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Best of Show: Larry Gardner

by Marlowe E. Ubl
* From the December 2002 issue of Muzzle Blasts Magazine - Reproduced by Permission

Best of Show are magical words that have a wonderful ring to them. Larry Gardner's exquisite contemporary Kentucky rifle earned that distinction at the July 2001 Dixon's Gunmakers Fair. This annual fair, held in the rolling fields surrounding Dixon's Gun Shop just outside of Kempton, PA, has gotten bigger and better over the years. It now resembles a full-fledged rendezvous-type of gathering. Key attractions, however, are a series of (free) seminars conducted by master gunbuilders on selected specialties, and an actual graded competition for the work of the builders.

The emphasis here is on contemporary long rifles. Master, journeyman and apprentice builders all proudly display their year's best efforts to the delight and admiration of all. Sharp-eyed and critical judges - and I do mean critical - all master contemporary gunbuilders themselves, expertly examine each entry in detail. On display, in addition to muzzleloaders, is an array of frontier products reflecting the best of that glorious era: knives, powder horns, tomahawks, possibles bags - you name it - most of which are judged and graded.

At the show, several of the master's guns quickly became the crowd's favorites, and for us ordinary folks, it almost seemed impossible to make a distinction. But the judges confidently, but slowly, went over each entry inch by inch, filled out their critique sheets, and added up the scores. Lowest score - least point deductions - wins. Blue, red and yellow ribbons for each class were selected. Then each Best of Class was chosen and from them, Best of Show. After all this intense competition, there was no disagreement when Larry Gardner's entry was selected for the top honor.

This beautiful flintlock was built to order for one of Larry's customers who wanted the best - and got it. Done in the early Beck style, it is precisely crafted: swamped barrel, .50 caliber, brass hardware, elaborately engraved sterling silver belly plate, metal engravings (including nine eagles), silver inlays (including eighteen feet of wire), relief and incised carvings, a patch box to turn an apprentice builder green with envy, and in which are found twenty-one of the gun's forty-one total piercings. This rifle has gained quite a reputation. It is currently on a one-year loan to the NRA museum in Washington, DC, where it is displayed as an outstanding example of the art of contemporary muzzleloading rifle building. Now, there's a feather for the hat!

Larry, a self-taught craftsman, started seriously building rifles thirty-five years ago. Growing up in the ranch country of South Dakota, he has a lifelong association and familiarity with guns. Learning to shoot and hunt from the get-go, and being a tinkerer at heart, he stocked his first rifle at thirteen, using an old pine two-by-four. While that's just a bit below his current standards, everybody has to start somewhere. This interest grew and developed, and, by 1967 building muzzleloaders had grown to a serious hobby, but he still kept his day job as a commercial artist. Of course, the hobby took over, so in 1993 Larry made the leap and took on the profession of full-time gunbuilder. He operates as Art & Arms, Ltd., and runs a one-man shop on his mini farm in Silver Spring, MD. While building Kentucky-style rifles from scratch is his specialty, it seems rehabbing old originals is an increasing part of the business.

A unique trait of Larry's guns is the extent to which his "artist's eye" influences the result, from both architechtural and decorative perspectives. Somewhere along the line, he found time to take formal art instruction, and he is also an accomplished and successful acrylic painter. Here again his early years on the ranch show through. You can't take the country out of the boy! His favorite painting subjects are wildlife, especially birds. This favorite motif shows up on many of his guns, with eagles and hummingbirds showing up most frequently.

While Larry can, and will, build you a simple and plain Poor Boy Mountain Rifle, he almost finds it difficult. His artistic flair wants to decorate. His guns are absolutely correct from historical perspectives and, plain or fancy, are always aesthetically beautiful. Real shooters and real works of art!

Larry employs the same key approach to both his painting and his gunbuilding, and advises: "While being precise in your details, every so often you need to get your nose out of the details and step back to view your project as a whole, from a distance. Ask yourself if the lines and your efforts are coming together properly. Is it taking on the proper overall appearance? Is the entire project 'flowing'? In other words, keep the Big Picture in mind." This is where and how his artist's eye truly comes into play and has such an influence on the final product, and why his rifles are so exquisitely crafted.

Larry's love for the sport of shooting and building muzzleloading rifles has expanded into an instructor role. He has taken a group of energetic apprentice builders under his wing and is extremely generous with his time and resources, sharing his talents and his shop, to the students' great benefit. His talent as an instructor was also shown at the 2001 Dixon's Fair. Each of his four students who displayed rifles in the Apprentice category won one or more ribbons. Now, there's yet more feathers for the hat!

* Article courtesy National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, Friendship, IN 47021: www.nmlra.org

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