Gun Making: Man Versus Machine

What with the great controversy over the Winchester Model 70, the subject of manmade guns versus machine-made guns came up. There are those who believe that the old-fashioned way--skilled machinists putting steel through a series of operations by hand--is superior to CNC (Computer Numeric Control) where a hunk of steel is put into a single machine that is programmed to perform an extensive series of operations without a human being involved. The truth is that you can produce first-class work, or scrap, by either method.

Back in the 1990s, Savage had a program that brought gun writers into the factory and let us have a whack at running the machines (under close supervision, of course). I had a chance at it, and came out covered with oil and filled with new knowledge, to wit: It takes both skill and dedication to get good results out of a drill, or a milling machine, or a grinder, or anything else. The best machinist can't get proper work out of worn-out equipment; the best equipment will not produce good results if the guy running it is hung over, or indifferent, or is in the middle of a bad divorce. What CNC does, in theory, is remove the human element. In place of machinists, you have computer programmers, and once they punch in the numbers, the rest is automatic. However, you have to have a programmer who knows what he's doing. This work requires some pretty rigorous math, and I'm told that people who are up to the job are not in abundant supply. So if the program isn't quite right, the parts will not be quite right. They can probably be assembled, and may work some of the time or most of the time, but that will be the end of it.

Also, the CNC gunmaker may decide that he wants to get parts finished as quickly and cheaply as possible. That means everything will be done with one pass of the cutters, making one deep, rough cut, and the parts, even if they're dimensionally correct, will look unfinished.

On the other hand, the gunmaker may decide to do the job right, and instead of insisting on one deep cut will specify three light ones which will give the same dimensions but will leave a beautiful, dead-clean finish. A case in point is Titan Machine Products in Westbrook, Maine, which makes Forbes Rifles. You can't tell their work from the guns that Melvin Forbes turns out by hand at New Ultra Light Arms in Morgantown, West Virginia. So don't worry whether hands or machines made your rifle. Look only at the finished product.