Maker of Fine Sporting Rifles

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Part3: A matter of education

Martin Hagn from Cranbrook, Canada was kind enough to weigh in on my little essay. Martin is an incredible craftsman, one of the best. He is one of a very few, in that he not only has a great eye and feel for the right proportions of stocks and firearms but has incredible engineering abilities that allow him to think outside the box. His famous single shot design is unique and genius in its simplicity, strength and reliability. While modern German firearms are typically over-engineered, his designs remind me of the German golden age of gun development, think Mauser 98. I’m honored to have Martin as a friend.

(A 7×64 caliber rifle I have currently in the works, with a Hagn action)

In Martin Hagn’s words:

I would like to touch on the quality of the “Buechsenmacher” Education in Germany and Austria. Actually, there is not that much praise to speak off! I spent 5 years in the gunmakers school in Ferlach, Austria. During that time, I worked for one year as a stock maker. The craftsmanship aspect was not bad at all, we certainly learned to file. But as far as styling was concerned, it was pretty bad, and we had no idea. The usual stock shape was in the alpine styling, primarily Bavarian. Basically, stocks with Bavarian cheek pieces, “Kaisergrips” and hog backs. The theoretical schooling was pretty good and included mathematics, bookkeeping and technical drawing. The goal of the education was not only the technical aspect, but also to acquire the skills necessary to be a business owner.

Of the 45 students in the school, only about 10% where really interested in the craft itself, and some still work today as gunmakers. The apprenticeships in Germany were not that great. Besides some learning in the workshop and a good filing foundation, it wasn’t great. Especially the machining skills where completely neglected. Probably better were the apprenticeships offered by the larger companies, such as Krieghoff, Heym and Sauer & Son. Those companies built tastefully executed guns before the war, especially Sauer & Son. In Austria, Johann Springer in Vienna was one of the best. After the war it all went downhill.

I was hired in 1962 by Griffin & Howe in New York. There I had the fortune to examine for the first time classic and tastefully built high-end guns. The shotguns from Churchill, Purdey, Holland & Holland and Westley & Richards where my new world. From those guns much can be learned as far as styling and execution is concerned.

In closing I would like to mention that in the USA, the gunsmithing schools provide probably the best opportunities for learning.

Martin Hagn

Like Martin mentions, most of the fellows I knew that apprenticed as gunmakers, shortly after changed career. Unfortunately, the trade has always been very small and didn’t offer employment opportunities nor the desired wages. Only people that truly have been “bitten by the bug” prevail and grind on, often against many odds, such as regulations and changes of laws.

Martin mentions a lack of taught machining skills to the German apprentices. Looking back, that was my greatest weakness also. In our shop in Switzerland, we had a horrible worn-out milling machine with huge back lash, and a terrible lathe. My master always said that if you learn on bad equipment, you can run any equipment. Well, later in America I learned the value of good equipment. The first time I run a proper Bridgeport it opened up a whole new world and I realized how wrong my master had been in this aspect.

I hope the different experiences are of interest and offer a little insight.

Part 2: A matter of education

My friend Mark Mitchell from Scotland was kind enough to share his experiences after reading mine. Mark is a veteran of the English gun trade. Over the years he has worked for just about all of the great English gunmakers, as an employee or contractor. He is one of the last masters and is a highly accomplished actioner and gun builder. In his own words:

Hi Reto,

Your experience was quite similar to mine. My apprenticeship was 5 years long, and with the company Holland & Holland. We did a year in a training school to give us basic hand skills and machining skills. During this year we made tools that we could use when we went on to the workshop where we would do the rest of our time. I still have and use a lot of those tools and to be honest they came out pretty well. I went into the Machine shop for my next 4 years machining actions, barrels, ribs. We made all of our own chambering tools and also the bolt action Rifles. It was an interesting time but as you have said, it was a bit focused on one discipline. Once I’d finished my 5 years, they moved me into the barrel shop where I very quickly learnt how to make shotgun barrels up. I didn’t stay there very long. Only 6 months before I left and ended up working for a gun shop. This is where the rest of my learning happened. I spent 4 years working with an ex-Boss actioner and he taught me a lot. I still only do metalwork but can pretty much make anything gun related now.

