Hamilton S. Bowen
Hamilton S. Bowen was born in East Tennessee in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. He and his far better half and his two daughters live in the antebellum farmhouse where Hamilton was born and spent his childhood. He studied history and English in undergraduate school and gunsmithing at Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad, Colorado, after which he returned to Tennessee and founded Bowen Classic Arms Corporation in 1980.
At that time, gunsmithing schools focused heavily on riflemaking, but Hamilton was drawn primarily to revolvers. As a result, he wound up more or less serving an apprenticeship with himself, devoting several years to study and experimentation. Over time, he developed the designs, procedures, parts and tooling required to produce the sophisticated revolvers that are the core offerings of his firm today. Bowen Classic Arms pioneered the field of fine custom revolvers.
Bowen Arms focuses on guns in the classic style but with a contemporary twist that combines modern materials and engineering with traditional elegance. There is no mistaking the influence of traditional arms and gunmaking on the firm’s work. Many of the shop’s best efforts revisit pre-World War II Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers and borrow heavily from the elegant sights, barrel contours, and finishes that distinguish these grand old guns. Nineteenth century riflemaking also offered much inspiration in the form of Damascus steel barrels, lovely ovate-ribbed barrels, exquisite finishes and other features peculiar to the great single-shot rifles of the British Isles. Hamilton’s revolver-building philosophy is laid out in considerable detail in his book, The Custom Revolver, published in 2001.
Largely avoiding honest toil in the real world, Hamilton has spent his working life in the trenches of the custom gunmaking trade. He is a member of both the American Custom Gunmakers Guild and American Pistolsmiths Guild. He belongs to the NRA and is a regular guest instructor at the NRA Summer Gunsmithing Schools. He has also lectured at Montgomery Junior College in Troy, North Carolina, and at Murray State Junior College in Tishamingo, Oklahoma.
In publishing the Classic Arms Journal, Hamilton aims to scratch a pair of his own itches—his yen to write about firearms and his longstanding interest in riflemaking. His other aim is to provide a venue where he and his friends and fellow travelers can pay homage to the great firearms of the past and the men who made and used them.
Alexis Doster III
Alexis “Dusty” Doster III grew up in Southern Arizona, where he hunted and shot all sorts of guns – from .22s to a 20mm Solothurn anti-tank rifle – all of them to his heart’s content. He still has the 1956 edition of Gun Digest, which was the first thing he ever bought for himself, and he has most of the other editions as well. Dusty worked 36 years for the Smithsonian Institution, serving as a curator at the National Air & Space Museum and then as a senior editor at Smithsonian Books and as the history editor at Smithsonian magazine. He also spent time in the U.S. Forest Service, in an open-pit copper mine and with a nationwide hotel renovation business. He likes single-shot rifles best, but anything that fires when he pulls the trigger will do. He also has had a lifelong fascination with motorcycles (mostly BMWs), cars, boats and airplanes – indeed, anything with an engine. The attraction may be explained by the fact that all of these have cylinders in which something explodes.
I began shooting and—perhaps as important—when I was five, and that was very long ago. The gun then was a humble single-shot .410, and the game was a sitting cottontail, soon followed by a flying mallard. That beginning was perhaps significant because then, as now, I was more interested in what a gun could do rather than in its rarity or its pedigree.
From that wee bunny, my hunting evolved all the way up to elephants and extended over five continents. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to learn about guns and hunting while guiding other hunters and watching them take perhaps a thousand head or so of big game. I did my first guiding at age 14 for pronghorn antelope. Eventually I held professional hunter’s licenses in two African countries. For a decade I also was a licensed guide and outfitter in Oregon. Somewhere in the mix, I won the World Practical Pistol Championship and used iron-sighted revolvers to hunt big game, including Cape buffalo. That hunting was coincident with my involvement in the pioneering of some of the truly powerful handguns—.475 and .500 calibers and supercharged .45 Colts.
The guns in my life have been what might be described as “balanced eccentric” — handguns, shotguns and rifles ranging from .17 calibers to 4-bores. Among them have been Smith & Wessons, Rugers, Webleys and Colts, but the core of my interest has been Continental and British single-shot and double rifles, shotguns and ball-and-shot guns. They range from flintlocks to ejectors, and most have Damascus barrels, external hammers and black-powder proofs. I did, however, engineer a modern rifle with a plastic stock that shot a nine-inch group at a measured mile.
