Lock, stock and barrel
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
When I was a youngster, I thought the term “lock, stock and barrel” referred to an old country store. The term was used to convey completeness or entirety. If someone did all of something, they did it lock, stock and barrel. I never read any explanation of the term, so nothing challenged my views.
It was only when I was in my 30s and was reading about guns a lot that I started to become interested in the old-time gun makers. Many of them bought the barrels for their guns and even more bought the locks. Then they assembled these parts into the stock that they made. There were, however, a few gun makers who made everything. They made the lock, the stock and the barrel.
Each major assembly of the gun required a lot of specialized skill and craftsmanship, and it wasn’t embarrassing for a gun maker to specialize in just one of the three disciplines. A lifetime could be spent just learning how to make a good barrel, and entire 6-year apprenticeships were often spent gaining the skills required to hand-file all the parts of a gun lock from steel and then fit them together and harden each one to do its job. Indeed, in various areas like Birmingham, England, gunmaking was a cottage industry where the craftsmen worked in very small shops or even in their own homes, turning out parts that only came together at some major gunmaker’s factory. When you look at a Brown Bess musket, you’re looking at an item that’s had dozens of different hands involved in its creation.
But in every age, there are always some people who are so talented that they cannot remain with the herd. They’re capable of doing everything and more. These are the innovators who begin building the entire gun at an early age and then start changing things as they enter their journeyman years. The more they learn about their craft, the better their products become…until they’ve risen to the top of their respective field as masters of the art of gunmaking.
Their progression doesn’t always stop there, either. Sometimes, they realize that they have a special gift for one or more things, and they should concentrate on just what they do best, leaving the rest of the things to others who do an adequate job. Harry Pope was one such person. In the beginning, he learned the skills needed to build the lock, stock and barrel and did so for several years. But he knew his barrels were better than any other barrels that were available, so he stopped making the other things and concentrated on just the barrels for the rest of his life. Oh, he did modify locks, which were called actions because they handled cartridges, so he could get them to work their best with his barrels. He favored the Winchester 1885 single-shot action that we call the high wall action today; but he felt the triggers needed to be on larger pins, and the geometry needed to be changed a little to get them to work their best. When he made a rifle, he usually used a high wall and did his work to get the triggers to work their best.
W. Milton Farrow is another master who made locks or actions. He was a world champion marksman who won trophies all over the United States and Europe and finally decided he needed something better than the guns he’d been using. Farrow liked the Ballard action best; but like Pope, he saw some shortcomings. He improved the action to the extent that he was manufacturing an entirely new action that looked like a cross between a Ballard and a Winchester. He also made barrels that are still renowned for their accuracy. For almost the rest of his life, he built actions until a hurricane destroyed his Florida-based shop and forced him to retire in his late 80s.
Farrow was one who made the lock (action) stock and barrel, but he might have subcontracted the stocks to other workers. His actions are highly collectible today and bring even more money than Pope rifles due to their scarcity. One of the worst horror stories I’ve ever heard was a pristine Farrow barrel that was relined for a modern caliber because the owner didn’t want to fool with reloading for the obsolete caliber the barrel was chambered for. A great way to turn $5,000 into $50. Sort of like installing an electronic pickup on a Stradivarius!
What about airguns?
Are there any airgun makers who make the lock, stock and barrel? Yes there are a few, but not as many as you might think. John Whiscombe is well-known for his remarkable recoilless double-piston rifles, and he made the lock and the stock but not the barrel. John used barrels from Anschütz and BSA depending on the caliber. And perhaps he used other barrels, as well. That left him the time he needed to make his actions and stocks. John did contract out some of his work to others, though there’s no doubt that he could have done it all if he’d wanted to.
Gary Barnes makes everything in his airguns. His first barrels were mediocre; but after reading about Pope and refining his process, he turned out some of the finest airgun barrels ever made. His actions are quite novel, to say the least. They’re unconventional, and shooters either love them or hate them. There’s very little middle ground when it comes to a Barnes gun. He prides himself on his decorations, which are also unconventional in both finish and engraving. But each gun is an expression of his art, and he makes them all his way.
Dennis Quackenbush is making airgun locks, stocks and barrels in very large numbers for a one-man operation. Actually his wife, Karen, helps out with several of the processes to keep the production on schedule, and he still can’t turn out the guns fast enough to satisfy the demand. A Quackenbush big bore is the best investment anyone can make in an airgun; because the instant you buy it, you gain at least 50 percent additional value. There are several people who buy Quackenbush guns just for the money they can make on reselling them.
Dennis is just about the only maker I know who has made both big bores (over .25 caliber) and smallbore guns in their entirety. He’s used factory barrels in the past, but he also rifles his own .22 and .25 caliber barrels. I’ll be testing some of his special .22-caliber barrels for you very soon.
Dennis’ locks (actions) are his own design. They are made to appear very conventional — like a Remington 700 bolt-action, if you please. But he’s spent years refining what he does; and after 1,400 were produced, there’s been a definite advancement in the design. Other airgun makers are copying Dennis’ design to some extent, though there are subtleties they do not include because they’re not aware of them.
And Dennis’ stocks are objects of great interest everywhere. He uses fine walnut blanks that are shaped to his specified profile and finished to whatever grade of work the customer desires. People used to say that Harry Pope was crazy for selling a complete shooting outfit for $40, when it should have been worth $100 at least. Dennis Quackenbush is a lot like that. He is turning out pearls of great price and ignoring the constant advice to double his prices. So, it’s his customers that reap the benefits.
Yes, there are airgun makers who turn out everything these days — lock, stock and barrel. We’re living in a golden age of airguns that will be heralded by future historians. Our task is to see what surrounds us now and make wise choices. It wasn’t easy to do that a century ago, and it still isn’t today.