Bolt Action Pioneers
January 27, 2011
A look at some instrumental figures in the development of the venerable bolt rifle.
The author's Griffin & Howe was made in the late 1920s and features an engraved nonslip bolt handle and receiver crossbolt.
Looking back on the 20th century from a firearms point of view, we are able to see the ubiquitous bolt action not just as a popular hunting tool and target arm but as one of the last century's greatest advances in modern gunsmithing technology. And today there is a growing awareness of some of the great craftsmen of the early 20th century who were responsible for the rise of bolt-action sporters--names that were popular in certain circles back then but largely forgotten today.
It was the familiar military 1898 Mausers and 1903 Springfields that became the inspirations for men such as Seymour Griffin, Charles Newton and Frank Hoffman in making precision hunting rifles that bore their names. These skilled pre-war pioneer gunsmiths were individuals who headed up relatively small and often struggling companies, and their achievements were part of the reason that industry icons such as Winchester and Remington were convinced the future lay in developing bolt-action rifles.
After World War I, the market was flooded with affordable surplus arms--particularly the well-engineered Mauser 98 and the 1903 Springfield and Rock Island rifles. This was the real impetus that launched the birth of the sporterized bolt action.
Among the very first bolt-action pioneers was Adolph Otto (A.O.) Niedner (pronounced NEED-ner) of Malden, Massachusetts--later of Wisconsin and, finally, Dowagiac, Michigan. Niedner was a crack rifle shot of the late 19th century who also became a wildcat cartridge innovator responsible for developing the .22 Long Rifle and the .25 Niedner, known today as the .25-06.
From approximately 1906 until the 1940s, Niedner created super-accurate rifles for customers who have now become firearms legends, such as gun writer Col. Townsend Whelen and Ned H. Roberts, author of the classic book, The Muzzle Loading Caplock Rifle.
Niedner worker for many years with another ballistician, Dr. F.W. Mann, who authored the seminal 1909 reference work, The Bullet's Flight. Together, they created a legacy for accuracy, primarily because of the superb barrels the latter-day Niedner Rifle Corporation produced.
One of Niedner's regular customers was Charles Newton, who has since been christened "the father of the American high-velocity rifle cartridge." An attorney by profession, Newton was born in New York in 1870, but by 1906 his lifelong fascination with long-range accuracy started him on a second career as a gun writer for numerous magazines.
Eventually he hooked up with a New York gunsmith named Fred Adolph and began experimenting with high-velocity, small-bore cartridges. Out of this came numerous now-obsolete cartridges such as the .22 Newton, the .35 Newton and the .40 Newton. Some of Newton's more lasting creations were the .22 Savage Hi-Power and the .250-3000.
In 1914, the newly formed Newton Arms Company produced rifles with Mauser, Haenel or Sauer actions, but World War I quickly put a stop to those German importations. A switch to Springfield actions was also subsequently thwarted by the war.
A Hoffman rifle chambered in .250-3000 showcases the intricate carving of the stock by John Wright and engraving by Rudolph Kornbrath.
After the armistice, Newton regrouped and started a new company--the Charles Newton Rifle Corporation in Buffalo, New York--which imported, rather than produced, Newton rifles. A number of fine rifles were made, including some with barrels that employed a unique oval rifling based on the British Lancaster system. But eventually the company went into receivership.
Undaunted, Newton formed the Buffalo Newton Rifle Corporation, which, despite its name, set up operations in New Haven, Connecticut. But Newton's financial backer took possession of the company, and the inventor was forced to sue to get it back. However, increased competition from larger companies and newer, more readily available cartridges eventually took their toll. Newton finally dissolved the company in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression.
Charles Newton died three years later, never having gotten rich with any of his inventions. According to Larry Wales, Newton historian and author of The History and Details of Newton High Power Rifle, Newton's rifles included the German imports of 1914, with between 24 and 100 being received; the 1916 First Model, the most prolific with about 4,000 manufactured; the Model 1922 second German import group, numbering about 100 rifles; the Model 1924, Second Model or Buffalo Newton, with approximately 1,000 rifles made; and the LeverBolt, which never went into production.
In all, Wales estimates a total of between 4,600 and 5,400 Newton rifles were produced of all models--though some were of questionable quality, according to both Wales and Phillip Sharpe, who wrote in The Rifle in America. "Newton Rifles were excellently engineered but very poorly constructed. Charles Newton was a designer, not a builder," Sharpe wrote. It's a somewhat obscure legacy for a man who is better remembered for the cartridges he invented rather than the rifles that bore his name.
