In 2000 I went down to the NRA annual meeting in Charlotte and was actually in the room when Charlton Heston raised a flintlock over his head and yelled out ‘from my cold, dead hands.’ Now maybe he wasn’t coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, although his screen version of Moses was even more impressive than his appearance at Charlotte, but he got a response from the gun-nuts (including me) in the audience nonetheless.
The gun company I managed back in the 1980’s made a b-b gun that looked like a flintlock, we ran ads in Boys Life magazine and sold the gun through the mail for ten bucks. Too bad that Heston didn’t use when of our guns when he got up on the NRA stage. So imagine how I felt when I learned at some later date that the rifle that Heston hiked over his head was actually a fake. Or what we politely call a ‘replica’ gun.
On the other hand, the working version of what Heston held was, in fact, a very accurate and lethal gun. The first version was made in France, but the Continental Army that whipped the British were carrying these weapons and continued to use them until several decades before the Civil War. The problem with flintlocks wasn’t that they were difficult to load or shoot, it was that the powder tended to foul the grooves in the barrel, which meant that most flintlocks were smooth bore and therefore didn’t aim all that well.
There’s a retired engineer in Minnesota, Brent Gurtek, who manufactures flintlocks, which makes him part of a craft tradition in the United States which now goes back at least three hundred and fifty years. Invented in France, it was sometime around the 1650’s when these guns first appeared over here. Like all mechanical tools which predated the Industrial Revolution, the guns were hand-made and hand-fitted with, unfortunately, great variations in quality and performance, which was the reason that George Washington made the Continental Congress appropriate money for a government arms factory in Springfield, MA, several years before the end of the Revolutionary War.
The guns made by our friend Brent Gurtek, on the other hand, are clearly best of breed. You can see a pic and description of one of his guns on the Guns America website but its been sold. And if you want to buy from directly from Brent, figure that delivery will take up to a year. That’s what happens when you are a craftsman first and a businessman second. It’s the quality, not the quantity which counts.
My point in talking about Brent, however, is not to give him a boost. Rather, thinking about his work leads me to a brief discussion about how the manufacturing of guns has changed. When I first got into the gun business, guns were made out of carbon steel, then fitted, polished and finished by hand. The grips and stocks were wood, cut by hand. If you went into a gun factory, what you saw were a series of craft shops operating under one roof. Guns weren’t rolling down an assembly line, they were hand-carried in small baskets from point to point.
Go into a gun shop today and the guns all look exactly alike. You can’t tell a Glock from a Sig or a Ruger, because that’s what happens when the frame is made out of polymer and a trigger and hammer assembly is dropped in. Guns have become mass commodities rather than hand-crafted products, and I have to believe that the shift to a manufacturing process which completely eliminates any brand distinctiveness, cheapens the whole culture of ownership and reduces how much time and effort people put into caring for their guns.
When people stop thinking about an object in terms of its intrinsic value, somehow, don’t ask me how, they just don’t care what happens to the product, and when you don’t care what happens to a gun it has a funny way of ending up where it shouldn‘t end up.
Which won’t happen with any of Brent Gurtek’s guns.