Dan's Tips page 1
Choosing a Gunmaker, by Danny Caywood
The cold biting wind made me snuggle down inside the warmth of my coat. It was night time on King's River in February and the cold had a bite that seemed razor edged. These darned walleyes have a bad habit of biting when the weather is at the worst, so here we were out under some unfavorable weather conditions. More sound minds would question the judgment in our "chase", but when you catch 13 and 14 pound walleyes, it seems to take the sting out of bad judgment, at least sometimes. Tonight wasn't one of those times. We hadn't had a bite and we had a fairly long, cold boat ride back to the take-out ramp. As I huddled down further into my coat, I felt a funny sense of satisfaction in the quality of this product. It seemed like the guy who had designed this coat had "been there before." Although I have no earthly idea who designed the coat, I felt a certain kinship with him, because he couldn't possibly have designed this product without experience in the outdoors...in other words he knew what he was doing. It showed in the product and I was glad an experienced person had built my coat. Yes, it was an expensive coat given to me by my close friend. But the bottom line is that it did the job and was worth the money, no doubt about it.
I often wonder how many times my customers have that sense when using our product. When they've laid their fine fowler over the soft, smooth hide of the fine buck as he lays in slanting sunlight, do they experience that same thought process? When they've been out hunting in the rain for 3 days and their flintlock goes off instantly, do they feel a certain satisfaction in knowing that "we've been there too"? After carrying a gun for days, weeks, months and years, do they feel that certain kinship with the man who built the gun? I think quite often they do, and I strive to make sure that all of our customers feel that kinship. I have an extremely long history of building, shooting, hunting with and loving flintlocks.
I started shooting flintlocks when I was 14 and have never shot a big game animal, (deer, turkey, elk or bear) with anything but a flintlock. I have no desire to squint through a scope and snipe big game animals with modern technology. So I ask a lot of my firearms. I want them to perform in the rain, sleet, snow, wind, humidity, and harassment of fellow shooters on the "paper" line. Those requirements are only fulfilled when you don't cut corners. To build a long lasting and consistently performing product, you don't cut corners on materials or workmanship. What makes a gun last for generations? QUALITY. We build our guns to last for hundreds of years, well after we've left these happy hunting grounds. What about the man a hundred years from now who looks down at that gun and wonders who made it? Does he see something remarkable in a firearm that has withstood years of hard use and still performs flawlessly. I don't know if he will or not, but I'm going to build it for the guy that does. And they will be there, using these guns long after we're gone.
There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that you've accomplished something that is difficult. It seems the harder a feat is, the more satisfaction it derives. Isn't that why we take up flintlocks in the first place? Building cheap guns is easy, because nobody expects much from a cheap gun. Building quality firearms for a fair price is very difficult, and satisfying. It is difficult for myriad reasons. Acquiring the skills to build quality in even one firearm, takes years of DEDICATION. Applying those skills on a daily basis requires great discipline and knowledge. Just building something "close" isn't good enough, especially when its a flintlock. The fundamentals have to be followed or the entire operation will be for naught. Quality parts; CRITICAL. Good tools; CRITICAL. Gunmaking knowledge; CRITICAL.
I have built the entire operation on the premise that people want quality and understand that building quality products IS MORE EXPENSIVE. No, it's not for everyone. Some people like to get by with the cheapest tools they can and they do derive some enjoyment from doing things on the cheap. That is o.k.. I just happen to feel that the biggest bargain around is buying quality for a a fair price. After all, the quality product will perform when conditions are tough. And some of our customers depend on our product for their lives...chasing grizzly bears in Alaska! Others may have a less dangerous quarry in mind when they purchase one of our guns, but what if they get caught out in bad weather, lost without food? That simple tool will take on much greater significance when things are on the line. About the time you realize you really need a quality, functioning tool is not the time to notice that cheap gun in your hand. It might be too late.
