- April 15, 2016 at 6:09 am #27030WaksupiParticipant
- Posts: 6
- Comments: 106
- Overall: 112
This article is dated, being 16 years old and is missing some info that should have been included. Still a nice snap shot from a few years back.
The Flathead has been a gun builder’s Mecca for decades. I believe there are around thirty dedicated businesses to firearms manufacturing here, and several dozen of us independent gun builders.
Unfortunately, some of these guys are gone now. I’m happy to say I was privileged to know most of them, and a few of them are good friends. These guys were, and are my teachers.
Jerry Fisher stopped by to visit at our table at the gun show a couple weeks ago to swap jokes, and he had us in stitches way before the punch line arrived. I see Monte Mandarino fairly regularly. Not many know, Monte used to be the front man in a blues band, and could really sing some great stuff. Les Bauska used to come sit and visit at my table, or I at his, as we both appreciated talking to someone who knew a bit about what they were talking about.
Lee Heglund was also at the show, another guild member.
Lead on, gentlemen! There are a lot of younger guys living here following your foot steps.
- By DARYL GADBOW of the Missoulian
- Jan 20, 2000
In the Flathead Valley, a dozen gunmakers are setting the standard for the nation
The work of some of the Flathead Valley’s most accomplished artists and craftsmen won’t be seen in any gallery.
Their handiwork is more likely to be found in the tents of an African safari, on a sporting clays course, a target range or slung on the back of an elk hunter striding a wind-swept ridge in Montana.
The Flathead Valley has long been home to a remarkable congregation of some of the world’s most renowned custom gunmakers.
Their artistry spans the breadth of the sporting firearms spectrum: from the elegance of traditional classic hunting rifles and fine shotguns; to the timeless grace of antique replicas; to the functional beauty and precision of ultra-modern competitive and highly specialized hunting guns.
Several of the Flathead’s gunmakers are specialists, masters of wood or metal, creating one element of one-of-a-kind masterpieces in concert with other craftsmen. Some of the area’s gunmakers incorporate all of the necessary skills to produce entire custom guns single-handedly. Others have focused on new technology to raise the performance level of firearms.
Only a couple of the Flathead artisans involved in the custom gunmaking business – engraver Barry Lee Hands of Bigfork and antique gunmaker Monte Mandarino of Kalispell – dedicate their efforts purely to art for art’s sake. The rest build beautiful guns that are made to be shot, and shot exceptionally well – either by hunters or target competitors.
Virtually all of the Flathead’s gunmakers are well-known and respected in the field nationally. Most have had their work featured in glossy layouts in the most prestigious national publications that cover the shooting sports, including the National Rifle Association’s magazine American Rifleman, and others such as Rifle, Handloader, Double Gun Journal and Shooting Sportsman.
Although all of the Flathead’s gunmakers are independent, there is a special bond of respect among them. Often, they combine their talents on a single gun project. In some cases, they’ve developed loose partnerships that have prospered over several years.
Invariably, the Flathead’s custom gunmakers offer unqualified support for the others in their somewhat obscure fraternity.
“There does seem to be a lot of good gun mechanics around here,” says Jerry Fisher of Bigfork, a gun builder for more than 40 years, who draws universal praise from his colleagues as the best in the business.
“This area has always had some of the finest gunsmiths in the country, and very few people here know it,” says Bill Dowtin of Whitefish, a newcomer to the area, but a veteran of 25 years in the custom gun business.
The Flathead Valley’s tradition as a center for custom gunmaking started with the late John Buhmiller, a railroad stationmaster by profession, who became one of the nation’s premier makers of custom rifle barrels in the 1930s in Kalispell. Buhmiller made thousands of barrels, many of which were used to convert surplus military rifles into inexpensive sporting arms for hunters all over the nation.
One of Buhmiller’s apprentices in the early years was Lester Bauska, who worked for Buhmiller for 10 years, starting in 1947. Now 80 years old, Bauska has continued the tradition ever since, creating high-quality barrels for custom gunmakers for over 50 years.
Another pioneer of the Flathead gunsmithing scene is Tom Burgess, who had collaborated on rifle projects with Buhmiller since the late ’40s, and continued that association when he moved to Kalispell in the early ’50s. J. Hall Sharon was another early-day Flathead barrel maker who learned his trade from Buhmiller, according to Burgess.
Along with Burgess and Bauska, the current deans of the Flathead’s custom gun community include Fisher and Mel Smart of Kalispell, both of whom specialize in stock work but also have crafted complete rifles for 40 years or more.
The influence of Buhmiller and Bauska may account for the fact that at least five Flathead craftsmen are involved today in the relatively arcane field of making custom rifle barrels. One of those, Brian Sipe of Kalispell, along with Dan Lilja of Plains, are two of the largest rifle barrel producers in the Northwest.
