RIFLES: Men Behind The Guns
Part 2: The Invisible Men
By Wayne van Zwoll
Every elk hunter should know about a few of the invisible men, the unsung, whose efforts have made rifles at once deadly and a joy in the hand..
When you pick up a hammer or pruning shears or saddle a horse, it’s unlikely you think about the tool brand or saddle maker. But rifles are different. Names are indelibly stamped, like chamberings, into the barrel steel. Often, those names are also stamped in our minds. Tradition begets allegiance; names that evoke history and tickle memories sell rifles. Remington, Winchester, Browning, Savage, Stevens and Marlin are 19th century names that survive in the 21st. They were people before they were companies. So too with Thompson/Center and Ruger, post-war rifle-makers whose names most hunters know.
But laboring behind the logos, on the mills and lathes—and now on the CNC units and computers that craft hunting rifles—are many talented people. In private workshops you’ll find artisans whose lifetime production won’t equal a week’s factory output, but whose ideas provide inspiration for new factory guns. Every elk hunter should know about a few of the unsung whose efforts have made rifles at once deadly and a joy in the hand.
Jenks, Hunt, Maynard, Smith, Wesson, Henry
Much of the early work on breechloading guns entailed cartridge development, because inventors were trying to build mechanisms that would handle paper cases and looking for better case material at the same time. First used in the l6th century, paper cases were vulnerable to moisture, varied in dimension and would fail if forced by steel parts. Paper would not seal a breech. After percussion caps came along, the Parisian Houllier fashioned a metal case for Lefaucheux’s pinfire gun. It expanded to seal gas and extracted easily.
The Hall rifle was America’s first breech-loader in military service. Adopted in 1819, just after Lite Remington got into the gun business, it used paper cartridges. Its flintlock mechanism was heavy and so weak that wrought-iron straps were bolted on to stiffen it! When war with Mexico drained arsenals in 1845, the United States scrambled to build not Halls but outdated Harpers Ferry rifled muskets. Alas, a new repeating breech-loader designed by William Jenks for the Navy was bound in red tape.
Remington saw promise in the gun and in its buoyant Welsh designer, then working at the N.P. Ames Company. Lite bought the firm, including contracts, machinery and stock, plus the services of Jenks, for $2,581. Remington fitted Jenks’ flintlocks with Dr. Edward Maynard’s percussion lock, which used caps on a strip of paper that advanced for each shot. Maynard’s lock sustained the dream of a breech-loading repeating rifle; the principle appeared later in toy cap guns.
About this time, Steven Taylor patented a hollow-base bullet housing its own powder charge. A perforated end cap admitted sparks from an external primer. Soon thereafter, Walter Hunt developed a similar bullet, with cork sealing the base. He called it the Rocket Ball. Hunt, then 50, had many interests. His inventions ranged from stoves to the safety pin. He came up with (but did not patent!) a lockstitch needle that would later spawn the sewing machine. In 1849 he patented a breech-loading “Volitional” repeating rifle for his Rocket Ball. Fellow New Yorker George Arrowsmith contributed cash and business savvy. Lewis Jennings improved the magazine and primer advance, yielding patent rights to Arrowsmith, who sold all rights to the rifle for $100,000 to Courtland Palmer, a New York merchant and financier.
Sales of Hunt-Jennings rifles were so slow that Palmer soon decided to halt production. And there the project might have died, but for Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. These two talented mechanics met in 1852 at a Massachusetts factory. Wesson considered Frenchman Flobert’s self contained ammunition for the Hunt-Jennings. Putting a primer in the case would eliminate troublesome primer feed. Adding powder in a hull longer than Flobert’s would adapt the idea to repeaters. By 1853 Smith and Wesson had patented a disc to cover the priming compound and serve as an anvil for the striker. They then applied for patents on an extractor and a cocking mechanism that used the bolt to ready the hammer.
The first guns built for Smith and Wesson’s cartridge were pistols, partly because its small size gave little reach and partly because the Hunt-Jennings rifle had become a public failure. Late in 1857 they came up with the .22 short. Smith and Wesson went on to manufacture handguns, but their .22 rimfire cartridge was a pivotal development. It became the prototype for a tide of rimfires during the 1860s, all of which raised battle to a deadlier level during our Civil War and fueled the development of repeating rifles.
