Gunmaker Keeps Alive Early American Craft

American Artisans, Made in America, People, Traditions
on May 6, 2001

"When I put a barrel in, it's mechanically and technically perfect. The lock, perfect. Trigger, perfect. Buttplate, perfect. Thimble, perfect. Nosecap, perfect," Paul Allison says, his hand resting on a partially finished rifle stock gripped in his vise. "I just cannot bring myself to do bad work. I have this machinists tool-and-die-maker mentality I can't get rid of."

Allison, who lives in Gap, Pa., (pop. 1,226) is a modern-day descendant of a group of early craftsmen who created what would become an American art form. It has been called the Kentucky long rifle for its popularity on the frontier there after 1750, and the British army during the Revolutionary War called it the American rifle. But it is actually the Pennsylvania long rifle—and its development heralded the golden age of gun making.

When German and English gun makers came to America in the early 1700s, many settled in southeastern Pennsylvania around Lancaster County. The Germans had a firearm called the Jaeger, which had a short barrel with spiral grooves (or "rifling") inside the bore, which made a bullet spin for greater accuracy. Jaegers were heavy caliber, however, using large quantities of powder and leadboth of which were in short supply on the frontier. The English firearm was long, with a smooth bore barrel.

As would happen so many times in America, the meshing of cultures and necessity created something new in adding rifling to the long, lighter English firearm. The essence of grace and functional simplicity, the long rifle was slim, lightweight, light caliber, and accurate.

Between 1750 and 1800, those craftsmen created "schools" peculiar to where they plied their craft. While the basic rifle remained the same, gun makers from Lancaster, Berks, Lehigh, York, Lebanon, Allentown, and Reading had distinctions setting them apart.

"They all had personalities, and they did as they darn pleased," Allison says.

Today, those early rifles are valuable, commanding five and six figures. "I know one guy who mortgaged his home to buy two original guns," Allison says.

In the 1970s and '80s, re-enactors fed the country's growing interest in history, recreating those days, and the second golden age of American gun making was born. Today, hundreds of gun makers around the country work in different styles.

Many show their wares at the Gun Maker's Fair that Chuck Dixon hosts at his shop in Kempton, Pa. The first time he entered, Allison went home with a ribbon given for showing up. Within three years, he took first prize and now gives workshops.

"Paul has been adaptable to transcend from one school to another," Dixon says, learning to alter the details and decorative look of a rifleas the early gun makers didwithout affecting its basic design.

"I was a very unhappy insurance agent. Now, I'm a happy gun maker," Allison says of the turn his life took in 1980, when he repaired a part on his brother's flintlock. Interested, he bought one of his own. When it broke, he fixed it and decided to make another. It worked, and he started building guns and selling them. Those early efforts barely covered costs.

The long rifle consists of four components: Lock, stock, barrel, and trigger. Fitting them together requires the skills of a machinist, woodcarver, jeweler, engraver, and the hands of a surgeon.

Allison went to engraver's school, studied history and gun collections, and largely taught himself. He became so absorbed in the craft that it's now his life. Selling his brokerage, he turned to skills learned as a tool and die maker, a job he had before becoming an insurance agent, and began to ply his newfound trade.

A basic rifle or Poor Boy requires 50 hours of labor. After he bandsaws out the stock blank, it goes in the vise, and he begins the slow process of creating what the customer wants. The gun's metal work—butt plates, toes, heels, inlays—with their attendant engraving if called for, all historically correct and meticulously fitted, demand detailed, precision work. Here, a slip of the hand can make the difference between a work of art and a piece of scrap.

A fancy rifle takes up to 250 hours to complete. Allison lovingly has repeated this process 140 times since he built that first one.

"I can't find the words to describe how much I love making these guns," he says.