Perils & Pitfalls

Arrieta y Cia. round-action sidelock built on a 16-gauge frame. A gorgeous gun, undoubtedly, but it was not quite there.

by Terry Wieland

Subtitle:  Being a rueful diary of a serial orderer of custom shotguns as he contemplates bankruptcy.  Or at least, that’s what I would have written, had our format here allowed subtitles.

What follows is a brief cautionary tale about the ordering of the shotgun of one’s dreams, and there is no better way to begin than refer readers to a piece by Burton Spiller, “Choosing a Gun,” written many years ago and included in the Gray’s anthology, The Art of Shooting Flying (GSJ Press, 1988).

I ordered my first custom gun a year before I read Spiller’s piece, but, probably not surprisingly, made many of the same mistakes he made more than a half-century earlier.  Like his, mine was to be the ideal grouse gun, but I ordered the barrels too short (26 inches in a 20 gauge) and insisted on light weight that was not only unnecessary but made it more difficult to shoot.  As I recall, I never did hit anything meaningful with that gun—an Armas Garbi Model 100—and did not particularly rue the day it disappeared in the next divorce.

Pedro Arribalaga has the look of an 1890s Boss game gun, but is really more of a driven- pheasant gun wih its self-opening action. As I write this, the gun is preparing to go pheasant hunting in Minnesota.

It was a decade before I ordered another one, by which time I’d learned a lot.  My book on Spanish guns appeared in 1994, and that set off a minor wave of enthusiasts traveling to the Basque Country to order guns in person, pick out stock blanks, and so on.  Quite a few managed to find me and ask for specific advice.  Almost to a man (they were all men) they went on to ignore what I had to say.

For example, one guy wanted the ideal upland gun for grouse, woodcock, and so on, and maybe the occasional dove or pheasant.  But, since this was to be the one and only custom gun he would ever order, he thought it would improve its resale value—do you see the contradiction?—if he got three-inch chambers.  Since it was a 12 gauge with 26-inch barrels, this was a seriously bad idea since the Casa de Pruebas (proof house) in Eibar would have to proof it with heavier loads, meaning a heavier action, thicker barrels at the breech, and so on.  He could not be talked out of this, although I understand someone had no trouble talking him out of the gun after he took delivery, shot it a few times, and was sorely disappointed.  Naturally, he blamed me, but since I got a gilt-edged example to use in the next edition of the book, I didn’t hold it against him.

The Grulla Armas Windsor Woodcock made the grade: 29-inch barrels of special steel, 6 lbs., 5 oz., 20-gauge frame. That’s what it took, in Spain in 2002, to duplicate what Boss & Co. did in London a century earlier. Still, we proved it could be done, and the gun tells the tale.

In 1993, in London, I held for the first time a Boss game gun from around 1900 and realized what a fine side-by-side could be.  It was one of a pair on the rack at Holland & Holland, and the asking price was £40,000—at the time, about $60,000—which was a lot more than I had in my pocket.  However, this new-found knowledge set me on a quest for a Spanish-made duplicate, which I could (barely) afford.

What I did not know was that it was a technical impossibility, because the way Boss made a gun in 1900 was not allowed under Spanish proof rules of 1995.  This had mainly to do with minimum wall thicknesses.  My first attempt, an Ugartechea Model 1030 with two sets of 28-inch barrels, weighed in at 6 lbs., 12 oz., which was perfectly acceptable but simply didn’t have the feel.

Next came an Arrieta y Cia. round-action—Boss was noted for its rounded actions—which was a beautiful gun.  To reduce weight, we built it on a 16-gauge frame; I asked for 29-inch barrels and got 28-inch by mistake, but even so, it just wasn’t quite there.  The quest continued.

The penultimate was a Pedro Arrizabalaga, which incorporated a rounded action with Boss-style engraving and stunning walnut, but again came with 28-inch barrels, a Purdey-style third bite and self-opener (added weight) and, while I shoot it pretty well, it’s more a driven-pheasant gun than a ruffed grouse gun.

Shotguns do not come much nicer than this one. The engraver was José Abaigar, who is also a very accomplished painter and creator of woodcuts and lithographs.

I was about losing hope when, on September 11, 2001, I went for lunch with José-Luis Usobiaga,   head of Grulla Armas.  We discussed the problem and arrived at a solution:  First, we would have a set of barrels forged using F1275 steel, an expensive and hard-to-work alloy that would allow thinner barrel walls; this would be married to a 20-gauge round-action frame.  The barrels are 29 inches long, which moves the balance point forward.  The goal was a weight of 6 lbs., 4 oz., which we missed by an ounce.

We were driving back to Eibar after lunch when José-Luis’s esposa called to tell us about a plane hitting the twin towers.  It was a memorable day all around.

Because the gun—subsequently named the Grulla Armas Windsor Woodcock—was intended for ruffed grouse and woodcock, we gave it minimal choke in both barrels.  Because of its weight, and the 20-gauge frame, I shoot only light 12-gauge loads, but that’s more than enough for grouse, woodcock, and doves.  Most important, the balance and feel are perfect.  (So why do I still miss?)

Of the bunch, I still have the Arrizabalaga and the Grulla, and have no plans to ever embark on the making of another custom gun.  You learn as you go, and what I’ve learned is that I’ve done what I can do.

Gray’s shooting editor does not contend he succeeded where Burt Spiller failed. The gun, perhaps; the story-telling, no.