QUESTION: Which is more important: a competent doctor or a competent gunsmith?
ANSWER: A competent gunsmith. All an incompetent doctor can do is kill you, in which case your troubles are over, and your survivors can sue for millions. An ailing gun, however, can transform your life into a waking hell, and having it ministered to by a wood and metal butcher will leave you praying for death–yours or his, it doesn’t matter.
What makes a great gunsmith? Gary Schlomer, educational supervisor of the Colorado School of Trades (one of the few places you can go to learn to be a gunsmith) says, “A gunsmith is just a mechanic. The people who have graduated and done really well all have tremendous mechanical aptitude, terrific work ethics, and a willingness to take pains.”
Good gunsmiths are a vanishing breed. This is because of the way things are made today. Before CNC and CAD/CAM (read: computer programming) took over the trade, machinists were taught to make things with their hands, and their basic tool was the file.
Now, machinists program computers, and the computers tell highly complex, incredibly expensive multistage machines what steps to take. Human hands have nothing to do with it. Tell a new-age machinist to take a hunk of steel and make a spring for an L.C. Smith sidelock, and he’d just burst into tears.
Gunsmithing is time-intensive. Good gunsmiths don’t see the sun for months at a time. Nor does it pay particularly well. There is a lot of satisfaction in it, though, which is why they do it.
The men listed here either are known to me personally or have been recommended by people whose opinions I trust. All but one are willing to undertake any reasonably intelligent job. Only Doug Turnbull does not do general gun repair and improvement.
Top gunsmiths do not revel in unclogging gummed-up rifles and shotguns whose owners could not be bothered to keep them clean, so unless you have a reasonably good firearm and something interesting in mind for it, leave these guys alone.
J.C. Blauvelt WALLKILL, NEW YORK
John Blauvelt was a cop for 20 years and ended up as chief of detectives for the city of Newburgh, N.Y. Blauvelt learned the trade from his father, who was a machinist, and began taking armorer’s courses while he was still on the job. Toward the end of his law enforcement career he worked on criminals during the day and guns at night, and retired to the guns four years ago. He is, according to a friend who competes against him, an almost unbeatable pistol shooter. These days, he is also my gunsmith.
“I hate working on wood stocks. I can tolerate working on good synthetic stocks. What I like most is working on pistols and revolvers,” says Blauvelt. “When I went on the job 20 years ago, everyone used revolvers, and I’ve done a ton of PPC [pistol police competition] shooting, which was strictly a revolver sport. My favorites are the older Smith & Wessons with forged parts. You can tune them up much nicer than the new ones.”
A classic country gunsmith, Blauvelt will fix almost anything that isn’t hopeless or futile, but his real forte is handgun and rifle tuning. He gets a high volume of work from accuracy freaks near and far. He’s very fast, and I don’t think he charges enough, considering the quality of the work he turns out.
What does he enjoy most? “I love it when I hear from a client that his gun is shooting great or that he just won a match with it, or the look on his face when he sees his dad’s old gun looking new again.”
Blauvelt works out of a small but well-equipped shop in the back of his house by appointment only. J.C. Blauvelt Gunsmith Inc., 845-895-2945; jcbgunsmith.com
Mickey Coleman GREENVILLE, ALABAMA
Mickey Coleman was a Selma, Ala., insurance agent for most of his career, but he was also a gun nut and tinkerer of the first magnitude. In 1989, he got tired of tinkering and decided to go about things seriously, so he took night-school courses in machine work, and in 1993 he built his first rifle. It was good enough so that other people asked him to build rifles for them, and by and by Coleman said bye-bye to the insurance business.
He is a rifleman and an accuracy nut, and most of what he does involves making guns accurate or building them that way to begin with. He doesn’t work with handguns and shotguns–“I’ve got enough sense to stay away from things I don’t understand”–but builds and accurizes benchrest, varmint, and big-game rifles.
