A Modern Practitioner
of Ancient Arts

Doug Turnbull gives old guns a new life, and new guns an old feel
Doug Turnbull is our modern authority on the finishing of Colt revolvers.

Doug Turnbull is our modern authority on the finishing of Colt revolvers.

Have you ever wondered why an old gun feels like magic in your hands, while a new one does not?

The answer lies in the finishing, both inside and out. Older guns were works of craftsmanship, with hours of skill and pride poured into creating a mechanism that would work flawlessly, and feel alive. The guns of yesterday, even production guns from large factories, were more finely crafted than anything available today outside of the expensive products of a few custom shops around the world.

Pick up a Colt revolver made around 1900, and you will marvel at the smoothness of the action, the slick feel of the cylinder as it revolves, the positive lock as the hammer is cocked. Or close a Parker shotgun made around the same time. It snaps shut like a vault, and this feel has played a large part in creating the mystique surrounding Parker shotguns.

Very, very few modern guns have that feel. Doug Turnbull says the reason is simple.

"Final finishing, both internal and external, takes skill and, more important, it takes time. Over the past century, gunmakers have reduced their costs by reducing the time spent in hand-finishing. The result is guns that are less expensive, but they are also less finely crafted. They have a coarser feel, and not surprisingly, they are less interesting to people who love fine guns."

Doug Turnbull should know: He is America's foremost expert on refurbishing vintage firearms. At his shop in upstate New York, Doug and his half-dozen craftsmen specialize in returning old guns to mint condition – looking and feeling just as they did the day they first left the shop, a century ago.

There are literally dozens of aspects to Turnbull's work, and each could fill an entire magazine article. Case-coloring to match original factory hues? He does it. Blueing and browning barrels, with original chemical formulae? That, too. Oil finishes for stocks? Indeed. Old revolvers, semiautos, lever-action rifles and break-action doubles? All of the above. Both vintage and modern? Yep.

All of Turnbull's work, however, can be summed up in one short sentence: He makes old guns like new, and he makes new guns look and feel as good as the old ones.

Gunmaking is a truly ancient art, and many of its processes for treating metal and wood are tinged with mystery, like alchemy.

Large companies, small shops, and even individual craftsmen had their own secret methods that produced unique finishes. The Parker shotgun, for example had case colors like no other firearm. Many of these processes were never recorded. Too often, when a craftsman died, his secrets died with him.

It is difficult for us, living in an age of unprecedented technology and massive information transfer, to comprehend that a chemical formula, or an industrial technique of metallurgy, could be simply lost. But it happened, and it happened often. Many techniques related to gunmaking, such as the manufacture of damascus steel barrels, are simply gone, and no one today knows how to do it.

Doug Turnbull came by his interest in the old techniques through his father, who opened a small retail business in upstate New York in 1958. Doug was born three years later, and grew up in his father's shop, watching as he experimented with different techniques of metal finishing, and talking with customers and enthusiasts who came in with antique firearms in need of work.

Although he did not train as a gunsmith, Doug went into the business when he finished school, and specialized on the restoration side.

"My father had been tinkering with case-hardening and metal preparation," Turnbull said, "And I took over that aspect. It turned into years of experimentation and trial and error. Some of these processes are literally lost arts. There are no books, and very little was ever written down. In the 1960s, a few of the old craftsmen were still alive and could pass on what they knew if you asked. My father learned from them, and I learned from him."

One immediate problem Turnbull encountered when he began refurbishing guns was resistance from collectors.

"Many people thought I was destroying their value," he said. "Refurbishing is a taboo in the U.S., unlike England, where it is accepted completely as a way of keeping old guns shooting properly."

In England, it is not unusual to see a century-old shotgun still performing in the field, firing thousands of shots a year. These vintage guns do it because they were hand-built and finished to meticulous standards, and have been properly maintained ever since. Such a gun may have undergone several complete refurbishments during that time. Collector's value is never an issue; since these guns were mostly custom-made, there is really no such thing as "factory original."

In the United States, there is real resistance to altering a gun in any way, for fear that it will destroy collector's value. Overcoming this obstacle has been a problem for Turnbull, but bit by bit he is winning people over.

"A few years ago, I restored a Winchester Model 1886, which sold at auction for $9750," he said. "That is a really good price for a gun that is not factory original. By comparison, that gun in 95 to 98 per cent original condition would bring $17,000 to $20,000, while in its unrestored condition it was worth about $3,000. So we see both an interest and a market developing for restored firearms."

Turnbull's shop specializes in cartridge guns, and he works on all types – revolvers, semiautos, rifles, and shotguns. He reconditions the surfaces, both wood and metal, and then finishes them to original condition through case-coloring, blueing, browning, or whatever treatment they had when they left the factory.

Today, there is little individuality among production firearms as far as final finish is concerned because so many processes have been standardized. A century ago, finishes were as individual as the guns themselves. Parker, for example, was famous for its distinctive case colors. Bit by bit, Turnbull has learned how to recreate those colors, as well as distinctive shades of blueing, browning or blacking found on other guns.

As his reputation spread, large companies began coming to him for help in creating limited-edition guns, or reproductions where they wanted original appearance. The large companies no longer had the expertise to make their new guns look like their old ones, and Turnbull has worked with Winchester, Colt, Marlin, and others, case coloring their new guns to look like antiques. He is also doing the case colors on the new Little Sharps from Dakota Arms.

BUYING TIME

In gun restoration, time spent in metal preparation is never wasted. A good surface finish is impossible if the metal has not been properly prepared.

To most people, preparation means polishing, but polishing is merely the final step in a long, methodical, painstaking series.

Turnbull's goal is to return a vintage gun to the condition in which it originally left the factory. So, a pre-1913 Colt single action would have a brighter, higher polish than one post-1913.

