column By: Terry Wieland | January, 17
There are several possible reasons, but the one that interests me is the question of aesthetics, and how an aesthetically pleasing gun is better looked after. It’s not just money. If something is pleasing to the eye, we tend to try to keep it that way. If it’s a pleasure to hold, we treat it tenderly. If we like to run our hands over it, we will try to avoid scrapes and gouges.
With a rifle, aesthetics can apply purely to looks, but the real aficionado goes far beyond that to include weight, balance, feel in the hands, smoothness of operation and whether the mechanism itself is a pleasure to use. A beautiful walnut stock and an exquisite bluing job, accompanied by some tasteful engraving and perfectly executed checkering, are merely icing on the cake.
In a country where anything “fine” is often derided as either elitist or fancy, as in “that fancy rifle of yours,” aesthetic considerations are often viewed with mistrust, if not downright hostility. We’ve all met yahoos at gun clubs who loudly proclaim “My guns are tools . . .” and treats them like he would a tire iron or a rusting jack. For some reason, we all seem to fear being labeled “elitist,” as if this is somehow wrong in a democracy – and I have heard it referred to as “undemocratic.”
In the U.S., the origins of the modern custom-rifle business, largely based on the Springfield bolt action, began because the military stock on the Springfield was an abomination. Too short, too angled, difficult to shoot accurately and, except in the eye of certain military collectors, decidedly homely. The American classic stock, pioneered by Griffin & Howe for sporterized Springfields and refined by stockmakers like Alvin Linden and Adolph Minar, became aesthetically pleasing through becoming perfectly formed for its function. Not only does it look vastly more graceful and pleasing to the eye than the military stock, but it also feels better in the hands, handles comfortably and has that “eager” quality.
When Winchester redesigned the Model 70 in 1964 and came out with the “new” Model 70, it was criticized from all sides. Not least was the condemnation of its surface appearance, with Monte Carlo comb, white-line spacers, impressed checkering and machine-turned (jeweled) bolt. All these were in favor in the 1960s but are looked upon with horror today. All, of course, were surface considerations, with the exception of the faux-checkering. Checkering is supposed to provide a firm, non-slip grip; impressed checkering does not do that.
If the new Model 70 failed to please the eye, it was not so bad in the hands. Granted, it did not have that old “solid” feel, and the redesigned bolt was not nearly as smooth in operation, but a second redesign in 1968 addressed some of these questions and was the beginning of a long evolution of the Model 70 back to the aesthetics of its vaunted predecessors made between 1946 and 1963.
It should be added at this point that aesthetic considerations, if overdone, can actually detract from the usability of a rifle. If, for example, it’s stocked with a $10,000 piece of central Asian walnut or bears extensive and intricate gold inlay, its user may be so afraid of marring it that he refuses to hunt in the rain or carry it into dense brush. Its ornamentation has made it, psychologically at least, less usable for its intended purpose. This comes under the heading of decadence.
A Purdey shotgun is in the same class – ergonomically, if not economically. James Purdey’s guns traditionally have had what a writer 130 years ago described as an “almost Quaker-like chasteness of taste.” Purdey would create a gun perfect in its balance, fit, finish and operation, with its only embellishment being its dark figured walnut stock and complete coverage of discreet scroll engraving. Purdey left elaborate inlay, carving and vulgar decoration to the “country gunmakers” trying to draw attention to themselves. Certainly, one occasionally sees Purdeys elaborate to the point of tastelessness, but these are, without exception, a reflection of the men who ordered them. Often, if an order went too far, Purdey would simply refuse it.
Other rifles whose aesthetic qualities contribute directly to their usability include the original Weatherby Mark V. It was not to everyone’s taste, although it was a trend-setter for 40 years, and many condemned its appearance. While that was the viewpoint of the rifle cognoscenti, Weatherby attracted his clients from Hollywood, the Texas oil fields, various Middle Eastern states and even, according to legend, a gypsy king. None of the above are noted for having the taste and discernment of Beau Brummell – Brummell owned three Joseph Mantons, by the way – but all are influential in determining the taste of a significant portion of the great unwashed. Weatherby’s real secret was that, regardless of what you might think of the rather garish California look, it was one of the most eminently usable stocks put on any factory rifle from the 1950s onward.
Leaving aside the skip-line checkering and contrasting inlays, the Weatherby forend, triangular in cross section, fits the hand comfortably and is easy to grip; the wrist is slim, and the rifle comes to the shoulder with little effort.
Looking beyond the checkering, inlays, spacers and rosewood forend tips, the Weatherby Mark V has its own gracefulness. All its lines flow together naturally and complement one another. Its designer, Leonard Mews, was one of the best stockmakers of his day, if a little radical for some tastes. Still, he knew and followed sound principles of stock design and appearance. A slim forend and grip are not just pleasing to the eye, they make the rifle easier to handle. The pronounced Monte Carlo may seem outlandish at first, but there is no doubt it’s comfortable and aligns the eye perfectly with the scope.
I cannot think of a single example of a rifle that looked graceful that was not equally delightful to use, whereas the ugly ones invariably feel like clubs. Whether a pet rifle is regarded as a mere tool or as a modern-day Rodin, if usability matters, then aesthetics matter. There’s no elitism about it.