He has an 800-square-foot shop with an excellent rifle range behind it. Coleman works by himself. He says he is Chief Gunsmith and Janitor all in one. “People think gunsmiths use voodoo, but all we are is machinists. Good gunsmithing is just good machine-shop work.” Coleman Rifles, 334-382-6898; colemanrifles.com
Rick Freudenberg EVERETT, WASHINGTON
I learned about Mr. Freudenberg from Wayne van Zwoll, eminent hunter, rifleman, writer, and fitness lunatic, and I figure that if he can make a rifle good enough to keep van Zwoll happy, he should be good enough for the rest of you.
Freudenberg got his start in things mechanical by working for four years as a diesel doctor in the U.S. Marine Corps. Having survived that, he spent 1980 to 1983 at the Colorado School of Trades, where he logged 3,000 hours in various gunsmithing courses, deciding that what interested him most was rifles, and competition rifles in particular. He is also a highly experienced big-game hunter, which is a good thing to be if you make hunting rifles.
In addition to doing a wide range of general gunsmithing jobs, Freudenberg accurizes rifles and builds them. He will make you a hunting rifle or a BR-50 rifle or a target rifle or a varmint rifle, and it will by God shoot real good before it leaves his shop. Mainly his target-shooter clients influence his thinking, because for them, if a rifle is not a world-beater, you might as well stay home and watch reruns of Lassie. Freudenberg works solo and does not require an appointment. Freudenberg’s Custom Rifles, 425-347-3986; freudscustomrifles.com
Roger Green EVANSVILLE, WYOMING
Green is a tall, lanky former Mississippian who saw Wyoming and never looked back. He’s led an interesting life, having worked for U.S. Army Intelligence while stationed in Germany and Vietnam. Today he’s an all-around gunsmith, outdoorsman, and German wirehaired pointer fanatic.
Although Green will do any reasonably interesting job, he specializes in building wood-stocked big-game rifles that are works of art, including what is probably the finest .22 rifle I’ve ever seen. It was a perfect scaled-down copy of a custom .375 H&H Model 70. Based on a Winchester Model 52 action, it was perfect in every detail, right down to its express sights. I still dream about that gun.
Green got his start at 16 when he sporterized a Model 1917 Enfield. He shot it for a few years, then sold it and used the money to do a better job on a second one. While attending Mississippi State University, he worked part-time for a gunsmith named Muse Davis, who taught him about plain guns and fine guns.
In 1976 he built his first gun shop. Two years later, he began to display his custom guns at NRA conventions, and it was at one of these that he met the late Lenard Brownell, one of the all-time great custom gun builders, who critiqued his work. Brownell has been his greatest influence. Green operates out of a shop near his home and prefers to work by appointment. Roger M. Green, Gunmaker, 307-473-1112; rogermgreen.com
Jim Kelly DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
I learned about Darlington Gun Works from Kenny Jarrett, and if he thinks they’re good, that’s enough of a reference for me. Jim Kelly heads up a four-man shop that will tackle anything that comes through the door, although the specialty of the house is fine shotguns. No appointment is needed, since, as Mr. Kelly says, “We’re up to our eyeballs anyway.” Darlington Gun Works, 843-393-3931
Ralph and John Payne GALLATIN GATEWAY, MONTANA
The Powder Horn, a serious shooting and outdoor-sporting-goods store in Bozeman, recommended these two gentlemen to me, and I have learned to trust the Powder Horn. Ralph is the father, who is entering his 50th year as a country gunsmith, and John is his son, who is in his ninth year. These gentlemen will tackle just about any sort of job–rifle, shot-gun, handgun, it doesn’t matter. They’ve seen it all. Payne’s Custom Gunsmithing, 406-763-4586
Doug Turnbull BLOOMFIELD, NEW YORK
Doug Turnbull is a master at bringing old guns back to life, better than when they were new. This is a tricky business, because in order to restore, say, a Winchester Model 1886 lever action, you have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Winchesters of that time, and what they looked like, and all the optional features they came with, and how to replicate the work.
