I have received three good gun books lately, and I think I can almost see a narrative thread between them. They are not, as so many magazine articles seem to be today, advertisements in the form of product reviews. The first, Hemingway’s Guns, by Silvio Calabi, Steve Helsey, and Roger Songer, is a scholarly but lively history of the good guns owned by this iconic mid- twentieth century figure; the second, Vic Venters’ Gun Craft, is a celebration of what I would call the contemporary “art gun” that soars high above the ground, covering makers of guns so rarefied you will pay over six figures for many; the third, Obsessions of a Rifle Loony by John Barsness, (separate essay) returns us to more earthly precincts while keeping to the ideals of quality and utility– perhaps a return to the days when Hemingway shot good but plain versions of what the rest of us shoot.
Hemingway’s Guns starts in the 1920’s and continues to the time of the writer’s death in 1961. It is a profusely illustrated and meticulously documented chronicle of a good working armory owned by a man who could soon afford anything he wanted (if you doubt this check out the Hollywood and other luminaries in the photos, from a time when hunting was taken for granted). The thing that might strike a modern shooter with a longing for fine guns is how “normal” most are, and how little some which have become enormously expensive are cost back then, even proportionately. (A double rifle, always a rare, expensive hand- made tool for professionals and rich amateurs, is the exception– and even they were relatively cheap in the thirties).
A good example is the Winchester Model 21 double barreled shotgun. The Hemingway family owned several; Hemingway was in the habit of buying them for various wives, and son Patrick shot one as a boy. The M 21 was introduced in i931, and cost $59.50, which the text mentions is equivalent to all of $765 in 2010 dollars (to any non gun nuts reading, you cannot buy ANY double this cheap today). But the actual rock bottom price for the all- custom M21 today is $14,000.
Keep your mind on that. Nobody who is not wealthy buys a 21 today; I certainly couldn’t. But in the days stretching up- just barely?– to the seventies, a poor man who was sufficiently motivated could find one he could afford. I have owned three, second hand– and my father– photo below ca 1954– bought a new one after leaving the Army after the war– sadly, he sold it when duck hunting began to take second place to his career, before I started shooting.
Point being, the rich AND the less than rich who understood quality– my father was both an engineer and an artist– shot virtually the same guns in mid- century America.
This is made abundantly clear in Hemingway’s Guns. He shot Winchesters, Colt Woodsman pistols, Merkel shotguns, Mausers, Mannlicher- Schoenauer carbines, a Browning 16 gauge auto, a Browning Superposed, a Springfield, a Beretta- I have owned every one of these, admittedly NOT at the same time– serial ownership has its advantages. What he did not own was extravagant wood or engraving or bespoke London doubles. A legend, dispelled here with little doubt remaining, is that he killed himself with a Boss pigeon gun, which would have been within this group. In fact the fatal firearm was a pigeon gun by W & C Scott– a good gun but not a London Best (I have owned two).
If you are one of the remaining breed who loves literature, good guns, hunting, and history you will find this book a feast. The authors have balanced an appropriate amount of technicalia with good storytelling and, perhaps, a whiff of nostalgia for a time that was a bit more democratic and quirky, a time when the rich and the poor shared a vision of sport that may now be disappearing. I’m keeping this book, at least in part as a reminder of a time I can still remember.
Vic Venters’ Gun Craft: Fine Guns & Gunmakers in the 21st Century documents the high end of the gun trade: “Best” English and Scots contemporary doubles, with a few Italian engravers, American restorers, and Belgians, though the last one isn’t really contemporary. This is an unabashedly for- shotgun- nuts- only book, though even a non- gunner can admire the beauty of the firearms displayed here (oddly, not so obviously true of Hemingway’s guns). This is what Libby not unkindly calls “gun porn”, lovingly photographed, of an almost over- the- top beauty, and often somehow oddly pristine and untouched. In days of old Purdeys and Hollands and Bosses were shot hard, sometimes digesting thousands of cartridges in a season. Will anyone shoot these, or will they only hang on someone’s wall like a trophy? I know one world class engraver in Vermont who recoiled in horror at my suggestion that the client for his gold- bedecked Purdey 28 would shoot it and devalue its six figures worth of engraving and inlay.
Which still may be a justification for their existence– they are canvases for gun designers and engravers and woodworkers, where they can reach a peak of artisanship– or art if you must. Rulers and wealthy arrivistes alike have traditionally commissioned the best craftsmen of the age to work their magic on “weapons”. And such expertise can improve guns at “lower” levels of course, as the methods trickle down.
Though the possible use of computer- controlled machines even by “Best” makers may play more of a part in this transformation than the methods of most makers and artisans featured here, who still work with techniques that may be centuries old. The amount of hand work alone prevents too much of this labor being expended on production arms. Venters (like me– and you?) is a true nut about how gunmakers achieve their results, from barrel making to hand- regulating chokes to restoration; if you want to know why today’s Purdey 410’s are better than the old ones, even if you haven’t a hope of owning a miniature shotgun more expensive than your house; if in the words of Tom McGuane you have times when you find that “shoptalk is lyrical”, you will love this book. I am keeping it too.
I still wonder who buys these guns. Next up: John Barsness and Rifle Loonies, gun nuts who work at another level but still demand quality. EH would have understood.
Both of these books are available at www.shootingsportsman.com. Hemingway’s Guns is $40 plus S & H: Gun Craft is $30.