GUNSMITHING:

The Bot­ley Mills boys dis­cuss wood. From the prac­ti­cal but plain Janes of grade 1 to the dis­play-wor­thy ex­hi­bi­tion grade guns, there’s plenty to choose from if your pay packet al­lows

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

Who’s for wal­nut?

As far as I can see, there are four rea­sons why a per­son would choose any one gun. These are, in my own or­der of im­por­tance:

Han­dling: in­clud­ing weight, the feel in the hand, bal­ance, swing and point-abil­ity.

Tech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tion: phys­i­cal mea­sure­ments, shiny chokes, stock di­men­sions, rib size, back-bored bar­rels and an in­creas­ing mul­ti­tude of un­nec­es­sary but nev­er­the­less ex­cit­ing branded gun giz­mos.

Wood: the first thing you see when a gun is pre­sented to you; for look­ing at and hold­ing on to. En­grav­ing: the only un­nec­es­sary thing on a gun. Prob­a­bly the most beau­ti­ful and in­tri­cate part to look at, but in a world of laser and ma­chine-cut en­grav­ing, this has fallen away in im­por­tance to the in­di­vid­u­al­ity that wood can pro­vide.

Most peo­ple will look at a stock and fore-end and will im­me­di­ately like it, love it, or loath it. To­day, we will be look­ing in more depth at the most nat­u­ral part of any gun.

Nearly all gun fur­ni­ture (with the ex­cep­tion of some de­light­ful Rus­sian and Amer­i­can mod­els) will be made from wal­nut as it is the only wood that holds all of the ideal prop­er­ties. It’s hard but not brit­tle; it’s not prone to crack­ing or split­ting; it is (or cer­tainly was) plen­ti­ful; it’s nei­ther too heavy nor too light, and most im­por­tantly of course, it is reg­u­larly beau­ti­ful.

How­ever, it’s not quite that sim­ple. Wal­nut is not just wal­nut! There are many va­ri­eties of wal­nut tree and var­i­ous re­gions in which each will grow. All re­gions and va­ri­eties will come in dif­fer­ent grades, and all will have their own char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Euro­pean wal­nut (Juglans re­gia)

FIDDLEBACK A tight wavy grain go­ing across the stock. It was once com­monly used on the backs of fid­dles and vi­o­lins, hence the name.

Very much de­ter­mined by the ground it grows in, this tree is wide­spread across the con­ti­nent, and is re­garded by most as the best stock ma­te­rial avail­able. Not all of it is beau­ti­ful, but even the plain grades have some of the best dura­bil­ity go­ing.

Soil type, soil depth, cli­mate and al­ti­tude are all fac­tors in how wood turns out and, as such, mixed with our wholly hu­man de­sire to put things in boxes, we clas­sify wood by re­gion – Cir­cas­sian, French, English, Span­ish, Ital­ian – and pretty much ev­ery coun­try in be­tween!

Cir­cas­sian wal­nut Some­times re­ferred to as Turk­ish wal­nut, Cir­cas­sian wal­nut grows through­out the Balkans, Turkey and parts of Rus­sia. The gen­eral cli­mate and soil type gives us some of the most beau­ti­ful wal­nut avail­able to­day. It is char­ac­terised by warm, rich, tight-grained wood, with oc­ca­sional fiddleback. It doesn’t mark eas­ily, and most im­por­tantly, the grain can be out of this world, with­out the brit­tle nature or heavy weight that some other woods have. It is im­por­tant to be care­ful with some pieces, though, as sap holes and dead burrs can oc­cur.

French wal­nut The most ro­man­tic name in the stock wood world, this is used on many fine English guns. It is typ­i­fied by a light-coloured wood with a straight but wavy grain and dark con­trast­ing stripes.

English wal­nut Some of the most var­ied wood avail­able. Although gen­er­ally very pale in colour and un­re­mark­able, there have been some lovely bits of wood to come out of our soil, with flam­ing and wild grains. Un­for­tu­nately, this wild card of wal­nut is gen­er­ally worth avoid­ing, un­less it’s free.

It is worth say­ing that plenty of wal­nut is sold as orig­i­nat­ing from re­gions that might not be to­tally cor­rect. It’s hard to tell be­cause wood from

cer­tain parts of the Pyre­nees, for ex­am­ple, can be sim­i­lar to wood from Turkey. Still, it prob­a­bly mat­ters lit­tle as very few peo­ple will want to talk about the ge­o­graphic ori­gin of your gun’s wooden com­po­nents (un­less I’m hang­ing out with the wrong crowd).

