Remember Speedy Gonzalez? (Of course you do!)
The world-renowned gunsmith and Trinidad State Junior College instructor took our request for news seriously, and we're glad he did. One of his students, Eron Ahmer, wrote the following piece. Pictured below, from left to right: Ahmer, Gonzalez, NRA President Schmeits, and retired Trinidad State Jr. College Ruth Ann Woods.
We think the article is worth a read:
A Rifle for the President
This story starts in the summer of 2005. Actually, it starts many years before when I was first introduced to guns and shooting at an early age. This is where my interest and eventual passion for firearms began. Since I don't want to write a novel here, at least not a really long one, I'll start in July, 2005.
A couple of weeks before heading to my fifth Black Powder Cartridge Nationals at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, New Mexico, an information packet arrived in the mail from Trinidad State Jr. College. TSJC is in Trinidad, Colorado and is home of the oldest Gunsmithing program in the country. With some gentle prodding, I discover that my wife, Pam is responsible for having the information sent. Suddenly I realize that talking her into coming to New Mexico after the Nationals a couple of years ago was one of the rare smart things I've done in my life! When the shooting is over, we drive over the pass to Trinidad and tour the school. I'm hooked. For the next several months we gnash our teeth and anguish over how we can make this happen or whether we should at all. Early in 2006, I quit my job of 20 plus years, spend the next 6 months getting our house of 18 years ready to sell, and after a week on the market the house is now someone else's dream.
In the fall of 2006, we put ¾ of our lives in a storage unit and pack the rest in a trailer, a pick-up truck, and a small car and along with our dog, we leave Illinois and head for Colorado. I start the two year Gunsmithing program in the spring semester of 2007. Although it seemed like it at the time, it is probably not just a coincidence that a new instructor started at the same time.
Now fast forward to April of 2009. I had finished the program in December of '08 and was staying an extra semester to finish some projects and use up a couple of scholarships that I had been awarded. I was spending time with each of my three instructors, Keith Gipson, Speedy Gonzalez, and Dave Nolan. Most of the work was being done in a little shop I had set-up in my apartment. I had also occasionally been hanging out in the shop of Chuck Grace, a custom gunmaker here in Trinidad, Vice President of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild, and also a graduate of the TSJC Gunsmithing program. I had hoped that some of his knowledge and skills would rub off on me. I'm not sure that it was a successful plan, but I did learn quite a bit and did my best to not be in the way or waste too much of his time. So, one day early in April as I walked into school, I was chased down by Speedy, our machine shop instructor and NRA Summer class coordinator who is also the new instructor I mentioned earlier. He told me about a project that had been proposed and asked if I would be willing to take it on. After hearing the few details he gave me, I jumped on it.
A decision had been made that the school would build a rifle and present it to a local businessman and dignitary, Mr. Ronald Schmeits. At the time, Mr. Schmeits was First Vice President of the NRA and in all likelihood, would be elected President at the upcoming annual meetings. A Columbian Mauser action and a box of mismatched parts had been donated by a local gentleman to get the project started. There were a number of problems that would need to be overcome, the biggest in my mind being time. The presentation was to be made at the NRA Annual Meetings and Convention in Phoenix in the middle of May, just a bit over six short weeks away. With only the action in hand, this seemed like a near impossible undertaking.
If you've never had any custom rifle work done, this may not seem like a big deal. Six weeks is a lot of time, you might think. Trust me, its not! It can take twice that much time or more to get a barrel from some makers. Finishing a stock can take a couple of weeks, especially if you live in a part of the country with humidity. Riflesmiths and gunmakers with years of experience can take six months to several years to complete a custom built gun. And in general, the better the work a gunsmith does, the more in demand his work will be, so a lot of 'smiths have a considerable backlog. Being fresh out of gunsmithing school, I don't have a backlog. I also don't have years of experience and the speed that comes with it. In fact, while in school I had earned the reputation for being rather slow. Painfully slow at times! I took a lot of grief for this, but the upside was that I tended not to make many mistakes, which cost considerably more time in the end. So now you can hopefully see why the short time limit was a major concern.
Ready or not, the project is rolling. Now we needed to figure out what to build and where we would get all the parts that it would take to build a complete rifle. Speedy gave me complete control over the rifle's configuration and what parts I wanted to use. He told me to make a list and he would do his best to get what was needed. I knew right away what I would build; a classic sporter, similar to the rifles we had built while going through school. Now, I would be able to use my own ideas about what that rifle should look like without being constrained by the requirements of the program.
After some quality time spent looking through the Brownells catalog, I had a pretty good picture in my mind what the rifle would become. Speedy made a call to his good friend, Dave Bennetts, at Brownells. After telling him about the project, Dave said he would get us whatever we needed. Dave in turn, called his friend, Jerry Fisher, in Big Fork, Montana. Obviously thinking it was a worthy cause, Mr. Fisher donated a beautiful, dark piece of walnut that he had personally brought back from a New Zealand hunting trip. Along with the blank, he sent one of his fine steel gripcaps.
