What Happened to the Custom Hunting Rifle, Part 1?
Are built-from-scratch, one-of-a-kind, wood-stocked rifles becoming endangered species?
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Back in the 1960s, when I discovered the joys of buying guns I couldn’t really afford, Abercrombie & Fitch sold a shotgun they called the Knockabout. It was made by Rizzini and was mechanically simple, but very nicely done, and sold for $750. I owned a number of them, and if I’d had the sense to hang onto them, I could have had nearly 50 years’ use and then sold them for $3,000 to $4,000 each, which is what they’re bringing now.
Some firearms have appreciated in an almost magical manner, and continue to do so. But is this true for that most iconic of guns, the custom hunting rifle? Apparently not. (To be clear, I’m talking about a built-from-scratch, one-of-a-kind, wood-stocked, bespoke rifle created by a craftsman or men who are acknowledged masters. I don’t mean a 98 Mauser with a Bishop stock.)
The custom hunting rifle, or CHR as I shall call it, arrived at just about the same time as the 1903 Springfield, courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt. TR was, by his own admission, a lousy shot, but he was a knowledgeable and discerning shooter, and when he decided to go to Africa and kill everything (The Roosevelt safari killed or trapped nearly 11,400 critters, which is a pretty fair definition of everything.), he picked as his main rifle the then-brand-new 1903 Springfield.
However, Roosevelt saw that the ’03 had some major shortcomings, and went to a Los Angeles gunsmith named Louis Wundhammer to build him a custom Springfield. From then on, everyone who was anyone in the world of big-game hunting carried a custom bolt-action.
Gun writers got in on the act. Townsend Whelen was a custom-rifle man. You could not imagine Jack O’Connor without an Al Biesen rifle in his saddle scabbard. Warren Page minus his 7mm Mashburn magnum? Unthinkable. Elmer Keith roaming the mountains devoid of a custom .338 of some sort? Your momma.
There were sound reasons for this. First, a CHR gave you cachet, which sure helps in the gun-writing biz. Also, these guys knew what constituted a good rifle, and most factory rifles at the time were a long way from good. Take a hard look at a post-World War II Winchester Model 70, or a 1960s Savage Model 110
There was yet a third reason to go custom. For what you paid, the rifles were dirt cheap. Consider that a builder of CHRs must be a First Class machinist. He must have woodworking skills equal to those of the finest cabinetmakers. He must have an artistic eye. He must have an advanced understanding of how guns work. He must be a hunter himself, and know how rifles are used in the field. He must be enough of a chemist to do first-rate bluing or come up with his own stock finish.
You’d think that a person with all these skills would command a considerable wage for what he did, but such was not the case. In the 1960s, you could get a first-rate CHR for $750 to $1,200.
This was not to last, however. In 1982, the David Miller Rifle Co. decided to sell one of their rifles for what it was actually worth, as opposed to what tradition dictated. The price they put on it was $41,000. The CHR world sh*t a Cornish game hen. Then it reflected on how good David Miller rifles were. The gun sold. It was a world record at the time. Four years later the company put a price tag of $201,000 on a fancy rifle, and it set another record. Today, David Miller rifles go for $35,000 to $100,000. Lest you burst a blood vessel, I should point out that these prices are perfectly in line with shotguns of equivalent quality, and with the same amount of work in them.
This is the high end. These days, a first-rate CHR will sell for $6,000 to $15,000. Are they worth it? Except for the British bolt-actions, which tend to be dreadfully overpriced, yes. Will you make a profit when you go to sell it, as you would with a Rizzini Knockabout or any number of other guns you can expect to appreciate with time. As things now stand, almost certainly not.
Next time: How synthetic stocks, vastly improved accuracy, and long-range shooting has changed the game for the CHR.