Although their work is considered by many as artistry, most of the Flathead’s gunmakers are reluctant to call themselves artists, preferring a more humble description, like Fisher’s “gun mechanic.”
“I wince every time I’m called an artist,” says Burgess. “But a lot of others have called me that. When I’m working, I don’t think about that. It’s just the practical way to do things. It’s kind of a worn-out thing, saying that form follows function. But that’s the way I do it. Maybe it’s the same thing as art.”
Why have so many top gunmakers gravitated to the Flathead?
Bauska’s answer is probably as good as any: “It’s like anything else,” he says. “It’s a nice place to live.”
Here’s a brief look at a dozen of the Flathead’s most prominent gunmakers:
Jerry Fisher, Bigfork
“Jerry is to the firearms industry what Arnold Palmer is to golf,” says fellow gunmaker Mel Smart. “He deals with an entirely different clientele than I do. You better have a lot of money if you want one of his guns.”
Fisher elicits similar comments from all his colleagues.
Born in Helena, Fisher started his career in the custom gun field by attending the Colorado School of Trades in Denver, one of the nation’s foremost gunsmith schools. After graduating he taught at the school for a couple of years. He’s been building custom guns for 45 years. He moved to the Flathead 30 years ago.
After striking out on his own, he started out as a stock-making specialist, and is widely acknowledged as the finest in that field.
But, says Fisher, “I evolved into a complete gunmaker. I do everything necessary to make a complete rifle. It’s almost impossible to do just stocks.”
Fisher admits that the cost of one of his guns is beyond reach of most people.
“The reason a lot of these things are expensive,” he says, “is it takes a lot of time to make them. It takes a lot of money to put a high-grade rifle together. It’s a one-of-a-kind thing. Each rifle is put up on special order. The client has special requests and specifications.
“My original intent was to build rifles for hunters. But it has evolved into collectors. I prefer to work for hunters, but it doesn’t always work out that way. By the time you finish a gun like these, you probably have 300 to 350 hours into it. Even at dogcatcher pay, that’s a lot of money. I’ve had $8,000 in materials alone in a gun before I even turned a screw.”
Those materials can include a stock blank of European walnut worth perhaps $2,500, and a German rifle action costing $5,000, Fisher says.
The cost of one of his creations varies considerably, he says.
“I better not say how much,” says Fisher. “I might let the cat out of the bag.”
Tom Burgess, Kalispell
“I’ve worked with Tommy Burgess for 35 or 40 years,” says Fisher. “He’d do the metal work and I’d do the wood on a custom rifle. He is the pre-eminent metalsmith in the U.S. today. He’s as good as they get.”
Burgess got his start gunsmithing while still in high school, after he proved to be a child prodigy mechanic, he says.
As a youngster, he learned machinist’s skills at the Spokane Technical and Vocational School during World War II. He went to work for a local gunsmith making new parts for old guns until the war was over. His work included making hunting rifles out of surplus military Springfields and Mausers by fitting new barrels made by Buhmiller in Kalispell.
In 1950, Burgess came to the Flathead to visit with Buhmiller. By then, Burgess had his own gun shop.
“I wanted to come to work for him (Buhmiller), and I finally did in 1971,” Burgess says. “He was fairly well retired by then.”
Burgess already had established a national reputation as a gunmaker before moving to the Flathead. He’d built some guns for the legendary gun writer Jack O’Connor. And he’d worked with some of the country’s most famous gun craftsmen.
Working with Buhmiller, Burgess helped develop special test barrels for Winchester’s research and development department. The barrels were used in developing the company’s new .243, .358 and .458 Magnum cartridges.
Burgess says he’d tip off O’Connor about Winchester’s top-secret projects and the writer would break the stories in his column in Outdoor Life magazine.
Mel Smart, Kalispell
Smart put himself through college in Portland working for Roberts Gun Stocks, the third largest custom stock-making firm in the nation at that time in the 1950s.
After college, he started working part time making custom rifles. He went into the business full time in 1979 when he moved back to his native Montana in Kalispell.
Woodwork has always been Smart’s specialty, although he builds complete custom rifles on special order, about 20 a year for the past 20 years. He invented a new type of laminated stock, which he patented in 1994, and started his Acra-Bond Laminates custom stock-making company. He also makes baseball bats with the same process.
His Acra-Bond stocks are stronger and more stable than standard hardwood stocks, Smart says. They cost $395 and have been featured in national magazine articles several times.
“They’re selling as fast as I want ’em to,” he says. “I don’t have to do any advertising. I’m trying to retire but I can’t seem to get the job done. I’m backed up on orders.”
