June 20, 2013
Forbes Rifles: Gun Building, 21st Century Style
By David E. Petzal
Back in the mid-1980s, West Virginia gunsmith Melvin Forbes started Ultra Light Arms, and caused rifle makers everywhere to mess their drawers by producing unchopped, ubbutchered, dead-accurate bolt action rifles that weighed 5 to 6 pounds with scope. Since then, and against all odds (most small gun makers don’t survive), ULA has flourished, and in the process become New Ultra Light Arms. Because they’re made one at a time, by hand, NULAs run from $3,500 to just under $4,000.
But Melvin, being a man of the people, was intrigued at the thought of a NULA built by machines and selling for a whole lot less. The idea was validated about two years ago when he joined with Titan Machine Products of Westbrook, Maine, to form Forbes Rifles LLC. Titan specializes in precision machining of gun parts and other things. They build components for the M2 machine gun and the Mk 19 grenade launcher, lowers for at least one AR maker, and stainless steel hatch hinges for Navy destroyers, godless and massive parts each half of which weighs something like 50 pounds.
This past week I got a tour of Titan, and if you’ve been touring gun-manufacturing plants as long as I have, it was truly a trip through time. I saw my first one in the spring of 1972. It was one of the old New England companies, and they used old New England machinery (Their rifling machine, they pointed out with pride, had been in use since the Spanish-American War.) and turned out junk. The machines were worn out, their tolerances were a joke, and the skilled people required to run them and clean up what they produced had gone into other, better-paying industries.
Titan is at the other end of the spectrum. Everything you see is CAD/CAM (Computer design, computer manufacture) and EDM (electrical discharge machining). If correctly programmed, run, and monitored, these devices can produce parts that are not only dimensionally perfect, but as beautifully finished as so many Rolex watch cases. There are no men with files knocking the rough edges off parts because there are no rough edges. One non-gun-related part there incorporates a series of holes that must be drilled in perfect alignment or it becomes scrap. I was told that Titan is able to keep the deviation from the center of the first hole to the center of the final one, over a foot distant, to 1/17th the width of a human hair.
I got to look at receivers for the Forbes Rifle being made, which is done on an EDM machine. So close do they cleave to NULA dimensions that you can take bolts made by hand in West Virginia and cycle them without a hitch through receivers made in Maine. The stocks are made in another plant up the road, and the process by which they’re laid down is still a secret. They are, however, painted and inletted at Titan.
There are some new Forbes Rifles in the works. These are short actions, and left-handers, and a truly cool 6.5x55 built on a .30/06 length action so that you can seat those long bullets way out and have plenty of room for powder.
Forbes Rifles, because it is a mass producer, does not offer the choice of stock colors, calibers, triggers, or special features that NULA does. Melvin sandblasts and then blues, while Titan finishes their metal with a very good-looking variety of Parkerizing. Melvin opts for Douglas barrels while Titan buys from Shaw. And there is also a difference in price. Forbes Rifles guns sell for $1,400 to $1,500. I thought you might like that last part.