November 08, 2018
By Terry Wieland
Originally relegated to being a “parts” rifle, the Savage 1899 (made in 1913) was restored by gunsmith Todd Johnson. Chips and gouges in the stock were filled, and the metal parts were refinished. Now it’s ready to be the belle of anyone’s ball.
The gun restorer is the man with the know-ledge of what a gun was originally and the skill to bring it back to life exactly as it was the day it left the shop. For American guns, the absolute preeminent man in the field today is Doug Turnbull, who has carved for himself a unique niche in American gunmaking. There is no one better. This is not to say, however, that there is no one else who can do it extremely well.
Looking back, I’ve had about a half-dozen rifles and shotguns restored. Turnbull did one: a Winchester 1886 I got for half its value because some cretin had spent several winters carving on the woodwork with a dull knife and an even duller intellect; the metal was corroded as well.
Naturally, this raised many hackles when I told the story. One correspondent accused me of desecrating a “priceless piece of folk art,” while another insisted it was a sin to touch any old original Winchester “collector’s item,” regardless of condition. Curious, I called Bob Lee, one of the wealthiest and most knowledgeable Winchester collectors, and asked him what he thought. His answer was that if a gun was neither of unique historical value (Teddy Roosevelt’s 1895, for example) or factory original in every way, then restoration was not only acceptable, but also desirable. Bob foresaw a day when restored firearms would constitute their own field for collectors, with quality and authenticity of restoration a major factor in valuation.That particular ’86 had not been factory original for many years. It left New Haven as a .38-56 but had been rebarreled along the way to .40-65.
If you like to shoot guns and would rather not be seen in public with a “rusty old blunderbuss” (as one former acquaintance described my prized E.M. Reilly shotgun before it had been restored), then restoration can become a fascinating and rewarding activity.
Like rescuing kittens or saving a show jumper from life as a carthorse, putting the time and money into returning a nice old gun to polite society gives one a warm feeling of having done something for posterity.
Right here I should warn that rarely will it make you money. As a broad generality, if you buy a gun for $1,000 and put $3,000 more into restoration, you will be fortunate to sell it later for $4,000. But that’s not the point.
Aside from Turnbull, the best restorer I ever met was a Swiss-Canadian gunmaker named Edwin von Atzigen. Eddy did the Reilly shotgun mentioned earlier, later a Savage 1899, and finally a W&C Scott hammer gun. All three are lovely, all look great in the rack, and all shoot very well (or as well as I can shoot them).
Years ago, during my Savage 99 phase, I acquired a takedown .22 High Power in pieces, with the barrel bent like a banana and no front sight. It was billed as a “parts” rifle, and I paid a hundred bucks for it. Eddy straightened the barrel and welded in and sculpted a new front sight lug. Later Todd Johnson of Houston completed the restoration. It’s so nice I sometimes take it out of the rack and just gaze at it.
A good restoration job can take anywhere from six months to five years, depending on what’s needed and how meticulous you want to be, but if you’re a gun fanatic, it’s worth the wait. You can always visit the patient during the process (interesting and educational), and waiting for it to emerge from its cocoon, transformed from chrysalis to butterfly, is like being seven years old again, on tenterhooks for Christmas morning.