by Terry Wieland
The term “folk art” can embrace many sins, from hippie macrame to misshapen pottery, and is often used to justify vandalism of the worst sort. Fifteen years ago, I was offered the chance to buy an ancient Winchester 1886 for about half its normal price because, in the the dim distant past, some cretin had carved crude designs into every inch of its walnut stock.
I bought the rifle, had it restocked and restored by Doug Turnbull, wrote an article about it, and was roundly condemned by some readers for destroying a piece of “priceless folk art.” Trust me, it was not art, and it was far from priceless. All it signified was that some Canadian rustic wiled away the long winter evenings in his log cabin with a jackknife, covering the stock with everything from Odd Fellows symbolism to zigzag patterns from a ‘B’ movie teepee. It was hideous.
That experience gave me a seriously jaundiced view, not only of folk art in general, but of any amateur (and many professional) attempts to decorate gunstocks with anything other than tasteful chequering. Obviously, this prejudice is shared by other gun lovers, because when a pair of Winchester Low Walls came up for sale at Rock Island a couple of years ago, one of them described as sporting “amateur stock carving,” the silence was deafening. Few bothered to look at them, even fewer bid on them, and I got them for a song.
Why, you ask? It was one of those serendipitous moments. I was then in the throes of single-shot mania and stopped to look at another rifle on the rack nearby. My eye was caught by that Low Wall, I picked it up, and was very pleasantly surprised at what I found. What’s more, I kept returning to pick it up, again and again, falling for it a bit more each time.
What was described as amateur carving was, in fact, leather work on walnut. A typical 19th-century decorative leather pattern had been outlined, complete with fleurs de lis, and then the wood inside the border had been stippled, just as you might a saddle skirt. This was done on the forend and buttstock exactly where you would chequer the stock to give a better grip, and nowhere else. The rest of the wood had a dark, rubbed-oil patina from a century of loving care.
Oddly, the rifle was chambered for the long-obsolete .25-20 Single Shot, with a nicely archaic octagonal barrel — all in well-used but well cared for condition. How this outfit had escaped the 1930s mania for cannibalizing such obsolescent artifacts to make hot-shot varmint rifles, I don’t know. I can only assume it had been a treasured family heirloom, protected from the vandals because it sported grand-dad’s “leather work.”
Whatever, the reason, there it was — an anomaly, to say the least. Anyone I have shown it to, however, has fallen for it just as I did. Brian Board, a stockmaker of Gunmakers’ Guild skill and requisite good taste, admired it greatly, as did author, hunter and gun-lover Eileen Clarke. Being married to John Barsness, Eileen is exposed to some seriously nice rifles. For a while, as she cradled it, I thought she was not going to return it, or at least would insist on wrestling me for it. Finally, she made me promise that if I ever parted with it, I would give her first refusal.
The rifle may or may not be unique. I have never heard of similar work being done, nor had Brian. Some European gunmakers, of taste and repute, have inlaid leather in place of chequering on some very high-end guns, and in terms of improving grip it works extremely well. Presumably, if someone wanted to, he could program a laser to do similar stippling. But, it would not be the same. It would not have the odd irregularity of this hand-carved one, nor the uneven stippling that occurs here, in walnut, just as it does in hand-tooled leather.
And, perhaps, the greatest attraction of all, this rifle is almost certainly one of a kind. Is it genuine folk art? I don’t feel qualified to say. All I know is, I like it. I like it a lot.
Terry Wieland has been Shooting Editor of Gray’s since 1993 and is the author of a dozen books on hunting, shooting, and history. His latest is Great Hunting Rifles — Victorian to the Present, published by Skyhorse in 1997. Last year, Skyhorse reprinted his acclaimed 1999 book on Robert Ruark, A View From A Tall Hill.