Humankind has been preoccupied with fire and metal throughout recorded history. The Greeks had Hephaestus; the Norse – for simplicity’s sake – had Logi, though their table of organization for all things fire and metal related is about as cumbersome as General Motors before their reorganization, and the Romans? The Romans had Vulcan, often depicted with a large hammer, their god of fire and metalworking, the master of the forge.
I have a small hammer and a 5/32-inch metal punch. I’m installing an AR-15 fire control group, which is a lot like installing an inline-Four cam chain tensioner. I know these things, it’s part and parcel of a resume that contains a treasure trove of unmarketable skills. Springs under tension, close confines to work within, the knee bone is connected to the shin bone type of assembly that ensures when this moves just so, that happens over there, an exercise in the mechanical, close-tolerance world of applied logic.
I was thinking about this as I thumb-wrestled an aftermarket AR-15 hammer into a lower receiver to complete the trigger assembly. I try to pass myself off as a writer most days, sometimes successfully, not as a gunsmith – but I had to chuckle. It’s what I imagine writers do; think, chuckle, write, and sweat deadlines. But what I was doing also follows a long and proud tradition of a bygone century and one industry that in no small part begat another: Guns and bikes. Have you ever looked closely at a BSA corporate logo? It is three Lee-Enfield rifles in “stacked arms.” What about a Husqvarna corporate logo? Here, I’ll help you, it looks like this:
It is based on the logo that Husqvarna used to stamp their original products with when they opened for business back in the 1600s. And what were those original products? Muskets. I have seen references that claim the logo depicts a gun sight, maybe so, or perhaps a traditional proofmark depicting a crown, indicating the barrel and action had been tested and approved for service in the royal armed forces. In either case, like a good many motorcycle companies and their creations, the machine skills necessary to produce small arms begat other products that came into existence as metallurgy and manufacturing processes advanced, time passed, and the creative created; the bicycle, and then of course, the motorcycle.
Literally surrounded by motorcycles and the tools to work on them, I toil away with a small hammer and my metal and brass punch set assembling the collection of springs, detents, levers, plungers and trigger and hammer that make up an AR-15 lower. I didn’t do this to pay homage to the creators of our passions; the originators of the Huskys, CZs, BSAs (Birmingham Small Arms), Royal Enfields (Royal Small Arms), Winchesters, Iver Johnsons, or Fabrique Nationales of our predecessors, all of which had their origins in firearms manufacturing. I did it because I’m drawn to it, I have been all my life, and the skills I have developed over the years working on one transfer so readily to the other. It gives me satisfaction and improves what I am working on, all of which are a win-win, making it enormously satisfying. When you can see the results of your work empirically displayed in lowered lap times or shrinking groups on a target at 100 yards, you can see the fruits of your labor.
I came across an ad a few months back that gave me pause, Jesse James – the renowned custom motorcycle guy, not the western outlaw – had turned a new page. He’s now building one of John Browning’s strokes of genius, a variation on the Colt 1911, as well as a line of rifles and suppressors, all customized of course. The attention to detail is evident in the machine work. They range from the handsome, nicely kitted-out type with an artistic bent, up to the cartel kingpin/strongman dictator off-the-hook variety. I guess not so surprisingly, since JJ’s firearms spring from the same fountainhead of creativity his bikes did. As such the top shelf models are a bit, well, eye catching. A good many people like, “eye-catching,” it’s not quite my cup of tea but I’m kind of pedestrian that way.
You may recall the custom chopper the OC Custom fellas produced for our current chief executive. Well Jesse James, not to be outdone, turned out a new custom .45 for El Presidente that is one of a kind as well. Think Saddam’s gold AK, or El Chapo’s godson’s collection of gold 1911s, exclusive, expensive, well detailed, and eye-catching in that love-hate sort of way that only garish can pull off. To my simple tastes, I think a set of Novak night sights, a good trigger job, and a fitted slide are kind of sexy. If Bill Wilson’s no-nonsense/performance-first persona comes through in the custom line of 1911s his shop turns out, Jesse James’s go-and-a-lot-of-show vision most assuredly lives on in his custom 1911s. If you loved his bikes, you will adore his sidearms.
To each their own. The point being when it came time for Jesse to move on and find new ground to till, my gut reaction was ill-placed. Of course he went into manufacturing custom firearms, he’s simply following in the footsteps of a good many of his predecessors, in a retrograde fashion of sorts. He’s also just following the money, as the market for custom choppers doesn’t seem to be what it once was. Finely machined parts is parts, and close tolerances, high operating pressures and temperatures, all harnessing what in fact is well timed and controlled combustion, well? Drive a piston or drive a bullet, it takes all the same skills to build a machine to do it well.
Husky and Royal Enfield continue present day to make bikes, the last bolt action Husqvarna rifles were imported into the States in the 1970s. FN, on the other hand, made motorcycles from 1901 to 1967, including the world’s first inline-Four and some of the earliest shaft drive bikes – but saw the future in firearms. They made the coaxial and loader’s machine guns on my tank back in the day, the M-240, as well as a couple rifles in my gun safe, and FN currently builds our military’s M16A4s and M4A1s.
All of these histories show an intertwined relationship between firearm and motorcycle development. Iver Johnson immigrated to the United States from Norway where he had been a gunsmith; he joined with a partner, and pursued the familiar gun-bicycle-motorcycle manufacturing route. Under his tutelage a young gunsmith, O.M. Mossberg, learned his trade. I later carried a Mossberg pump shotgun in the Army on various details. Interestingly, Johnson became best known for his firearms, but it is his bicycles and motorcycles that are most highly sought today. This has been going on for hundreds of years – my installing a trigger group and adjusting trigger pull is simply carrying on a tradition that goes back to the 1600s: Harnessing fire and steel.
We fiddle and spend for results, and in no small part for the beauty in making something work “better,” in many ways no different than our predecessors 100 years ago. The results to be measured in increased performance or longevity, all of which can be empirically measured; at the track, at the range; in the log book in rounds fired, or miles covered; in accuracy, or lap times. There is elegance in a well crafted part; there is a beauty in a more efficient system properly assembled with attention to detail. And there is importance in doing it right in things that ultimately function by harnessing fire.
Vulcan would be envious.