Look closely and you may see them: file marks.
The faint traces of file marks are barely visible on the water table of this old Lefever Nitro Special 12 gauge double gun. The marks are the final cuts of the metal-to-metal fitting work of a craftsman at the Ithaca Gun Company, Ithaca, N.Y., in 1925, the year this gun was manufactured. He was filing down the surface of the water table so that it would join perfectly with the flat of the right barrel, assuring a tight fit of the chambers against the action body and the face of the breech block.
He did not polish the water table after his fitting; the marks from his file cuts must have still been obvious to him before he closed the gun’s action a final time, but the metal surfaces met evenly and the locking lugs snapped into place with a solid click, so he knew the gun was safe and sound. Why didn’t he do the final polishing with a strip of emery cloth? Maybe he was paid piece work, and polishing was not required by the supervisor charged with quality control. Or maybe the noon whistle was blowing on Saturday, and he was in a hurry to go home and spend time with his family.
Whatever the reason, the evidence of his file work on this gun’s action remains, ninety-three years later, telling me that the fitting was done by a man who had learned his trade through long practice, probably starting as an apprentice, to become a craftsman who knew how to shape ordinance-grade steel with a hand-file, removing a ten-thousandth of an inch between each test-closing, shaping the action until it locked with a firm click that he felt in his hands more than heard with his ears. That solid lock-up click, he knew, meant the gun would shot safely and reliably for thousands of rounds of shotshells fired at waterfowl and upland game.
An owner of a high-grade English, Spanish, Italian, or classic American double gun would be aghast to see file marks on the action of his Purdey or Arietta or L.C. Smith. For a “best” gun, this would be unacceptable workmanship, evidence that the quality is a bit shoddy, not up to the standards of a “name” company. But this Lefever is not a best gun or even a high-grade gun. It is a workingman’s gun, manufactured (and final-fitted by hand) for the blue-collar worker who would carry it into the marshes and rough upland coverts to shoot birds, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, possums, and other small game that would be an important part of his family’s table fare. It may have been used, too, to dispatch a henyard-raiding fox, hawk, or skunk.
This Lefever gun (advertised for $29 in 1925) would soon bear the scars, chips, scrapes, and dents of hard use. Those almost invisible file marks on its action would be of small notice.
The Ithaca craftsman in the fitting room well knew that. He may have had (or may have progressed to) the level of skill to produce fine-quality guns, and maybe he moved up the ranks of gunsmiths in the shop who finished Ithaca’s best: Flues and NID doubles in the higher E grades, shotguns that wealthy businessmen took afield in shooting parties that rode in custom wagons drawn by sixteen-hand mules, shooting quail on Southern plantations and prairie chickens on the Great Plains over braces of professionally handled setters and pointers.
But those would not have been my ancestors, who were all working-class laborers happy to afford the $29 Nitro Special. Maybe that’s why I’m content with the quality of work this unknown craftsman performed in the fitting room more than nine decades ago. It was done (quite literally, since this was my great uncle’s shotgun) for a man who would never be able to own a “best” double gun, or pay more than $10 for a bird dog.
There is also contentment in handling a gun that is the product of a skilled craftsman’s hand and eye rather than a computer-controlled robotic machine. The robot can turn out firearms at ten times the pace of those long-gone craftsmen, each gun’s parts fitted in precise and interchangeable fashion, one gun’s action and barrels indistinguishable from another’s — and absolutely devoid of any human touch.
Mechanically, are these robot-manufactured guns better? So we are told, and I do not doubt that the metallurgy and wood varnishes of the 21st century are superior to those of a hundred years ago. But in quality and reliability, their superiority is not obvious to me, since I have handled so many of them that are stiff to operate, with clunky and sometimes unreliable triggers and ejectors and safeties and barrel selectors.
Is a robot a craftsman? Is the computer-savvy machinist who programs a CTC robot a craftsman? Does either of them pick up the gun at the end of the production line and look it over, part-by-part, inch-by-inch, assuring the metal-to-metal and wood-to-metal fit? Could either of them notice, if all the calipers and gauges read “within tolerances,” that the wood is a bit too proud where it meets the left side of the action body? I read the gun writers who say robotic manufacturing is a benefit, but it seems to me the only people it benefits are the owners of the robots. Certainly it is no benefit to the hundreds of gunmakers who were ushered out the door of the shop or lost through attrition over the past fifty years, replaced by a few dozen robots.
The benefit to the bird hunter is nebulous. The decline of quality of the field grade gun has been so gradual and so nuanced that we have unconsciously accepted it, allowing “good” to degrade to “good enough.” As evidence, compare a standard grade Remington 870 shotgun made in 1958 with one produced in 2018.
Best-quality, hand-finished shotguns can still be had, of course. The people who make these fine guns are not so much craftsmen as artisans, since the guns that come out of their shops are of a standard of excellence that makes them pieces of artwork. But those are not field guns; they are within the financial reach of only the most wealth bird hunters.
There is no going back. Only five or six percent of the U.S. population hunts these days, and less than half of those hunters pursue waterfowl or upland birds. Sport hunting will be a cultural artifact in another fifty years, and the gear and guns of our hunting fraternity will be curiosities on display in museums.
Through these closing decades of our avocation, it is sad that most will go afield with shotguns that lack the craftsman’s touch, guns that do not have an artisan-imbued soul and spirit, that have no file marks to tell us “a man used his skill and acumen to create this gun for a line of men whose values and way of life he understood and shared.” Racing down the highway of the industrial and technological revolution, we left behind a piece of our humanity at each milepost.
Polish out these file marks on the water table of this old Lefever double gun? No, I think not.
More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page