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Artisans of Michigan: Early American custom gunmaking

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Steven Durren exhibiting his work at the Great Lakes Woodworking Festival in 2017.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Steven Durren using a rasp to form a rifle stock made of American black walnut.

It's early in the morning in the shop of Johnson’s Sporting Goods in Adrian. Steven Durren is using a rasp to form a rifle stock. He makes custom firearms, mostly early American style from the Civil War to WWI. They’re not exact reproductions, but in the style of those single shot and bolt action rifles.

He started out as a metalsmith, making barrels and mechanisms for the guns. Then he started making the wood stocks too, like this one on the bench. He’s certified by the American Custom Gunmakers Guild.

Steven Durren: "So now it says I'm a stockmaker and a metalsmith."

Lester Graham: "How rare is that?"

SD: "There are a few that are doing both."

LG: "When you say a few, in the nation?"

SD: W"ell, the guild itself currently stands at ninety five members. There are other gun makers in the country that are certainly of guild quality. They just haven't applied and they're not part of the guild. The people that can do this guild quality work, there's a couple hundred in the country and that's about it."

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A work in progress.

There’s a lot more than goes into making a stock than you might imagine. It’s about the strength and it’s about the beauty of the wood. That wood is rare.

“I deal with people who are out buying trees. And also, you don’t cut down a tree to makes stocks; you dig it up because a lot of the figure is in the wood burl. So, yeah, it’s a separate industry. The wood is much more expensive that way, you know, much more expensive than a piece of lumber. This piece of wood here, it’s American Black Walnut which is less expensive than English (walnut), this piece of wood was about $300. I consider that not very expensive," Durren said.

LG: "Does it make that much of a difference?"

SD: "In terms of function on the stock, no. It really doesn’t matter."

LG: "So, this is all about aesthetics?"

SD: "Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Typically the guns I'm building sell for six to ten thousand dollars. An extra few hundred dollars on the wood: money well spent."

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A magazine article featuring one of Durren's creations.

His work is featured in magazines.

The people who buy his custom made rifles are either high-end gun enthusiasts or they’re big game hunters. He says he exhibits and sells at places like the Dallas Safari Club Convention and Sporting Expo which draws thousands of hunters who are not always familiar with custom made rifles.

SD: "I draw them in and I say, ‘You have to pick it up.’ That's a feature you can't describe. It feels-- it's lighter, it's racier. That's part of what you're getting in spending nine thousand dollars to get a rifle. It has a feel. It feels alive and it  naturally goes to the point of aim and it's a nice feel. You put it in their hands and you see their eyes light up."

LG: "Actually, now that you said that, if you don't mind I'd like to-"

SD: "Yes, please."

LG: "Well here, I’ll trade you. You hold the microphone."

SD: "All right."

LG: "I'll hold that rifle. Well it is-- it just seems like the grip is not usual. I mean you find this on a rifle."

SD: "It's a little different. It's a more open curve and then it's smaller in diameter."

LG: "And I've never looked through a site that nice either. That's the nicest site I’ve ever seen."

SD: "Yeah. That's a Leupold. That's good American made scope."

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Durren's custom made rifle (l) and the inspiration for the design, a Czechoslovakian made vz.24 rifle (r) made before WWII.

The inspiration for this custom rifle is a WWII era Czechoslovakian mass produced bolt-action rifle called the vz.24. The metal of this custom-made gun is much more sophisticated than the original rifle. But the stock is the first thing you notice. It’s not just pretty wood. A lot of geometry goes into designing the stock to make it balance and function in a way the original rifle does not.

SD: "There's a lot there."

LG: "They didn't put that kind of thought into that Czechoslovakian."

SD: "No they did not. And as you look at, you know a factory gun or a beginning stock makers gun and then look at a higher end stock, one thing you'll notice on the higher end stock is there is less wood. It becomes thinner, more graceful, more flowing wood."

LG: "When I picked it up, that's one of the first things I noticed. You can get your hand around that."

SD: "Yeah. I kept this and I wanted this to be a fairly light gun and it's reasonably light and, you know, when I go to the show and I hand it to people that's something that's light. It's lighter than they expected. That's what we're after."

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Durren in the shop with one of his creations.

Durren went to gunsmithing school right out of high school. But, there wasn’t a lot of work, so he worked at a machine shop for several years. About 20 years ago, he got back into gunsmithing. At first it was repairing or customizing rifles. He eventually got to the point he was making custom rifles almost exclusively and he’s a happy guy.

SD: "Yeah, I get up in the morning and think about what gun I'm working on. And, you know, I come home eat dinner and go down in the basement work on another one."

LG: "So what are you working on at home right now?"

SD: "A bolt action rifle for myself. I have an issue when I build a rifle for myself. Since I like money, I'll take it to the show and I will put a price tag on it and then somebody comes along and buys it. So I have to make another one and this one that I'm building now I think I'll actually put a sign on it that says not for sale. I’ll just I just show it off."

Steven Durren, metalsmith, stockmaker for custom-built rifles is our latest Artisan of Michigan.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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