Book review of
in black & white
by Steven Dodd Hughes
It is rare for a consummate craftsman to spell out in words the subtleties of his craft in ways that mere aficionados can grasp. Most great artisans take their secrets and understanding with them to their graves, not out of spite but because they never had the time nor talent to commit their knowledge to paper. Happily, in the world of custom rifles we have a craftsman who is at home not only with file and chisel but also with pen and camera. Between the covers of his book, Custom Rifles in Black & White, Steven Dodd Hughes offers over three dozen sharply illustrated little essays on some of the finest custom rifles ever created by the hands of a couple of dozen of the preeminent gunmakers of our time.
In his introduction Hughes hints that this collection of guns – photographed over a ten-year period – was recorded by chance and opportunity. Perhaps, but I’m reminded of a musical collaboration by the great fiddle prodigy and composer Mark O’Connor and some of his friends and fellow travelers. Titled Heroes, it’s a compilation of diverse pieces, each of which is performed by O’Connor and one of his musical heroes. With violinist Pinchas Zukerman he plays a heart-wrenching version of Jay Ungar’s lament, Ashokan Farewell. He and Kenny Baker cover the late, great Bill Monroe’s immortal Jerusalem Ridge. With Stephane Grappelli, they pull off the perennial jazz standard Ain’t Misbehavin’ in fine style. The list goes on. Hughes’ Custom Rifles in Black & White, much like O’Connor’s Heroes, is a paean to his extraordinarily talented friends in the gunmaking trade. And like O’Connor’s collection, Hughes book is also a rare appreciation of skill and quality that only a peer could present.
In direct, lucid prose Hughes describes the builder’s design philosophy for the gun and the influences and thinking that guided the project. Much time is devoted to the details that would not be apparent if the gun were not in hand, excellent black-and-white photography notwithstanding. Entries cover some of the greatest names in American custom gunmaking. Some of the guns are starkly simple, such as Ed Webber’s Winchester Model 1886 rifle. While its appearance is “factory,” the gun is detailed and finished to very high standards with a lot of stone and file work on the metal and a superior fit and finish of the wood. Another featured project is Mark Silver’s London-style .404 Mauser. It’s a tour de force with Holland & Holland-style scope mounts, a gracefully swamped barrel profile and the usual trimmings common to such guns. Other rifles are more subtle. Jerry Fisher’s iron-sighted Model 98 Mauser in .30-06 features Fisher’s innovative, round-body bottom metal that eliminates the flat margins around the floor plate seen on conventional magazines. The seamless, sinuous form of his sophisticated design work is easily overlooked. Of special interest are the Ruger No. 1 rifles by John Madole and James Corpe, one with a Fraser side-lever and the other with a Henry under-lever that pay homage to the great but long-gone Scottish gunmakers of yesteryear.
Most of us have a pretty fair idea of what the coloring of fine rust bluing, exquisite walnut and vibrant case hardening looks like. Hughes’ excellent black-and-white photography forces us to see the more important lines and execution of workmanship that can be overshadowed by color photographs that, often as not, may have been Photoshopped to increase their impact.
I’ve read and re-read this book many times since receiving my copy of it nearly twenty years ago, spending many happy hours poring over the photos. Few other books on fine rifles have influenced my thinking on the subject and expanded my horizons to as great a degree as this one. Chances are it’ll have the same effect on other readers as well.
Hughes’ 8½-by-10-inch softcover book contains 185 pages and is priced at $65, postpaid. To order, send a personal check, money order or cash to: S. D. Hughes, P. O. Box 545, Livingston, MT, 59047. For more information on Hughes’ other books and his custom rifles, visit www.finegunmaking.com.