Amer­i­can black wal­nut (Junglans ni­gra)

The same rules ap­ply to Amer­i­can wal­nut as Euro­pean, in that cli­mate, soil and all other vari­ables greatly af­fect the wood at the end, but we do not clas­sify it in the same re­gional way. This can make se­lect­ing a piece quite hard un­less you trust your sup­plier im­plic­itly. The best in Amer­i­can wal­nut is typ­i­fied as dark red­dish in colour, beau­ti­fully con­trast­ing wood, usu­ally packed with fiddleback, crotch and burl. The worst pieces will be lighter in colour, open grained and may snap as soon as you look at them.

This slightly more brit­tle nature has led to cer­tain guns that use Amer­i­can black wal­nut for their stocks hav­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for break­ing and not tak­ing cast. They are gen­er­ally sneered at for qual­ity, but the mar­ket just re­quires a slightly more sen­si­tive ap­proach to wood sourc­ing, and if the right piece is cho­sen, it can prove as strong and as beau­ti­ful a stock as any.

Tak­ing your grades

Grade is the word of the day when it comes to guns, and is how many peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate when talk­ing about wood qual­ity. The prob­lem is that most man­u­fac­tur­ers speak in dif­fer­ent lan­guages, some of­fer­ing up to 11 grades of wood, whereas oth­ers will only of­fer three op­tions: 1, 3 or 5!

As al­ways, beauty is in the eye of the be­holder, and one man’s grade 3 is an­other’s grade 5, but the fol­low­ing is my at­tempt at ex­plain­ing grades.

Plain is the name of the game. Straight grain, no fig­ur­ing, colour is also unim­por­tant. Strength and dura­bil­ity is where grade 1 guns are at. What we find beau­ti­ful in guns are ac­tu­ally im­per­fec­tions and in­sta­bil­i­ties in the wood. For this rea­son, if not buy­ing syn­thetic, grade 1 is a pop­u­lar choice for most work­ing guns.

Just a cut above grade 1 in terms of beauty. Ex­pect the same dura­bil­ity that you get in a grade 1, but per­haps with a touch of char­ac­ter. A few dif­fer­ent tones in the wood, and per­haps a small sec­tion that is above the dull fin­ish of a grade 1.

This is where wood starts to be­come beau­ti­ful. Mul­ti­ple tones show within the wood, the grain will likely curve and flow through the stock, un­like the Teu­tonic straight­ness of the grade 1. Flam­ing, feath­er­ing or fiddleback (the beau­ti­ful cross grain that can give a gun so much depth) will start to be present in small­ish amounts.

Some­where above 3 and be­low 5.

The height of beauty in prac­ti­cal gun­mak­ing. Many colours and shades are present, with much more con­trast than a grade 3 will have. Lots of cross grain is pos­si­ble, and small amounts of burl can be found. In­di­vid­u­al­ity is the key with a grade 5, and with so many of­fer­ings avail­able, be sure to get wood in a style and colour that you like.

There is also ‘ex­hi­bi­tion grade’ which de­mands a unique char­ac­ter, with wood that would be the envy of any gun lover. The ul­ti­mate in beauty, but a lot of the time the least prac­ti­cal op­tion, as ex­treme burl and con­trast of flam­ing in a gun can lead to bro­ken hearts.

Grad­ing is a hard thing to talk about, with cer­tain brands of­fer­ing less beauty un­der the same grade, or even two guns of the same grade be­ing so dif­fer­ent. Al­ways re­mem­ber that wal­nut is nat­u­ral and in­di­vid­ual, and there is lit­tle you can do to up­grade the wood once pur­chased. Just make sure you are happy be­fore you buy it.

Which­ever grade gun you go for, from what­ever part of the world, as long as the grain runs well (straight and not too ex­otic) through the head and neck of the stock, you should be ok.

Fi­nally, the fin­ish on the wood can make a mas­sive dif­fer­ence to its ap­pear­ance. A va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent stock fin­ishes will give off a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent looks and feels. This can make a grade 3 pop like a grade 5, and so on. Bear this in mind when look­ing over guns – in­vest­ing a lit­tle time into the wood can go a long way.

I hope this has been use­ful. Merry Christ­mas from Jon, Ka­rina, Dan, Cam and Char­lie here at The Gun Shop!

‘The char­ac­ter­is­tics that peo­ple of­ten find beau­ti­ful in guns are ac­tu­ally im­per­fec­tions and in­sta­bil­i­ties in the wood’

The way man­u­fac­tur­ers grade their wood can vary greatly

Vary­ing tones, grain, colours and tex­tures de­fine dif­fer­ent grades of wood

Beauty is in the eye of the be­holder

Grade one wood

Grade five wood

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