Now the pieces were starting to fall into place, but a week had already gone by. The first part to arrive was a 30 caliber, 10 twist, #3 contour Douglas barrel blank courtesy of Brownells. It was threaded and fit to the action and a Match Grade JGS reamer was used to cut the 30-06 chamber. The profile of the barrel was changed to a more abrupt transition between the cylindrical breech end and the long taper to the muzzle. Length was established at 22 1/2” and a classic rounded sporter crown was cut. Some draw filing and polishing lengthwise and the barrel work was done. So far, so good.
Next was the action work. It was mounted on a mandrel in the lathe and the face of the action was trued to the bolt raceway. Still on the mandrel, it was set-up in a dividing head in a milling machine. The clip slot hump was removed from the rear bridge and the front ring was milled just deep enough to remove the military markings. The front ring proved to be incredibly hard, enough to ruin one carbide cutter and seriously shorten the life of another. Drilling and tapping for the Leupold Quick Release scope bases was done in the same set-up and again the hardness of the front ring took a toll on the tools. A bit of decorative machining was also done to the rear scope base so that it blended better with the rear bridge.
With the action done, except for polishing, it was time for the bolt to get its makeover. It was mounted in a fixture on the lathe and the face was cleaned-up and trued to its axis. The rear surface of the lugs were checked with and indicator and showing only .001” of run out, were left alone until some light lapping was done later on to get good contact in the actions lug seats. The bolt knob itself was not exactly something you would see on a presentation rifle, so I had gotten a nice 2-panel checkered McFarland knob from Brownells. I cut off the existing knob and did all the prep for welding including setting it up in a welding fixture. I then had one of my instructors, Dave Nolan, do the welding. I didn't have time for a redo if I made a mistake and it will take a lot more time spent melting metal before I can do the kind of work with a Tig machine that Dave can. Now it was just a matter of cleaning up the weld, contouring the root of the handle, inletting it into the action, and polishing it all up.
I had known from the very start that the stock would be the most time consuming part of building the rifle. The day that Speedy had told me about the project, he had also said that since I had been working a bit with Chuck Grace, he thought that Chuck should “mentor” me along the way. Speedy called him that night and after explaining what was going on, he enthusiastically agreed to help. He probably didn't realize exactly what he was getting into! I had already been dropping by his shop with endless questions and he had given me considerable help and advice in what parts to get and how to make it all come together. To help the stockmaking go a little faster, Chuck had offered to “sacrifice” one of his pattern stocks. I hogged out a bunch of wood and glass-bedded the barreled action into the pattern. When that was set up, I glassed in the Sunny Hill bottom metal that Brownells had provided. Some of the extra glass was piled up on the grip area and back to the comb nose. I then set the pattern up in Chuck's mill and changed some of the stocks lines. I was trying to get the pattern close to the style that Chuck builds since I very much like the look of his stocks. With the pattern close to what I wanted, it was set up next to the blank in Chuck's duplicator and he proceeded to turn half of the blank into chips and the other half into a copy of the pattern I had cobbled up. He left plenty of wood on the outside, but cut the inletting to within .010”, hoping to save me some time. It probably did, but I still worked very slowly and carefully, trying to make the metal appear like it had grown with the wood.
At this point there was less than three weeks to go and I was starting to get nervous thinking about how much work there was left to do and how little time there was to do it. I had started to live on 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night. About this time we had our first real setback. I had wanted to do an ebony forend tip with a widow's peak where it joins the walnut. I like the nice touch that it adds to a stock and since I had never done one, I thought it would be a great thing to learn from Chuck. I had a piece of ebony, so we used that. The widow's peak came out alright for a first try, but almost from the moment that I had cut into the ebony, it had started developing small cracks. As the shaping of the stock progressed, the cracks were growing. I also started getting into little worm holes as I removed material. It came time to install the flush mounted, quick release Sunny Hill sling swivels that Dave Bennetts had sent. As Chuck was helping me with the front base, he noticed how big a crack in the side of the ebony had gotten. It had doubled in size and was looking like it might go all the way through and split the tip in half. There was only one thing to do and I almost came to tears when I carried the stock to the band saw and hacked off the ebony. Since the swivel base was already installed, there wasn't enough room for another widow's peak. With a piece of well dried ebony I made a regular tip and glued it to the stock.
The rifle was now starting to take shape and it seemed like maybe there was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. A recoil pad had been fit, the Fisher gripcap installed, and I was working on final shaping with about two weeks to go. Three or four hours of sleep a night seemed like it was cutting into my bench time too much. I was totally consumed with the project. I had been taking pictures from the start, a log of sorts, and I was amazed at how much time that required. As a break from the stock work, I spent time polishing metal. A Dakota bolt shroud with three-position safety from Brownells had been fit. A thumbpiece for the bolt stop housing had been fabricated and soldered on. The firing pin and cocking piece that came with the action would not work, so we scrambled around to find others that would. The finger piece on the Timney Featherweight trigger was recontoured. When the bolt was fully assembled and tried in the action its roughness and unacceptable cocking effort forced a late night parts swapping and brain storming session in Dave Nolan's basement shop trying to find a combination of parts and springs that would make the bolt operation tolerable. And something that took hours and hours throughout the project was the time I spent pondering what I was doing at any given time, making sure that things were somewhat thought out before doing them and trying not to make mistakes that would cost much more time trying to fix.
