Only by relying on the latest manufacturing techniques can Ted Hatfield's company re-create the craftsmanship of his great-great-grandfather
After a youth that it would be kind to call misspent, Ted Hatfield decided it was time to make something of himself. He had been around the world twice, driven a bus through the Khyber Pass, been run over by a bull in Pamplona, and worked as a hunting guide in Alaska. He was nearly 30 years old and sensed that it was about time to settle down and assume some adult responsibilities. So, typically, Hatfield chose to go into a nearly impossible business. He would become a gunmaker.
Hatfield came to that conclusion at a time when the once-proud U.S. firearms industry was in a depression from which it did not seem likely to emerge. This was in the late 1970s, when just about all American manufacturing was in decline. The arms industry was a victim of the usual problems -- old plants, entrenched unions, intense foreign competition, tired methods -- and of a few problems that were either unique to or especially acute in gunmaking. Product liability, for one, and an increasingly negative image with the public, for another.
Hatfield was bright enough to be aware of all that and innocent enough to have virtually no idea of how formidable the entrepreneurial route can be. Otherwise, he says, "I might have just gone back to sea." He had decided to seek his fortune ashore after somebody had emptied an old military Colt .45 at him outside a Houston bar one night . . . but that is another story.
Hatfield did have some things going for him. First, he is one of those Hatfields, the ones who skirmished with generations of McCoys. Some of the mountain tenacity had bred true and, just as important, there was a gunmaking tradition in his family. In fact, he owned a Pennsylvania long rifle that had been made by his great-great-grandfather sometime before the Civil War.
Hatfield knew in 1979 that there was a growing, almost cultish interest in traditional firearms. Both sportsmen and collectors were eagerly buying black-powder rifles. They were handsome to look at and satisfying to hold. They fairly breathed tradition and were fun to shoot.
Most of those rifles were custom-made by artisans who worked alone and might turn out one gun a month. They were often highly skilled, but they didn't know much about business, and neither, for that matter, did Hatfield. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. Temperamentally, he is about as unsuited for the world of offices, meetings, management seminars, and ruthless attention to the numbers as anyone could be. His strengths are his vast supply of energy and his appetite for risk. He is most comfortable in the world of improbables. And he grew up with guns and loved them; he had taught himself how to take apart, repair, and rebuild the guns he loved best. A gun was not a mute, inanimate object to him but something that would respond to his touch.
So he had the talent necessary to become a good craftsman, but he also had something else. "I didn't want to just make guns," he says. "I wanted to make some money." He thought there might be a crease in the market somewhere between the custom-made guns and those that were mass-produced and looked it. He had in mind to produce guns that would not be custom-made, but would have custom quality and looks. Something the black-powder enthusiasts would want to own. He wasn't sure, but he thought he could sell several hundred a year.
He spent a couple of months in his hometown, St. Joseph, Mo., building a strikingly faithful replica of the gun his great-great-grandfather had built. He packed it and a few hundred brochures that he'd had printed locally and drove to a gathering in Indiana, where black-powder enthusiasts met to dress in the old buckskin clothes; engage in shooting contests; and buy, sell, and trade various items, especially muzzle-loading rifles.
Hatfield let enthusiasts handle the gun so they could get the feel of it and admire the richness of its striped maple stock. When he left Indiana, he had orders for 20 guns and no idea how he was going to produce them.
That did not deter Hatfield, who had some money from the deposits he had collected in Indiana and a friendly source at the local bank. The good relationship was due not to his own financial history -- not even a modern savings and loan would be that reckless -- but to his father's long and successful run at a sporting-goods establishment in town.
Hatfield rented space in an old garage and set out to discover what it took to produce guns in the 1980s.
The U.S. firearms industry -- located for the most part in the Connecticut River Valley, where it had been a vital part of the Industrial Revolution -- consisted of large factories full of machine tools that were run by skilled workers. They took billets of steel and, by cutting and drilling in scores of different operations, changed them into firearm components. The process was expensive both in capital and in the wages paid. Profits depended on scale. Winchester, Remington, and the others needed to sell thousands of guns a year.
A small operation was, by the nature of the industrial process, almost impossible. The logic of economies of scale ruled. Someone could, of course, buy a gun or the components and then assemble, fit, and customize until the end product was unique.
During World War II, however, engineers began to experiment with a process called investment casting, and developed it in a tentative fashion for arms making. Poured steel replaced cut steel. Capital costs were reduced to a fraction of what they would have been with the old machine-tool, drill-press factory system.
The man who recognized investment casting's civilian implications and exploited them is William Ruger, one of the most able gunmakers since the legendary John Browning. Ruger's company has been the one happy story in U.S. large-scale arms manufacturing since World War II.
