In Good Guns, Stephen Bodio writes, “At its best every good gun is a kind of time machine.” And he might have added that every custom gun maker is a link in a chain of time machines that stretches back to the Clovis spear point or beyond, a line of men obsessed with the pursuit of perfection.
No one becomes an artist – any kind of artist – with a view to getting rich. Painters paint and writers write and gun makers make guns because they can’t help themselves. They may find their avocation early (Mozart was composing at five) or late (Grandma Moses only started painting in her late seventies when her arthritis got so bad she could no longer embroider) but they are driven.
Joe Smithson found his avocation early. He was raised on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. His family had a large ranch and his father owned the local trading post.
“I think that’s where my fascination with firearms started, because [his father] was always taking in a lot of guns for pawn.”
After high school, Joe went to Trinidad State Junior College, renowned for the gunsmithing program started in 1947 by P.O. Ackley of Ackley Improved cartridges fame. He was able to study under some of the best gunsmiths in America, and went right from college to an apprenticeship with the legendary Jerry Fisher. Then he opened his own shop in Farmington, NM.
“I started a shop with Jim Mosley (the dean of the gunsmithing department at Trinidad) and we were in business for three or four years before I opened my own place. But then I ended up moving to Provo, UT as a single dad with three kids.”
Joe opened his own shop in Provo, but as he says, “Gunsmithing is a hard way to make a living if you don’t have an outside income. I was lucky enough to have one customer [Mario Zanotti] who kept me afloat ordering guns every year. Without him and the support of Mosley and Fisher, I couldn’t have made it go.”
Fortunately, he did make it go, and today he builds six to eight guns a year, depending on how involved the projects are. Eighty percent of his business is bolt actions, but he can make anything from double rifle or shotgun to lever action or single shot. (The rifle that got him accepted into the American Custom Gunmaker’s Guild was a Fraser falling-block single shot he made himself completely from scratch, action, screws, springs, everything, by hand. It was not, he learned, a productive way to do things.)
The rifle Joe sent me to play with was chambered in .275 Rigby (his favorite caliber for light game is the 7X57mm, the virtually identical precursor and inspiration for the .275), and built with the traditional looks of a British ‘best:’ a breathtaking walnut stock with a crisply defined cheek-piece; ebony fore-end; smooth metal butt plate; square bridge action made by Granite Mountain; flawless – and I really mean flawless – wood-to-metal fit; folding leaf sights; an extra front sight and dust covers for the scope mount slots (!) tucked away in the pistol-grip trapdoor; detachable scope mounts…. Stop right there. Detachable scope mounts unlike any I have ever seen before.
When Joe started using Granite Mountain’s double square bridge action, he wanted a flawless and failsafe detachable mount to go with it, one that would go back to zero every time. He started experimenting with traditional lever systems, but eventually abandoned them in favor of his own unique design.
Each mount has a button on the side. When the button is pressed to remove the scope, an internal ball bearing rises up into a hole in the cam, allowing the mount to slide free from the base. Putting the scope back on, the mounts slide forward into the corresponding grooves in the bases and, when the button is released, the ball bearing drops down into a hole, the button cams over the ball bearing and the whole thing is locked into place. It is simple, easy to use, and absolutely failsafe. If it feels as precise and solid as a Tomahawk cruise missile, it’s because the mechanism is made by the machine shop that manufactures parts for Tomahawk missiles. Of course Joe, being Joe Smithson, then hand polishes and laps the mounts before installing them on bases he makes himself. He has also modified the system to work on other actions or even on double rifles. It’s the relentless pursuit of perfection, and it’s so successful that he makes them for both Westley Richards and Purdey.
I admit to being a sentimental fool – just ask my wife – and I get swept away by romance when I should probably stick to practicality. Certain words and names conjure up irresistible images of adventure and excitement. Winchester, Parker, Holland & Holland, 416 Rigby, 30-30, .375 H&H, .30-06, and of course, .275 Rigby. 275 Rigby? It may be relatively unknown in America, but it is a distinguished and popular round in England. It is the round we associate with tiger hunter Jim Corbett and elephant hunter WMD “Karamojo” Bell, and it doesn’t get more adventurous and exciting than that.
