Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
Tucked away in modest downtown Hendersonville is one of the country’s premier gunsmiths, Michael Merker.
The interior of Mike Merker’s shop is firearms maintenance as aromatherapy — a study in layered smells: wood, leather, the clean, brittle smell of steel, the hot, acrid smell of metal filings, all interwoven with the sweet-sour smell of Hoppe’s #9 bore cleaner.
Colors, too: The dark green baize that lines the gun display cases, the paradoxical warm wood glow and dull metal gleam of the guns themselves, the scarlet and brass of shotgun shells. Visually, the showroom is like something from a vintage Winchester poster. Or an exceptionally well stocked gun room in an old and gracious home. There are easy chairs and between them a coffee table displaying coffee table picture books. About guns.
This is the establishment of Michael Merker Riflemakers, in downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina. Merker is a stocky, bearded, and bespectacled man, who, clad in a dark red T-shirt and khaki safari shorts against the lingering September heat, looks like the senior riflery instructor at an upscale summer camp.
“I’m originally from Cleveland,” he says. “Well, just outside Cleveland. The sticks.”
“There are some, and that’s where I’m from,” Merker says. “I learned to shoot and hunt, early. Ducks, geese, then deer. I got interested in gun repair sort of sideways. My dad restored antique automobiles. That part of Ohio is a big industrial area; there’s a lot of machining that goes on and a lot of folks take those skills and make hobbies out of them. I liked guns. I started fooling around with them mechanically.
“So when the time came to decide what I wanted to do with my life, so to speak, I thought long and hard about it, and decided to go to gunsmithing school.”
Time was, of course, when there were no such things as schools for aspiring gunsmiths. The crafting, modifying, and repairing of firearms were skills that were to modern gunsmithing as barbering once was to surgery: primitive, but for the most part, adequate to the task at hand. Aftercare, repair, and alteration were techniques taught entirely by apprenticeship. Like tailors, carpenters, and silversmiths, gunsmiths took on student-employees who provided free labor as they learned their craft.
But turning apprentices into journeymen and journeymen into craftsmen was an open-ended process of no predictable length, and it could not keep pace with the proliferation and the ever-increasing sophistication of the firearms themselves, not to mention the concomitant development of laws governing guns and, for that matter, the constantly evolving requirements of running a business.
So today, a pukka gunsmith must be a combination small parts manufacturer, metalworker, and woodworker, and be proficient in the use of all the tools associated with those disciplines. He has to be well-grounded in drafting and practical math, and have a working knowledge of basic industrial chemistry and ballistics. Further, it will help him greatly if he has innate talent and imagination that can be translated into producing his own designs and decorations. Oh, and he must also be able to perform the tasks associated with running a small business, including bookkeeping, sales, and marketing skills, and the ability to stay abreast of constantly changing federal, state, and local firearms laws.
Hence, gunsmithing schools. And Merker’s first acquaintance with North Carolina, which began when he enrolled in a gunsmithing school near Durham, and then continued his education at Montgomery Community College in Troy, near Albemarle.
“After I got out of school I didn’t have the resources to start my own business,” he remembers, “and I felt like I didn’t have the practical experience either—not yet—so I worked for various people around the county, doing mostly engraving. For instance, I worked for Ken Hurst Engraving.”
Which says something for Merker’s skill level, even fresh out of school. Hurst, of Robersonville, North Carolina, is regarded by many as the reigning Michelangelo of gun engravers. He doesn’t take on just anybody; in fact, his roster of apprentices includes Virginia’s Lisa Tomlin, now one of the country’s finest and most sought-after gun engravers in her own right.
(And which leads us, at this point, to interject a disclaimer: Throughout this article, firearms craftsmen tend to be referred to as masculine, whereas obviously gunsmithing is an equal opportunity field in which women can and do excel. One of the few deficiencies of the otherwise superb English language is that it lacks a gender-neutral third person pronoun, such as the convenient French “on.” Writers of English, trying to be inclusive, are thus faced with the Hobson’s choice of using the incredibly awkward “he or she” or the incorrect “they”—unless they revert to the old tactic of using “he,” “him,” and “his” for both genders, in hopes that the reader will have sense enough to infer that it’s all-embracing. This, the present writer has done. We now return you to our regularly scheduled narrative of Mike Merker’s career and an examination of his chosen profession.)
Eventually Merker struck out for Florida, and after working for “about half a dozen places down there,” he felt emboldened to hang out his gunsmith’s shingle in the garage of his Fort Myers home. He continued to develop his skills, doing mostly basic repair work, and in 1995 he followed his father to Hendersonville, where the elder Merker had retired, and established himself in a metal building his father owned on Hendersonville’s Grove Street. He’s been here ever since.
