The Future of Wooden Gun Stocks
March 07, 2016
The warm sheen of a well-oiled wooden gun stock carries me back in time. When I was a kid in those pre-interstate days, the little town of Warsaw, Missouri was a pretty good pull from our Kansas City home, but Dad and I went down there often when I was just learning to shoot. There was a sign on the outskirts proclaiming Warsaw as the "Gunstock Capital of the World."
In those days, the town hosted the competing firms of E.C. Bishop & Sons and Reinhart Fajen, and indeed a major share of wooden gun stocks used throughout the United States originated there. At that time, the Bishop firm was owned by John H. "Jack" Pohl, a friend of my father. My dad knew nothing about centerfires, so when I got interested in them, he enlisted Jack to do some instruction.
Along the way, I spent a lot of time in Bishop's sawmill, enough that, at any moment, I can call back the clean, pungent odor of walnut sawdust and the drying rooms, watching the inletting machines, the finishing rooms and the incredibly painstaking job of checkering. To this day, I have a soft spot for the traditional wooden gun stock.
A Vanishing Breed?
Jack Pohl himself was an avid benchrest shooter, so even back in the 1960s, he dabbled a bit with laminates. Although I don't recall seeing any early synthetic stocks in his shop, I suppose he probably messed with them a bit. It wasn't all walnut. They did some work with maple and beech and other woods that had the strength and stability to be carved into a gunstock, but in those days, and for at least another quarter century, the majority of all wooden gun stocks were crafted from walnut.
Aside from strength and the ability to be worked, an important attribute of the traditional walnut stock is beauty. Obviously, some walnut stocks are very plain, and some are very fancy, but even a plain, straight-grained piece of walnut can be sanded buttery-smooth and will accept a variety of finishes that, to my eye, make it beautiful. There is one drawback: Wooden gun stocks can easily be scratched, gouged and dented, and although finishes retard the process, wood can take on moisture and warp. In search of perfect accuracy, benchrest shooters pioneered both synthetic stocks and laminates. Done properly, both are generally stronger than simple wood and much more stable, but synthetic sporting gunstocks didn't appear until the 1970s, laminates a bit later.
For looks, I much prefer walnut, but for sheer utility, I bow to the other option. Obviously, soil and rainfall matter, but it takes more than a century for a walnut sapling to grow into gun stock wood. Wooden gun stocks are just one of many uses for walnut, and the worldwide supply is short. Very plain wooden gun stock walnut remains relatively available and often comes from younger trees, but beautifully figured walnut from crotches and splits is scarce and now comes very dear. Good gunstock walnut is just plain pricey today, and this is simply because there isn't much of it anywhere in the world. Turkish walnut blanks are offered for sale at $1,950, which obviously won't go on a factory rifle. Even today a relatively plain wooden gun stock blank is hard to find for less than several hundred dollars. This clearly answers any questions anyone should have about why synthetics have become so prevalent.
Walnut: a Worldwide Tree
The walnut tree, genus Juglans, is a surprisingly widespread tree. There are 21 species, ranging naturally from southeastern Europe across Asia to Japan and in the Western Hemisphere from southeastern Canada westward to California and southward to Argentina. All walnut trees produce tasty nuts, and all walnut trees are prized as wood for furniture, carved items such as bowls and sliced veneer for furniture and laminate. Even ground walnut shells have a wide variety of commercial uses, including polishing and cleaning agents, filler in dynamite, paint thickeners, finely ground flour in plastics industries and much more.
Preference for wooden gun stocks obviously goes back just a few hundred years, but walnuts (both wild and in orchards) have been desirable for thousands of years. Walnut trees have been introduced into many areas where they are not native, and numerous hybrids have been created to enhance nut production and resist disease. The most widespread walnut, and generally the most prized for nuts, is Juglans regia. Originating in Central Asia, this species of tree is often referred to as the "common walnut," but it is also known as the Persian, English, Carpathian and California walnut. Walnuts are an important cash crop in California's Central Valley and coastal valleys, and while many orchards are American black walnut and hybrids, at least 30 varieties of "English walnuts" (J. regia) are grown there.
Demand for walnut lumber is very high, and for some years it has outstripped the actual supply. For many years, California was a major source, but today a lot of wooden gun stock walnut comes from places as widely separated as Australia, a land that had no native walnuts at all, and Turkey.
