He studied banking but returned to the family gunmaking business in 1955. A decade later, at the death of his father, Johann Fanzoj (say, Fanzoy) assumed control. “In 1969, I was the first of our family to visit Africa,” he tells me. “I carried a .458 sidelock double.” At the time, Fanzoj hadn’t built doubles. A look at British mechanisms sent Johann to the bench, where he fashioned his own. Now 83, the gunmaker has taken six safaris. He favors a .470 double for big game, a scoped bolt rifle in 8×68 for plains animals.
Johann’s favorite hunts? Stalking roe deer in the Alps with his 6.5×57 kipplauf.
I’ve entered Austria on commercial flights, riding the rails through mountains to rendezvous with Daniela Fanzoj on a train platform a half-hour’s drive from the fabled town of Ferlach, in the Carinthian region of Rosental. This center of European gunmaking dates to 1246 in literature. Blacksmithing earned mention during the 14th century. In the Valley of Roses, on the River Drau, Ferlach light industry enjoyed plentiful water and rich iron deposits. The first gunsmith of record was named in 1551, in land registries of the Hollenburg Estates. A decade later Emperor Ferdinand tapped that house to furnish 400 arquebuses for the Ljubljana Armory. By 1732, Ferlach gunmakers were supplying arms to the Austrian Army.
“Our family started making guns in 1790,” says Daniela. She and her brother Patrick now run the Fanzoj shop, where a staff of 10 talented people fashion shotguns and rifles from scratch. “The early days were prosperous for Ferlach gunmakers, though southern Austria was feudal. The Catholic church owned most of the land, with a handful of aristocrats. During the Napoleonic wars, military contracts supported this community.”
Then, Daniela explains, the industry changed. “Ferlach gunmakers were slow to abandon their old ways to machine-driven manufacture. Orders for infantry arms went to Steyr and Vienna. Ferlach shops shifted focus to sporting rifles and shotguns. They came to be known for best-quality, hand-built firearms. In 1850 Franz Josef was presented with the first kipplauf from this shop.”
But the world wars and an accelerating shift to mechanization weighed on profits. Encouraged by her parents to pursue a different career, Daniela studied art, then earned a graduate degree in business in Vienna. She worked for a time in Zagreb, Croatia, for a contractor serving the Ministry of Defense. Her Russian language course proved useful when she returned to the family enterprise in Ferlach. “Russia and China had found better financial footing,” she says. “Firearms are still symbols of power and status there. Recent demand from the east has generated profits Ferlach hasn’t enjoyed since the 1960s, when wealthy Germans visited.” During that era, she adds, “we shipped 150 guns a year.”
But not every gun-shop had Fanzoj’s deep roots, or proved as nimble in adapting its processes or cultivating markets. “In my youth,” Daniela says, “56 families built guns in Ferlach. Now there are five.”
Johann’s innovations, and his insistence on maintaining quality, kept Fanzoj afloat in tough times. His hunts helped him promote rifles. Visits with Marshall Tito led to contracts for presentation guns.
“It’s fair to say Johann is alone responsible for our success,” Daniela deadpans. “Throughout the company’s history, every first-born son of a Fanzoj was named Johann!”
It is dusk. High rock faces shine pink above timbered steeps slanting into valleys already black. A spot of russet winks from the greensward below. “Red deer!” I lean across on the pine-board platform for a peek with the Swarovski. My host, a licensed hunter, tells me charitably it is a roe deer, as if any hunter could mistake a collie-size herbivore for one tall as an elk. He’s right, of course. But this deer is a female. She slips into shadow. Stars replace alpenglow. We descend from the hochstand and hike to the road.
“Stalking in these conditions is difficult,” Johann nods over a morning coffee. “July vegetation is thick. You alert roe deer before you see them. The high stand is more practical.” But he prefers stalking – or, as Americans think of it, still-hunting. And he’s keen to put his stalking rifle in my hands. True to its type, this kipplauf is a trim, hinged-breech single-shot. He hands it to me. “The range is open every day.”
