Beau Ideal

Fashions come and go, but style is constant
The name is Flynn. James Flynn.

The name is Flynn. James Flynn.

For a man who gambled himself into bankruptcy, fled England, and died of syphilis in a French insane asylum, George Bryan Brummell left an indelible mark.

Brummell—Beau Brummell, as he is forever known—strode onto a stage populated by painted fops and peacocks in Regency England, and threw out every idea of what constituted proper gentlemen’s attire.

“If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed,” Brummell stated.

His influence was pervasive, and when he fled to France in 1816 to avoid debtor’s prison, he left behind an England where men now dressed in austere but superbly cut clothing—a principle of style promoted to this day by the renowned tailors of Savile Row.

Brummell’s prescription for men’s evening dress—what Americans commonly call “black tie”—was severe but elegant. In fact, the whole concept of understated elegance originated with Brummell, and today extends beyond clothing into every realm where quality and style really matter.

In 1798, Beau Brummell resigned his commission in the 10th Light Dragoons and took a house at No. 4 Chesterfield Street, Mayfair. He was 26 years old, and already England’s arbiter of fashion. Had he stepped out his door, walked through Berkeley Square, and on up Davies Street, he would have passed the shop of another arbiter of fashion: Joseph Manton, father of the English fine-gun trade.

Remarkably, Brummell and Manton lived through the same era, and Manton’s influence on firearms was every bit as remarkable as Brummell’s on style—and every bit as lasting. Where Brummell made it his mission to abolish foppery and frippery, Manton set out to turn the crude muskets of his day into finely balanced, beautifully crafted fowling pieces. “But for him, we would have been a parcel of blacksmiths,” remarked James Purdey, one of Manton’s craftsmen and acolytes who went on to become England’s preeminent gunmaker.

About 60 hours’ work went into truing the action, such as draw-filing the tang to ensure all edges are sharp and square.  Unless the edges of the action are perfect, the stock cannot be mated exactly.

About 60 hours’ work went into truing the action, such as draw-filing the tang to ensure all edges are sharp and square. Unless the edges of the action are perfect, the stock cannot be mated exactly.

Like Brummell, Joseph Manton eschewed ornate decoration for its own sake. Brummell’s dictum for clothing stressed simplicity of line, perfection of tailoring, and the finest of fabrics; Manton’s guns boasted graceful lines, fine walnut, beautiful wood-to-metal fit, and, above all, superb function. It isn’t known if the two men ever met; after all, they moved in different circles. But their taste worked in concert.

In mid-2007, gunmaker James Flynn set out to create a modern rifle that would reflect the exquisite but austere taste of Brummell and Manton.

The object wasn’t just to make a fine rifle, but to demonstrate the time, effort, and skill that go into making a custom rifle of functional and aesthetic perfection, like a Beau Brummell dinner jacket or a Joseph Manton fowling piece. Most of this effort isn’t obvious to the naked eye; in fact, to the average person, a $20,000 rifle might look quite plain. To the shooter and rifle lover, however, the breeding becomes obvious when you pick up the rifle, put it to your shoulder, and work the bolt.

Anyone who has ever slipped into a fine custom-tailored jacket will know exactly what we mean.

Flynn carved the stock from the raw blank by hand, with no initial machine-shaping as is common with most custom stocks today.

Flynn carved the stock from the raw blank by hand, with no initial machine-shaping as is common with most custom stocks today.

The starting point for the rifle was obvious: There was no choice except a Mauser 98, because only a 98 can be reworked wherever necessary to achieve perfection. As for caliber, it would really have to be one of the sweetest and most efficient cartridges ever developed: the venerable .257 Roberts. The Roberts is particularly appropriate because it is based on the Mauser 7x57 case, and the Mauser action was originally designed to handle that exact case length and taper. There need be no lengthening, hollowing out, or installation of magazine blocks.

Danny Pedersen at Classic Barrel and Gun Works in Arizona came up with an FN Supreme action from his stash of classic Mausers, and fitted one of his 23-inch cut-rifled barrels. Even the Mauser-Werke in Oberndorf never topped FN in terms of quality of steel and internal finishing.