Ted Hatfield is, in some sense, the spiritual heir of Ruger on a smaller scale. For Ruger, everything begins with the product. When he brought out a single-shot rifle in the 1960s, it was against all the wisdom of the trade. Americans, the line went, wanted their guns to have lots of firepower. They wouldn't buy anything but a repeating rifle. But Ruger's simple, elegant single-shot has been a tremendous success.
"I built it because I'd always been fascinated by the old drop-block buffalo rifles, and I figured if I liked those rifles, then a lot of other American shooters would too," Ruger says. That is his market test.
Hatfield, too, began with a product he trusted and his intuition proved correct in the market. But he had to find a way to get the gun into production. He quickly discovered that, thanks to Ruger's pioneering work, he didn't need to buy any machine tools or, for that matter, pay to have any steel cut. All the parts could be cast in small foundries. He merely needed to find a supplier, make the necessary forms, and put in an order. He was able to subcontract the work.
"Ruger," he says, "revolutionized the whole business and some of the big boys never realized it or admitted it. They were stuck with those huge factories and all those machine tools and unions, and they went broke. And if they didn't go broke, they are struggling. They just got left behind. They're right there on the cutting edge of technology -- about 50 years ago."
With the money he had taken in deposits and some additional liquidity supplied by the bank, Hatfield ordered the metal parts that he needed. He could order in quantity and do the assembly himself in the garage. But he still had to make the stocks, the wooden portions of the guns, and they had to be made right, since the stock is an integral part of a muzzle-loader. "Without the wood," Hatfield says, "all you have is a pile of parts. And if the wood isn't cut just right, you've got a gun that won't shoot straight."
Since there is no way to cast wood, Hatfield bought an old lathe and began turning stocks. "That thing probably made stocks for rifles that were used in the Spanish-American War," he says. Besides being obsolete, the machine was limited. Once the stock had been turned to shape, there were still another 10 cuts that had to be made for the barrel well, the ramrod sleeve, the barrel tang, and the rest. Hatfield improvised some jigs and, using some handyman tools, was able to make all the necessary cuts. But it was a slow process. "We were looking at a limit of 200 guns a year, and I wasn't going to make any money at that level. I wanted to make 200 a month. I knew I could sell them. I just had to figure out how to make them."
Hatfield made as many guns as he could and set out to educate himself about the available technology. For a while, it seemed that everything was either too big and expensive or too small and specialized. Then he learned about computer numerically controlled milling.
"That's what broke it open for me. Before that, I didn't know the first thing about computers -- still don't know much -- but I learned to love those rascals."
Traditional machine tools are designed to perform one task -- one cut, say, across the face of a block of wood or steel. To make the 10 cuts in a Hatfield stock, a production line would require 10 machines -- an assembly line. The cost of the machines would make such an assembly line prohibitive unless Hatfield could use thousands of stocks. A CNC milling machine can perform all 10 functions with no physical adjustments. Each function is controlled by a program that is run on an ordinary personal computer. The tool is adapted to the product, and limited runs are possible. Hatfield found a CNC operation in South Dakota that could turn out a stock in seven minutes on one machine and would handle any order, no matter how small. The main capital outlays were for a set of engineering diagrams and the writing of a computer program. "I jobbed that out," Hatfield says, "and was happy to do it.
"I wanted to be a businessman, and I wanted to make guns," he says. "No way I could have done both 20 years ago. Not making the kind of guns I make. I would have had to own a factory and, at the kind of numbers I'm dealing in, that would have been out of the question. I wouldn't make enough in 50 years to pay off what it would cost me to tool up.
"I'll tell you the way I see what I'm doing," Hatfield continues. "I'm trying to make a product according to the standards of the old American craftsmen, who were perfectionists and also liked to put a little personality into their work. And I'm trying to do it with the very latest technology. It seems like kind of a strange mix, but it works."
Once he had located the subcontractors and ordered the necessary parts, Hatfield began delivering guns and taking orders, working out of the basement of a liquor store and relying on receivables and borrowed money for cash. Sales of his first model have grown by 100% annually in spite of the fact that the black-powder craze peaked and then crashed in the early '80s.
According to Sam Fadala, an expert in the field of muzzle-loaders who is widely published on the subject, the reasons can be found in both the product and the producer. "In the first place, the gun is genuine. There really was a gun like it, made more than 150 years ago. I looked it up and compared them. Hatfield went to some pains to make a true replica.
"And then," Fadala goes on, "he does real good work. The materials and the workmanship are first class. I had a gun editor out here at my house, in Wyoming, and I showed him my Hatfield and we took it out and shot it 30 times without a misfire. In today's flintlocks, that's extraordinary."