“At that time,” Merker remembers, “American custom rifles had been kinda big in the market, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the market had begun to peter out and European collectibles came in strong. So I applied myself as a firearms restorer, first on American guns—Winchesters and Parkers, and that was prep for the high grade European stuff.”
Again, this would have been a logical progression for Merker. To sportsmen and collectors alike, Winchester rifles and Parker shotguns occupy exalted niches in the pantheon of American firearms. (See sidebar, p. 39) “I began to feel confident enough to work on high-end European guns,” Merker continues. “Magazine rifles, custom shotguns, Purdeys and Hollands, that sort of thing. It can be a little intimidating when you’re about to work on a gun somebody has paid that kind of money for. And they’re out there, some of them right here in this area. Those aren’t the kinds of guns you practice [repairs] on. You have to know what you’re doing.
“In the mid-nineties, when the English and European upscale pieces were getting popular, guys with money and good collections were looking to individualize their guns—to personalize what they had as a means of upgrading the value, rather than starting from scratch with a totally custom made rifle or shotgun. In an all-custom situation like that, when you’re done, what you have may be like a hot rod—you like it, but it’s actually worth about half of what you paid for it because not everybody has your taste. But if you start with something like a Holland or a Purdey to begin with, you’ve got something that will double or triple its value. That’s why it was beneficial for me to be able to look at what these craftsmen were doing worldwide and keep up. So it’s like anything else. Word got around that I was qualified to do work on really fine guns and the work started coming in from out of town, as well as locally. I was able to upgrade, hire people, and buy more equipment.
“People do like to individualize their guns. And almost any gun can be upgraded, whether it’s rebluing a barrel or checkering a stock or something as simple as a new shoulder pad. Guns tend to be personal things and people like to put their own stamp on them. That’s what keeps gunsmiths in business. Originally, my business was entirely gunsmithing. But within a few years, it had gotten to be about 85% gunsmith and 15% retail—I had taken on a couple of retail lines as an experiment, and I keep up with auctions and always have an eye out for pieces I think will sell—and now, it’s probably more like fifty-fifty. But it’s the gunsmithing operation that anchors us and keeps us in a niche apart from everybody that just sells guns.”
What caused the change in crafting-versus-sales ratio?
“I think that has to do with something very basic: the whole profile of gun ownership in America. We’re a nation of gun owners. It’s a big part of who we are as a country, from our earliest history right down to the present day. The average American with a clean record can own a gun. That’s not the case in Europe. There are some fine guns made in Italy, in Germany. But only the military and very well-to-do people have them. The requirements are strict and they’re terribly expensive. That’s one reason guns like the English make are so exquisite. They have the time to design them and the time to make them.
“America’s genius is mass production, in guns as in everything else. We make guns for the masses. They aren’t masterpieces, but they’re rugged and dependable and serviceable. That’s been true since the Hawken brothers started making rifles [in the early 1920s]. People think ‘cotton gin’ when they hear the name Eli Whitney. A lot of people don’t realize he was a gunmaker and pioneered the use of interchangeable parts. Remington, Browning, Winchester—they’re marvels of serviceability. And pistols—look at the 1911 Colt .45 automatic. Hasn’t changed in 105 years. You can take one apart and reassemble it, blindfolded, in five minutes.”
Which brings up handguns in general. “American handguns are the best in the world overall, period,” Merker says. “Some individual European models have been good, but we make more of the best than anybody else. The need for handguns came about with the settling of the frontier. This is still a young country, whereas Europe has been settled a long time. It hasn’t been that long since the American West was opened. But it’s been long enough that we consider gun ownership to be something we’re entitled to.”
What are the limits of his capability?
“Some people think gunsmiths actually make guns,” Merker says. “Of course we don’t do that—it would require huge, expensive machinery and a lot of people to be a gun factory. But we can certainly fabricate ‘new’ weapons using existing and new parts. If somebody comes in with a Mauser, say, and wants to turn it into an express rifle, we can assemble an express rifle on his Mauser frame. That kind of thing is well within our capability.”
Merker’s shop area contains an eclectic array of appliances and equipment, from belt sanders and metal lathes, to hand tools like wrenches and hammers, to surgically-delicate cutting and engraving instruments. There are three bluing tanks, one filled with the traditional blue solution, one with the orange-brown that yields a rust-colored prewar patina, and one that produces a matte finish.