Turnbull has been in business since 1983. He and his colleagues will refurbish and/or upgrade old Colt Single Action Army or Smith & Wesson revolvers, Winchester lever actions of the period from 1873-1929, old Colt Model 1911s, and any of the quality American double shotguns (but in the better grades only). He won’t touch new double-action revolvers, stainless-steel guns of any type whatsoever, or new Smith & Wessons.
Turnbull will also make a new gun look like an old one. If you yearn for a Winchester Model 86 in .50/110, he will take a modern Winchester lever action, rebarrel it to handle the big .50, and blue and stock it so that it looks like the real (old) thing. For cowboy action shooters, Turnbull takes new U.S. Firearms Co. single-actions and makes them look like old Colts.
Such wonderful toys he turns out! Prices, considering the work you get, are quite reasonable. Doug Turnbull Restoration, 585-657-6338; turnbullrestoration.com
THE BIG SHOPS
Here are three large gunsmithing operations that employ half a dozen or more craftsmen and do outstanding work
BRILEY MANUFACTURING HOUSTON, TEXAS
Jess Briley is a machinist and skeet shooter who, in 1976, designed sub-gauge tubes that allowed a 12-gauge skeet gun to fire smaller-gauge shells. What put Briley over the top were his thin-wall interchangeable choke tubes, introduced in 1980. Now, Briley also makes precision parts for all sorts of domestic and foreign gunmakers, employing 75 machinists and 14 gunsmiths.
There is very little that Briley won’t or can’t handle in the way of gun work, and it is all done in a first-class manner. 800-331-5718; briley.com
GRIFFIN & HOWE BERNARDSVILLE, N.J.
G&H has been around since 1923. For much of its history, G&H relied on European-trained gunsmiths who worked there for most of their careers. Today, G&H relies mostly on American-trained gunsmiths, and it will do any kind of job that is required, although it has always been best known for its work on fine rifles and shotguns. 908-766-5171; griffinhowe.com
NEW ENGLAND CUSTOM GUN SERVICE, LTD. PLAINFIELD, N.H.
Is your Vierling ailing? Do you yearn to have an EAW mount installed on your rifle? Are you interested in the work done by the many small, great gunmakers in Germany and Austria?
Well kiss my lederhosen, you’ve come to the right place. NECGS was founded by Dietrich Apel, a first-rate gunsmith (now retired) and a devotee of all guns Teutonic. This is the only shop I know of that is completely at home not only with American guns, but in the wonderful, esoteric, and highly complex world of German and Austrian firearms. And if you’d like someone to rebuild your Model 12 Winchester, they’ll handle that, too. 603-469-3450; newenglandcustomgun.com –DAVID E. PETZAL
DOUG TURNBULL + COWBOY CLASSIC: A CUSTOMIZED U.S. FIREARMS S.A. REVOLVER
Barrel and cylinder are finished in original-style Carbona bluing Frame, gate, and hammer are bone charcoal color case-hardened
RICK FREUDENBERG + LONG RANGE (1,000-YARD) MATCH RIFLE IN 6.5X284
McMillan prone stock with adjustable comb and buttplate Single-shot Wichita bolt action with Jewell trigger 31-inch heavyweight Lilja barrel
ROGER GREEN + MODEL 98 PERUVIAN MAUSER .284 WINCHESTER
Leather-covered recoil pad Turkish walnut, 26-lpi multipoint checkering pattern with ribbons Case-colored receiver with custom Conetrol bases and Blackburn bottom metal
NEW ENGLAND CUSTOM GUN SERVICE + UPGRADED LEFEVER NITRO SPECIAL
Stocked in Turkish walnut supplied by customer Original pistol grip converted to straight grip Action resculpted; all internal parts tuned and gold-plated; side plates engraved and inlaid in gold by Marty Rabeno