Fadala says that Hatfield's personality has also contributed to the success of the gun. "This is a small world, and people know Ted Hatfield and his reputation. They know he is more interested in making a quality piece than in gouging his customer."
But Hatfield is also a businessman, and it was always his ambition to be more than a small gunmaker. The black-powder market, he knew, was limited. He could make and sell only so many guns. What he needed was another product. So Hatfield again followed the example of Bill Ruger -- he made a gun that pleased him.
"Actually," he says, "I'm not much of a black-powder enthusiast. I like the guns and I like to make them, but I don't get all carried away with shooting them. When I was growing up here in Missouri, what I liked to do was hunt birds with a side-by-side double."
Perhaps because it has no military ancestry, the side-by-side shotgun is widely considered the most refined expression of the pure gunmaking art. It is a gun that English gentlemen used on their estates at the lavish driven shoots. At these shoots, a gentleman went into the field with a brace of fine doubles, and while his loader broke and reloaded one, he fired the other. English craftsmanship made these guns as light and clean and elegant as possible.
The great English guns with names like Purdey, Boss, and Holland & Holland have become collectibles and, often priced at $50,000 and more, are almost too valuable to shoot. One expert estimates that there are probably fewer than 100 side-by-sides made annually in England, and that number will almost certainly not increase. The death of the old system of long, impoverished apprenticeships ensures that.
The classic American side-by-side was never as elegant. Many of the Parkers were mass-produced and sold off the rack. They were made -- and made well -- for ordinary American hunters. But after World War II, the average American hunter became enchanted with repeaters. The old side-by-side faded from the scene.
At the same time, sport in America had taken an upscale turn. The vaguely Anglican sensibility for fly-fishing and of upland bird shooting with classic guns had begun to spread, owing, perhaps, to increased affluence and promotion by retailers like The Orvis Co., whose image was -- and still is -- saturated with the old sporting virtues.
Hatfield sensed there was a market for a good American side-by-side. Orvis was selling Spanish-made guns. The few English guns available sold for astounding prices. (That holds true today. You can order a Purdey now for $40,000 and put down half of that price; but when the gun is delivered, a year and a half later, the balance due will almost certainly be more than $20,000.) The Italians were making good side-by-sides. Browning had a gun that was made in Korea and Japan. Winchester still made a few of its top-of-the-line guns. But there was no readily available American side-by-side.
Hatfield, who had rebuilt a Parker just for the fun of it and was familiar with the workings of the classic American guns, went to work, applying the new technology with which he was now so familiar. In 1985 he came out with his prototype, a 20-gauge with short barrels and the same striped maple stock found on his muzzle-loader.
He made the rounds with the gun, displaying it at shows, lending it to sporting writers, and generally making sure the word got out. The response was cautious interest. Many side-by-side enthusiasts had become convinced that Americans could no longer produce a quality side-by-side. They were troubled by the maple stock -- in their minds, a side-by-side required a walnut stock. The gun was not as slender as a Purdey either.
Hatfield had answers for the critics. Maple, he said, had been used for stocks before walnut and by any measure was better wood. "People started using walnut when curly maple got too expensive. Besides, I like the way it looks." As for the less than imperial lines, Hatfield says: "Well, it is a little tubbier than a Purdey. And a Jeep looks a little burly sitting next to a Jaguar. Hell, it's an American gun. That's the heritage I was looking at when I designed it. I wasn't trying to build a Purdey."
Hatfield sold his first shotgun in 1986 and had orders for all he could make: some 40 guns. This year he will sell 600, in five grades. The lowest-grade gun sells for around $2,500, the highest for $6,900. The differences between them are in small touches and custom engraving. It is, of course, at the top of the line that he sees the potential for growth.
"We're getting people who want to own this gun for the right reasons. Last year there was a vice-president from Westinghouse whose associates flew him down here by executive jet when he retired, so we could measure him and fit him for a gun and he could pick out the blank we'd use to make his stock and he could talk to the engraver."
Last summer, Hatfield finished work on an elaborately customized gun commissioned by a personal friend as a gift for George Bush, complete with the Presidential seal in gold inlay on the floor plate.
Lionel Atwill, a contributing editor at Field and Stream magazine, remembers meeting Hatfield five years ago, when he was showing the prototype of the side-by-side. "Back then, we all thought it was great that Ted was willing to try. But we didn't give him much chance of making it. What's so admirable about the story is that Ted knew there was a market there, even if it was small, and found a way to sell to that market by innovation and hard work. He didn't try to cheat on the product or the market. He used the most modern technology available to produce something that earlier technology had made obsolete or economically impractical."
