Gunsmiths retire. Some of the best ones – master craftsmen who are a blend of artist, metallurgist, woodworker, scientist, ballistician, firearms historian, and avid shooter — labor on and on into their seventies and eighties, probably because we clients plead with them to keep the shop open and continue their excellent quality of workmanship on our guns.
Alas, the march of time is inexorable. The day comes when our gunsmith at last retires and we must bid good-bye to a trusted friend and begin the search for a new smith, enter a strange gun shop with stained felt hat in hand and battered leather case under arm, and make the leap of faith. For an old coot whose favorite rifle has taken more than twenty deer, this is a life transition of no small moment. Not easy to put into a stranger’s hands the steel-and-walnut key that opens the lock to decades of memories.
That is why, on this November’s deer hunt on the high plains of Nebraska, we all listened with empathy and sympathy as one of the Over the Hill Gang shared his “new gunsmith” experience. He needed his scope remounted in different rings (probably lower rings, since we stiff-necked coots develop ever-stiffer and less flexible necks in our sixties), and when he placed his rifle on the counter the new, young gunsmith said:
“My, that’s a nice old rifle!”
I neglected to mention that a veteran gunsmith is also a master of client relations, a campfire psychologist. This chap may get there someday, but he has a lot of study, fieldwork, and practical experience ahead of him.
“Yep, a really nice old rifle,” he said.
Old? Old? Why this rifle is a pup. Off-the-rack, brand-spanking-new less than thirty-five years ago. Forty years at most. Except for a few field nicks in the stock and a shiny silver ring around the muzzle from being slid in and out of a gun case a thousand times, you would never know it has seen a couple hundred days of hunting in the rain, snow, burning heat, and a sand storm or two.
Old? It’s so new-looking you’d never guess it’s been at the bottom of a creek, fallen off the tailgate of an International Harvester pickup, been stepped on by a horse, and survived other sundry mishaps. The knurling is pretty much worn off the bolt handle, and the trigger guard is going gray, but this rifle is barely middle-age.
“A Remington 700 BDL,” the young gunsmith said. “They don’t make ’em like this anymore.”
No kidding. This “old” rifle was made by craftsmen in the “old” Remington Arms plant and was inspected and detailed by an “old” codger who would sooner swallow his chew of tobacco than pass over a bolt-action rifle with a burr on the magazine follower spring. This old rifle functions flawlessly, shoots accurately, stands up to the rough treatment of the hunt, and has beautiful lines. The grain of the wood is pleasing, too.
So, if “old” is a synonym for “excellent,” this rifle is indeed old, compared to what passes for a new hunting rifle these days. Composition stocks, plastic accessories, fluted stainless steel barrels, pot-metal detachable magazines. Scopes meant for astronomy buffs. Worst of all, the tricked-out AR-15 style military guns that a new generation of hunters has the gall to call hunting rifles.
The old rifle in question is a Remington 700 bolt-action in .270 Winchester, arguably the best caliber for hunting in North America. The action is smooth as oiled glass. The receiver is fitted with a modest 2-7x variable power scope, not one the size of a beer bottle. Its true walnut stock has gone beautifully dark with age. The bluing shows almost no wear, even though this rifle has seen much wear-and-tear. From the stock’s sling swivels hangs a one-inch, two-piece leather sling for a hunter who knows how to shoot with a sling looped around his arm.
Jack O’Connor was partial to Winchester Model 70s. but he would have admired this rifle. This “old” rifle.
The “old” gunsmiths admire our “old” rifles, too. That’s why we want them to stay in the trade until our hunting days are over. Then, I guess, our rifles become museum pieces. Appropriate for works of art.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page