I got the stock sanded and started applying finish with one week to go. Chuck had given me a method to get a good finish done quickly and the dry climate in Trinidad was a great help with that. Although he had been his regular mellow self until now, Chuck was obviously starting to get nervous and was working at pushing me along. About this time I managed to squeeze in a couple of hours to go through my graduation ceremony, and then it was back to work. I got the finish completed in just a few days. It was now Sunday evening and we were leaving for Phoenix early Thursday morning.
Late Monday morning, I gave the stock to Clayton Nelson, another custom gunmaker here in Trinidad, and also a graduate of the TSJC Gunsmithing program way back in the mid '50's. Clayton checkered the stock in a nice point pattern with carved borders and I had it back the next day. While the checkering was being done, I finished the metal polishing. At this time, we also did a leather covered recoil pad using some black dyed goatskin that went well with the dark New Zealand walnut and the ebony forend tip.With less than 24 short hours of time remaining, I met Chuck in the bluing room at school to rust blue the metal. We used the old Herter's formula, now called “Belgian Blue”, and applied it using a method that gives a very nice traditional finish in a fairly short amount of time. I had coerced Dave Nolan into helping and he did the Nitre bluing of the screws, trigger, safety lever, floorplate latch, and extractor. At about 4pm, the metal finishing was done. Speedy had come by earlier with a scope and rings that had been generously donated by Leupold. It was a 1.5-5X, VX-3 that their custom shop had engraved with the NRA logo on the windage cap and “Custom Built for Ronald Schmeits” on the left side of the turret surrounding the gold Leupold logo. The scope had just arrived that afternoon! On his way out the door, Speedy told me that he would be by my apartment at 5:30 the following morning to pick me up, only 13 hours away.
The metal now needed to be cleaned of the water displacing oil before the rifle could be assembled. The recoil pad needed to be mounted on the stock, so Chuck took the pad and stock with him and would take care of that. I got the metal cleaned, then headed to Chuck's to get the stock. I brought the barrel and action along and we tightened the two together. All that was left was final assembly.
As I put the rifle together, piece by piece, I became very emotional. Then again, maybe it was just lack of sleep! Certainly, I was overcome by a great sense of accomplishment. Even if it took me all night, the rifle would be ready for its trip to Phoenix. I worked very slowly and carefully as each part was put in its place. I was in the process of realizing a lifelong dream; of having the ability to build a rifle that I would be proud to put my name on. And there it was, taking shape right in front of me. At 1:00 in the morning I tightened the last screws on the scope rings and the rifle was finished. After handling it for a bit, working the action, and mounting it a few times taking aim at imaginary game animals, I wiped it down and put it in its case. I had less than four hours to pack a bag and get some sleep.
We were off to the NRA Annual Meetings in Phoenix, we being Ruth Ann Woods, the college President, Speedy, and myself. At the exhibit hall, TSJC shares a booth with the three other colleges that offer the NRA Summer Gunsmithing classes. There is a glass display case filled with student projects and that is where the rifle spent the weekend, sitting on the top shelf. One of the many things that Speedy does well is promoting, and there was a fairly steady stream of people that came by to see the rifle and meet the student that built it. I was able to meet and talk to a number of people, but it was a special honor and privilage to meet Jerry Fisher and talk about gunmaking with him. I thought it was quite a compliment when he introduced me to his wife and had me take her over to the case and show her the rifle.
On Monday morning at the Board of Directors meeting, we waited patiently to be called to make our presentation. Shortly after Mr. Schmeits was officially elected President, we made our way to the stage. Donning white gloves and squirming uncomfortably in a suit, I uncased the rifle, opened the bolt to check the chamber, and climbed the stairs of the stage. Ruth Ann gave a brief speech that we had concocted the day before and when she was done, I presented the rifle to the new NRA President. It was a proud moment both for the school and myself, certainly one I'll never forget. On the other hand, it was very anti-climatic and I felt like a part of me was going with the rifle. But as I look back on it, I realize that what I was feeling was the almost ten pounds I had lost in the two weeks before we left for Phoenix!
And so ends the story of the Presidents Rifle, much of it my own story. I am greatly honored to have been able to build the rifle and along with it showcase not only my own talents, but the skills that I was taught while attending the gunsmithing program at Trinidad State Junior College. This project was an incredible learning experience, something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Come to think of it, this really isn't the end of the story. Mine is just beginning and with a little care, the rifle could outlive all of us involved in its making. I guess one of the great things about a hunting rifle is that the potential is there to create lifetimes of stories.
Thanks for sharing, Eron! Send a story about how a program of the NRA has impacted your life or your community at GOblog@nrahq.org. We publish as many stories and photos as possible.