A TOUCH OF MIDAS

Drawing forth gold from Juglans regia
Through the wrist, the stock exhibited perfect grain for strength. Doug Turnbull’s case colors are breath-taking. The overall effect is almost – but not quite – too much.

Through the wrist, the stock exhibited perfect grain for strength. Doug Turnbull’s case colors are breath-taking. The overall effect is almost – but not quite – too much.

The study of English walnut is a passionate love, and the man who denies himself an affair with walnut is not living life to the fullest.

A fine blank of top-grade English walnut, whether from France, central Asia, the Pyrenees, or Armenia, is like a beautiful woman draped in a loose veil. Only the eyes are visible, with hints of much else, and one must make a judgement based on those eyes and those hints and then pray for luck.

Wood of the thin-shelled walnut has long been the pre-eminent choice for stocking a fine rifle or shotgun. Having said that, we have now pretty much exhausted all areas of unanimity. Walnut is so varied, and its aesthetics so much a matter of personal taste, that it is almost impossible to say much else about it without receiving a flood of letters that begin “Yes, but…”

So what follows is based largely on my own taste, and opinions on technical matters belong to two experts: Bill Dowtin, an importer and dealer in fine walnut, and James Flynn, a gunmaker capable of stocking any firearm, by hand, from a raw blank.

Americans are notorious in their love for walnut. The quality of the wood on a rifle or shotgun – based mainly on its appearance – is enough to seriously pervert the price of an otherwise good (or bad) gun.

A superb gentleman’s stalking rifle in .250-3000 built on a Dakota Model 10 falling block action. Gunmaking by James Flynn, case colors by Doug Turnbull.

A superb gentleman’s stalking rifle in .250-3000 built on a Dakota Model 10 falling block action. Gunmaking by James Flynn, case colors by Doug Turnbull.

What most people fail to understand, especially when dealing with the most expensive and exotic stock blanks, is that they are the product of a living thing, and therefore subject to all manner of vagaries, surprises, and flaws – some repairable, some not. Not unlike the veiled lady mentioned above.

An entire book could (and should) be written about English walnut and its myriad aspects. Here we will deal with just one: The problems of choosing a blank when you are looking for the most spectacular wood, the most intricate, the most multifaceted. Such blanks, depending on the market, range in price from $2000 for a short (shotgun-style) blank to $10,000 for a matched pair suitable for a duo of Holland Royals.

The raw materials: An enigmatic walnut blank from central Asia and a Dakota Model 10 action. The blank is at least 300 years old, with virtually complete figure and an inky color. Bill Dowtin describes its grain as “heavy, black marbling on a honey-colored background.”

The raw materials: An enigmatic walnut blank from central Asia and a Dakota Model 10 action. The blank is at least 300 years old, with virtually complete figure and an inky color. Bill Dowtin describes its grain as “heavy, black marbling on a honey-colored background.”

In 2007, Bill Dowtin and I were pondering this question, looking at a shipment of blanks he had just received from his supplier in central Asia. The blanks were cut from trees 300 to 400 years old, and in fact from the very center and base of those trees where the trunk had borne the weight for centuries and withstood countless storms. Such wood is dense, compressed, and heavy.

Depending on its grain, it can be the most stable of wood, or the least. It can also be the most spectacular and complex in terms of grain and color, but because of its age and its very nature, it is also the most likely to harbor flaws that must be corrected.

This is the prime source of what is commonly called “exhibition” grade wood, although some so-called exhibition-grade wood we see flogged is cut from limb wood high on a fast-growing California tree, where the grain is pretty but superficial, and stability largely a matter of imagination.

For this particular rifle, Bill chose a blank with an odd history.

“I bought it a few years ago, when I was in the Caucasus Mountains. A little man in Georgia had cut up a tree using a chainsaw, and I bought three blanks from him, all from the root section, below ground,” Bill said.  “Judging from the grain, the color and the complexity, I would say the tree was at least 300 years old.”

When Dowtin got the blank home, he trimmed it to proper thickness, seasoned it another year (it had already been cut for two years) and then kiln-dried it. As he points out, the stability of such wood is “greatly enhanced” by proper seasoning and drying. The result was a blank with virtually complete figure and an inky color.

Almost finished: The stock has delivered everything we thought the blank promised, and more.

Almost finished: The stock has delivered everything we thought the blank promised, and more.

Dowtin describes its grain pattern as “heavy, black marbling on a honey-colored background.”