Youngsters here are not encouraged to go into anything where they’re going to get their hands dirty. There are government apprenticeship schemes, but they tend to be 3 years long and I don’t think the training is anything like it used to be. The gunmaking apprenticeships are still 5 years long, but I think it’s got to the point where the people doing the training don’t really understand the jobs properly themselves. I would say over here that the future of handmade guns is looking a bit bleak. If you got all of the fully qualified Gunmakers that were any good together, we wouldn’t fill a small room.

The finances are an issue, indeed. It’s only profitable if the apprentices stay on after their time. The company got a subsidy towards our wages for the first year but then it was up to the company. I started in 1979. Now you can get a small subsidy from the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers towards an apprentice but it’s not a great deal. I don’t think the apprenticeship program made H&H any profit.

The wages started off very low. I started on £24 a week gross. Each year they increased slightly. Once I’d spent a bit of time in the machine shop, we started on production work. We made all of the bolt action rifles which must have contributed to the company but in those days, we made everything including the sight blocks and sights. You couldn’t get them off the shelf then. We started off as 7 in the training school for the first year and once they were satisfied that our skills were good enough, they chose where to put us in the factory. We all got through the first year ok and continued on. Out of the 7 of us if I remember rightly only 2 left before they finished their apprenticeships.

Mark M.

Perhaps somebody from Germany or Austria could weigh in and share his/her experiences. Most people I’ve known that apprenticed as gunsmith changed their career shortly after. There are just not many employment opportunities out there. Mark too has expressed interest in doing some teaching. On and off we’ve had some discussions about it, and perhaps one day something may come of it.

A matter of education

During covid, my kids had to endure many months of online classroom schooling at home. It gave us parents a closer insight into their schooling and frankly I was horrified at the state of the American education system. I knew it was bad, but we didn’t know how bad it really is. I fear in the near future the United States will fall behind the rest of the world and will struggle to compete in a global economy.

My older son entered high school and I’m fretting increasingly about his future career path. I’m in the process of educating myself on the different career options that are available for young people. I’m a firm believer in the apprenticeship system and I find it sad that somewhere down the road it almost went lost in the United States. Maybe I can present with my experiences another perspective and maybe this might or might not be of interest to you.

I left Switzerland in 1995. I’m sure things probably changed since somewhat. Typically, after 9 years of public school a young person would graduate and pursue an apprenticeship or attend one of the universities of higher learning. The entry into the universities is usually achieved by completion of a successful entry level test according to the field of study. The university students are heavily subsidized by the government. Anybody can afford it but has to have good grades. Most young people go through an apprenticeship. I apprenticed for 4 years with the company “Felder Waffen” in the Kanton of Luzern. Technical jobs typically required a 4-year apprenticeship while other jobs, for example hairdressers, required 3 years. As typical I worked for 4 days a week at Felder and attended one day a week the technical regional college. As there are so few gunsmith apprentices, in the college they lumped us in together with the tool makers and machinists. While the 4 days were hands on, the school day consisted of German, math, technical drawing, technical education, chemistry, physics and physical education. The homework we received was at times pretty intense.

The purpose of the apprenticeship is to learn all skills necessary to perform successfully the requirements demanded by the occupation. How well this is achieved is a matter of the individual and also of the master. Not all masters are equal and depending on the master and the company the results can be a mixed bag. In general, an employer has to go through further schooling and achieve the title of master in order to be allowed to have apprentices. In the case of gunsmiths, this requirement was waved in Switzerland. There were only few companies that took on apprentices, and no master program had been established. In my time there where only perhaps 20 -30 gunsmithing apprentices in the country. Some companies treat apprentices as cheap labor, but the majority approaches it with pride. Ultimately the skill of the graduated apprentice influences the reputation of a company.

I was very fortunate. I met my master, Mr. Felder, at a gunshow. Probably he noticed the calluses on my hands from all the farm work my father had me do and he liked my accent from the Grison mountains. The fact is, he liked to hire farm boys. He always said that he only needs to teach us the trade but not “how to work”. My father contacted him, and Mr. Felder accepted me for a week of try-out. I was on my best behavior, and I remember very clearly the day my dad and I signed the apprentice work contract, back in 1988.

