Half a dozen years ago, at the annual convention of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild, some enthusiasts assembled a collection of custom rifles built during the 1920s and ’30s.
The man largely responsible was Michael Petrov, an Alaska oil worker whose hobby was documenting the work of early stock- and barrel makers who laid the foundation for the custom-rifle business as it exists today. Petrov wrote a series of articles for a now-defunct magazine, and these were later published in two anthologies.
Michael Petrov died about a year ago. His accumulated artifacts and research materials were gradually sold off, and his collection of old custom rifles put up for auction.
Petrov was determined to keep alive the names of craftsmen from the 1930s. Some, like Alvin Linden and James Howe, have currency because they were written about by people like Jack O’Connor; others, like Harvey Rogers and Adolph Minar, were never widely known to begin with.
This goes completely against the grain of men from the 1930s who were making, first and foremost, rifles to be used in the field. Artistry was secondary, and none of them ever pretended their work should hang on a museum wall.
This is not to say their rifles were not aesthetically pleasing and even, in some cases, artistic. Many of them were, and admirers of fine stock work and beautiful walnut can find some extraordinary examples in the work of Linden, Minar, Pachmayr, A.O. Niedner, and others from that era.
The reason they existed, though, was not to feed the egos of their clients, it was to fill a real need the big rifle factories were not. After 1918, there was growing demand for bolt-action hunting rifles chambered for the .30-06, .270 Winchester, and comparable cartridges. Early factory bolt rifles were pretty sad, and serious riflemen desired something better. They wanted stocks that were fitted and were comfortable to shoot; they wanted good adjustable sights and accurate barrels of reasonable length.
In 1930, there wasn’t a single American factory bolt rifle that came close to this ideal.
There were imports, of course. Commercial Mausers and Mannlicher-Schönauers had many of these virtues, but not all. The American custom-rifle business, which had been dependent on target shooters in the black-powder era and pretty much died with the coming of smokeless powder, was resurrected after 1918 to fill the need for fine hunting rifles, chambered for modern cartridges.
Initially, the favorite action was the military Springfield. These required extensive reworking to make them suitable hunting rifles. Any caliber but .30-06 required rebarreling, and men like W.A. Sukalle began making barrels. The military Springfield stock was a total loss, hence the rise of Alvin Linden and other stockmakers who learned to carve custom stocks from raw blanks of walnut, and developed the style that came to be known as “American classic.”
The majority of these men neither signed their work nor left any identifying marks. A completed rifle sold by A.O. Niedner or Hoffman Arms might have the name on the barrel, but individual craftsmen remained anonymous.
For typical collectors, this anonymity, and the difficulty in confirming the work of Linden or Minar, makes collecting such rifles unattractive – to say nothing of the scope for misrepresentation and counterfeiting.
For rifle lovers interested in fine craftsmanship, however, who can feel quality in a rifle without having to see a name on the barrel, custom rifles from this era constitute a rich field that can be entered without huge piles of money.
These rifles are found in backwoods gunshops, on tables at small shows, or offered on Gun Broker when someone dies. You may never get all your money back out of them, but since you’re not investing much in the first place, who cares? And the pleasure in handling, admiring, and shooting them is well worth the price.
It’s more fun, less money, less time-consuming, and vastly less frustration than trying to order a new custom rifle.–Terry Wieland