But first I want to see how Fanzoj rifles are made. Johann introduces me to his son Patrick. We walk from the house to the shop door, Griesgasse 3. Two craftsmen attend a long L-shaped workbench strewn with files, rasps, screwdrivers, mallets and other hand tools. Sunlight from big windows glints on action components, here and there a barrel. The machining floor across an alley holds a five-axis CNC machine and wire EDM, plus a predictable array of power tools. “They speed the shaping of forged steel parts,” says Patrick. Fanzoj buys barrel blanks with cut, buttoned, and hammer-forged rifling. Next we visit the wood shop, where figured Turkish blanks age five years, birdseyes shielded from sun and treated with special glue to prevent checking. It’s a stunning display of the world’s best walnut.
There’s no assembly line, of course. “About 70 percent of the work on any firearm is skilled hand labor,” says Patrick. “Of course, we make our own triggers, adjustable down to 2 pounds.” We look in on assembly benches. One holds a three-barrel rifle with a titanium sleeve. “It should solve the dispersion problem when barrels get hot. We expect all our rifles to shoot inside a minute of angle – even those with hinged actions.” On another bench there’s a side-by-side shotgun with a .22 Hornet barrel in the rib. “The switch is on the trigger plate.” He shows me chopper-lump barrels for a big-bore double, describes a new round-action side-by-side in 8×57. “It has a trigger-plate lock with intercepting sears.” Patrick insists the best bolt mechanisms are DWM and 1909 Argentine Mausers. “We make a titanium Mauser action,” he adds, as if it were no more difficult than whittling tent stakes. He finds one, hands it to me. The bolt slides like a race-engine piston.
“Heavy cartridges get steel magnum-length actions,” Patrick continues. “We chamber for a huge range of cartridges, including wildcats. We’ve even registered our own– the 8.5×68. It’s the 8×68 necked up to .338, to use sleek new .33 bullets. Ballistically, a rimless .338 Winchester, just .15 longer.” It’s been through tests at Ferlach’s CIP proof house – the country’s first, and still one of only two.
Jean-clad, with collar-length hair and a boyish grin, Patrick looks out of place under the shoulder mount of a huge Marco Polo ram in his high-ceilinged office. Like his father, he uses the rifles he builds. But he doesn’t bore me with field tales. After an hour’s interview, and his articulate on-the-fly responses to technical questions, I’m impressed. The man knows firearms.
So does Daniela. In a tastefully furnished trophy room she pulls one rifle after another from glass-paneled cabinets. As eye-popping as the walnut, the engraving and the shadow-tight wood-to-metal fit is the variety. While top North American gunmakers build bolt-actions that have come to define the type, I can’t name any that produce, from scratch, the range of firearms from Fanzoj. There are bolt-action rifles and doubles, kipplauf single shots, shotguns and drillings. They all beg handling. I jettison my notepad.
“We build to order,” says Daniela. “No feature or dimension is so standard that we won’t tailor it to meet a customer’s needs. Every part is made and fitted to enhance the looks, handling and function of that particular firearm.” Shouldering a drilling, I find it lithe, not muzzle-heavy. “Balance matters a great deal to hunters,” she smiles. “Perfect balance makes a gun feel lighter than it is. It will point itself.”
Beyond form and function, there’s art. “Fanzoj firearms have value beyond utility,” Daniela tells me. “Embellished or not, each reflects a period, a culture, a way of viewing the hunt. Investments, surely. As befits art. But unlike paintings or sculptures, rifles and shotguns help you participate in the story they tell. In hand, they bring you to a place that makes you part of the story. Each is built to fit you better than it fits any other hunter or shooter. So it’s a personal expression as well.”
Unique, each one. A three-barrel 28-bore swings like a double. A single trigger fires the top two barrels, a rear trigger the bottom. Black steel on a .600 NE double in progress will feature 370 engraved animals, including a wildebeest migration! “Most will stand in bold relief, rubbed white,” says Daniela. The steel grip cap has a platinum rhino. “Over the top,” she admits. “A tour de force.”
I cheek an exposed-hammer kipplauf in 8×50. A working rifle, decades old, it is subtly engraved, steel and walnut joined as if one grew from the other. It has been meticulously maintained. No scars, no bruises. It glows with the even polish of hands, sheepskin and weather.
“That is the original short-rifle kipplauf,” Daniela explains. “Two others are hammerless, hinged-breech designs, one for smaller bores, one for powerful dangerous-game cartridges. The stalking rifle is so, well, traditional here. It is slender and lithe, for carry in steep places and quick shooting in the forest. Hunters choose carefully the proper load for each game animal – a ritual mark of respect. A stalking rifle tells much about its owner. It has no magazine, so the first bullet must fly true. The kipplauf requires more of you as a hunter than does a bolt-action….”
