by Terry Wieland
Modern man is in love with CNC (computer-numerically controlled) machinery to the point of attributing to it as many fine qualities as Stalin’s cult of personality at its worst or, more recently, prose concocted by artificial intelligence.
CNC is great stuff, but it’s not the answer to everything. More particularly, it is not the answer to getting a brand-new shotgun that works perfectly and eagerly every time, and nuzzles your hand like a Labrador puppy.
Here is what CNC can do: Once programmed and set up, it can produce one widget after another to tolerances that were unthinkable in a machine-made part even as recently as 50 years ago. I say “machine-made” because hand-made parts were produced to equally fine tolerances 150 years ago, by craftsmen with fine files, oil stones, and a smoke lamp to coat the mating surfaces.
As Michael McIntosh memorably put it some years ago, the best handmade shotguns are produced to tolerances “to the thickness of a layer of smoke.”
Recently, I was treated to the use of some newly made and pretty expensive shotguns from a factory in Europe that enjoys a very enviable reputation. One, an over/under, was not bad; the other, a side-by-side, was execrable. It did not open or close easily, it had to be bent over your knee to activate the ejectors, the top lever was reluctant to say the least, and overall it was not a pleasure to use, it was a chore.
In a gun costing upwards of $8,000 this is simply unacceptable—and made more so when you consider what kind of fine old English gun one could acquire these days for that kind of money.
The explanation I was given was that the company used such advanced and sophisticated CNC machinery that tolerances were reduced to almost nothing, and so the parts fitted so closely together there was bound to be some stiffness at first. It will, I was told, “wear in.”
Well, here’s another quote, this time from Steve Denny, a former director of Holland & Holland and one of the most knowledgeable gun guys it has ever been my privilege to know: “It’s not wearing in, it’s wearing out.”
The problem with leaving such a gun to its own devices to “wear in” is that the wear not only does not necessarily occur where you would like it to, it continues wearing long after the gun opens readily, then easily, then too easily, then sloppily, and parts start breaking.
Tony Galazan probably knows more about making fine guns than anyone else in this country today. In the early 1990s, when he was beginning work on producing A.H. Fox guns in Connecticut, Tony talked about producing parts on CNC.
“I intend to do as much work by machine as possible, in order to give the gunsmiths the nearest thing to a finished product that I can,” he told McIntosh. “I want them to be able to put all their efforts into the final fitting and finishing—the things that have to be done by hand to achieve a genuinely top-quality gun.” (My italics.)
Making a truly fine gun is not simply a matter of producing a bunch of parts, then having some joker at the end of the assembly line bolt them all together and call it a day. It’s a matter of mating part A to part B until they work together smoothly, then mating part C to that mechanism, then D, and so on—making damned sure they work together perfectly at every stage. This is why the fitter in a gunshop (sometimes called the finisher) is the most accomplished gunmaker in the place, and the most important man in the whole operation.
All the parts and components come to him, and he then assembles them—lock, stock, barrel, bits, pieces. If a top lever catches slightly and resists as you try to open the gun, he can take it apart and stone the offending surface until it’s smooth as glass. He can do the same with the underlugs, or the ejectors. If the trigger is too hard, he can stone the sear until it works perfectly at exactly the right weight. None of these operations are a foregone conclusion just because you have a bunch of CNC-produced, accurate to a ten-thousandth, bin full of parts.
Nothing leaves the fitter’s hands until it’s perfect in every way. This should—should!—be followed by field testing to ensure nothing is affected by recoil, or that things don’t tighten up unduly as the barrels heat up, but that’s another matter. Needless to say, neither of these vital operations could have taken place with the side-by-side I mentioned above, otherwise it should never have left the shop.
CNC machines can certainly make pieces that fit together, but only a gunmaker can make those pieces work together.
When this happens, you have a gun that is eager and cooperative—anthropomorphic terms, I grant you—rather than sullen and recalcitrant. In the end, a gun should be a pleasure to use, and if it is, you’ll hit more targets, feathered or otherwise.
Shooting editor Wieland found himself recalling all kinds of uncooperative equipment he’s encountered over the years, to say nothing of horses, dogs, and snowmobiles. Life is too short to spend it with a shotgun that hates you.