Cut-rifling is the traditional method of Harry Pope, and Danny owns one of the rifling machines that came out of the old Schultz & Larsen factory in Denmark when it stopped target-rifle production in the 1970s. If ghosts and spirits mean anything, then a barrel rifled on that machine begins life under a good sign. And it was another good omen that Danny had trained under Fred Wells, America’s acknowledged Mauser expert.

Danny fitted the action with a Recknagel trigger and a Gentry bolt shroud with a Model 70-style three-position wing safety. We left the distinctive backswept FN bolt handle, with its bolt knob flat and checkered on the underside. Some people hate them; I love them; James has no strong feelings: the bolt handle stayed.

Wherever the bottom metal (trigger guard, floorplate, and follower) originated, it was soon gone. Someone had added it to the FN action in the distant past, and polished it to the point where it couldn’t be salvaged. I contacted Brownells to get bottom metal from Sunny Hill, and also obtained an original, unused military Mauser follower.

Laying out the stock blank, chosen by Bill Dowtin for its structural integrity as well as its color and contrast. Fiddleback walnut such as this is noted for its straight underlying grain which is very strong and stable, yet makes into a beautiful stock.

Laying out the stock blank, chosen by Bill Dowtin for its structural integrity as well as its color and contrast. Fiddleback walnut such as this is noted for its straight underlying grain which is very strong and stable, yet makes into a beautiful stock.

The last major component was a stock blank. Bill Dowtin at Old World Walnut was asked to choose the ideal blank for our purpose from a structural point of view—hardness, density, weight, grain flow. Neither James nor I participated in its selection, because we didn’t want it clouded by individual taste. Fine walnut is a passion with American gun lovers, but ideas about what is “exhibition” grade, or even what is fine and desirable, are largely subjective.

We wanted a stock that would be functionally as good as we could make it: stable and not prone to warping in heat or humidity, with strength through the wrist. The .257 Roberts isn’t a hard-kicking rifle, and I had no plans to run over it with a pickup truck, but accidents happen.

Contrary to common practice, Flynn lays out the checkering pattern before applying the wood finish. When the finish is complete, he then points up the checkering.

Contrary to common practice, Flynn lays out the checkering pattern before applying the wood finish. When the finish is complete, he then points up the checkering.

Obviously, though, it still had to be beautiful. Beau Brummell never chose ugly cloth, no matter how high the quality of wool and weave. So the blank that arrived was Bill Dowtin’s concept of how the rifle should be cloaked in dark and sober elegance. Today, the blanks that Bill imports from Asia run from under $500 to more than $2,000—and are considerably cheaper for the quality than his more extortionate competitors. The blank he chose retailed for $1,000—not the most expensive by any means.

“I think a thousand dollars is the cut-off point, on the one hand, between a blank that is functionally perfect and one that may be structurally questionable, and on the other hand, between a blank that is relatively plain and one that has wonderful grain and color,” Dowtin said. “Less than a thousand gets you less beauty; more money buys more beauty, but it also raises questions of durability and stability.”

I asked James Flynn to assume a client arrived with all of these parts in his trunk, already paid for. How much would it cost from that point to have them turned into a rifle? The answer: “About fifteen thousand dollars.”

For the record, the barreled action as it sat, with all the parts listed above, totaled about $2,000, and the stock blank added another $1,000. And we haven’t even begun to discuss iron sights, scope, and scope mounts.

Naturally, there was no discussion of engraving or gold inlay—the ornate additions the average person assumes account for most of the price of a custom rifle or shotgun. There would be no engraving beyond caliber, serial number, the screw heads (at James’s insistence), and James Flynn’s name on the barrel. Extravagant walnut is the other assumed great expense, but our blank, while of the finest structural quality, was relatively subdued.

Still, when the rifle was finished, we would be facing a final cost to the client of at least $20,000. Gulp.

Apart from money, the great expense in building a custom rifle is time. Many hours of hand labor are required, and these are spread out over months. Holland & Holland needs 900 hours of hand labor to make a side-by-side game gun. If you divide that by a 40-hour week, you arrive at more than five months of one man’s time, working solely on that project.