I've been building firearms since I was twelve and rely solely on flintlocks for all my shooting and hunting. I consider the LOCK to be the single most important component on a flintlock rifle. A fine lock is consistent and reliable and it is the only thing that will get that gun to go off when you need it. I don't recommend cutting corners with cheap lock kits put together by less-than-experienced persons. (Caywood locks come with a LIFETIME guarantee!) Now this might come as a surprise to some of you, but I consider stock architecture to be the second most important component of a flintlock rifle. Why? Because if you have a poorly designed gun which kicks your cheekbone, you will never relax to the point that you can master the gun and shoot them all through the same hole. Good stock architecture is not easily designed and I am shocked at how often I see poorly designed stocks. The price of a gun does not necessarily translate into good or bad stock architecture, but it is a good indicator. Some gunmakers get so hung up on engraving and carving and wood quality etc. that they almost view where they put the butt plate on as secondary. Once a butt plate is mounted at the wrong angle and position, there is no amount of carving and decoration that will make up for it. It is critical that the comb line be low enough that the shooter does NOT have to push their cheekbone down on the comb line to see the sights! If you must push your cheekbone down hard onto the comb, when the gun recoils, it is going to "bite" you and there is where the flinching begins. The comb line also needs to run pretty much parallel with the bore line of the gun so that it is not angled upward into the cheek, producing an angling "bite" into the very tender cheek area. When you learn that your gun does not hurt you, you also learn to just relax and let the gun do its work, rather than grimacing and anticipating the pain that is about to bless you again!
A lot of people put great measure in the barrel as being so important, but I submit that with today's barrels, there is not that much difference, especially if buying from established barrel producers. Put simply, a barrel is a piece of steel with a hole in it. It is not rocket science and especially when shooting patched round balls, perfection in a bore is not really necessary. That is not to say that a quality barrel is not desired, because it certainly is a large part of the equation. But, given the assumption that a barrel is SAFE, it is really a distant third on my priorities. For the record, we use only high carbon GUN BARREL QUALITY STEEL in our barrels and they are properly breeched. Proper breeching places the breech plug face tightly against the bore so that fowling cannot invade the barrel threads and rust them out. Time consuming...yes...critical to safety...absolutely! Yes, rifling twist rate is somewhat important, but here again we're talking about patched round balls which are pretty forgiving. As a general a rule of thumb, slow twist rates require more powder to get the gun to group well, while quicker twist rates tend to give good grouping with high or low powder charges. So why not just quicken up the twist rate in all round ball barrels? Because you have to clean more rifling with the quicker twist rate. For some hunting guns, only stiff powder charges are going to be used, so why worry about plinking loads? We have a one in 54 inch twist rate in most of our barrels and they shoot quite well with a wide range of powder charges.
So, what should you look for in a gunsmith? If I was looking for a builder, I'd seek one with a good reputation. I would not look for the cheapest builder. Remember that even though a full-stocked 18th century firearm is fairly expensive, THERE IS NOT THAT MUCH PROFIT in building one. Why? Because of the huge amount of labor involved. I've often heard this comment from other builders; How do you build this quality of gun for this little price? You know they've built guns when you hear this. The opposite is also true. Sometimes the query is "Why do these cost so much? You know the observer has never picked up a woodworking tool and gotten a little experience! I would keep in mind that if the price seems low to you, the builder has to be cutting corners, there is no other way to build cheaply. Is he building a safe gun? You don't possess x-ray vision, so what if he's cutting corners on breeching the barrels safely? You don't have any way of knowing without un-breeching the gun and that can't be done on the spot. When you look at a cheap gun, you are looking at cheap parts, cheap wood, sloppy workmanship and careless safety concerns. Is it worth saving a few bucks? I tend to think that a fine firearm, which is going to be around for hundreds of years, is worth spending more time building and hence a little more expense to procure. After all, cutting corners on something containing an explosion IN YOUR HANDS certainly seems like money poorly spent.