My true interest in most of the guns was to learn what we have forgotten, to learn how to make them do what they were supposed to do, to get them to perform up to their original standard and to take game with them. This necessitated learning to make the needed components and tooling, which could rarely be bought over the counter. I had to make molds, dies, swages, cases and specialized loading tools. Along the way I’ve resurrected some of the most obscure and exciting technology, such as loads that will perfectly regulate double rifles with both black and smokeless powder. The cartridges that please me the most allow the ball-and-shot guns to do everything the makers claimed for them (including the high performance Westley Richards Fauneta and Explora). I’m drawn to the exciting and dramatic technology of detonating shells and also to the essential perfection of the .45 Colt Paradox revolvers that allows them to function with 2 ½-inch, .410 shotshells and still serve — with .45 Colt ammunition — as big-game guns accurate to 100 yards. To me, that’s a hard-won milestone.
I’m proud of the fact that I have grown to shun telescopic sights and my “ranging” is done (often incorrectly) with my eyes and mind rather than a laser rangefinder. Too, I have learned to hunt — to get close rather than shoot from afar … most of the time.
Collecting and shooting old arms at times also calls for parts and restoration, so out of necessity I’ve learned some modest skills as a gunmaker and some techniques that have allowed me to make old guns old again.
Recently I have served as a consultant to several private collectors, some of the larger auction houses and The National Firearms Museum on the subject of fine vintage arms.
I have been working exclusively in the custom gunmaking craft since November 2000. For the 23 years prior to that I was working at another job in addition to crafting guns 40 hours per week. Now I guess I am semi-retired since I only have one profession! Although I have been repairing and modifying guns since I was 14, my first real custom work was restocking existing rifles for myself and friends. Frustrated with getting the metalwork done, I gradually began doing more and more of it myself until, now, I offer my clients the complete package in house. My shop includes a lathe, milling machine, TIG and gas welding equipment, pneumatic checkering machine, band saws, drill press, power sanders and grinders, and hundreds of hand tools. When it is cost effective to do a particular job with the power machines, I do. However, when the job demands, I pick up a hand tool and do it the old fashioned way. I keep an inventory of high quality walnut stock blanks on hand as well as actions, barrels and accessories.
Today my style of both metal and stock work is tending toward the British and European styles of the pre-WW II era. however, the overall appearance is very much American Classic just with longer grips and slimmer forends. Whenever possible I like to meet with my clients to fit them better to their stocks and get a feel for the type of shooting they plan to do. Quite a lot of my gun work anymore falls into the antique restoration realm. This can range from minor cosmetic touch up to full blown restoration to original condition. Naturally the restoration work entails quite a lot of research to discover what the original finish was and the techniques used to arrive at that finish. Consequently my library is getting pretty extensive and I keep a huge network of “consultants” on the line.
For purely aesthetic reasons I will not work with synthetic stocks. The shooting sports are very organic activities and they deserve organic tools. As our society slides deeper toward a “throw away” mentality, the beauty of the tools we use in our sport says something about us as individuals. As custom stock checkerer Pat Taylor is fond of saying, “Life is too short to hunt with an ugly gun.” The animals we pursue and the environment in which we hunt them is beautiful. Why would you carry an ugly gun while you are in that beautiful environment?
Steven Dodd Hughes
Steven Dodd Hughes began his professional custom gunmaking career in 1975, attended Trinidad State Junior College, Trinidad Colorado. He completed a A. A. S. Degree in Gunsmithing in 1977 and a certificate of Gun Repair in 1978.
He worked for Green River Forge in Springfield, Oregon from 1978 until 1980 creating semi-custom muzzleloading guns and rifles. In 1980 he opened his own workshop in Eugene, Oregon doing general gunsmithing and building custom muzzle loading guns. In the late 1980s he began crafting custom double shotguns and breechloading rifles.