Building a custom rifle on a barreled action is a different proposition, to be sure, but the same principles apply. Danny Pedersen barreled the action in late 2007; the pieces began arriving at Flynn’s shop in early 2008, and bit-by-bit we decided what additional parts were needed.

When you first walk into a tailor’s shop, he spends a great deal of time talking to you, not only learning as much as he can about your tastes, but also the way you walk, the way you hold yourself, the way you move your shoulders. Later, he will take actual measurements and make extensive notes. As we were taught in the infantry, time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted, and that is equally true in fine tailoring and gunmaking.

Confronted with the raw (so to speak) barreled action, Flynn’s first job was to ascertain what parts needed replacing (bottom metal, magazine follower), and what additional pieces were needed (sights, scope, scope mounts, sling swivels, grip cap, buttplate), and then put together the functioning barreled action.

In broad terms, you finish the barreled action first, and then you tailor the stock to fit. A perfect stock fits the barreled action on the one hand, and the shooter on the other. So there are two sets of dimensions that come into play, never mind individual tastes and preferences in the shape of the forend, the curve of the grip, and so on.

Because you inlet the barrel and action before you begin external shaping of the blank (and Flynn decided to create the stock completely by hand, with no rough-shaping by machine from a pattern), a great deal of time is spent on the metal before you ever touch the wood.

Much attention (and ink) is expended on the question of wood-to-metal fit. The barrel, being round, presents one set of problems; the action, with its flat, angled, and square surfaces, presents another. The action must be “trued up”—that is, filed so that every angle is sharp and square. If an edge is rounded, by wear or poor polishing or bad machining, the stock can never be made to fit exactly, to look as if the metal grows out of the wood.

Such a fit is the hallmark of a fine custom firearm, and the key is preparing the metal properly in the first place. Working with a military action or an old commercial action (such as our FN), which might have seen an eventful life, means this process is long, laborious, exacting, and, in the end, may not even be possible.

James Flynn spent a total of about 60 hours just on this action preparation. More hours were devoted to ensuring that the action functioned properly as a rifle, but since Danny Pedersen fitted the barrel, trigger, and replacement shroud and safety, functioning wasn’t an issue. But truing the action very much was.

Flynn applied traditional English “flat-topped” checkering.

Flynn applied traditional English “flat-topped” checkering.

“Having spent so many hours on that FN to make it as nearly perfect as possible,” Flynn told me when it was all over, “I’m never doing it again. From now on, I’ll only work on actions that are ready to stock. They are more expensive to begin with ($3,000-plus for a Mauser 98 from Granite Mountain or Satterlee), but you save money in the long run.”

James Flynn has been a gunmaker for 37 years, and is one of a handful of craftsmen in the United States—a dozen, perhaps—capable of working at the highest level on any rifle or shotgun: single-shot, bolt action, or double. He can completely restore a Holland & Holland that has been run over by a truck, or start with a barreled action and a chunk of walnut and build a rifle from start to finish.

Flynn began his career, as did many stockmakers, at Reinhart Fajen in Missouri in the 1970s; later, he worked with the doyen of English gunmakers in this country, Jack Rowe. Jack calls James “Jimmy;” Flynn calls him “Uncle Jack.” It is a tight and exclusive circle.

There are many stockmakers, and many metal workers, but very few who can do the finest work on both. James Flynn is one of them.

There are, however, some operations Flynn doesn’t carry out himself. Engraving is one, bluing and case hardening are others; in Alexandria, Louisiana, where Flynn has lived all his life except for his sojourn in Missouri, there is another gunmaker who builds ultra-precise target rifles, and Flynn sends his barrels to him to be fitted and chambered. Otherwise, every pass of the file is made in Flynn’s own shop, attached to his house on a quiet residential street.

The shop contains some basic machinery, such as a drill press and a lathe, but by and large the operations on any gun are carried out at the bench using files and other hand tools. In the past year, I have seen Flynn completely restore and restock a J&W Tolley .470 double rifle, build an exquisite single-shot .250-3000 on a Dakota Model 10 action, and undertake the restocking and restoration of an H. J. Hussey live-pigeon gun from 1910. And, of course, our bolt-action .257 Roberts.