There's Walnut, and Then There's Walnut
Because of hybridization and introduction, you can go insane trying to get a real handle on gun stock walnut. The various species of American black walnut are generally used in commercial production because black walnut is cheaper than English walnut. Black walnut can develop gorgeous figure but is generally considered inferior to English walnut because it isn't as hard and strong. Although we're talking a matter of degree, this is essentially true with the North American varieties of black walnut. It is not true across the board; some South American species are actually the hardest of walnut wood.
In the wooden gun stock world, we generally refer to the common walnut, Juglans regia, as English walnut. It can have a marvelous figure, but the wood generally isn't as dark as black walnut and will usually display black striping in the grain and figure. (Note that walnuts were not native to England, so technically, there is really no such thing as an English walnut as a variety.) When I was a kid, a favorite buzzword for really good walnut was "Circassian walnut." Circassia is a region in the northern Caucasus Mountains, so in actuality, this would simply be a native version of what we call English walnut, good old J. regia. Likewise Persian walnut, which is another name for English walnut (as are Carpathian walnut, California walnut and more). Although Turkey is now an extremely important source for "English" gunstock walnut, the term "Turkish walnut" is generally not used.
Another term often used when I was younger was "California Claro walnut." Like Circassian walnut, Claro walnut is not a proper name for any variety of walnut tree but probably refers to J. hindsii, the Hinds' black walnut, also called Northern California black walnut. Although a black walnut and technically not as desirable as English walnut, this is a very popular orchard tree in California. Like all black walnuts, the figure can be spectacular, and at one time (as old orchards were being harvested for lumber), there was quite a lot available. Believe it or not, there is also no walnut tree that is a "French walnut," although at one time some high-quality English (Persian, common) walnut certainly came from France. Such made-up names were used to command higher prices, and they are still in use today, but this was a lot more prevalent back when large supplies of walnut were readily available. Things are different now. All wooden gun stock-quality walnut is expensive, and really good walnut is very pricey.
Choosing a Stock
So, what is "really good" gun stock walnut? Walnut is hard and strong, but it can also be brittle. The biggest problem in wooden gun stock making lays in the thin pistol-grip area, by far the most likely place for a wooden gun stock to break. Strength comes from a straight grain, as in the straight section of a trunk or major limb. Figure comes from a crotch or fork, but figure is not strength. The most important criterion must be strength, so ideally, on a one-piece stock you want a good, straight grain that runs down the forend and on through the pistol grip. The primary figure, if any, needs to be in the buttstock area, where the mass offers plenty of strength. As a matter of function, then, grain is really the most important. The figure is adornment only, but we Americans do love beautiful wood.
While English walnut is considered stronger than American black walnut, and probably is, provided you have straight grain through the primary stress areas and the stock is properly inletted and bedded, black walnut is plenty strong enough for all sporting firearms, perhaps with the exception of large-caliber rifles with extreme recoil. So, in choosing a gunstock blank, you simply must look for straight grain through the primary stress areas. Stockmakers will take a blank — really just a rectangular rough-sawn plank — and draw out the approximate dimensions of a finished stock. Good gun stock wood simply must keep the grain straight until the butt opens out behind the pistol grip.
A lot of great stocks have little or no figure at all, but it is essential to keep almost all the figure in the butt. It can be spectacular, with feathering, whorls and amazing striping, but the fancier the figure, the more expensive the blank will be. Keep in mind that figure adds nothing utilitarian to wooden gun stocks. A given tree will produce a lot more straight-grained blanks than blanks with fancy figure. The fancier the figure, the rarer the blank and the costlier it becomes. It's important to understand that making a wooden gunstock isn't just a matter of sawing a linear plank out of a tree and going to work. The blank must be cured, or dried, and this is a lengthy process.
The two methods are air drying and kiln drying. "Air dried" is a bit of a buzz term, but there probably isn't much difference between the two processes in the end result; what matters is that the wood gets dry. How long it takes depends on temperature, humidity and when the tree was harvested (which relates to moisture content in the wood). If the wood is air dried, it could well take years; some woodworkers suggest a year for each inch of thickness as a rule of thumb, but, again, that depends on local conditions. Major suppliers and manufacturers use kilns for drying, which greatly speeds the process, but it still takes time, and of course a proper kiln is a major investment. Either way, the time, labor and facilities involved in the drying process are part of what makes a ready-to-work wooden gun stock blanks costly.
Certainly with factory firearms, we usually accept wooden gun stocks that come on the gun. Most are plain, but once in a while, you see one wearing a fair amount of figure. If you run across one of these that speaks to you, grab it.