In 1995 Hughes moved his custom gunmaking workshop to Livingston, Montana where it continues. His work was shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (2003) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2004) and the Connor Prairie Museum (2004) in the prestigious traveling show Three Centuries of Tradition, The Renaissance of Custom Sporting Arms in America. Photos and description of a Low Wall custom rifle and a sidelock double shotgun by Hughes are included in the art book by the same title. Hughes was stockmaker and coordinator for the prestigious annual ACGG Firearms Project #12 that has been shown extensively throughout the USA and was part of a show at the Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art, in Midlands, MI (2012).
He has written the Fine Gunmaking column for Shooting Sportsman Magazine since 1993 and the Custom Shop column for Sports Afield Magazine since 2007. SDH feature stories have appeared in most American firearms magazines and his firearms photography has graced dozens of magazine and book covers. He has authored three books: Fine Gunmaking: Double Shotguns, Krause Pub. 1998; Custom Rifles in Black & White, Self Pub. 1999; and Double Guns and Custom Gunsmithing, Shooting Sportsman Pub. 2007.
Hughes’ testimony before Congress in 2002 was instrumental in attaining an Excise Tax Exemption for custom gunmakers. He has been a professional member of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild since 1985 and a Life Member since 2009.
Hughes currently completes just a few custom single shot rifles, lever action rifles or double shotguns per year. S&W revolvers have been his hobby since the 1970s. Hughes has always hunted with and recreationally shot custom guns crafted at his workbench.
Mike Venturino was born and raised in Mingo County, West Virginia; a place famous as the site of the Hatfield/McCoy Feud. He graduated from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia in 1972 with a BA degree in Journalism. Attracted to the American West by its history he started working summers in Yellowstone National Park in 1969 and made Montana his home after graduation.
His first magazine article, written as part of a class project, was printed in GUNS & AMMO in 1972 and soon his 2,000 article will be published. Unlike most shooting sports writers Mike actually decided during college to become a full-time “gunwriter” and has single mindedly pursued that goal throughout his life. However, before becoming financially able to write full time he also wrangled dukes, taught high school briefly, drove truck on a road paving crew and even owned his own movie theater.
In 1977 Mike met his wife Yvonne, a Missouri farm girl also working in Yellowstone Park. They were married on April Fool’s Day, 1978. He credits her with giving him the ambition to follow his dreams. “Before Yvonne,” he says, “it was easy to sit around and talk guns with my buddies. After we were married, I knew I had to get serious about some sort of career.” Shortly into the new century Mike taught Yvonne how to operate a camera so she could take photographs for the local Stafford Animal Shelter. Her talent along those lines blossomed to the point that he was soon asking her to do photos for his articles also.
The Venturinos have no children but share their 70 acres near Livingston, Montana, with a vast assortment of dogs, cats, horses and most recently a burro.
Lowell Branham was born and raised in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia but has resided in East Tennessee for so long that he probably qualifies as a bona fide Volunteer—but not much of a Vol fan. He has mostly earned his living as a journalist, but in the late ’70s he returned to his native coalfields and worked through the early ’80s in the mining industry. When the coal business went into a steep decline in the early ’80s, Lowell returned to journalism. He was the outdoor editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel for six years, but after telling the executive sports editor that he didn’t know how to do anything with copy except “f—” with it, he left that post and moved to the newspaper’s copy desk, where he remained until he retired. He didn’t completely forsake outdoor writing, though. For more than 20 years, Lowell wrote a weekly outdoor column for the Scripps Howard News Service. The column was nationally distributed and at one time for another appeared in most of the big city newspapers that subscribed to the Scripps Howard wire as well as in a great many small dailies and weeklies, some of which published the column every week.
A life member of the NRA, Lowell has been obsessed with guns ever since he was big enough to hold one. His concern is about equally divided between rifles and handguns. His interest in shotguns is pretty much confined to their utility for grouse hunting. Lowell began reloading 55 years with one box of .38 Special brass, a Lyman nutcracker tool and 148-grain wadcutter bullet mold. He is currently most focused on obtaining good accuracy with home-cast bullets in straight-case cartridges—namely the .45/70, the .38/55 and the .444 Marlin. Most of my shooting is with Marlin lever-actions, but I also have a .45/70 Browning 1886 High Wall that’s a real tack driver—and also quite a shoulder thumper.