feature By: Zack Buck | May, 20
Throughout my career, I have worried over all of the guns that I have built and restored, but this particular rifle caused exceptional stress. The work was for my maternal grandfather, a stoic man who grew up riding his horse off into the wilderness to hunt for days at a time. Some people hunt as a pastime, he is a hunter. He is the man who first taught me to stalk game out in the crisp fall woods with a single shot .22, learning how to still-hunt in the Pennsylvania forests. It wasn’t until years later I realized he was also training me to hunt deer. He gave me a compass, taught me to orient and read a map, gave me my first rifle and took me fishing in Canada. When I was eight, he gave me a copy of Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy for Christmas with the inscription: “To the Boy (Zachary) from the Old Man (Bompie).” His mentorship is what led me down the path to being a professional gunsmith. This is the story of the rifle I built for him.
This Winchester 1885 High Wall rifle started out as a prime example of a gun begging for restoration. The stock wood had shrunk, been shattered, repaired and broken again. The bore of the octagon barrel in .32-40 had all the charm of a sewer pipe. All of the external metal was dinged, grayed, or patinaed; however, the internals (excepting the breech of the chamber and extractor) were clean and showed little wear. The barrel was sent to J E S Rifle Reboring to be bored out and rerifled with Winchester-style rifling.
Upon return, it was chambered in .38-55. There are a couple interesting aspects of this specific chambering; first, the original case-length chamber was cut, rather than the slightly shorter modern version. The modern bore size of .375 was selected due to the vast selection of available projectiles. The original bore size would have added bullet casting to the list of reloading chores for a rifle. The very end of the breech and chamber were badly damaged, looking like cartridges had habitually been pried from the badly corroded chamber. As means of repair, a recess was cut and a sleeve soldered in prior to final chambering. The extractor slot was cut, and the original extractor was welded up and refit. After the buttplate was filed up and the internals were polished, they were sent to Mark Fox to be charcoal color case-hardened.
On to the stock. While I prefer in most cases to use royal walnut (Juglans regia), for this project only American black walnut would do. After some searching, I was offered the perfect piece. It was a very heavy blank that was found in a gunsmith shop that had closed when the proprietor went to serve his country in World War II and didn’t return. The tree from which the blank was cut could very well have grown in the same grove that the original stock came from in 1887. The stock was rough-shaped on a duplicator from a pattern I built up from the remnants of the original, and final inletting was smoked-in and hand-scraped. The external parts of the stock were final-shaped and treated with our own Bugloss Stain and Amber Finishing Oil after being sanded to a fine surface. The first coats after sealing were applied with rotten stone to fill the pores. The finish was then “cut back” with progressively finer grits between coats. This was continued until a velvety feel was achieved. This creates an easily maintained “in-the-wood” finish. The receiver itself was slowly and painfully freed from dings and gouges with files and stones down to 600 grit. It was then sent to Mark Thomas to be engraved with a simple but elegant “nick and dot” border. Upon return, the action and the barrel were rust blued and the screws and pins were nitre blued. In the end, the gun was assembled and a coat of wax was applied and buffed.
This rifle was final test-fired on Christmas Eve and delivered on Christmas Day. The tag read “From: The Boy, To: The Old Man.”
• Blak Forge Armoury, Morris, PA 16938
• J E S Rifle Reboring, Cottage Grove, OR 97424
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