by Terry Wieland
Here’s a choice for you: A new, custom-built shotgun, tailored to your every arcane specification and whim, or buying an existing gun and having it altered.
Most of us would choose the former. After all, you get to dictate every tiny aspect of your new prize, as well as pick out a stock blank that will make you the envy of everyone down at the gun club.
The latter? Well, you might get lucky, but it would always be a compromise in some ways, right? Not necessarily.
In 1987, I ordered my first-ever custom shotgun from Armas Garbi in the Basque Country, and this was followed over the next 15 years by seven more from five different makers. These included both sidelocks and boxlocks, in 12, 16, 20, and 28 gauge. I took delivery of the last one—a Grulla Armas Windsor Woodcock—20 years ago, and it’s one of two I still own (the other being a Pedro Arrizabalaga.) The others were sold for a variety of reasons, but you can reasonably assume that if any was what I would call perfect, I would still own it.
Then there are the used ones.
In 2004, I happened upon an ancient English gun, an E.M. Reilly boxlock, that had languished in the rafters of a henhouse for 30 years. It was a God-awful mess, with its stock scraped and dented and black with oil, some metal bits corroded to nothing, and its frame coated in grime.
But I was intrigued by it. It had a Webley screw-grip treble-bite action (arcane, I know) and I figured it might be worth restocking, and returned to serviceability. My old friend Edwin von Atzigen, a Swiss gunmaker of prodigious ability in gun restoration, thought differently: Edy was convinced the gun could be restored, and we set out on an 18-month odyssey of coaxing the oil out of the walnut, steaming out the dents, recutting the chequering, bending from cast-on to cast-off, lengthening the stock with a piece of hard German rubber (like ebony, but superior in some ways, and no longer produced); Edy fitted ebony inserts, where the wood was rotted away, to hold the new steel pieces he filed to replace the corroded bits.
The result was the gun shown here, which I shoot as well as anything I own. With its 30-inch Damascus barrels and weight of 6 lbs., 4 oz., it’s a gem that grasses any bird I shoot at—or so it seems—as long as I don’t get in its way.
I have to comment on its French walnut stock, which emerged from the oil-blackening of a century to be the most beautiful piece of stock wood I have ever seen, either in person or in pictures. Photos, which are two-dimensional, cannot convey its depth and complexity, and sometimes I take it out and just gaze at it.
The Reilly was the first of several reclamation projects, both rifles and shotguns, that Edy and I undertook, and I have had a couple done by others as well. The second gun Edy worked on was a W&C Scott & Son sidelever hammer gun, missing a trigger, and with its stock almost equally horrible. What emerged from under Edy’s patient hands is almost as stunning as the Reilly.
In the 1800s, there was some astonishing walnut around, but it was used randomly by gunmakers who valued strength and durability far more than beauty. As a result, we find these two pieces used on guns that were not Purdeys or Stephen Grants, but are as beautiful than anything you could buy today. In fact, you’d be lucky to find anything comparable to use on a custom gun.
I don’t shoot the W&C Scott very much. It was intended as a duck gun, and does not have much application in today’s conditions, but it looks lovely sitting on the rack, in between occasional outings for sporting clays.
Many gunmakers and retailers tout the idea of ordering a custom gun that will become an instant heirloom, and that may happen for some people. In my experience, all too often, a guy orders a gun and then finds, years later, that his offspring have no interest in either shooting it or hanging it over the mantle. Many get sold, almost always for less than they cost, and sometimes for considerablyless.
Restoring an old gun, however, can get you a piece that will always be valued as an antique, if nothing else, and quite often you’ll find you shoot it as well as any new custom gun. The gun I carry for birdshooting is a Charles Lancaster, circa 1912, that someone else had rebuilt in the early 1970s.
The Lancaster carries a lesson for us all: With its 28-inch barrels, unusual Beesley (second patent) action, and orange Silvers recoil pad, it is not at all what I would have ordered, yet I found it fits me perfectly and I shoot it consistently well (or at least, as well as I ever shoot). Serendipity.
Comparing my half-dozen new custom guns and my half-dozen reclamation projects, which come out on top? It pains me to say, it’s the restoration jobs, and not just for sentimental or mystical reasons. We’ll go into the pitfalls of ordering a new gun another time—and believe me, I know the pitfalls—and leave it that old guns restored somehow make a connection that new guns do not.
It’s like, being older and wiser, marrying a twice-widowed duchess instead of a 25-year old centerfold.
Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland has spent more hours than he cares to recall examining walnut stock blanks and ultimately choosing the wrong one. Or so it seems to him.