Jerry Fisher, Master Gunmaker (Great Article)


January 13, 2003, 07:07 PM
Jerry Fisher, Master Gunmaker
by David E. Petzal

He built his first custom rifle when Dwight Eisenhower was president. Today, only a few men can equal his work, and no one can do it better.

He began hunting in 1943 when he was 13 years old and has been at it ever since. He built his first custom rifle in 1956 and very quickly became one of the premier American gunmakers. There are a few men who can equal Jerry Fisher’s work, but no one can do better. Today, at 71, he is still a hunter and a gunsmith, and it’s doubtful if there is anyone who knows more about fine rifles—and their use in the field.

He works out of a large, sunlit shop in Big Timber, Montana, with a fine view of the Swan Mountains. The shop would easily pass a military inspection. The tools are all racked, the machines are clean, and there is not a speck of sawdust or a metal filing to be seen.

Fisher is a big man, 6 feet 3 inches tall, packing 225 pounds on his rangy frame. His huge hands belie the delicacy of what he does for a living. He likes old music, hunting in the mountains, dead wolves, fine axes and knives, and good horses. He has no intention of retiring.

Since 1964 Fisher has hunted with only one rifle, a 7mm Remington Magnum that he built on a Winchester Model 70 action. It still wears the same Leupold Pioneer 4X scope (discontinued in 1959) that he mounted on the rifle when it was new. Today the rifle’s checkering is worn smooth, its bluing is gone in places, and the stock looks as if it has been dragged down 5 miles of gravel road. Fisher has lost count of the game he has taken with it but knows that it’s accounted for whitetails, blacktail deer, a “whole herd of mule deer,” sheep, elk, and black bears.

His favorite hunting is mountain mule deer. “Out in the sagebrush it’s not too hard to get one, but in the mountains, a big mule deer is real good at keeping his hide on. They don’t get to be big by being dumb.” His best mule deer is a monstrous 34-incher. A grizzly got the meat, but Fisher kept the antlers. After admiring Jerry Fisher’s work for many years, I finally got to visit with him in February 2002.

Picking a Gunmaker
I asked, “What advice would you give to someone who had just come into some money, wanted to get a custom rifle (or shotgun) and was looking for someone to do the work? How would you pick that person?”

“I’d do some research and find who the top people in the business are and go to one of them. You’ll get a rifle that you’ll enjoy and probably keep all your life. If you go to someone who’s half as good and charges half as much, you may keep it, but you won’t get nearly the satisfaction out of it. And I’d have one person do all the work. There are great woodworkers, and there are great metalworkers, but the two don’t fit together as well as when one man does it all.”

The Components
Fisher prefers single-shots and bolt actions. “I like pre–World War II Winchester Model 70s and Mausers, and I particularly like military contract Mausers. It seems that when Mauser had a military inspector looking over their shoulders, they did a better job. The Model 1909 Argentine Mauser is a real good one. For a left-hander, I’ll use a Dakota.

“As for wood, I like English walnut. I’ve made stocks out of a lot of woods, but that’s the best. We’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been in the business that the supply of fine walnut is drying up, but that’s just the wood hawks (dealers) trying to jack up the price. The truth is that there’s more fine wood available now than there ever was. It’s coming from the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand and Australia and Turkey. It’s hard to name a country that doesn’t grow it.

“You shouldn’t try to pick your own stock blank. Very few people can tell a good blank because they only look at the figure and color of the wood. The most important thing is the layout. The fancy figure should all be in the buttstock, the grain should follow the curve of where the grip will be, and the grain of the fore-end should be straight. If you haven’t got that, it won’t make a good stock.

“The average guy can get badly screwed buying his own wood. The wood hawks are unmerciful; the only thing they’re interested in is a profit, but the gunmaker’s interested in the finished product—something he wants to be proud of. ("Note: A good but unexceptional English walnut blank costs $1,000. A really nice one will run twice that, and the cream of the crop can cost $3,000 before a tool is laid to it.") “There’s no such thing as a truly stable piece of wood. The wood hawks will dry the water out of a blank, and once the water’s gone the wood will start to cure. I give my blanks five to seven years in my shop, so they can stabilize. Then I rough-shape them and let them hang awhile, because when you start carving, the wood will start moving. After they’ve hung, you inlet and seal them, but they’re always going to gain or lose some water. But still, I can’t make myself hunt with a plastic rifle.

“The barrel is what determines accuracy, and there are a lot of wonderful barrels around today. The benchresters forced people to make good barrels, and I use them from two or three makers. If you’ve got a good barrel and good bullets to shoot through it, you’re most of the way to an accurate rifle.

