by Terry Wieland
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens tells of a doctor who, having been imprisoned for many years in the Bastille, is released by the Paris mob and the news is communicated to a solicitor in London in the briefest of notes: Recalled to life.
The doctor, temporarily deranged, identifies himself only by his cell number — 5, North Tower — and the process of returning him to health occupies the first part of the book.
What does this have to do with guns? Read on.
In 2004, I was offered a very old English shotgun, produced in the 1890s by a mid-ranking London maker (E.M. Reilly) but now in dismal shape. The barrels were good, but the stock was an unholy mess, blackened by decades of machine oil and the checkering all but worn off. The gun was coated in grime, packed in an ancient canvas case held together with binder twine. It had, I was told, spent the last 30 years in the rafters of a henhouse. It was a miracle it survived at all.
I bought the gun solely for its action, a Webley screw-grip treble-bite, one of the finest boxlocks made in Victorian England. At some point, I figured, I might win a lottery and be able to restock it. Meanwhile, it would make an interesting paperweight.
I reckoned without my friend Edwin von Atzigen, a Swiss-trained gunmaker. Edy (the correct diminutive of Edwin) was noted locally as a gunsmith of more than ordinary skill, but not widely appreciated for the superlative craftsman he was — a master of firearm restoration. He assembled the gun, raised it to his shoulder, and said wistfully, “I’ve been looking for a gun like this for years.”
He meant he’d been looking for a gun of high inherent quality but poor condition, available at a reasonable price, which he could restore to its original glory. I didn’t see how that was possible with this gun, but Edy did. He made no promises, but said he was “pretty certain” the gun was salvageable, and without huge expense.
Of course, “huge expense” is relative. In the end, I paid $1,200 for the gun, and $4,500 for the restoration, which took the better part of two years. Much of that time was spent coaxing the oil build-up out of the stock. Edy believed there is no quick fix for this — no overnight oil removal, without risking damage to the wood. At any rate, what eventually emerged was the most beautiful piece of French walnut I’ve ever seen.
Edy steamed out the dents and scratches, bent it from cast-on to cast-off, lengthened the stock to my dimensions with an extension of German rubber (resembling ebony, but without the difficulties), recut the checkering, and resculpted the side panels.
On the forend, he replaced some missing splinters, cut away rotted wood around some rusted-out metal, made a new finial and diamond for the forend screw to replace the rusty bits, and carved an ebony diamond to surround it in place of the old wood. The finial and steel diamond were sent to scroll specialist Sam Welch, who matched the engraving with the original.
The metal work, including the frame, trigger guard, and forend iron, spent days in a bucket of Varsol, with intermittent scrubbing with a soft toothbrush to remove a century’s worth of grime. The original owners — a Scottish gamekeeper, then his son, who brought the gun to Canada, and finally his grandson, who stored it in the rafters of the henhouse on his farm — all respected steel but disdained wood. Their repeated slatherings of oil soaked the stock but kept the steel from rusting, so one should probably be grateful.
The resulting 12-bore weighs 6 lbs., 4 oz., wearing its 30-inch Damascus barrels, and handles like a Boss game gun.
This was the first gun I ever had restored, and I was hooked. Edy later worked on both rifles and shotguns for me, and today I would rather have a gallant old gun “recalled to life” than a brand-new one with no story to tell.
It is both a gift to posterity and a tribute to gunmakers of old — the finest craftsmen who ever lived.
Probably Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, should have nicknamed the gun “Dr. Manette,” in keeping with the comparison between the rafters of a henhouse and 5, North Tower, in the Bastille, but that might have been carrying things too far. He wrote this on Bastille Day, oddly enough.