December 3rd, 2017 was an especially sunny and crisp day at the Stoner Creek Forge. The normal symphony of birdcalls was silent under the cold of winter, but the sound of Stoner Creek running along its banks was ever present. Inside a small, frame, one-room studio sat four men waiting tensely, surrounded by guns. But there was one gun in particular that everyone was focused on — a gun that held a historic significance, a gun that marked the end of an era, a gun that is as much a torch being passed on as it is a piece of art, a gun I came to know as Number 42.
Growing up with the idea that a gun was equal to a work seemed odd to my peers, but in my house it was always understood. “It’s country boy art is all I can tell you,” my father, Wayne Estes, a talented gunmaker in his own right, once told me, but these were no ordinary guns. These were guns that took 60–160 hours to make. They were guns that were meticulously handcrafted by artisans who had spent decades honing their craft. These guns were heavy and loud, shooting off a KA-PANG of smoke with the pull of each trigger, before needing to be cleaned and carefully reloaded with hand molded round lead bullets for their next shot. These were guns that tied men to their American ancestry. These were long rifle muzzleloaders, the guns of colonial America.
“You never master your craft,” my father explained one day. Yet, despite that modest caveat, there are still some masters of the dwindling art of long rifle gunsmithing. Some are nationally renown, while others are highly revered in their local artisan communities. One of these men in the Kentucky tradition of long rifle muzzleloader gunsmithing is Tom Hall, a small, soft-spoken man who has honed his craft so effectively that he leaves other gun makers in awe. “People all want to be known for something,” says my father, “People who [make long rifle muzzleloaders] want to be known for that. Tom Hall just happened to be the best.”
I remember being just a little bit surprised at this realization. I had always known that Tom Hall was a gun maker, but his humble demeanor never hinted at the scope of his skill. This was a man who had watched me grow up, held me on his lap as a child, been to countless family gatherings and even been my father’s best man. In short, Tom is a part of the family.
“Tom knows his work is good,” explains my father, “but he’ll never brag about it. He’ll say it’s good, but that’s about it.” The great thing about a true master is that their work speaks for itself. I initially came to understand long rifle gunsmithing as the adherence to a school of gun making. When I ask my father, a student of the Shawhan School (a school he created on his own with its traditional roots just down the road from our family farm), what school Tom adheres to he reports succinctly, “Any school he wants to.” Tom is the kind of craftsman who can look at a piece and replicate it perfectly. His work is “perfection beyond perfection.” And so, when the time came to help Tom at the end of his career, my father jumped at the chance.
About four or five years ago, Tom’s declining health started to prevent him from being able to practice his craft. It soon became clear to him that the end of his career was fast approaching and he began working on the gun that he knew would be his last; Number 42. For years my father would ask Tom about the gun. Is it ready? No. Have you been working on it? Not much. When’s it going to be finished? Not sure. He kept asking until the day Tom resignedly said, “It’s over.” He handed the gun over unfinished with the trust and knowledge that my father would see the gun completed correctly. This was an opportunity to complete a career correctly, with the reverence and respect that many artisans hope to have achieved by the end of their career. The gun, Number 42, would be completed correctly.
The name, Number 42, is no accidental title. It is a gun that can be found in George Shumway’s book, “Rifles of Colonial America, volume I.” “Every gun maker knows this gun,” my father told me. Coming from the Christian’s Spring school out of Pennsylvania, the gun’s style has strongly Germanic qualities. The Christian’s Spring school was the product of a Moravian Settlement, Bethlehem, located on the banks of the Lehigh River in Eastern Pennsylvania. Its founders originally hailed from Germany, and established the settlement in 1742. The tradition’s founding gun maker, Andreas Albrecht, joined the settlement in 1750 and established the now well-known fleur-de-lis relief carving style that made the gun more than just a simple firearm, propelling it equally into the world of craft.
With the gun started, my father secured the help of his friends, fellow gun makers and Corps members, Keith Vance and Randall Cantrall. Once my father finished the gun to the point where it was operational, Keith was to work on the relief carving, and Randall would do the finishing work. “How do you improve on a master?”, they all wondered. But really, completing Tom’s last gun was not about improving on his work. It was about maintaining it and paying homage to the craft he had perfected so well over his decades long career.
All of these gun makers not only create these beautiful works of art, but practice shooting them as members of the Kentucky Corps of Longriflemen in annual competitions with their largely Pennsylvanian counterparts, occasionally even dressing in the garb of pioneer days. All four men had been Kentucky Corps members for decades. The reverence that these men took in finishing Tom’s gun was not just because he was a master craftsman, but because he was a dear friend of many years standing.
And so, these men waited earnestly as Tom Hall came to see his last gun completed, each one of them hoping it was good enough for the master. As Tom walked in the shop, the four men handed over his last gun and he took it as soft smile crossed his face. The room let out a collective sigh. As the room talked jovially, Tom would occasionally glance down at the work, ever editing and thinking about his craft. The group grew throughout the day as more friends came to say hello and witness the final product.
Eventually the time came when Tom signed his final piece. And so, Tom grabbed a small metal chisel and softly tapped out the letters of his name on the last gun he would ever make. It is impossible for an artist who has spent hundreds of hours on the craft that they so adore to not insert a portion of their soul into each piece they create. And so, as Tom chiseled out ‘T Hall’ my father, Randall and Keith watched Tom softly place the last bits of his soul as an artist into Number 42. “A lot of [gun makers] quit in obscurity and you don’t know when the last day, time or piece of work was.” My father told me. These men insure that such a fate was laid upon neither Number 42 nor the master Tom Hall.
“What do you do when you don’t have a project in your head anymore?”, my father asked me. “We all did this because we didn’t want to be house men. So what do you do when you can’t do it anymore?” These questions get to the heart of this story. Tom, a master gun maker, can no longer create, so his story gives each of his fellow gun makers pause and begs the question, how much longer do I have to create? When a craftsman loses his ability to ply his craft, he must come to terms with not only what he will do with his time, but also with looking back on his legacy as an artist. The thought is a terrifying one for anyone who has given themselves so fully to learning and perfecting the craft that they live for. But what is lucky for Tom is that he now knows, truly knows, just how much his work affected his fellow gun makers, just how revered he is, and just how much of a master he truly became.