Jupiter's Nuts

Honey and smoke, smoke and mirrors
The exquisite stock on this E.M. Reilly shotgun from the 1890s shows why the great London gunmakers preferred French walnut.

The exquisite stock on this E.M. Reilly shotgun from the 1890s shows why the great London gunmakers preferred French walnut.

Americans love fine walnut. Wood-worship defines the gun business in this country the way Aaron Copeland’s music underpins our culture. Any clunker will sell if it has a pretty stock — preferably one with vivid contrasts of black and gold and a shimmering underlayer of feather-crotch.

Traditionally, Europeans value engraving over wood, but the American market is now vital to the custom-gun builders of Spain, Italy and Germany, and providing beautiful walnut is a priority.  No matter how fine a gun may be, it will not sell in America with ho-hum wood.

To provide fine walnut, first you have to find it. Accordingly, the walnut market has changed dramatically from the 1960s, when Rinehart Fajen ruled the business and Herter’s barked at his heels. Today, the global market for fine walnut has many players and is as cut-throat as it is sophisticated.

It is an article of truth that the greatest of all walnut is French. Actually, it’s English walnut grown in France, but either way, there is none left, so it’s academic. The species “English walnut”, or Juglans regia, is the ne plus ultra of stock woods, with quality differentiated largely by where it grows. There is California English, French English, and so on. The difference is more than patriotic: The best trees for stocks are wild and slow-growing. The slower the better, actually, because it makes the wood denser, heavier, and more complicated, with more exotic grain structure.

Walnut has always been prized. The Latin “Juglans” is derived from the Greek for Jove’s (or Jupiter’s) nuts and regia means “royal,” which gives some idea. If the thin-shelled nutmeats are desirable, the wood is even more so. Because it is light, stable and strong, walnut makes excellent military gun stocks. Vast numbers of trees were harvested to supply arms makers during two world wars, which seriously depleted supplies in Europe. Other woods share those utilitarian qualities to an extent, but none have walnut’s astonishing beauty.

North America has its own species, black walnut (Juglans nigra), which was a hallmark of American gunmakers.  It is straight-grained, open-pored, and has attractions of its own when found on an old Winchester.

Terms like Bastogne, paradox and Claro are thrown around willy-nilly; the first two are actually hybrids — a naturally occurring result of a dalliance between an English walnut and a black walnut. The offspring do not even flower, much less reproduce. Claro walnut is a subspecies found only in the Claro Valley of California.

Through the 1960s and ’70s, interest in these other varieties grew because it was perceived that supplies of true English walnut were running out. And each has its own appeal, either aesthetic or utilitarian. Like the 1960’s passion for myrtlewood and mesquite, however, interest in Bastogne and Claro has decreased in recent years as the world has discovered, courtesy the fall of communism, entire new fields of natural wild English walnut in the wild-west hinterlands of what used to be the USSR.

After “English” and “French,” the greatest name in walnut is Circassian -- often confused with Turkish in the minds of gun buyers. Circassia is a region of the Caucasus; once part of the Ottoman Empire, it was ceded to Russia in 1829, but has been fought over for centuries. Today, it is more state of mind than geographic entity but the term “Circassian (English) walnut” endures and is applied to many blanks from the region.

In the 1980s, the Turks dived into the stock-blank business, cutting trees in Turkey and then farther afield. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, entire regions that had been terra incognita to wood buyers suddenly opened up — complete with tribesmen, AK-47s, and business ethics inherited from Attila the Hun.

For years, the sales pitch of the wood merchants was “buy now, we are running out fast.” Coupled with the frenzied cries of environmentalists, such an argument made sense: If the world is running low on rhinos, it only makes sense that it is also running low on thin-shelled walnut trees that require a century to mature. There was also the fear that such trees as were available would be snapped up by veneer makers, and for decades the walnut market was underpinned by panic.

When he was running E.J. Churchill’s fledgling gun business in the 1990s, Steve Denny (now with H&H) would corner the finest walnut blanks using methods he still doesn’t discuss in detail, but which involved night flights to Scotland and bottles of exceedingly rare single malt. Steve paid up to $10,000 for some matched-pair blanks, and Churchill’s breath-taking stocks allowed the young company to go up against Purdey and H&H in the American market.

This is a world far removed from those color photos we remember in the Herter’s catalog.

Aside from the century required for a tree to mature, another decade or two are required after the tree is cut down and sawn into blanks, before those blanks are really suitable for gunstocks.

The USSR died in 1991, so only now are we at the right point for some air-dried blanks to emerge from the Caucasus — provided they were properly cut in the first place and treated well ever since. Those are two big ifs.

Sawing blanks with the right grain structure requires specialized knowledge, not just a log and a saw. Then, a properly air-dried blank takes at least 15 years; even kiln-drying, which is faster, is measured in years, not months. Like wine, walnut blanks must be laid down and stored for the long term under proper conditions if they are to mature into first-rate gunstock wood. So there is a long lag time between the discovery of new supply in the ground, and immediately-usable blanks for sale at a gun show.

Bill Dowtin, a stockmaker and walnut dealer for the past 30 years, was a pioneer in walnut-harvesting in such remote regions as Tajikistan, and is part-owner (along with one of the aforementioned Kalashnikov-carrying tribesmen) of a sawmill in an area bounded by China and Afghanistan. It shows the lengths to which a walnut addict will go to acquire exhibition-grade blanks.

Dowtin insists the world is not running out of fine walnut, and that most walnut on the market today is both over-estimated in quality and over-priced for what you get.

“I can remember ads that literally claimed ‘we have cut what may be the last tree’,” Dowtin says. “When you are running scared, you pay what they ask. But look at the facts: Years later, we are still cutting trees!”

Without question, there are more fine custom shotguns and rifles being built today than ever before, and overall, the walnut on them is finer than ever. The best firms, like H&H in Britain, stockpile blanks as they can find them, thereby ensuring they always have a supply, high-quality in both grain and seasoning. This is insurance against being held to ransom by wood dealers; it also allows clients a wide choice of wood.

American importers of European guns often buy their own blanks, allowing wood-mad Americans to choose their walnut without flying across the Atlantic. The internet and digital imaging are also changing the walnut business. Dealers today post detailed photos of individual blanks on websites and buyers see exactly what they are getting.

Or do they? With more dealers and more blanks, Juglans regia demands caveat emptor.

Steve Denny: “There is more wood, and it is more beautiful and interesting, but you have to be very, very careful.”

This article appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal in April, 2007.

Return to top