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
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