There’s no question I’m getting more sentimental as I get older. This sentimentality manifests itself in different ways. For example, I love old houses. There is something about the craftsmanship that went into building many of the old houses, especially those built between 1880 and 1930. Those dates are somewhat arbitrary, but I believe that era was the peak of American residential architecture, at least from a design and quality standpoint. To be sure, the houses of today are more energy efficient and arguably more “green,” whatever that means. But I doubt there will be a movement in 40 years to restore houses built in the 1980’s.
This morning over breakfast, I was reading a long article in the 2017 Edition of Gun Digest on Remington Autoloading Shotguns. Starting with the Model 11, the author went all the way through nearly 100 years of shotguns up to the VersaMax. Perhaps it was coincidental that the VersaMax got a paragraph and the 1100 got 3 pages. But I doubt it. While the VersaMax is arguably a more technologically advanced gun, there’s something about an 1100 that holds our interest just a little longer.
I think a lot of it comes down to craftsmanship; or at least the perception of it. When we look at a shotgun with a warm wood stock and deep, rich bluing on the steel, it evokes a sense of craftsmanship. It is a look back to our hand-crafted past, even if it’s in a mass produced way. Wood feels better than synthetic stocks, even if it’s not as impervious to weather. Bluing looks better, even if it does rust if not taken care of. There is a richness to wood and steel that can’t be duplicated with plastic and epoxy finishes.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy my black guns. I carry a polymer-framed pistol every day and thoroughly enjoy building, working on and shooting my black (or green, or blue) rifles. But when I want to feel something about a firearm I own, I reach into the safe for wood and steel. The Savage 99, for instance. Or my Remington 11-48. That gun doesn’t even run right at the moment, but it still evokes a sense of history, of permanence.
Like old houses, old guns seem to endure. I have two guns built around 1930. At almost 90 years old, they still run as good as new. I have a Winchester Model 94 built in 1966, the year I was born. Honestly, it looks better than I do for our age. My 11-48 rolled off the assembly line about the time my parents were in high school. Each one of them is a connection to our past.
When I look at the drawings for any of those guns, I’m amazed at what the designers and engineers accomplished without AutoCAD and CNC machines. The level of machining is incredible; and it was all done without computers. Guns of today are molded and fitted together with stamped or minimally machined parts quickly and inexpensively. And they are just fine. But let’s be honest; it’s hard to get too excited about a Glock, or an XD or an M&P 2.whatever.
Even today, the guns that everyone ogles at an industry trade show are the really expensive shotguns and the custom 1911s. Just think about that for a moment—one of the most popular handgun designs still to this day is a military sidearm designed in the early 1900’s! Talk about a connection with our past. And if you really want to be impressed with craftsmanship and quality of materials, take a look at some of the really expensive over and under shotguns—a design that dates back to the 1800’s!
I Know, I’m Old
There may be a bunch of younger guys reading this and maybe you don’t get excited about old guns at all. For you, the new hotness is the new hotness. And maybe in 30-40 years you’ll be waxing poetic about those old polymer handguns and black rifles. But it won’t be because those guns are nicer than the wood and steel guns of my youth. Today’s guns may be better but they’re not nicer at least by and large.
In an age where everything is disposable, and thus built as cheaply as possible, there is something about taking time to restore something that was built when craftsmanship meant something. When I took the Model 99 apart, cleaned all the old gummed up oil out of the action and got it running like new, there was not only a sense of accomplishment, but a sense of preserving the past.
The Race to the Bottom
I just read an article in Guns & Ammo about the race to the bottom with hunting rifles. It is now possible to buy, for $400 or less (sometimes much less) a bolt-action rifle (sometimes with a scope) that will shoot sub-1” groups at 100 yards. I just bought such a gun—a Ruger American in .308—and it shoots lights out. But it’s not beautiful. It’s fun to shoot, don’t get me wrong. But when I think beautiful, I think 700 BLD or pre-’64 Model 70 or a Weatherby Mark IV. Any of those guns would cost at least 2-4 times (or more) what I paid for my Ruger. And probably wouldn’t shoot much better. But man, they look and feel good.
Some day in the hopefully not too distant future, I plan to have a Mark VII built to my specs by ER Shaw. They do some really nice guns at reasonable prices. Aside from finding the funds to pay for it, the biggest challenge to me is deciding what to have them build. But whatever it is, it will be a polished wood stock and a blued barrel and action. Wood and steel, baby.