Well known in the world of gun collectors, Michael Petrov is the leading authority on between the wars American Custom Gunmaking and Gunmakers. It is with the upmost pleasure and privilege I welcome Michael to his own pages of research and photography. Although we have only met twice in person, we have been friends and associates for decades and Michael has been much help to myself and other firearms writers with his extensive research on his focus subject.
These pages will be Michael’s to present whatever he wishes with posting and minimal editing by the publisher.
(Note: A. Michael is 5’ 16 1/2” tall, B. there are two levels of gun racks, C. He is most often smiling in my experience. sdh)
Petrov’s Pages will begin with the introductory chapter to his book Custom Gunmakers of the 20th Century (See Books For Sale Page 2). We will be adding pages as we can both find the time and, if this venture attracts interested participant, we will introduce a question and answer page where readers can send emails directly to Petrov with question about their own rifles, custom guns or related accoutrements.
Please let us know that you are with us by a short note to me via email at the bottom of each page. -SDH-
Custom Sporting Rifle Makers - An Introduction
In the age of the flintlock and percussion muzzleloading rifles you could call most of these rifles custom made. You knew the village gunsmith and he made the rifle for you. What was then called a hunting rifle and was used to feed and protect your family we now call a sporting rifle. After the Civil War with tens of thousands of surplus military rifles on the market, as well as major arms companies turning out mass-produced rifles the village gunsmith had to find another means to make a living. Many of these found different lines of work altogether. Some stayed in business and did repair work. But for the most part the local gunsmiths were headed the way of the passenger pigeon. After the Civil War very few young men entered into an apprenticeship for gunmaking.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s the bolt action was not yet in favor with the sportsmen of America. The single shot and the fast handling lever-action were what they wanted. Mannlicher-Schoenauer and Ross rifles enjoyed a small following. The Krag with it’s 220 grain .30 caliber jacket bullet did fine work at the target range and in the game field and earned a measure of respect. As the popularity of the .30-40 Krag grew Winchester made their Model 1885 Single Shot and Model 1895 lever-action in this same caliber. Men of the time who were exposed to the .30-40 and later the .30-06 in military service saw what a rifle shooting a high velocity metal jacket bullet could do, and wanted the same performance for hunting.
When Teddy Roosevelt’s 1908-09 trip to Africa was reported in his book African Game Trails describing his use of a 1904 armory-modified Springfield .30-03 as a sporting rifle the shooting public was becoming aware of the bolt gun potential. In 1910 Edward C. Crossman, a well-known gun writer, did a series in The Outer’s Book in which he wrote about having five Springfield rifles made into sporters by Ludwig Wundhammer, a well known gunsmith of Los Angeles. Of the five rifles one would go to Stewart Edward White, author and adventurer. The other rifles would go to Crossman, John L. Colby, Robert Cameron Rogers and a man named Weld. As the public followed Crossman’s series, Metamorphosis Of The New Springfield , over the next three months every detail of the sporterization was reported: How to order the parts from the government; where wood, sights, buttplates and sling swivels could be had; and how they were fitted to the rifles. All of the imported walnut in America was the two-piece variety used for shotguns, single-shot and lever-action rifles. Wundhammer had to go to Ross of Canada for stock blanks large enough for a bolt-action rifle. Also from Ross came the barrel band sling swivels. Butt plates equipped with compartments were ordered from Sauer & Sohn in Suhl, Germany. White’s gun was done first and off to Africa White went. Between this trip in 1910, and his next trip in 1912 he killed 346 head of big game with the Springfield 30-06. The first installment of The Metamorphosis was just out when Crossman had to publish a letter in The Outer’s Book asking that requests for more information on the new sporters had to stop. He had received one and a half pecks of letters and there was no end in sight.
In the sporting press sides where drawn up into the bolt-lever debate. On the side of lever actions were Ashley A. Haines and Charles Newton; defending the bolt gun were Edward C. Crossman and Lt. Townsend Whelen. For two years they argued over the merits of their favorite rifles. The shooting public became very well informed on the subject. By 1912 the dust had settled the bolt gun was the winner and everybody wanted one.
In the America of 1912 anyone who ever worked on a gun started to sporterize the Springfield rifle. Thousands of Springfields were converted into sporters in the next 40 or so years. Most were of average workmanship but a few stand above the rest. The sportsmen who read Forest and Stream, Outer’s, Shooting And Fishing, Arms And The Man and other outdoor magazines of the time were familiar with gunsmiths such as Ludwig Wundhammer of Los Angeles, Steve Meunier of Milwaukee, Fred Adolph of Genoa, New York and A.O. Niedner of Malden Mass. Backing every well-known gunsmith was a writer telling of the fine work turned out by that gunsmith. 1910 was the year Seymour R. Griffin made his first Springfield stock. It would be another 13 years before Griffin and James V. Howe would start the company that bears their name today. Other gunmakers’ names that would become synonymous with fine workmanship were Robert G. (Bob) Owen, Tom Shelhamer, John Dubiel, Alvin Linden, and Hoffman Arms Company. Men who never made it into the limelight of national recognition but whose work can stand with the best are Ross King, A. G. Miner, Barney Worthen, William Kirkwood, John Wright, and W.S. Mielcarek. And there are many others.