During their ministrations over the Hunt-Jennings repeater, Smith and Wesson had been joined by B. Tyler Henry, a talented young gunsmith who contributed a great deal to the rifle but was not named in patents. After Smith and Wesson were bought out by a group of New York financiers, Henry was hired on by its new president, Oliver Winchester. The company, Volcanic Repeating Arms, soon failed, but Henry was retained to improve Volcanic guns. Mr. Winchester hoped his problematic lever-action rifle would eventually catch on.
Where most good ideas begin
It reads like an ideal site for a hunting camp, not an ammunition factory. You’ll find Speer/CCI in Lewiston, Idaho, where the Snake River emerges from Hell’s Canyon, near the Clearwater National Forest, across from Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains and Washington’s Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. Brett Olin works here. Has for the last 20 years. He graduated high school in Lewiston, left to attend a gunsmithing program at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, then returned.
“I’m not really an old-timer,” he says. “Most of our employees stay on.” There’s little else to do in the valley if you’re a munitions designer or an engineer for ammo plant machinery. “It’s a good spot to find people who share your passion.” The kind of people you might meet anywhere that lunchroom talk drifts to shoulder angles, breech pressures and ballistic coefficients.
Brett Olin, Dave Imgren and Steve Moore worked on Gold Dot ammunition, a wildly successful line for Speer. They’ve shared other projects. “A lot of ideas get sketched on napkins at the local brewery,” he says. “But I’m at the plant 55 hours a week trying to make them work. It’s almost too much fun to be a job.” As a development engineer, Brett has a say in packaging new products, too. “Keeps work interesting.”
Not a big game hunter, Brett is an avid shooter and a student of history. He likes old guns and has a soft spot for Elmer Keith. “He was right, you know. A big bullet at modest speed is deadly over ordinary shot distances. A 180-grain round-nose from a .30-06 will kill any North American game handily. A round or flat nose penetrates straighter than a pointed nose. Big, soft lead bullets killed millions of bison.” Brett’s personal guns include a Pedersoli Sharps, an 1851 Navy replica and a Rossi lever gun in .44 Magnum.
One of Brett’s recent projects was the .17 Mach 2. “Hornady has its name on the round, but all the ammo is produced right here on our plate equipment.” The Speer/CCI plant is one of few in the nation that can prime and load rimfire cases. When I was reporting on the development of the Mach 2, Hornady people conceded that without the loading plates at Lewiston, the project would have been shelved. “Dave Emary at Hornady is a personal friend, a great shooter and a sharp ballistician,” Brett continues. “And the .17 HMR is his baby. He did a lot of design work on the Mach 2 as well. But our people helped.”
Brett, whose first gun project was a .45 ACP he rebuilt in his high school shop, says there’s a lot more to designing guns and ammunition than most shooters realize. “Take pressure. The .22 WMR case is just .002 thick at the mouth. Unlike centerfire cases, you get no warning signs if pressure is too high. You must also make sure the pressure curve is compatible with autoloading mechanisms. An extended curve can leave pressures too high as extraction starts.” He and Dave Emary discussed such details, and Brett set the neck diameter on the HMR. Later, they worked independently on the .22 Stinger case, necking it to .17.
“Part of cartridge design is shaping it so it’s easy to produce,” explains Brett. “Dave wanted a 25-degree shoulder on the Mach 2. A 20-degree shoulder made more sense for our machinery, so he changed the angle. On the other hand, we used his shorter neck design: .100.”
Priming a rimfire case is a matter of “blowing” the fulminate into the rim, but with a .17-diameter neck, that proved impractical. “So,” says Brett, “we neck cases after priming.”
Speer bullet engineer Steve Moore says that in bullet manufacture, product design includes the design of equipment to make it. “We’ve spent eight months engineering equipment to make the bullets that have been approved. Occasionally we delay a product because of production concerns.”
Like Deep Shok. That bullet, developed by Larry Head at Federal, was announced before the high cost of manufacturing jackets put it on the shelf. “We plan to resurrect it,” says Steve. “Someday.”
Steve and Brett, like many talented designers, engineers and ballisticians, keep innovation alive in an industry whose growth spurts and icons date back more than a century. They’re the people who keep us ready for elk season with .17 rimfires and send us to the lodgepoles with powerful, accurate ammunition in centerfire rifles better than hunters of even a generation ago could have imagined.
Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and more than 2,700 articles on rifles and shooting. Two of his latest books, Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles are chock full of information. Just out: Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting—and yes, Wayne always tries for the close shot.