Around the turn of the last century, American sportsmen were transitioning from black powder to smokeless and from single shots and lever guns to bolt actions. World War I accelerated the crank-handled rifle’s appeal, and by the early 1920s a plethora of surplus 1903 Springfields and 1898 Mausers made the field ripe for numerous custom gunsmiths like Sedgley, Newton, and Wundhammer to set up shop and sporterize these well-made and relatively inexpensive military rifles.
One of the 1903 Springfield’s staunchest admirers was a young New York cabinet maker and gun hobbyist named Seymour R. Griffin. Back in 1910, Griffin had read the just-published African Game Trails, by popular ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, recounting his recent African safari. Roosevelt wrote glowingly about the 1903 Springfield rifle he and his son Kermit used on the Dark Continent. Griffin immediately purchased one of these rifles. Being a skilled woodworker, he used a premium grade of Circassian walnut to carve an exquisite new stock for his beloved Springfield. But it was a short-lived love affair, because a friend saw Griffin’s handiwork and offered him a price for the rifle that the cabinet maker couldn’t turn down.
Griffin promptly purchased another Springfield, made another finely carved stock for it, and was subsequently offered another sum of money for it. Soon, Seymour Griffin was augmenting his cabinet making income by creating stylish Springfield sporters for a small but affluent coterie of serious shooters. His well-finished guns were especially noted for their finely-crafted inletting, and featured Schnabel fore-ends and Griffin’s trademark – a sharply sloped cutaway in the stock by the bolt.
Eventually, Griffin’s stock making skills came to the attention of Major Townsend Whelen, who happened to be one of the most influential early post-war gun writers. Whelen’s nationally published articles praised Griffin’s skills and brought him to the attention of even more shooters. But Whelen was also the commanding officer at Frankford Arsenal and director of research and development at Springfield Armory. And it was there, in 1921, that he encountered another talented individual, a gunmaker from Pennsylvania named James Virgil Howe, whose specialty was metalworking. At the time, Howe headed up the armory’s Small Arms Experimental Department.
Whelen conceived of forming a gun making company that would combine the complementary talents of Seymour Griffin and James Howe. Both men agreed, and on June 1, 1923, the firm of Griffin & Howe opened its doors at 234 East 39th Street in New York City, with Whelen serving as advisor. But this new found entity was short-lived, because in September of that year, Howe quit the company that bore his name and went to work for a competitor, the Hoffman Arms Company of Cleveland, Ohio.
“He only stayed long enough to get his name on the door,” noted Paul E. Chapman, Griffin & Howe’s current Vice President, Director of Gunsmithing.
Undaunted, Seymour Griffin maintained the Griffin & Howe name and assembled a small but talented group of American and European gunmakers and engravers. Together, they firmly established Griffin & Howe’s reputation for building some of the world’s finest custom bolt action sporting rifles. Superbly grained walnut stocks, fine line checkering, folding leaf express sights, intricate engraving, and gold, silver, and platinum inlaid motifs and coats of arms were the norm.
Most rifles were built on plentiful Mauser and 1903 actions, the latter of which were better finished than the 1903A3 Springfield actions. Super-accurate barrels were usually obtained from the equally famous Niedner Rifle Corporation. More than fourteen different chamberings were produced (although customers could have any caliber they desired), including propriety cartridges such as the .350 G&H Magnum (a necked-down .375 H&H) and Col. Whelen’s .400 Whelen and the .35 Whelen, which was originally developed by Howe while at the Springfield Armory and which is still being commercially loaded today. For a while, the firm even had their own brand of ammunition.
Griffin & Howe also developed a detachable scope side mount, which the company patented in 1927 and, with improvements, in 1931. By simply flipping up a lever, the scope could be lifted off the rifle for transportation or open sight use. By repositioning the scope and rotating the levers down, the scope would be locked in place, with no loss of zero. This scope mount was also adapted by Griffin & Howe for M1 sniper rifles during World War II, and is still in the line today.