“If I can get a rifle to put three shots into an inch or an inch and a half at 100 yards, that’s fine, but I prefer a 10-shot 1-inch group. That’s much tougher, and if your rifle will do that, you’ve really got something.

“I like ‘obsolete’ calibers. Most of my rifles have been chambered for the .270, .30/06, and .375 H&H. If you’ve got an ‘obsolete’ .30/06 you can hunt any big game in North America. If you’ve got a 7x57 Mauser you can hunt anything in Montana. I don’t believe in shooting at over 300 yards, and you don’t need a magnum cartridge for anything inside that.

“I don’t see why you need a variable scope. A straight 4X is fine. That old Leupold on my rifle doesn’t weigh much, doesn’t have any adjustment turrets to leak ("the Pioneer bases contain the windage and elevation adjustments"), and doesn’t have all the complications of a variable. Most of the time people set them at one power and forget to turn them up or down when they’re going to shoot, so they end up with a fixed-power scope anyway. Most people carry binoculars nowadays, so why do you need all that power in a scope? It’s just a back sight.

“Seven and three-quarters to 8 pounds ("with scope") is about right for a rifle like a .30/06. I can make them lighter, but I have to whittle on them awful hard and they’re hard to hold steady. For something like a .338, 81/2 pounds is about right. If you want a big rifle like a .375 H&H or a .416 Rigby, you had better not have less than 101/2 to 11 pounds.

“As for trigger pulls, 3 pounds is about right for most rifles. You don’t want it lighter because it’ll go off accidentally when it’s cold and you’re wearing gloves. For a dangerous-game rifle, 4 pounds is right. You really want to have to work to make one of them go off.”

Time and Money
It takes 250 to 300 hours for Fisher to build an “average” rifle. A complicated one, such as the takedown .416 that is currently in his shop, can take as many as 750 hours. So to save his time and the customers’ money, Fisher uses an inletting machine made by stockmaker George Hoenig.

“If you run it right, it can do almost all of the exterior shaping and 90 percent of the inletting. What you’re paying me for is to remove those last few thousandths of an inch that make the difference between the action fitting and not fitting.”

And the magic question—how much? All of Fisher’s rifles are meant to be working rifles, and a typical one costs $9,000 to $10,000. A complicated job can run to $15,000, and engraving increases the cost considerably. These days, about half of his rifles are engraved and spend their lives in a safe or on a rack. But everything that leaves his shop is built to hunt.

The waiting time for a rifle from a first-class wood and metal man? Two to four years. And if you split the jobs, it can take longer.

Factory Rifles
“I think the factories are doing a very good job. You can walk in any sporting-goods store and get a rifle, and it’ll shoot very well. And you can take it hunting anywhere on earth. I still don’t like plastic guns, but that’s only because of the way they look; they’re sure practical. The fit and finish on factory rifles 50 years ago was a little bit better, but only a little bit. You look at it on rifles today, and it’s just fine, especially when you consider what the guns sell for.”

What is a Good Rifle Shot?
“That’s a fellow who’s killed a couple hundred head of big game. When you get to that point you cool down. You don’t get nervous or excited and you don’t take foolish shots. A good shot is a hunter who’ll pass up a shot that would cripple. He pulls that trigger when he knows he can make the shot.”

What Makes a Good Hunter?
“Patience. You just can’t hurry and do it right, especially if you’re looking for a trophy. If you want to get a big head, you just have to accept that you may not get an animal this year, but you may get it the next trip.

“Desire is important. You can crawl up that mountain, but if you have desire, you’ll get to the top quickly because there might be a big buck up there. Hunting isn’t about killing; it’s about looking. I could get in the Jeep and go out and kill the first mule deer I see, but that’s not really hunting. You have to look at a lot of animals and just enjoy being outdoors.

“I think a good hunter today is probably better than a good hunter of 50 years ago, and the difference is the jet airplane. They can travel in hours, not days, and they can access big-game fields better, so they get more experience. Guides—most of them—are better, and people are getting better trophies. Big-game hunters today have access to far more information than they used to. They may not be better woodsmen than they were 50 years ago, but they’ve got the edge elsewhere.

“The good hunters I know in this part of Montana go out for weeks on end, and they’re good because they’re out all the time. Some of the best hunters I know are bowhunters, and some of the worst ones, too. The best hunters spend days just walking the ridges waiting for something to happen. Sooner or later it does.”

On Great Gunmakers
“I can teach a monkey to make a gun. The difference between a monkey building one and a great gunsmith building one is knowing just where to take three or four thousandths of an inch off the wood and the metal. That’s all there is to it.”,13199,406931,00.html

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