"A gun from before 1913 requires 35 to 45 hours of preparation to get the finish ready for blueing and case-coloring," Turnbull says, "While one from later years requires only 25 to 30 hours."

The first step is to square and flatten all metal surfaces. Pitting is gently removed, a micron at a time, to ensure that no more metal is lost than absolutely necessary. Once the surfaces are square and flat, the craftsman smoothes it progressively through finer and finer files. Finally, emery cloth up to 2000 grit renders the surface as smooth as glass – or, more accurately, as smooth as it was originally.

If a client so desires, Turnbull can put a pre-1913 finish on a post-1913 gun, or take a new production gun and give it a finish like the fine guns of old. But the secret lies in the preparation.

"When you get down to it, blueing and case-coloring are the easy parts," Turnbull says. "The preparation is the difficult part, and eats up the most hours."

For comparison's sake, imagine that a craftsman is paid a modern wage of $20 an hour. The preparation work alone on a handgun, to give it a pre-1913 finish, would cost close to $800. When you consider that surface finish has no effect on function, it is not surprising that this is where gunmakers chose to cut costs as they struggled to stay afloat over the past century.

"When you get down to it, if you know the formulas and methods, it is relatively easy to do the finishes," Turnbull says, "But if the prep is not right, you've wasted your time."

FLYING COLORS

Imparting case colors, through case hardening with fire, bone, and charcoal, is akin to alchemy.

Imparting case colors, through case hardening with fire, bone, and charcoal, is akin to alchemy.

Case-hardening is closer to alchemy than any other gunmaking procedure.

It is a process of introducing carbon into the steel through the use of heat. This changes the composition of the steel, hardens the surface "skin," and gives it certain other functional qualities. The colors are a side effect, and one that can even be eliminated if desired. For this reason, case-coloring is a very delicate process. You cannot sacrifice function just to get pretty colors.

Originally, carbon was introduced to the steel by heating it in a bed of charcoal in which bone, leather, or other animal substances were burned. As the steel absorbed carbon, the surface became much harder and rust-resistant, while the steel beneath retained its pliability and toughness. The resulting colors are determined by the degree of carbon absorption and the composition of the charcoal and materials burned in it.

Today, most case-hardening, even of some expensive custom guns, is done chemically. While this imparts the functional qualities desired, it is rarely as brilliantly colorful as the old methods. The reason? It's like everything else, Turnbull insists: Economics.

"At an estimate, I would say you can case-harden 150 pounds of steel at a time, using potassium cyanide, but only one and a half pounds using bone and charcoal. That's a huge difference if you are looking for economies of scale in a mass-production operation."

The most spectacular case colors ever found in American guns were on the original Parker. In fact, Doug Turnbull says you can divide American case colors into two groups: "Parkers, and all the others. Parkers have very flowing reds and blues – almost electric. Smiths, Colts and Winchesters had more broken patterns, with shades of straw."

Even within one make, you find variations in color.

"Early Colts are distinctly different than later Colts," Turnbull says.

Through a long process of experimentation, Turnbull is able to duplicate original colors on Parkers, L.C. Smiths, Winchesters, Colts, and other early guns known for their colors.

"In fact, if someone came to us and said 'I want Parker colors on my Smith,' we could do it."

As reproductions have become more popular, large manufacturers have come to Turnbull for help in achieving authentic case colors on new guns, and this has presented a new problem: today's steel is different than yesterday's. It absorbs carbon differently, and as a result, the colors are not the same.

"It's a delicate balancing act sometimes," Turnbull says. "We had to work with the manufacturers to give them the pretty colors without compromising the qualities of the metal itself."

In gunmaking, there are very, very few processes that are done strictly for aesthetic value. Even engraving, that most obvious decoration, was done originally to reduce glare and to retain oil to prevent rust. Case coloring is a by-product of an essential process – in this case, heat-treating steel for performance, and performance must always be the prime concern, even while pursuing original appearance.

"As I say, it's a delicate balancing act."

BLUEING, BLACKING, AND BROWNING

A Winchester 1886 restored, with authentic case colors on lever, frame, and hammer, by Turnbull Restoration.

A Winchester 1886 restored, with authentic case colors on lever, frame, and hammer, by Turnbull Restoration.

Blueing is a process of controlled rusting, using blueing salts or other chemicals in a bath, either hot or cold. The steel is polished, allowed to rust, polished again, and the process goes on until the right shade and depth of blue is obtained.

Described that way, it sounds simple, but it is anything but. Whole books could be written about blueing. In fact, in 1936, R.H. Angier, a Belgian alumnus of FN, wrote Firearm Blueing and Browning, a 150-page technical treatise that deals with blueing and browning all types of fluid steel and twist barrels. Angier's more esoteric solutions call for everything from beeswax to dragon's blood.

Although we call it blueing, and most gun barrels today are some shade of dark blue-grey, the original processes produced a brown surface, not unlike natural rust. In England, it is generally referred to as "blacking. " As well, by varying the process, gunmakers can achieve other colors, such as sepia, particularly on damascus steel.

The shade of blueing, the depth of color, and the degree of polish are determined by the chemical composition of the blueing salts used, the number of times the metal parts go into the blueing tank, and how much hand polishing is done between treatments. Generally speaking, the more polishing and trips into the blueing solution, the deeper and richer the final finish.

As industrial processes developed, the old methods of rust-blueing gave way to modern, high-capacity chemical techniques. Some of these are not bad, but none can impart the luster you see on a fine double shotgun, whose barrels have been hand-struck (filed lengthwise) by a skilled metal finisher, with careful polishing between sessions in the blueing tank.

Doug Turnbull Restoration can be reached at www.turnbullrestoration.com. This article originally appeared in The American Rifleman in 2003.

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