Craftsmanship or Bubbafication?

The other day I saw a post on a gunsmithing forum from a fellow who had picked up a somewhat rough but otherwise intact Argentine Mauser to modify into a hunting rifle for his wife. My immediate reaction was that it was a shame he had chosen an intact military rifle instead of one that had already been modified. My instinct is that a piece in authentic historic condition – even if it’s been seriously abused and damaged – ought to be left intact as an artifact.

Chinese converted Arisaka in 7.62x39mm
Chinese 7.62mm Arisaka - crude replacement stock, hacked-up magazine, transplant bayonet, but military issue

In fact, I find the really beat-up guns often more interesting than pristine examples (as evidenced by what I bought in Belgium). But I do have to wonder if we are being too dogmatic about the idea of preserving everything in the oldest possible state. Many of the most historically interesting guns are the ones that have passed through many hands and had marks left on them by each successive owner. For example, something like a Westinghouse Mosin-Nagant made in the US, shipped to Russia, captured by Finland and used in the Winter War. Or a Nazi-marked Mauser converted to 7.62 NATO and used in Israel’s War of Independence. And it’s not just military modifications that make interesting history and valuable guns, but also civilian conversions. We have in the Reserve Collection a gorgeous sporting rifle made from a Waffenamped Oberndorf Mauser. The original receiver-top markings were destroyed by nicely stippling the area, and the gun was outfitted with a double set trigger, new stock, new sights, and sturdy scope mount. Do that to a gun today and you’ll be a blasphemer against history, but do it 50 years ago and today it’s worth much more than an unmolested K98k (see, I still can’t stop myself from using words like “molest” to describe the excellent craftsmanship that went into this rifle).

Sporterized Mauser, circa 1950
Excellent workmanship and far better in quality than its original configuration, but not done "officially" - unworthy of attention?

The disconnect we have today is that we assign automatic historical value to anything over a certain vague age. Cut the trigger guard off a pocket revolver today and you’ve ruined it; find one cut in the 30s and it’s a valuable artifact. But the only reason any of these historic interesting guns exist now is that back then someone took the gun that was cheap or readily available or whatever and repurposed it. Bubbafied it, you might say. If we have a reflexive policy of never modifying a gun, we are really stagnating things because there will be nothing for collectors to ooh and ah over in 50 more years.

Of course, that view, if made into the same inflexible dogma leads to things like dumping trash on the ground to please future archaeologists. What we need to really accept, I believe, is a tolerant middle ground qualified by workmanship. If you have some project in mind and you have the intent and ability to execute it well, there is really no harm in using a base gun that has of might have some historical value. I wouldn’t cut down the barrel of an original gas-trap Garand, but there are plenty of run-of-the-mill M1s out there to cut a few up. If I’m just learning how to do gunsmithing work, I think it would be both logical and reasonable to use a rifle that had been previously messed with, so I don’t destroy some piece of historical value simply by poor workmanship.

On the other hand, time does inevitably produce value, it seems. Can you imagine what a gas-trap tanker M1 would be with if you could prove it was made in 1936?

6 Comments

  1. I find the “Product Improved” Mauser above to be a far more interesting rifle than the Arisaka that was assaulted by a PLA armorer with a hacksaw. There is a place in a museum or collection, I suppose, for that Arisaka but there is a place in any hunter’s home for that Mauser and many more like it.

    Very few rifles are historically important. A military stock is awkward and heavy for use in the field. A rifle modified to make it a usable hunting firearm is a far more interesting than just another one of the millions of military 98 type mausers made since 1898. I feel no shame in buying an old VZ-24 with an unsafe sewer pipe barrel for the action to make myself a Scout style carbine. It will be far more interesting that way than as just another pile of slowly oxidizing metal otherwise.

  2. The idea that all modifications to a mil-surp rifle are bad seems to be mostly an American thing.

    A quality re-build is highly valued over here and people often modify old Mauser 98s and 96s into hunting rifles. A quality “sporterization” is a thing of beauty.

  3. Well, I guess I’m going to be a combo buster on this one. I much prefer the Chinese conversion to the Mauser sporter. One is an unusual military issue curio piece, while the other looks like any number of guns that are fill pawnshops and gunstores all over the country. People are free to buy what they want, and modify their weapons as they see fit, but I’ll stick with rifles as issued…

  4. I’ve been agonizing over this issue for years.

    While I don’t have an objection to modifying your rifle to your hearts content, some attention should be paid to preserving some originals outside museums.

    Try finding an original US Krag for anything resembling a reasonable price. They were out there for less than scrap value for years and hunters “bubba’d” them at will to make some decent hunting guns. Then .30-40 fell out of favor with the cheapskate hunters and the guns reverted to scrap value. Now they are almost all gone. I’d hazard that it’s easier to find an unmolested Krag than a sporterized one because so many were discarded by their owners.

  5. Quality of workmanship matters. Your average “crank off the barrel and D&T for a scope” sporterization is reprehensible because it is in no way unique, it’s just making a painfully generic huntin’ rifle out of it when you could buy something similar that was purpose-built.

    When the goal is unique, then it’s worthy of admiration for the work done in execution.

    For example: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v709/Vaarok/mexjaeger.jpg

    A 1912 Mexican Contract Mauser, with Austrian proofs, probably used in WW1, and then sporterized in the Jaeger style, but done homebrew. It’s well executed but not professional work, with a spooned bolt and double-set triggers, but a decidedly low budget conversion. Still, the person who made the modifications showed great skill and patience, and tried to make something nice rather than just throw away the bayonet lug to “save weight.”

    Also, I’m guessing it’s a Depression era conversion, so it gets historical context points.

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