“But I’ve heard bolt-actions called stalking rifles,” I say.
“That’s common now. Lightweight magazine rifles surely have a place afield. But the magazine adds to a rifle’s length. The bolt knob is a protrusion. The stack of cartridges is evidence you’re unwilling to bet all on one bullet. Many veteran hunters here and throughout Europe and, by extension, Africa, hold the purist’s view of a stalking rifle. It must be a single-shot, with a hinged or dropping breech.”
“A concession to aging eyes,” she smiles. “But a proper stalking rifle always has iron sights.”
Mentally, I tick off the handful of North American rifles that would meet this Austrian definition.
The Ruger No. 1A comes to mind – as does Dakota’s Model 10, depending on configuration. You could have a Dakota/Miller action barreled and stocked in stalking-rifle form. Ralf Martini’s fine custom rifles, on Hagn actions, with British detailing, qualify. No doubt other small shops have escaped my eye….
Because “stalking” refers broadly to a hunting style that predates not only smokeless powder but rifled bores, the origin of the stalking rifle is tough to pin down. Emerging in the British Isles as well as on mainland Europe, it quickly made its way to colonies. In India and Africa, bolt-actions in .275 Rigby have been dubbed stalking rifles – courtesy Jim Corbett and W.D.M Bell.
Such rifles were popular in the early days of smokeless, at hand even when big game was about. Wrote A.C. Knowllys after failing to kill an elephant with his first bullet: “I [decided] to give the beggar another round. Raising the rifle I pressed the trigger and – nothing happened! Incredible as it may seem, it was not until that moment that I realized the rifle … handed to me was a Mauser .275….” Incredible, yes, as his alternative was a double in .600 NE, quite a different feel in hand, and surely in recoil! Excitement can blur details. Knowllys caught up with the elephant and, with the double, toppled it. He “proceeded to reload, to find that both cartridges had fired. [But I was not] bruised. This was even more surprising when I found [the] shock-absorbing pad had slipped off the butt of the rifle….”
Major H.C. Maydon, who published Knowllys’ tale (and many others) in “Big Game Shooting in Africa,” recommended a “7.9mm Mauser Sporting Carbine” for all but heavy game. For close shots, he opined, “a telescopic sight is no attraction…. A carbine is handy for crawling through brush.” Writers of that day seldom cited the cost differences between standard Mauser actions and hand-built single-shots, though budgets favored the ubiquitous Mauser. Little wonder that, prowling cover for deer in Europe and for antelopes on colonial frontiers, hunters using small-bore bolt-actions came to call them stalking rifles.
Small-bore, of course, was not then sub-6mm, the cartridge class it defines now. A century ago, it included 7mms and .30s, even, in safari circles, .33s. The rimmed 8×50 Austrian Mannlicher was a logical chambering for the svelte Fanzoj in my hand. Introduced in 1888, it hurled a 244-grain bullet at 2,000 fps, was arguably obsolete by the Great War, trumped by rimless rounds in repeating rifles. But rimmed cases stayed in favor for hinged-breech and dropping-block rifles. The .303 British appeared in stalking rifles, as did rimmed versions of popular European rounds, such as the 6.5x57R, 7x57R, 7x65R. Like the 8×60, the 8x60R was a clever way around post-WW I restrictions on military rounds in Germany. Rifles in 8×57 became 8x60s after a spin with a chamber reamer.
“The 6.5×57 is easy to shoot accurately,” says Johann Fanzoj of his favorite deer cartridge. “Light recoil, even in a kipplauf. But it shoots flat and is deadly. You must fire mine.”
Nearly every day, Ferlach’s byways echo the pop of gunfire. Firearms are still a way of life here, still the life-blood of the community. The Ferlach Manor House holds a Gunsmith and Hunting Museum. The rifle range, a mile or so from the Fanzoj shop, dates to 1906. On the last morning of my visit, Patrick drives us there. I sandbag the elegant little 6.5×57 on a clubhouse window bench that’s borne the weight of rifles for over a century. The reticle steadies on a 100-yard target, and the trigger breaks like a delicate icicle. My bullet strikes point of aim. I send two more. They print a triangle well inside a minute of angle.
“You didn’t need those last two,” Patrick shrugs. “Kipplaufs are for hunters who kill with one.”