For lovers of fine rifles — and there are still many of us out there — this is the best of times, and the worst of times.
It’s the worst of times because, I believe, we are seeing the end, or the beginning of the end, of a custom-rifle renaissance that began in the 1980s, flowered with the creation of the American Custom Gunmakers’ Guild through the ‘90s, and is now petering out as prices become prohibitive and older craftsmen die off. The death of Al Biesen earlier this year was a kind of punctuation mark to that. If Jack O’Connor was largely responsible for the rise in interest in custom rifles in the 1960s, his favorite gunmaker, Biesen, was the major beneficiary and became a symbol of the industry to a whole generation of hunters and shooters.
There are many more problems within the industry — mainly a belief that the craftsmen themselves are artists, and their products are art, not rifles intended to be shot — but there is not enough room to go into that now. Let’s move on to the best of times.
Why is it the best? Simply because a large number of very fine custom rifles were made for men of taste and discernment over about a 25-year period starting in 1980. Many of these rifles are now finding their way onto the market because the men who commissioned them are dying off, their heirs have no interest, and they want to cash out Dad’s folly as quickly as possible.
There were many excellent metalsmiths working during that period, and even more really fine stockmakers. This was the era when the American classic stock re-emerged, white-line spacers and skip-line checkering died a richly deserved death, and the London oil finish resumed its place of honor ahead of Varathane. Some names gained prominence, such as Dave Talley in metal and Jere Eggleston as a stockmaker. While some men’s work was recognizable by style, it was rarely if ever actually signed or identified in any way. When you come across a nice rifle today, it’s often impossible to say for certain who made it. And, if formerly respected names have faded from prominence, it would hardly be a selling point anyway.
I mention Talley and Eggleston particularly because a friend of mine recently bought a .270 he believes was made by them. If so, it would have cost about $5,000 back in 1988; he got it for a third of that.
This brings us to the harsh reality that the way to recognize whether a rifle is high quality or not is to examine it, and see if it is high quality to your educated eye, hand, and heft. This may shock or frighten some who demand that quality be defined by certified maker, model, and date of introduction, with a notarized letter of provenance, but this column is not directed at you, anyway. Fortunately, there are still rifle lovers out there who can browse the shows, pick up a rifle, and tell instantly — without looking at the tag — whether it is good work, and worth buying.
Now, whether it is worth buying at the asking price is another matter, but here is where more good news comes in. Any used gun is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it, and the harsh truth is that there are more used custom rifles on the market than there seems to be rifle aficionados anxious to offer them a new home.
Older rifles, from the 1960s and ‘70s, built on Mauser 98 actions and with no identification whatever, seem to command little or no market. Little or no market means lower prices, and lower prices mean bargains for folks like you and me.
But here’s the difficulty, as one correspondent brought to light when he asked for advice on how to tell what’s good and what’s not worth the money. The only answer is learning, becoming knowledgeable, getting to know what a good rifle looks and feels like, and how to differentiate between quality and dross. Or, a subcategory for the buyer, recognizing what can be altered to make a decent rifle great, and determining whether it’s worth the current and subsequent investment.
These are murky waters, without signposts, and fraught with crocodiles. You’re on your own, with no guide except your own judgment. For those who see such a situation as an adventure, however, your time is now.–Terry Wieland