buttstock. Todd fitted a piece of Cape buffalo horn as a buttplate, and engraver Sam Welch kindly dressed up the retaining screws by engraving "NSSF" on one and "2010" on the other, since we had decided that such a nice rifle should be put to good use. Accordingly, we would donate the rifle to the National Shooting Sports Foundation to auction in order to raise funds to help them defend the AR-15 against its detractors.
Three nervous breakdowns and one near-homicide later, the rifle was finished, polished up, shipped back to Bill Dowtin for assembly and testing, and finally sent on to Shooting Times for the gorgeous photograph that adorns the cover of this 50th anniversary issue.
Was the project a success? We think so. We proved that the AR-15, like its Springfield and Mauser predecessors, is a military rifle that not only has undoubtable civilian applications, but it can also be clothed in formal dress and hold its head up in any company.
Just another black gun? Not any more.