There have been more articles written on the .30-06 cartridge and the 1903 Springfield rifle than on any other rifle-cartridge combination since the invention of smokeless powder. The early gun writers had a large say in how these new sporters were made. No detail was overlooked by these rifleman. What barrel could be used? Should the arsenal barrel be re-contoured or turned down? What sights should be used and how where they to be mounted. In regard to stock measurements for the individual shooter, how much cast off could or should be used and what drop at the comb and heel. No one writer was looked to for answers more than Townsend Whelen. Whelen set the standard for gun writers and held gunsmiths accountable for their work. When it came to anything that a rifle crank wanted to know, Whelen’s was the final word.
The demand for Springfield sporters got to be so high that Springfield Armory started to make them for sale to NRA members through the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM). The first Springfield sporter was made in November 1922 and, after producing 5,535 they stopped production with the last one delivered in July of 1934. Springfield Armory would on request send your sporter in the white to Griffin & Howe for refining, stocking and bluing. R.F. Sedgley, Inc., bought every low number Springfield action they could get from the government, re-heat-treated them and, using Winchester barrels, made a semi-custom sporter that sold in a price range which a working man could then afford.
The arms companies were beginning to take notice of the demand for a high powered bolt action sporting rifle. The first commercial bolt action sporting rifle chambered for the .30-06 was the Remington Model 30 introduced in 1921; The Winchester Model 54 was introduced in 1925. Neither were an overnight success. The most glaring defect of these early sporters was in the design of the stock. It was not long before it was routine to send the new models to their favorite stockmaker to be restocked. In 1931 Winchester came out with a newly designed stock for the Model 54 called the NRA stock. The first major successes for Remington was the model 30S and for Winchester the Model 70.
One thing that was common to most of the old masters was that they had each apprenticed to a trade. Wundhammer and Adolph apprenticed as gunsmiths, Niedner as a machinist, Owen and Griffin as cabinetmakers. Steve Meunier apprenticed to his brother John and William Kirkwood apprenticed to his father David, who were each gunsmiths.
You would be lucky to own just one rifle from any of these Old Masters. As a subject for research there are only a few collections with more than one example of their work in them. Very few museums have more than one or two of these Master’s work, and then the museums have little or no information on the makers themselves. Most of these rifles were purchased by men of means who, after several months of planning and correspondence with the smith and many months wait , had a single gun made for them. And then that gun usually stayed in the family. All too often when one of these pieces does show up for sale it is not recognized for what it is. Couple this with the fact that many early sporters were made from low number Springfield Armory and Rock Island Arsenal rifles thought to be dangerous (with each passing year and each re-telling of the story they become more dangerous so that today it is believed that these guns will blow up if you have ammunition in the same room with them). As a result these rifles are often passed over. A lot of information can be had from the catalogs of Griffin & Howe, Hoffman, Sedgley, Fred Adolph and The Niedner Rifle Corporation. Some gunmakers ran ads in the shooting magazines of the period but others who worked regionally never advertised. Rifles made by Griffin & Howe, Hoffman and Niedner all had a work order or serial number on the barrel ( G&H and Hoffman is on the top of the barrel and Niedner is on the bottom of the barrel under the forearm) so that dating one of their rifles can be fairly accurate. Many makers put their names on the barrel. Others marked the stock, some did not mark their work at all. Stockmakers such as R.G. Owen and Thomas Shelhamer incorporated a “trademark” in their work For Shelhamer it was the chinstrap of wood behind the pistol grip. Owen carved an arrowhead on each side of his stocks.
A cautionary note here before you head to the gunroom and dust off that old Springfield. A lot of care should be used in taking these old rifles out of their stocks. Some are so closely inletted that they are hard to disassemble. Inletting by S.R. Griffin looks like it was glass bedded. Many rifles by Niedner have a sling swivel in the forearm that is held on by two screws One may be a machine screw that goes into the barrel.
In 1975 I saw my first Niedner-Shelhamer and it was love at first sight. Here was a rifle that was as plain as could be, just wood and metal with no white line in the forend or pistol grip, no diamonds of plastic in the stock and not one line of engraving. Simple elegance is the only way to describe it. All lines of the rifle were perfect. Wood and metal flowed together as one. After seeing a rifle of this quality I just knew that there had to be several books written about men who could turn out such fine work It did not take long for me to learn that very little information outside of magazine articles has ever been written about these men. Some of the early books by Whelen and Crossman have some information on the smiths they used. My interest for several years was focused on A.O. Niedner and the Niedner Rifle Corporation. Along the way I began to pick up information on other smiths of the period. On makers such as Niedner I have enough information to do a book. On Barney H. Worthen I don’t have enough to do a decent paragraph. Collecting information on these makers I learned how little I do know. As soon as I’m ready to say “This is how it was” other information comes along sending me down a new path of research. I can remember way back when I said “Engraving on a gun won’t make it shoot better.” That was way before I could sit back in my easy chair with an Owen-Springfield engraved by Rudolph J. Kornbrath across my lap and admire (fondle) it for hours at a time. One of the biggest problems with doing this kind of research is when do you have enough information to publish? The answer could be never, because there is always more to learn. In upcoming articles I am going to share what information I have with you, the reader, and you can participate by telling me what you know of these gunmakers and by setting me straight when I have the wrong information. I am attracted to these older makers not only because of the high quality of their workmanship but, by knowing about the lives of the makers, having that connection is a very important part of enjoying their art.