In this episode I have the privilege to speak with Mark Mitchell. Mark is a London trained gunmaker and resides in Scotland. He is a highly skilled actioner and has done work for most of the great gunmaking firms, such as Boss, Holland & Holland, Purdey and Hartmann & Weiss. We discuss his experiences and the current state of the English gun trade.
Mark states: “If you would like to order an English Best Gun, you better do it now, while some of the older, highly skilled craftsmen are still around”.
I probably could make a similar case for us here in America. Times certainly are changing. We still do have a number of great craftsmen. Our problem is more that of increasing harassment and regulations by a hostile government, despite recent Supreme Court rulings on the second amendment.
Many of us have the desire to get better at what we do. In order to do so, I think it is important from time to time to step back and re-assess. It is through inspiration that we get the motivation to pick ourselves up and continue striving to do things better. To improve the overall quality and results of our toils. In order to be inspired, I think we need to get to a humble state of mind first.
Once in a while an opportunity presents itself and I have the privilege to see a private gun collection of high-end guns. Or to visit a museum. Years ago, I visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem MA. The craftsmanship and quality of the nautical instruments displayed left a permanent impression on me. We hear the word “pride” a lot today. Seems to me that this word is more and more used to mask bad behavior. Real pride is when a person does his best to honor the Creator and his fellow man by providing a high level of quality in his work and deeds. A humble spirit and kindness are the solution of so many of the problems we are facing. Politicians, are you listening?
Recently I had a chance to spend a couple of hours in the J.M. Davis Arms museum in Claremore, OK. Most of the guns on display have been factory built, but there were a few outstanding pieces that offered inspiration. I took a bunch of pictures and here are some.
The guns that interested me most were the ones that display a high level of craftsmanship.
Very skill-full carvings. Wow.
Old gun shack with barrel rifling machine
Inspiration can be drawn from many different sources.
One of my all-time favorite museums is the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. If you come to Oklahoma, make sure you plan a visit to the museum. I promise, you will be inspired.
The majority of my work is performed standing at a bench and working on parts clamped in a vise. Being a self-employed one-man show does have a few perks. For one, I have the chance to listen to radio and podcast programs while working. Particularly I do enjoy podcasts. I have a pretty eclectic playlist, from political programs, science, psychology, history, faith, business to guitar making. I’ve been thinking for a while to create a podcast about the people that build and sell high end custom guns. I’m more interested in the personalities then the technical aspect of their work. After all we are a pretty unique bunch, and it is only possible to pursue this trade when driven by a large amount of passion. Certainly not the motivation of money. Perhaps we all fret over that we should have done something more profitable with our life.
I might have found very well a new venue to make a fool of myself in public. So be it. Perhaps sometimes you just have to try something and see where it goes.
I tasked my teenage son to research and come up with solutions to make our own podcast.
So here it is:
Currently we are doing a trial on Spotify. It will be added to the usual outlets shortly.
The first interview is with long time stock maker James Tucker. It is only befitting that he is the first person featured. After all, I had the pleasure to working next to him on and off for over 20 years. My plan is to add one new episode each month.
Let me know what you think and if it is a worthwhile endeavor to be continued.
It is fun to work on a mix of large and small rifles. Surely keeps a guy on his toes in regard to the proportions of the guns. This especially true for me when doing the stock work. The challenge is to keep everything within the appropriate proportions. My latest finished guns have been a .404 Jeffery bolt action rifle, a .223 Remington miniature falling block rifle, and a .204Ruger miniature falling block.
Pictured above is the.404 Jeffery rifle, my model English Express.
.204 Ruger rifle. Martin Hagn built the barreled action. I stocked it and finished it for the client. Lisa Tomlin cut the engravings; Turnbull Restoration performed the color case hardening of the receiver. As the colors will fade a little over time, the engravings will showcase much better. This rifle is ready for the Oregon varmint season.
.223 Remington rifle with a miniature Hagn action. This little rifle has been in the hands of my client for 3 months and has killed by now more game in Texas than many guns will do in their lifetime.
The barrel has an integral machined rib and wedding band at the forearm transition. It has a half round, half octagon profile. At the time I was working on the gun, I had often a nasty looking coyote visiting our property during daytime. I figured I might get the first kill in with the little rifle, but it was not meant to be.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.