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The Mark of a Real Gunmaker

The most basic skill of metalworking is still the most important for a gunmaker, but doing it the old way is becoming a lost art.

The Mark of a Real Gunmaker
One gunsmith still doing it the old way is Mike Rowe of Arkansas. He recently fashioned a set of tools for a Holland & Holland Paradox by using an original set as a pattern.

On a visit to Spain in 1988 while researching for my book on Spanish gunmakers, I interviewed the two Arrieta brothers, Victor and José. Both were retired, although both spent considerable time at the shop, keeping an eye on things. Recalling their father, Avelino, who founded the company, they remarked that even when he was in his 90s, he could still “use the file.”

A year later, back in Eibar, Ignacio Ugartechea, who was then around 70, told me about completing his apprenticeship in the 1940s. The examination consisted of making a complete shotgun from raw pieces of walnut and steel. He made a .410 over-under similar in design to the famous Merkel shotgun.

“How did you make it?” I asked, holding the gun in my hands. “With a file and a hand drill,” he said. “Everything but the engraving.”

It took me some years to realize fully that the most basic skill of metalworking—“using the file”—is still today the most important skill for a gunmaker. In the old days of English apprenticeships, the first thing mastered was the file. Either that or you didn’t graduate, no matter what else you accomplished during your seven years of servitude. You learned to stand the correct way, and place the steel in the vise the correct way, and hold the file the correct way, and then attack the work—the correct way. Every stroke had to be perfect. There was no such thing as “close enough.”

In England an apprentice made his own tools, which he would then use throughout his career, as well as completing certain tasks to the satisfaction of his master, or “gaffer.” One of these tasks was filing two pieces of steel so perfectly flat that when pressed together they made a “sucking fit” and had to be
slid apart.

As someone who barely passed Grade 9 machine-shop, to me such exactitude is a source of wonder, and every time a gunmaker takes a file and produces something perfect, seemingly effortlessly, I am in awe.

Watching a gunmaker with a file, chatting away, measuring nothing, holding parts up to the light, then putting them back in the vise and taking another few strokes, makes you realize what extraordinary human skills we are in danger of losing in the age of computers and CNC machines. I don’t mean to take anything away from the latest CNC machinery, but really all it is is an investment of millions of dollars in development and then millions more to produce the machines, all in order to duplicate what has been done by generations of skilled men, armed with files that cost a few pence at most—files and the skill and human judgment that only careful teaching and experience can bring.

A few years ago, I acquired a Charles Lancaster shotgun built on the second Frederick Beesley patent (the patent in which he corrected what he saw as weaknesses in the earlier patent he had sold to James Purdey). The action is ingenious to the point of disbelief.

Feeling it deserved a set of fitted tools worthy of both its designer and maker, I went to Mike Rowe, a freelance machinist and toolmaker who lives in the wilds of Arkansas and works out of a crowded little shop on a wooded hillside with the occasional deer looking in the window. Mike sized up the situation and in a few hours produced a special T-tool peculiar to the Lancaster gun, resembling an extra-strong turnscrew for locking the mainspring before disassembly. He also fitted a set of his custom-made turnscrews for the gun’s pins.

While I was there, he showed me a special project he was working on: duplicating a set of original Holland & Holland tools for the famous Paradox. He had an old set to use as patterns, and every curve and line was letter-perfect. They were the kind of tools you pick up and handle and don’t want to put down because they are such a pleasure to use.

Mike certainly did a lot of the work on his machines, but he also did a lot by hand, and it was a pleasure just to watch a man who knows how to “use the file.”

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