I have a great advantage over my earlier gun building pursuits. I used to buy a blank, a lock, a barrel, some of the furniture and go to work slowly designing, contouring, inletting and completing that one gun. With our modern factory, we produce our own components and maintain high quality in EVERY SINGLE PART that goes into one of our guns. It doesn't matter whether you are buying a gun, a refrigerator or a car, you are NOT paying the bulk of your money for materials. An expensive BMW doesn't have hardly any more material cost in it than a Chevrolet. You are paying for the quality that is built into the product and that is the labor cost. By using highly accurate pattern cutting machinery, we can duplicate the exact dimensions of correctly designed guns over and over without the painstaking design and hand-labor problems associated with the non-mechanized builder. Even the best builders are constrained by the amount of labor required to build full stocked guns. No matter how accomplished they are, they can't get around the time required to build quality. I have a great advantage because I can completely inlet two stocks, rough contour and sand them out in ONE DAY. The same process done by hand would require at least two weeks of work! Therefore I don't have to charge the customer for all of the time I DIDN'T spend building their gun. I spend the bulk of my time doing the careful contouring and finish work that really defines a high quality 18th century gun. It allows me to build safe, high quality guns for a fair price and our choice of tools does not show in the finished product. I build fairly priced firearms that perform and give the customer years of enjoyment and service. Yes, I certainly do have higher expenses in paying for modern production facilities, but the return is certainly greater than doing things one at a time, for me AND the customer. My recognition that something done wrong is done wrong forever spurs us to do it right the first time. Then, it is done right forever.
When contemplating something as important as choosing a gun-builder, one must look beyond the obvious. Have you heard or seen things that one builder does that don't seem quite right? Lots of complaints that are not just nitpicking? Nobody can make EVERYONE happy all the time, but if there is smoke, there's probably fire and this isn't one area where you really want to get burned. Are you planning on buying a gun to shoot once a year and don't care about handing it down to your son or daughter? If that's the case, a cheap safe gun might fit your needs. But if you desire a quality piece to use somewhat regularly, why handcuff yourself and your enjoyment on the very thing that you strive for in the first place? Hard earned money should not be thrown away on things incapable of doing the job that you ask of them. There is a real enjoyment in owning a quality product even if it does cost more and it will certainly do the job better. Talk to the builder and ask him if he breeches his barrels with the plug butting up against the back of the bore? That is one big surefire sign of a cheap gun that you probably don't really want to be messing with 10 or 15 years down the road. Does he seal the wood in his guns? Does he just use linseed oil as a finish? Yeah, its a quick finish, but with poor characteristics. Does he neutralize browning solution so the gun doesn't rust away. Does he slot barrel tenons so the barrel doesn't bind in variable temperatures and humidity? Does he ask you what your main use will be or have suggestions on what might work best in your particular situation? Does he use putties, epoxies or other modern fillers to plug up spaces in sloppy inletting? Does he shoot and hunt and compete with flintlocks or just build them. There's a lot to be said for having experience in using a flintlock and the more you use them, the more you know how to correctly build them. What kind of guarantee does he offer? And, is he likely to still be in business in the future in case you do need a part or repair? These questions should be asked when contemplating the purchase of a fairly expensive item.
As I stood on the sloping hillside in the bitter, cold wind, I huddled deeper into my hunting coat and appreciated the way the minus 5 degree wind was getting cut. I had crossed a steep rocky draw to access this private, undisturbed thicket where the deer felt safe. The snow and ice had made light crunching sounds as I negotiated my way up the treacherous slope, but I was standing silently now and blessing the guy who had designed my coat. He never knew where or how I'd be using his coat of course, but like I said before, he'd been there too, and knew what it took to make the product do the job. Yes, the coat was more expensive than some on the market, but if I'd been wearing a cheaper coat, I'd have never lasted long enough in the bitter wind to catch the deer slipping along the edge of the the ravine. My fine flintlock was cocked with an imperceptible click and when the deer gave good clearance from the surrounding brush, the little .54 round ball found it's way to the sweet spot. As I knelt over the fine creature that God had presented me with, I was glad for the fine quality flintlock that had done its job and the fine quality coat which was going to keep me from freezing on the long walk out. It seemed pretty obvious, the products used that day were worth the price, no doubt about it! Good Hunting!