“I chose this blank,” he said, “Because I was sure it had extravagant, elaborate figure with intense color.”

Originally, it was a long blank intended for a bolt-action rifle, but the grain through the magazine-well section was not true, and so Dowtin cut it into a two-piece blank for a shotgun or single-shot rifle instead. Cut this way, the blank had “perfect grain layout through the grip and head,” which is essential.

Beauty is one thing, but anyone who allows beauty in a blank to trump strength is asking for trouble. In any gun, the weakest point is the wrist. This is especially critical on a short blank that attaches to the frame. Some think the use of a through-bolt strengthens the wrist, but this is not true. Because you drill a longitudinal hole through the wrist, you actually weaken it; unless the bolt fits extremely tightly, it adds no strength.

The wrist on a shotgun, which is held between the top strap and the tang, with a screw from top to bottom that pulls the head up tight to the frame, is stronger than a through-bolt. It is also more difficult and labor-intensive to make, hence the widespread preference for bolts.

The critical consideration, Dowtin says, is to ensure the grain runs properly so that a sideways blow (the most common cause of breaks) will not cause the wrist to shear.

In late 2007 I sent the two-piece blank, along with a Dakota Model 10 single-shot action in the white, to gunmaker James Flynn in Louisiana. It was destined to become a slim, trim, elegant .250-3000 suitable for any number of gentlemanly pursuits.

Wood to metal fit must be meticulous on a single-shot rifle, just as with a sidelock shotgun, for the metal to appear to grow out of the wood. James Flynn is a master, and fit does not come any better than this.

Wood to metal fit must be meticulous on a single-shot rifle, just as with a sidelock shotgun, for the metal to appear to grow out of the wood. James Flynn is a master, and fit does not come any better than this.

James Flynn is one of a handful of craftsmen in this country who can build a finest-quality rifle or shotgun from the ground up. He can take a square block of wood and turn it into a fitted stock on a James Woodward, or fit a new set of barrels on a W.J. Jeffery. At various times during my visits, he has been restocking a J&W Tolley .470 Nitro Express or restoring a heavily damaged Holland & Holland.

Taking an action, barrel, two stock blanks and various bits, and turning them into a finished rifle is not, in itself, a great technical challenge for James Flynn. At this point, however, we are interested only in his reaction to the (we hoped) fabulous piece of Caucasian walnut. “It looks nice...” he said, which for James constitutes wild enthusiasm.

It fell to Flynn’s eye to watch the walnut reveal itself, thin slice by thin slice. Reports from Alexandria were infuriatingly vague, with Bill Dowtin and I hanging on the other end of the line. “Yeah, it’s pretty nice,” James would say, or “It’s a good blank.” No, he didn’t have time to take a photo. Maybe tomorrow.

Finally, word came back that the stock was ready for viewing, and I set out on the 11-hour drive to Alexandria.

What I found was an almost-finished stock, austere in its lines, with a grain structure that defies mere words. The ancient walnut was dotted with tiny pin holes and one or two minor cavities – easily corrected by a stockmaker. The only difficulty James encountered was an irreparable flaw near the toe of the stock after it had been headed. This made it necessary to, in essence, shift the whole stock a fraction of an inch higher, giving the stock a higher, straighter comb. In turn, this makes it necessary to mount the scope slightly higher, but in a falling-block single-shot, this is actually an advantage.

Flynn carved the buttplate from buffalo horn, checkered it with traditional English “flat-topped” checkering. Screws were engraved and regulated.

Flynn carved the buttplate from buffalo horn, checkered it with traditional English “flat-topped” checkering. Screws were engraved and regulated.

As with most such projects – and this one began as a simple exercise in walnut management – we quickly lost control. As we began to envision a wider and wider role for the rifle, others were drawn in. Brownells contributed the bits, as the English say. Doug Turnbull undertook to case harden the frame and lever, and blue the barrel; Leupold supplied two scopes, and Talley two sets of detachable rings. Thus, the rifle is set up without iron sights, but with two interchangeable scopes, an extremely compact fixed 2.5X, and a compact variable 1.75-6X. With its 24-inch barrel, we should be able to coax the most performance from the deadly little .250-3000, and have a superb stalking rifle.

After a brief but, we hope, eventful tour on the show circuit, it will become a hunting rifle. And if I’m sitting on a riverbank waiting for a whitetail, and none show up, at least I will have something gorgeous upon which to rest my eyes.

The lady parted her veil, and she was everything we imagined.

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

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