by Paul Smeltzer
Athens Gunsmith Service, Athens LA.
The place to begin a restoration of any kind is to figure out where you are going and where you are starting from. You need those two pieces of information before you can begin the trip. You figure out where the trip ends by talking to the owner, an interview if you will. The interview is an informal question and answer period to determine what the customers’ expectations are. Most of the time the scene starts with a customer bringing in the Savage single shot that has been sitting in the corner of a garage for several years. Usually the owner knows one or two things for sure, number one is that presently the gun does not look so great, and that he/she would like it look better. In addition there maybe obvious parts missing, like the front sight is gone, or that there is something broke because the trigger just kind of dangles.
There are two things I want to learn from the owner that will help me understand where we are going. The first thing I need to know is how important the gun is to him/her. I need to know because the answer will say a lot about how far they may want to go with the restoration, which directly affects the time and cost of the project. The more emotionally attached the owner is to the gun the more likely the restoration will be more complete. Most of the time I don’t have to ask too many questions, the owner is likely to offer up some information from the start as to the history of the gun, and how they have come into possession of it. If that is not the case and I need additional information I will ask questions such as, where did you get it, do you know when it was first purchased, how much use did it see it? If the owner tells you that it was purchased from the mercantile that used to be on State Street in 1929 by the guys grandfather. That he always remembered “Pap” carrying it around in the old beat up Ford pickup that he drove all over the farm. His dad got it after “Pap” passed, and his dad taught him how to shoot with that gun, and there is no telling how many rounds were fired through that old rifle.
There is a lot of info in the telling of the story especially if it took twenty minutes to tell. Says a lot about the investment the owner has in the piece as apposed to the guy who found it in a pawnshop and got a good deal on it.
The second thing I need to know is what does the owner plan on doing with the finished piece? Is he going to use it as a everyday squirrel gun, is he going to find a place of prominence to display it and pass it future generations as a family treasure, or is it the pawn shop guy who is looking to get it “cleaned” up some so he can use it for trade bait at the next gun show? Again the answers to these questions speaks to how extensive the restoration has to be, and it speaks to how important aesthetics and functionality is, wall hanger vs. field gun.
Once I have a good idea of where we are going I need to know as much as I can about where we are starting from – what condition is the piece in. At this point it is important to closely examine the piece, field strip if possible. Most old guns are likely to carry decades worth of grease, old oil, dirt and a few insects some dead some alive. Some of this camouflage can conceal the true condition of metal and wood. Pits, and cracks are not as obvious when they are filled with 50-year-old dirt. Attention to detail, a good eye, and experience are helpful tools at this point. Some common issues to look for are cracks and damage to the wood in areas that are high recoil impact areas. You can almost bet that the forearm of old Browning A5’s, Remington 11’s and similar shotguns are going to be cracked. The area around the receiver tang of old break open shotguns are also likely to show cracks. Use a degreaser type cloth to clean around these areas to see if there are any obvious issues. Check the parts of the metal that are most likely to come in contact with hands while carrying or shooting, sweat and skin oils will have most likely caused more pitting in these areas. Again a little rubbing with a degreasing cloth can sometimes reveal issues. Do a safety and function test at the bench, do the parts move, does the safety work, does the trigger function? This might be a good time to remind everyone about rules of safety that we all have memorized but still tend to forget when someone hands us some interesting or cool firearm to look at. Despite that we all know the rules and our expectation is that so does everyone else, — FOLLOW THEM — especially the one about treating every gun as if it were loaded. The truth is that there is a 50-50 chance that what you have been handed is loaded and the owner is unaware of it, or as one guy told me when I admonished him about handing me a loaded gun in my shop, “the magazine was loaded but the chamber was empty”. In my book the gun was loaded. ALWAYS check the chamber and magazine when handed a firearm. There are only two kinds of people that get accidentally shot 1) stupid people, and 2) careless people, don’t be stupid or careless.
At this point we have some idea of what we are starting with and where we are going with the restoration. I can now talk to the customer about what is possible, and what is not, what it is going to take to meet the expectations the owner will have when they come pick it up. We can discuss options, costs and time to complete. I also let the owner know that the cost and time that I quoted are a reasonable estimate. As I get more into the project there could be other issues with the functioning of the gun or other damage that was not visible during the initial inspection. That being the case I will call them with any significant deviations or problems before proceeding. There is no telling what you might find once the piece has been disassembled and cleaned.
Once you have taken the job you want to be reasonably comfortable that you understand the customer’s expectations and that you have effectively communicated with the owner what those expectations are. When they come to pick up their prize you want their jaw to drop, followed by a moment of silence, broken by “Oh my God that is beautiful, I never thought that it could look like that!”