Smart also sells a lot of his laminated stock blanks to other custom gun builders, he says.
Lester Bauska, Kalispell
A pioneer in the business, Bauska has made barrels for many of the top custom gunmakers in the country for over 50 years.
Bauska, who’s 80 and still producing barrels, says he’s lost track of how many he’s made since he started working for Buhmiller in 1947.
“I quit countin’ when I got to 20,000 in about 1986,” he says.
Bauska’s longevity and quality workmanship has earned him a top reputation with some of the gun world’s most prominent individuals.
He made barrels for famed gun writer and firearms guru Elmer Keith.
“He and I were pretty good friends,” Bauska says of Keith. “I knew Tommy Burgess when he was still over in Spokane. I know ’em all. Jerry Fisher, he’s one of the tops in the business.”
He makes barrels by the button-rifling method, in which a very hard metal rod is pushed or pulled through a drilled barrel, pressing the grooves of the rifling into the steel. The technique produces some of the most accurate barrels made, Bauska says.
“I went to Czechoslovakia and the BRNO gun factory and saw the hammer forging machine that mass-produces barrels,” he says. “But you’re not going to make the perfect barrel. If you think you are, you’re gonna go broke real quick. There’s no such animal.”
Bob James, Polson
A newcomer to the Flathead, having moved to the area seven years ago from Missouri, James has been in the custom gun business for 40 years. He’s known Bauska, Burgess and Fisher for most of that time.
He and his wife, Phyllis, operate the multifaceted Bob’s Custom Gun Shop, which actually is their home on the south shore of Flathead Lake, along with five other outbuildings.
The shop employs 10 people, including one other full-time gunsmith besides Bob, stock makers, stock finishers and technicians who carve checkering into gun stocks.
About 50 percent of the shop’s business is custom fitting of stocks for fine shotguns used for shooting sporting clays. Bob James is one of the few gunmakers in the country who specialize in that field, he says. He uses a “tri-gun,” with adjustable stock dimensions to determine the perfect fit for a shooter.
James has fitted and made stocks for some of the country’s top competitive sporting clays shooters.
“We have people fly in from all over the world to personally fit a gun to them,” he says. “We get to work on some mighty fine pieces. Some of the guns in here run $60,000, $70,000, $80,000. We worked on one that cost $123,000, an English double rifle, a .470 Nitro Express.”
The only gunsmithing work his shop doesn’t do, James says, is engraving and making rifle barrels. Otherwise, it does a full line of repairs and custom work.
James’ shop makes all the repair and replacement stocks for the Browning firearms company. It also makes custom stocks, and does gun bluing, for the Italian gunmaker Berretta.
Bob’s has a stock duplicating machine capable of reproducing the dimensions of more than 500 stock patterns. And he’s making additional patterns every day, says James.
James and his wife are in the process of expanding their shop, adding work space and employees.
“We hope to run about 5,000 completed stocks through this facility next year,” Bob James says.
Brian Sipe, Kalispell
Sipe operates The Montana Rifleman, which is primarily a rifle barrel-making business, but which also performs a full line of gunsmithing services and custom rifle making, with customers all over the world.
Sipe’s been in business about 10 years, and he says he feels a close tie to other gunmakers in the Flathead Valley. He says he got his start working with Bauska.
“Fraternity is exactly the word I would use to describe it,” he says. “Five or six guys working together, and everybody gains. There’s too many people doing this to be fighting among ourselves. We need to work together. Sure, we compete against each other sometimes. But we help each other, too. The number of families who depend on the gun industry in this valley is amazing.”
Sipe’s shop employs two other full-time gunsmiths and four part-time workers. His high-volume button-rifling process of producing barrels makes him, along with Dan Lilja of Plains, one of the Northwest’s largest makers of custom barrels.
And, says Sipe, he plans a substantial expansion of his business in the next year.
One project he’s planning, Sipe says, is the introduction of his own line of rifle actions to be used by other gunmakers as the basis for custom guns.
Monte Mandarino, Kalispell
The old masters are in awe of Mandarino’s talents.
“Monte Mandarino is the finest gun mechanic who ever worked in the United States,” Fisher states flatly. “He can build a gun in any configuration you can imagine from any period in history.”
“One guy who I can’t believe his ability is Monte Mandarino,” says Burgess. “I’ve watched him make a hammer out of a block of steel, without any tools, really. He’s been featured in the magazines a lot.”
His special area of interest, Mandarino says, is the Louis XIV period in the mid-to-late 17th century.
“I try to emulate the best of the Parisian gunmakers from that period,” he says. “The style is late Renaissance, early Baroque, with all levels of decorating. The ones I’m interested in are museum-quality pieces. Their decoration is sheet gold and gold inlay in the stock. They’re pretty complicated. The butt plates, trigger guards and locks are relief chiseled and engraved.”