Much later my wife turned me on to the wonderful book “All creatures great and small”, by James Harriot. I was laughing so hard when I read it, because the character Siegfried and Mr. Felder are much alike. Mr. Felder is a real character, but full of decency, generosity, humor and goodness of heart. After consuming a coffee schnapps or two, he was perfectly capable of singing a heartfelt jodel. But also, typical gunsmith, he was moody at times. His face depicted his mood from a mile away. But when his tobacco pipe appeared, life was good. His philosophy was that every gunsmith in the small business had to be able to perform everybody’s else’s job too. We didn’t specialize from one man to another. About 1/3 of our work consisted of most aspects of running a shop and gunstore. This included re-stocking the shelves, ordering, customer service and sales. And yes, things like washing the windows and vacuuming the floor, mopping and cleaning.

We were initially 2 apprentices and two trained gunsmiths in the company. I started off with very simple chores at first. As I got more skilled, I performed a lot of complete or partial gun restorations under supervision. Scope mounting was a huge part. Not in my first two years, but later on I performed dozens of claw mounts on combination guns. General gunsmithing and repairs where the daily order. 300 meter shooting matches are more common than football games in the States, so we did a lot of re-barreling and trigger jobs, under the supervision of Mr. Brun, our shop foreman. I don’t know how many recoil pads I installed, but it was a lot. As the skills improved, more challenging jobs where tasked. Such as re-soldering barrel sets and the occasional partial stocking job.

My issue with the American trade schools is that the attendees don’t have the time to learn and practice the foundations of the trade. For example, filing and hand tool skills are the corner stone of gunsmithing. No student here would be content to file for weeks chunks of steel into usable parts, if the same could be achieved with a milling machine much faster. I get it. The costs of tuition and the lack of time are the issue. For example, let’s look at the 2 years gunsmithing degrees offered by our gunsmithing schools. With all the breaks involved, a student might receive a total of 12 months of training in 2 years. Let’s subtract all the none bench related activities, and he/she receives maybe 8 months of hands-on training in a controlled environment. I assume this is the same for other technical programs. In comparison to a European apprenticeship, the surface was barely scratched. But I digress.

At the tail end of my apprentice ship, new mandatory seminars for the metal working apprentices were introduced by the State board. If my memory serves me right, this consisted of a 3-week filing and hand tool seminar, a 2-week lathe and 2-week milling seminar. Good stuff!

Apprentices typically had to run errands and do lots of cleaning initially. As skills progressed, more challenging work was piled on. For actual gun making, the German and Austrian programs were far superior to the Swiss program. My training was more focused on general gunsmithing and repairs and not much on building new constructions. On the flip side, I was never particularly specialized and was always equally comfortable with metal and woodwork. The Brits have had also good apprentice ship programs. But they specialize intensely. The craftsmen emerging from the British apprenticeships are incredibly good at what they do but seem to be highly specialized in just one area and are therefore rather limited.

The apprentice starts at the bottom and works his way up. Besides technical skills I learned a lot of life’s skills from my master. There were many lessons he passed on to me. For example: “Never lie to a customer. And always admit it if you don’t know the answer to a question”. Or things like: “Buggered up screw slots are the difference between an amateur and a professional”. I doubt you get that kind of tutelage in a college.

Money is the issue. Let’s say a one-man shop such as mine has an apprentice. Not only is the apprentice initially not generating any money for the company, but he also holds up his master from performing tasks and hence slows the master’s income down. It’s a double financial loss in the beginning. Many trades have mundane and easy jobs that can be performed right away by an apprentice. In a gun building environment there are just not that many low skill jobs that make it financially feasible. If I remember correctly, in my first year in 1988 I was paid around $240 a month. In the fourth year around $850. My parents helped me out and paid for room and board. In Switzerland there were income-based subsidies available. My parents are farmers and I believe they did receive credits for the expenditure. In general, I’m not in favor of subsidies. I was told that British companies receive subsidies if they have apprentices. To me this seems to be an investment made well worth for the economic prosperity of a country. Something to consider. I would say the apprentices in Felder’s shop started to be profitable by the third year. Mr. Felder often said that the reason he has apprentices is because they keep him young.