And here, too, is a rack of tagged long guns, incoming “patients,” and completed projects ready for delivery. “Here’s an express rifle,” he says. “Here’s an 1871 Mauser, Franco-Prussian War issue. I’ve got to do an invisible repair on this one”—he indicates a barely discernible wood gouge on the Mauser’s receiver—“I’ll do that with filler and then I’ll have to match the stain. [This is not easy; the stock’s woodwork has attained the pitted, dark gold color of generations.] Here’s an engraved Browning that needs touching up…”
What do we have here?
“Ah, good eye,” Merker says. “That’s a super-nice French piece, .410. Side lock. Made in Strasbourg. Gold plated internals, not to show off, but because the gold protects against moisture. Go ahead, pick it up.” It’s almost dainty, quite possibly a lady’s gun, so beautifully balanced that it seems to have no weight at all. “All you have to do is point it and shoot,” Merker says. “You don’t even have to sight it.”
As we re-enter the store area-cum-gentleman’s-gunroom, a customer breezes in, a tanned, fit-looking retiree in a Hawaiian shirt and golf slacks. He’s brought with him a tooled leather holster with a strap that needs mending. He and Merker are soon engaged in a conversation about actual versus movie versions of Old West pistol accessories.
“You really very seldom saw fast draw holsters,” the customer says, “because the whole fast draw thing…”
“…was a myth,” Merker finishes for him.
“Exactly,” the man says. “They’d stick their weapons in their waistbands. Some of them had leather lined pockets instead of holsters…”
“…swivel studs mounted on a belt. Good way to shoot your toe off.”
“Oh, yeah. Some movie producers, they’d even line holsters with aluminum to make the draw look faster… “
The door closes gently on proprietor and client engaging in the only thing gun collectors like to do better than shooting firearms: talking about them.
Trademarks of Quality:
Winchester, Parker, Remington, Purdey, Holland & Holland
The breechloading Henry Rifle was eagerly scarfed up by the Yankee army and made New Haven Arms’ fortune. In 1866 the company was reformed under Winchester’s own name. Seven years later the company produced “the gun that won the West,” the lever-action Winchester ’73, which used the world’s first center-fire cartridge.
Charles Parker, on the other hand, got into shotguns. An erstwhile button maker and manufacturer of small household appliances—also in Connecticut—he saved seventy dollars and invested it in his first factory setup, which according to local historians was powered by a blind horse tethered to a sweep pole. (Initial success allowed the horse to be retired; the company built the first factory steam engine in Connecticut.) Parker and his brothers built muskets for the Union army, but after the war’s end they returned to the company’s specialty: side-by-side shotguns. Between 1866 and 1942 some 242,000 Parker shotguns were made; they are considered by many to be the finest American shotguns ever produced, and the most collectible. Parker owners have included Annie Oakley and Clark Gable.
It should be said that, collectability aside, neither Winchester nor Parker is America’s oldest gun maker. That distinction belongs to Remington Arms, founded in Ilion, New York, in 1816 by Eliphalet Remington and now headquartered in
James Purdey and Sons, Ltd., of London, was founded in 1814 in a small brick “works” near Leicester Square. Purdey himself had apprenticed at Joseph Manton of Oxford Street, then considered to be England’s finest gunmaker. It’s said that in pursuit of the perfect shotgun barrel, James Purdey used old horseshoe nails, believed to be the hardest steel available, which he heated, hammered into strips, and wrapped around iron rods. Purdey customers have included Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria, assorted European royalty, and Indian maharajahs; the company currently holds personal manufacturing warrants for Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales. It’s estimated that it takes 750 man-hours to handcraft a Purdey shotgun, and the price tag for a new one, depending upon the model, can range from £40,000 to £150,000 (roughly $52,000 to $195,000). And they appreciate; there’s no such thing as a “used” Purdey. They’re often slow to come on the aftermarket because they become inherited property, handed on through generations.
The same is true of guns made by Holland and Holland, London’s other premium gunsmiths. Harris Holland was not a gunsmith at all, but a well-to-do tobacconist who was also an accomplished pigeon shooter. He had his own guns made to order, which made him a quick study when he decided to go into the business in 1835. Since that time, the name Holland, like Purdey, has become synonymous with fine guns, the company having made them for the king of Italy (when there was one), buckets of British nobility including various royals, and a goodly handful of American sportsmen. While Hollands’ shotguns are world renowned, the firm has also gained notoriety as makers of the “Paradox” jungle gun, beloved of bwanas, and their notable .357 magnum.
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