of Show are
magical words that have a wonderful ring to them. Larry Gardner's
exquisite contemporary Kentucky
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.
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
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!