In the process, Hatfield's company remained a privately held corporation. He experienced early problems with quality control, staggered orders, untrained labor, long hours, and all the other agonies of an infant business. He kept working, kept borrowing, laid people off when he had to, and at one time or another did everything that needed to be done himself.
Hatfield's estimated sales last year were close to $2.5 million. (He doesn't like to say how much his business grosses.) By early this year he had back orders for almost 2,000 guns and had gone to two shifts. His biggest problem was the old perennial -- lack of capital. "I talk to my banker more than I'd like to," he confesses.
By then he was in a large old brick building in the middle of St. Joseph. One side of the building housed a bar and hamburger restaurant. "Seems like it is just my destiny to be in alcohol and firearms," Hatfield says. "Moonshine and muzzle-loaders are my life."
He is wearing blue jeans and a faded chamois shirt when I meet him at his new quarters, and he wipes his hands on a rag before shaking my hand. "Caught me working," he says, as he leads me out back, to where the guns are assembled.
Muzzle-loaders and side-by-sides rest upright in racks. They are in various stages of completion. Some stocks are dry and rough, others have been sanded, and a few have been oiled and rubbed down with steel wool until they gleam.
The guns' barrels and actions are a dull shade between silver and gray before they have been dipped in the bluing solution. The blued steel parts, which are ready to be fitted on the stocks, have the slightly ominous cast one associates with arms.
The work is done almost entirely by young women. They are unskilled, hourly employees and are trained in one or two basic tasks -- sanding, oiling, rubbing.
Hatfield oversees everything and does the final assembly and fitting of the side-by-sides himself, working at a bench that is littered with the tools of his trade -- hollow-ground screwdrivers, taps, punches, files, and soldering irons. He works with studied patience, taking a micron off with the file, then trying the metal-to-metal fit two or three times before he picks up the file and makes another soft stroke. The tools and the gun, the pace of the work, and the smell of linseed oil. . . it is all satisfyingly redolent of a different time.
A man is bent over a bench, carefully engraving the image of a quail in gold on the floor plate of a finished gun. The engraver, Danny Pitts, wears wire-rimmed spectacles and has long, wild hair. Hatfield has known him "oh, just about forever." He sent Pitts to Italy to perfect his technique. "But what he does," Hatfield says, "is more in the American tradition. Bolder and broader than the European style."
Hatfield works for an hour to get the fit just right. When the gun is ready, he carries it to a rack where the finished guns rest, waiting for a final inspection and then shipment.
"Man in Illinois bought that one for his wife. She liked his so much that he never got to shoot it."
He wipes his hands on the rag again and says, "How about a beer and some lunch?"
At a table next door, he talks about his plans. "Well, I've never had a business plan, you know. It was just make as many guns as I could, sell them, and take more orders. But now I've got a financial adviser, and we're working up a three-year plan. The way he sees it, I can go one of three ways: I can go public, I can sell to someone bigger and keep running the company, or I can buy some machinery -- investment casting and CNC -- and start making components for myself and taking orders from other businesses."
Which way will he go?
"I don't know," he says. "Whichever way makes the most sense economically, I suppose." He doesn't say this with much enthusiasm, and one senses that he might already miss the days when he was on the road with one of his prototypes, taking orders and immersing himself in the details of the technology that enabled him to succeed. The stability of a three-year plan probably does not stir his blood much.
Hatfield has recently made a prototype of a double rifle, like the old safari guns. He believes he can sell it to Americans who want to hunt in Africa the way Teddy Roosevelt and Hemingway did. Hatfield especially enjoys describing how he called an English gunmaker to price an African gun.
"Told him I was Billy Bob Brewer from Midland-Odessa and I was thinking about going over to Africa to shoot something. 'So tell me now, boy,' I said, 'how much you going to charge me for one of them guns?'
" 'That will be 50,000, sir,' he said.
" 'Real money or pounds?'
" 'That will be pounds, sir.'
"I told him that sounded fair, when could I pick it up? He said, 'Three years,' and I said, 'Hell, boy, I'm supposed to leave in a month's time. What's the big holdup?'
"He explained how the gun had to be fitted and handmade and all that. Got right snooty about it. All the time I was thinking how I could make that same gun and see a profit selling that thing for $15,000.
"And you know what?" he says. "I believe I'll make a better gun, too. Better looking and better shooting."
He has begun producing a half-stock muzzle-loader, a replica of the guns carried by the mountain men as they roamed the American West. It is an odd, and oddly satisfying, juxtaposition. The old guns and the new tools -- especially computers. Workbench and workstation. A niche where the Hatfields of the world can thrive. "It's been a lot of fun," Hatfield says, "and it beats hell out of going back to sea."
Geoffrey W. Norman has written widely about outdoor sports and is the author of four books, including the recently published Bouncing Back (Houghton Mifflin).