Yet for all their gun making skills and reputation, it is estimated that Griffin & Howe produced less than two thousand rifles between 1923 and the outbreak of World War II, which effectively put their gun making on hold. The Great Depression hit G&H especially hard, as their rifles were scarcely for the shooter on a budget. Thus, Seymour Griffin must have given a sigh of relief when he was approached in 1930 by James S. Cobb, president of the well known sporting goods outfitter Abercrombie & Fitch, with an offer to assimilate G&H into the more secure A&F stronghold.
When Abercrombie & Fitch liquidated in 1976, an entrepreneur named Bill Ward purchased Griffin & Howe and continued its tradition of building rifles for sportsmen who demanded the best. When Ward over-expanded in 1986, the firm was acquired by businessman-sportsman Joe Prather and another investor. Prather served as president until recently, when he retired and became Chairman Emeritus. He was succeeded in March 2007 by Guy A. Bignell, who had been associated with the company since 1993 and is now the fifth president in Griffin & Howe’s history.
All Griffin & Howe rifles are extremely collectable and have maintained their values. Griffin & Howe often renumbered their early rifles, exchanging the original Springfield and Mauser serial numbers for their own. The rifles were artistically engraved “Griffin & Howe, Inc. New York” on the barrel, along with the gun’s G&H serial number. Yet I have G&H barrel-engraved rifle #110 that was purportedly made sometime during the late 1920s with the serial number stamped on the receiver and hidden by the bolt; there is also a number 9 engraved under the barrel, hidden by the stock. Most G&H rifles have meticulously engraved checkering on the bolt and an engraved blued steel pistol grip cap.
The serial numbers of many of these early guns, including those purchased by luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable and Bill Ruger, can be confusing at times, but as a point of reference, G&H #1001 starts in 1930 with the takeover by Abercrombie & Fitch. In 1942, just prior to our entering WWII, the ledgers show serial number 1708. And 1963 ends with serial number 2504. Another G&H rifle in my collection is a Rock Island Arsenal Model 1903 rifle, caliber .30-06, serial number 51111, which Bignell, Chapman and Prather believe dates prior to 1923 and represents “…one of the earliest known examples to have been sporterized by Seymour Griffin, as it exhibits many of Mr. Griffin’s craftsmanship trademarks. These features set the tone for the Griffin & Howe rifles that were subsequently made by that firm.
Griffin & Howe is still very much in business, headquartered in a 100 year old building in Bernardsville, New Jersey. Its lodge-like showroom is lined with game heads and stocked with the finest new and used sporting rifles and shotguns. Another room stocks shooting accessories, clothes and books. In back, the gun repair department does everything from stock bending, metal refinishing and engraving, to hand crafting complete rifles, just as they did over eighty years ago, although due to high costs of labor and material, less than four guns a year are now produced. In addition, they have a gun store in Greenwich, Connecticut and a shooting school in Andover, New Jersey.
Today, there are once again many custom firearms craftsmen throughout the country. But Griffin & Howe is the sole survivor of America’s Golden Age of early twentieth century rifle makers. Yet their quality has never waived. They still produce truly magnificent rifles, albeit at truly magnificent prices. Even so, a few years ago I managed to plunge myself into debt and acquired a Griffin & Howe Winchester Model 70 in .458 Winchester Magnum that had originally been custom-made for a prominent member of an old firearms-related family. Although my intention was to take it to Africa, I have yet to put a round through that big bruiser. However, I still occasionally hunt with my G&H rifle #110 in caliber .30-06, which to me is akin to driving a Bentley to the grocery store. It’s a lot of over-qualified luxury for the job, and for that reason, these guns are on my bucket list.
The above is an excerpt from the book, 50 Famous Firearms You’ve Got To Own–Rick Hacker’s Bucket List, by award-winning author Rick Hacker. You can order print or e-book copies of his book at www.gundigeststore.com; amazon.com; barnesandnoble.com; and most other major and specialty booksellers.