Mandarino does all the work himself. And the intricate work makes the guns very expensive, he says.
Interested in antique firearms since he was a child, he learned his craft working as an apprentice with a Kentucky rifle maker in North Carolina in 1975. In 1981, he moved to the Flathead to pursue his gunmaking career, specializing in historic replicas of muzzleloaders.
For the past 10 years, Mandarino was under contract to make guns for one collector. Now, he says, “I’m back on my own, working for anyone interested in employing me.”
Bill Dowtin, Whitefish
Dowtin moved to the Flathead a year ago from Flagstaff, Ariz., where he made custom guns for 25 years.
But he’s very familiar with the gunmakers in the Flathead, he says, and has long admired their work.
He’s had a long working relationship with Smart. He plans to introduce a line of custom hunting rifles this year, using Smart’s Acra-Bond Laminates stock blanks.
“Bill is one of the finest stock makers in the United States,” Smart says. “I worked with him when he was still in Arizona.”
Dowtin’s specialty, like James’, is fitting and building custom stocks for fine shotguns.
Bob Culbertson, Columbia Falls
Culbertson operates Lone Wolf Adventure Gear, a company that specializes in making custom synthetic rifle stocks, using a process that combines epoxy resins of carbon fiber and Kevlar on a cloth base. Lone Wolf also makes Elite Accuracy Systems precision custom rifles.
Culbertson and his wife, Jill, moved their high-tech company from San Diego 3 1/2 years ago.
The advantage of Lone Wolf’s “composite” stocks over traditional wood stocks, Culbertson says, is strength, stability and light weight.
Lone Wolf makes 30 models of rifle stocks for a variety of purposes and gun styles, from competitive target shooting to hunting. And the company can customize a stock for a shooter’s particular needs or shooting style.
One of Lone Wolf’s ultra-light stock models is a replacement for a factory stock. The Remington stock, for instance, weighs about three pounds. The Lone Wolf replacement stock weighs just over one pound.
Lone Wolf’s stocks come in an array of colors, ranging from camouflage patterns to flashy metal-flake paint jobs.
Lone Wolf currently produces about 1 1/2 stocks a day, Culbertson says. But the company has a four-month backlog of orders, and he and his wife are planning an expansion to double production, he says.
Barry Lee Hands, Bigfork
Hands is considered to be one of the premier gun engravers in the country, according to his Flathead colleagues.
He’s been in the business for 13 years full time in the Flathead. He’s done custom engraving for Colt and other firearms manufacturers. His work has been featured in Sports Afield and other magazines.
He was selected by the American Custom Gunmakers Guild to do the engraving on its annual custom gun project in 1998. Each year, the guild selects a stock maker, metal worker and engraver to create a showpiece gun.
“So it’s a big deal,” says Hands.
Jim Baiar, Columbia Falls
Baiar makes a small number of precisely machined rifle barrels, possibly 100 to 150 a year, for some of the top custom gunmakers in the country at his Halfmoon Rifle Shop.
He’s been making barrels for about 25 years, using the slow but exacting process of machine-cutting a barrel’s rifling one groove at a time.
About a third of his production for many years went to aerospace companies, who used his high-quality barrels for experiments on hypervelocity, he says. But most of his barrels are bought by gunsmiths for making custom rifles with special features that he can provide, including unusual caliber chambers, extra-long barrels and unusual rifling twist rates.
His customer list includes Fisher.
Jerry Cunningham, Kalispell
Cunningham is a longtime maker of high-quality barrels for custom muzzleloading rifles, according to Baiar and Smart.
- April 15, 2016 at 3:09 pm #27034seaboltmParticipant
- Posts: 8
- Comments: 64
- Overall: 72
I use a guy in Polson for checkering. Best work I have seen and the prices are reasonable. I used to use a guy in Kalispell for gunsmithing, but frankly I have seen no one better than our own Tim Malcolm so I have been using him for the last year or so.
- April 15, 2016 at 6:18 pm #27040WaksupiParticipant
- Posts: 6
- Comments: 106
- Overall: 112
seaboltm;n5808 wrote: I use a guy in Polson for checkering. Best work I have seen and the prices are reasonable. I used to use a guy in Kalispell for gunsmithing, but frankly I have seen no one better than our own Tim Malcolm so I have been using him for the last year or so.
I would imagine that is John Reese, at Custom Diamonds. We used him at Serengeti Rifles, and I have used him for many of my home projects. As you say, he does good work, for a good price.
- April 22, 2016 at 3:08 pm #27211seaboltmParticipant
- Posts: 8
- Comments: 64
- Overall: 72
Yep, John Reese.
- You must be logged in to reply to this topic.