The .275 was originally developed by Mauser in 1892 as a military round, designated the 7X57mm or 7X57 Mauser, or even sometimes the 7X57 Spanish Mauser, since the Spanish army was the first to adopt it. In case you were busy passing notes to the cheerleader seated next to you in history class, I will remind you the 7X57 is the round that caused such enormous losses for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. It is also the round that enabled 88,000 Boer guerillas and commandos to fight the might of the British Empire and 500,000 of their soldiers to a humiliating standstill. The British eventually prevailed, but only after instigating a series of scorched-earth tactics whose brutality would today result in Queen Victoria, her Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and Lord Kitchener all being tried for war crimes in The Hague. (During the last 18 months of the war alone, over 20,000 – some reports put the number at over 26,000 – Boer women and children died in concentration camps.)
John Rigby & Co., originally an Irish firm founded in 1735, moved to London in 1897, and even before the end of the Boer War they already recognized the superiority of both the Mauser bolt action and the 7X57. However, knowing their British market, they offered the gun under the designation .275 Rigby, but by either name the round earned a reputation for accuracy and low recoil. And effectiveness: no less an authority than the late Finn Aagaard, who touted the 7X57 as a superior deer rifle and excellent all-round big game cartridge, reported that he once fired 173-grain solids from a 7X57 at plywood boards and achieved more penetration than he did with a 400-grain from a .416.
Ballistically, it is a little less powerful than the .270 Winchester, but an excellent choice for deer, antelope, wild boar, even much of African plains game. It is not a long-distance cartridge, but at moderate distances (out to 300 yards) it is extraordinarily effective.
The .275 Rigby is virtually identical to the 7X57, with the same case dimensions, the primary difference being that the 7mm is commercially available in more bullet weights than the .275.
The .275 Rigby Joe Smithson sent me was built on a Granite Mountain square bridge action. Granite Mountain Arms is a Phoenix, AZ based company that produces (in their own words) “the highest quality precision Mauser 98 style action ever produced… …the world’s finest double square bridge magnum action…” Based on Joe Smithson’s rifle, I tend to agree with their claims.
The Mauser action makes a great hunting rifle, especially for dangerous game, for the same reason (among others) that it made a great military rifle: that loose, sloppy action is very forgiving. If you fall on your face in the sand with a buttery-smooth action with close tolerances, like some of the old Mannlicher-Schoenauers or Colt-Sauers, you may have to take the gun apart before you can work the action again. I went bottom over teakettle down an embankment with a Colt Sauer many years ago, and it took about five minutes for me to get enough grit and dirt out to be able to extract the bolt. Five minutes in the sunshine on fine, cold day in southern Utah doesn’t seem like much. Five minutes in Alaska in the company of a grizzly who has lost his sense of humor might seem like an eternity. Fall on your face with the Mauser and its loose tolerances allow you to force the action. (The original Mauser 1898 had a bolt handle that jutted out at 90-degrees so that clumsy soldiers could use their boots to kick the action open or shut.)
Granite Mountain actions are CNC machined out of 8620 steel and case hardened. The receiver has an integral ‘C’ ring and a drop-bottom box with a hinged floor plate. The bolt has dual opposed locking lugs and a third safety lug, a recessed bolt face, a modified bolt handle to accommodate scopes, and the traditional three position wing safety. It comes with adjustable sporting trigger, and everything is hand lapped and hand polished. Of course Joe Smithson, being a perfectionist, does his own lapping and polishing on top of that, and the result is an action as slick and smooth as a politician chasing votes, but with Mauser’s loose and forgiving tolerances.
I have been privileged to shoot a good number of custom rifles built on Mauser actions and whatever hand polishing has been done by the maker has been superseded by that looseness. Not so with Joe Smithson’s work. It is still has that Mauser looseness, but it was without a doubt the smoothest Mauser I have ever handled.
I fired four five-shot groups, and with the exception of one stray (doubtless caused by a combination of global warming and the tilting of the earth on its axis) all four groups were under one inch. In one group that rifle put two bullets so perfectly into one hole that it took me a while to realize I hadn’t missed the target altogether. In another group three bullets created a single modified clover leaf under half an inch. Oh, yeah!
Perfection does not come cheap, but whenever a tool transcends mere function to become a work of art, price is no longer the issue. If you can afford to consider buying a custom firearm of this quality, what you are paying for is much more than just a hunting rifle. You are paying for the pursuit of perfection, a pursuit that takes you all the way back to the Clovis spear point.