In today’s world, hours of hand labor are a commodity like any other. They are paid for in dollars per hour: the more hours worked, the more dollars spent.

To give an example from another world, Holland & Holland allows 900 man-hours of hand labor for a Royal game gun, exclusive of special engraving. Simple arithmetic then builds the price of the gun around that fact. If labor costs $50/hour, 900 hours is $45,000. Add materials, the cost of the factory on Harrow Road, and a profit margin, and you very quickly drive the price of a Royal to $100,000.

James Flynn’s shop is considerably smaller, but his expenses are no less real (and they are all his alone), and the value of Flynn’s 37 years’ experience is worth every penny of his rate, which is $100 per hour.

The barrel was inletted exactly, and the forend shaped to follow the contours of the barrel.

The barrel was inletted exactly, and the forend shaped to follow the contours of the barrel.

When the barreled action was completely worked over, Flynn began with the stock, inletting the barrel and the action and then shaping the stock itself, one stroke at a time with woodcutting tools of various descriptions, measuring as he went.

Most stocks today, even expensive custom stocks, are turned initially on a pantograph. This leaves you at the mercy of the pattern used. No pattern measured up to what James and I wanted in a stock, so he did it himself. You would be amazed how many so-called stockmakers today cannot do that.

The forend is slim, slightly pear-shaped in profile, and without the ubiquitous ebony tip. The pistol grip is graceful and gradual, with an English cheekpiece and horn buttplate, also made by hand.

After the stock was completely inletted, the barreled action was meticulously polished from end to end. The scope mounts, by S&K, were shaped by file and polished to match. The open sights—British express style, from New England Custom Gunmaking—were bead-blasted to give them a matte finish and reduce glare. The barreled action was sent to the engraver for name, rank, and serial number, and then to a bluing specialist for metal finishing.

The fit of the forend to the barrel tells you everything you have to know.

The fit of the forend to the barrel tells you everything you have to know.

With the stock fully shaped and sanded to glassy smoothness, Flynn laid out the checkering pattern and then cut the grooves for English “flat-topped” checkering. In this style of checkering, each diamond is left with a slight plateau rather than sharpened to a point. With any rubbing, pointed checkering will eventually wear down; flat-topped checkering anticipates this and provides a more durable surface that allows the wood grain and color to show through, yet still provides a good gripping surface. Such checkering is harder to execute consistently than conventional checkering.

Most stockmakers apply the complete wood finish first, then cut the checkering. Flynn works partly the other way around, laying out the pattern, then finishing the stock, and finally pointing up the diamonds. “I am so accustomed to doing it that way when restoring a gun,” he says, “I find it easer with new stocks as well.”

Along the way, Flynn hand-fashioned a buttplate from buffalo horn and checkered it, and mounted two-screw sling swivels front and back. Naturally, the screw heads were engraved and the swivels blued to match the barreled action. He was painstaking with the barrel channel, building in slight upward pressure on the barrel near the tip of the forend—a feature that is difficult to achieve, but a proven aid to accuracy and one that depends heavily on the stability of the stock.

The foregoing doesn’t begin to describe every tiny nuance of James Flynn’s work on this rifle. Suffice to say, we left out nothing that would improve the rifle’s performance, not just in the short term but over the next hundred years. Because a fine rifle will last that long, and much longer.

The 200-year old legacy of Beau Brummell and Joseph Manton.

The 200-year old legacy of Beau Brummell and Joseph Manton.

The hand labor required for the work—and the cost thereof—dwarfed the cost of the basic parts themselves by a ratio of about three to one. In the end, the rifle as it sits would cost about $20,000 to duplicate, and of that amount, $15,000 is James Flynn’s time and skill.

How many hours did it take? Hard to say, exactly. Not 900 hours, like an H&H Royal, but enough. Several hundred, anyway.

But consider this: Before stepping out onto Chesterfield Street to stroll down towards Piccadilly, Beau Brummell took five hours to dress, every single day. Five hours. Every day.

In that light, spending 200 hours isn’t much for a rifle that will last several lifetimes and be a joy to everyone who owns it.

This article appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal in September, 2009.

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