Story and Photographs By Kathy Johnson
Allan Sandy is the artist behind Allan Sandy Custom Long Rifles, and his workshop just off Dick Woods Road near Afton was part in the recent Artisan Tour.
Tools line one wall of the immaculately clean shop. In another part, a variety of finely crafted long rifles and one spectacular pistol are on display. Most have never been fired, nor are most—destined for collectors—likely to be.
“I started out just interested in shooting black powder guns and in the history of muzzle-loading rifles,” said Sandy. “I don’t shoot as much as I used to. The historical part has become a lot more important. You never learn it all.”
The traditional long rifle Sandy makes was common from the period of the French and Indian War through the American Revolution and into the early 19th century. “Mostly these were hunting guns, and they were used for protection. Average fellas owned a gun, especially if they lived out of the city or out of town. They used that gun every day. It was a tool. It wasn’t a luxury. They carried it with them for protection against Indians or whatever. It was a livelihood for food. Guns were very important. We’re so spoiled today. We have no idea what it was like to live back then.
“I’ve gone to some of these events, rendezvous or encampments, for a week or week and a half at a time, so you are doing without electricity, living in a tent. Sleeping on the ground is way overrated.”
His guns could be used for hunting during black powder season “to a certain extent,” he said. “There is a very modernized type of muzzle gun that a lot of people use, but there are still a lot of people who like to hunt with a traditional weapon.”
Sandy said the range on these guns is roughly 150 yards. “But the ability to use one and actually hit something is dependent not only on the ability or range of the guns, but on the capability of the shooter, how well he knows his gun, and how accustomed he is to shooting it.”
Sandy’s clientele are typically hunters, re-enactors or gun collectors. Some of his guns will be bought as investments. Usually Sandy will test fire a gun he made, but if a collector asks that it not be fired, he honors the request.
“Most of the guns I build are shooters, and yes, I will shoot those guns and sight them to be sure they are safe, accurate and sighted properly.”
Sandy said the majority of owners spend months working with their guns, learning how that gun performs and improving their performance and accuracy with it. “Working up just the right powder charge, the ‘patch ball’ combination and their accuracy,” is crucial to using the gun successfully,” he said.
To shoot the gun, first black powder is poured into the barrel and then a patch ball, a small cloth patch enclosing a soft lead ball, is rammed down the barrel.
“In the flintlocks, a small amount of powder goes in the pan area of the gun,” he explains. That pan is located near the front of the gun by the cap. “In a percussion gun, it has a small built-in flint. That’s a newer innovation introduced about 1830. That innovation meant they didn’t have to put the flint out there. They didn’t have to put the powder in the pan or worry so much about things getting wet.
“Flint is a super dense, very hard stone. Typically what we use today, and what we feel like is the best, comes from England. It is a harder flint that holds up and lasts much longer.” Flints are a dwindling commodity, he said. “There is one company in England that naps flint. These are all hand-chipped out of a large piece of flint, kind of like cutting diamonds. It has to be done precisely, with knowledge, in order to make a good piece of flint and not just a bunch of chips on the ground. Only a few tradesmen know how, and it is gradually dying out.
“Typically, from a good flint you get anywhere from 50 to 100 shots. It actually strikes a piece of steel called a frizzen and that makes the spark. The spark ignites the powder in the pan.”
On average a gun takes about a month to manufacture, something like 150 to 180 hours of work. For one of Sandy’s hunting guns, a base price could be $2,500. “The average gun that I build today, that’s going to run $4,500 or $5,500.”
More ornate guns with sterling silver on the stock or engraving on the barrel can take two months and require 300 or 400 hours. A nice collector’s piece could run to $10,000 to $15,000—depending on the details the client is looking for.
“I do all the work that’s on these guns. I am pretty much self-taught. I took a basic class, which was pretty much putting all the parts together correctly, back in the mid-’80s. I learned a lot, although the engraving, the carving, the inlay work was all self-taught. I’m very fortunate that I have the skills to be able to make these.”
Sandy said that most of the people who came through for the Artisan Tour had an “Oh, wow” response. “They were not all gun people, but this is not just a weapon. This is a piece of art, traditional American art.
“These guns evolved from early immigrants, gunsmiths trained in England, France and Germany,” Sandy said.
“After 20 or 30 years guns evolved into a slightly different kind of weapon than they used in England because there were actually more hunting opportunities here. The guns became a true American gun. By 1860 or 1870, our guns were American. They were no longer carryovers from German or English guns.”
The silver inlay work done on most of the collector guns is a French-style “checker.” “Those lines that are cut in there are for gripping,” said Sandy. “It helps to keep the gun from slipping in your hands. The little dots are sterling silver pins that I have set in there. They create a wonderful look.”
The locks and the barrels he buys, but everything else is designed and made by Sandy. “They are pretty rough casting when I get them, so they take a lot of work to get them looking like this.
“I like what I do for a living,” he said. “And I’m very fortunate to have found what I am really good at. I was an auto mechanic before and I’ve always been good with my hands. I did very well in the automotive field and then I found this creative, artistic ability that I had no idea was there, putting wood and different metals together and making everything look like it belongs there, not making it too flashy or gaudy. I was never one to sit down and draw. But this is a different canvas.”
Each new gun starts with a block of wood. After that each gun is unique—an original piece of artwork. He works with a lot of curly maple or tiger maple. “It’s the hardest wood there is,” he said. “I like using nice wood. Every gun that leaves my shop is based on what the client wants.”
Most of his work is commission work. “Pleasing the customer is really important to me. I want every one of my customers to be happy with what they have; in fact, happy enough to come back, and to have at least 80 percent of my customers own two or three or four of my guns.
“Occasionally I set aside some time and work on something else. I’m going to try to set some time to work on one of these shotguns to have something to offer.”
The guns he displayed during the artisan tour and those still in his shop were all on loan, he said. “I don’t own any of my guns, except the fourth gun I made. It’s 30 years old now, but I hunt with it still. It brings in meat every year,” he said proudly. “I just took a buck with it here a few weeks ago.”
Sandy is available by appointment only. Anyone interested in viewing the fine art of making an American gun can reach him at 434-760-1141 or [email protected]