At the end of the 4 years is the final test. The apprentice has to demonstrate over several days his practical skills and theoretical knowledge in front of a federal approved board consistent of masters and instructors. In my case we were about 18 apprentices from all over Switzerland gathered in the workshop of an industrial school in the city of Lenzburg. We each were handed blueprints of parts to be manufactured. We received Mauser actions, a barrel and parts. The action had to be barreled and inlet into a pre-machined stock. A set trigger had to be installed, sight ramps fit and soldered to the barrel and other alterations had to be performed. All this under time constraints. I remember working feverishly under stress and a puddle of my sweat was on the floor below my vise. At intervals I was pulled from the hands-on work and asked to appear before the board. They tested my theoretical knowledge and had me explain the function of a variety of gun systems. At some point they had me tune the trigger on a SIG 210 pistol. I don’t remember, but I think the duration was 4 days. I also had one day of testing of my academic knowledge in the trade school in Luzern. Sometimes after the end of all this I received my grade and my diploma. On a side note, I’ve seen the diploma the Austrians receive. It is beautiful, poster size and very impressive. The Swiss on the flipside are a humble people and my diploma is the size of a post card, and not adorned at all. Oh well, can’t have everything.

After the receipt of the diploma everything changes. You are now a trained professional and are to be compensated as such. A well-rounded apprenticeship will have the tradesman ready to enter the work force full on. The final apprentice test is real life based, under time constrained and not knowing in advance what jobs need to be performed. In conclusion a few final thoughts.

Probably to learn a trade, it seems to me a young person is better off finding employment in a company that has a training program, then attending a college. Maybe evening classes in a technical college could supplement his/her training. As far as gunsmithing is concerned, I would not waste money on a college degree. Instead, a focus on machining and tool making would provide a foundation that will lead to better jobs in the future, should gunsmithing not work out. (Frankly, for most people it will not, for a variety of reasons). To somebody that really is interested in gunsmithing and won’t listen to reason, I would recommend instead of going to college, to contact a grumpy older gunsmith and see if you could pay him for his time to teach you some essentials. You would benefit more in a much shorter time. Some fellows have been offering one-week long seminars, and also the NRA classes in gunsmithing could be very beneficial. Maybe down the road sometime in the future I might consider offering a few seminars, but I have not completely thought that through yet.

.375 Weatherby rifle

A few pictures of the finished .375 Weatherby rifle. My client has had it for a while, and just confirmed that he is enjoying it very much.

I really like the warm brown Turkish walnut wood. Blanks like that are hard to come by. This is the first .375 Weatherby I’ve built. It is very accurate and flat shooting. The client and I decided to file the standing sight for the Weatherby, the folding rear sight for the .375 H&H. The recoil seemed a little stronger than a .375 H&H, but not much. I have been pleased how everything turned out, and sometimes it is very good to leave the comfort zone a little. As I mentioned before, this has been my first attempt at fleur de lies checkering.

6.5×55 rifle

Finally completed and on its way to the owner. I really enjoy this caliber. It’s the original 6.5, before all the hype of the Creedmoor. And it is just as precise and effective. This rifle features a small Mauser type GMA action with some weight reduction cuts. The style of the stock is what I would call ‘vintage Germanic”. Similar to guns built early last century. We decided to incorporate a delicate “schnabel” tip and a Neidner steel butt plate. The stock is made of Turkish walnut.

6.5 rifle in process
A very useful rifle. I hope it will be a great companion on many adventures.

Under assault

First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Second Amendment

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The Constitution of the United States of America. Not difficult to understand. Our zealous politicians are constantly exploiting any crisis to amass more power and infringe on the citizen’s rights. Our first and second amendments have never been under more assault than today. These politicians have taken an oath to uphold and abide by our Constitution. We are in a lot of trouble and are led by a morally corrupt leadership. The daily lies, misinformation, manipulation and directing of narratives is exhausting. Interesting how the focus is once again on the banning of guns. Those in charge just can’t stand the idea that an armed people are necessary to the security of a free State and are standing in the way of tyrannical forces. Nobody ever talks about all the lives being saved by armed citizens standing up against criminals. It’s over 2 million per year in the United States. The president just told us: “Nobody owned a cannon at the time the Constitution was ratified. So why should a citizen own an AR 15”. False! Privateers owned cannons. They were commonly used on merchant vessels. Wherever a thinking man turns he hears nonsense and stupidity. From the government, the Fed, the media, the WHO, the WEF and on and on. Do we ever have a crisis of the heart and soul! Let’s vote this fall like never before. We are the term limit.

Almost done

Most of the time I have two to four rifles in process, and in different stages. The rifle above and below is a 6.5×55. One of my all-time favorite calibers. The stock is influenced by pre-war Germanic styling and has a slight “schnabel” fore-end shape, round pistol grip and steel butt plate. The small square bridge action was made by GMA.

The following rifle is a .375 Weatherby Magnum. I just about finished the checkering of the stock. The fleur de lies pattern is a first for me. It’s not always a good thing for the pocketbook to try something new, but on the other hand, you got to keep your creative side alive. This type of checkering is really unique to the United States. And it gave me a whole new appreciation for craftsmen like James Tucker, who produce some incredible designs and ribbon patterns.

Both rifles are well along now. Time for the finishing of the metal.

The first finished rifle from the Oklahoma shop

Since January I’ve been pretty much working full time on guns again, after our move. Life has returned slowly to a routine, just the way I like it. Last week I shipped off the first bolt action rifle I completed in the Oklahoma shop. It is a .300 H&H rifle. This one has top and bottom extended tangs, and it is built around a Granite Mountain Arms action. The action is a magnum length small ring Mauser 98 type.

Another beautiful piece of Turkish walnut was used for the stock. Not in the pictures is a Leica scope that completes the package. Like the other .300 H&H rifles I’ve built, this one too is a tack driver. What a great caliber and paired with Nosler ammo it’s a winner.

.300 H&H stock in process.

Sunset at the shop

And the trusty shop dog.

A theory I have is that the surrounding landscape and environment impact the shapes and forms of hand created objects. I wonder how the new location will affect me as a craftsman. All the places I lived before, Switzerland, British Columbia, California, New Hampshire, Oregon and now Oklahoma have an impact. From sharp edges (Mountains) to smooth lines (Prairies).

.416 Taylor barreled Mauser action for sale/ Sold!

For sale by gunmaker Lee Helgeland: Barreled action, caliber .416 Taylor, $6900

Original Mauser 98 commercial single square bridge action, with what we believe is an early Blackburn magazine box, that holds 5 rounds, plus one in the chamber. The barrel has been machined with integral quarter rib, front sight ramp, recoil lug, and sling swivel stud. All has been very nicely done. We are not sure, but Rick Stickley probably machined the 24″ long barrel. The overall weight of the barreled action is 6lbs 8 oz. The only marking on the barrel is the number 99 which probably indicates the year it was made. The barreled action is feeding fine and ready to be stocked. Please contact Lee Helgeland for more info at 406-837-2041, or: leebarb@centurytel.net

Update: This has been sold

Lisa Sorrell, boot maker

A little change of topic. Most of us that like high end guns have wider interests than just that. Art, craftsmanship of all kinds, objects of beauty and function, the beauty of nature, mechanical devices, those are things that spark so often our interests. As we are made in His image, we can’t help but admire creation.

My cousin in Guthrie had told me about a custom boot maker who is making high-end cowboy boots. I had the pleasure of hosting my dear friend, gunmaker Lee Helgeland, for a few days. I wanted to show him the neat town of Guthrie. Guthrie is such a time warp, and you feel like you are back in 1910 when you walk the town.

Lee in Guthrie, OK

We walked the town a little and walked right by the boot maker’s store. Spontaneously we decided to knock on the door and despite not having an appointment, Lisa Sorrell opened up her workshop graciously to us. It was a pleasure to meet her and to see all of the cool vintage leather sawing machines. Her shop is full of hand tools and equipment of old. It too reminded me of a bygone era. Lisa has a wealth of knowledge and experience and if you consider having a pair of real Oklahoma cowboy boots made, look her up. Her craftsmanship is impressive. Here are some samples of her work:

Title: “If We Make It Through December”
Title: “I Heard the Bluebird Sing”
Title: “If Heartaches Had Wings”

I like the names she gives to her creations. Very creative!

Lisa Sorrell
Sorrell Custom Boots
217 E. Oklahoma Ave.
Guthrie, OK 73044
405-282-5464
she/her

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