Even more obscure is Frank L. Hoffman, an early 1920s-era U.S. Marine sharpshooter who was lured away by an entrepreneur named Harry M. Synder to start the Hoffman Arms Company, makers of some of the best bolt actions ever produced in pre-war America. I learned about him from Michael Petrov's Custom Gunmakers of the 20th century, a must-have tome that highlights many pioneering gun makers.
I was able to shed even more light on the shadows that surrounded Hoffman rifles when I attended the Las Vegas Antique Arms Show. There it was my good fortune to meet Hoffman collector Shane Robinson, who has many of the original Hoffman factory records and correspondence. An unabashed enthusiast, Shane has set up a website (www.hoffmanarms.com) for these well-crafted guns.
According to Robinson, the Hoffman Arms Company incorporated on March 16, 1923, and opened its doors for business that June in Cleveland, Ohio.
To ensure success, Hoffman hired some of the finest gun builders of the day: stock makers John Dubiel and John Wright (formerly of Holland and Holland, who was most likel
y responsible for most of the intricately carved and checkered stocks of that early period); barrel maker Eric Johnson, who eventually worked for Winchester; and machine and tool man William Doty.
A Newton Model 1922, imported from Germany, has the unique, Newton-designed opposing double set triggers and "spoon" bolt handle.
Only the best Mauser actions--Hoffman specialties--were used, and in the beginning all Hoffman engraving was done by the legendary Rudolph Kornbrath, whose work also adorned many Colts and Winchesters. In all, 10 to 12 workers comprised the Hoffman "dream team" of craftsmen.
Although the company planned to produce between 800 to 1,000 guns annually, by August 1925 only about 225 guns had been built. However, their quality was enough to attract a group of investors from Ardmore, Oklahoma, who offered to purchase $100,000 worth of stock in addition to providing 10 acres in Ardmore for a new factory. Thus the Hoffman Arms Company and most of the employees moved to Oklahoma that summer.
During the next five years, production continued to lag, and only about 250 additional guns were built. Consequently, in spite of its stellar cast and the exquisite rifles it produced, the company lost money from the beginning, no doubt due to the meticulous labor-intensive workmanship and, I suspect, a lack of marketing.
In late 1930, the Hoffman Arms Company went into receivership, effectively spelling the end of an exquisite sporting arm that counted Kermit Roosevelt (Theodore's son), Capt. Paul A. Curtis, Col. Townsend Whelen, Col. Charles Askins and Elmer Keith as its fans.
Substantially better known and the only survivor of America's early bolt-action era is Griffin & Howe (www.griffinhowe.com), still doing business with retail stores in New Jersey and Connecticut and a shooting school.
Seymour R. Griffin was a skilled young New York cabinet maker who became enthralled with the 1903 Springfield after reading glowing accounts of the rifle in Theodore Roosevelt's African Game Trails.
Shortly after Roosevelt's book was published in 1910, Griffin purchased an '03 Springfield and restocked it in fancy French walnut. The handsome sporter caught the eye of a fellow shooter, who purchased it from Griffin.
The cabinet maker immediately set about making another rifle for himself, but once again his intricate inletting and flawless carving resulted in another admirer purchasing the rifle. Thus, it wasn't long before Griffin was supplementing his cabinet-making income by creating stylish sporters for a small but enthusiastic group of shooters.
One of Griffin's admirers was then Maj. Townsend Whelen, a man whose name repeatedly crops up in the annals of early 20th century gun makers as he was one of the most influential gun writers of his day. Whelen's published praise for Griffin's stock-making abilities brought the skilled craftsman to the attention of the nation's shooters.
Coincidently, Whelen was also the commanding officer at Frankford Arsenal and director of research and development at Springfield Armory. It was there in 1921 that Whelen met another talented gun maker, James V. Howe, who was heading up the Small Arms Experimental Department at the armory and whose specialty was metalworking.
Impressed with the expertise of both Seymour Griffin and James Howe, Whelen conceived of combining the complementary talents of these two craftsmen. Thus, the firm of Griffin & Howe was formed, with Whelen as an adviser. The shop opened at 234 East 39th St. in New York City on June 1, 1923.
Evidently, James Howe was a somewhat opinionated and possibly cantankerous individual, as after only four months he left the company and joined a competitor, Hoffman Arms Company. "He only stayed long enough to get his name on the door," said Paul E. Chapman, Griffin & Howe's current vice president and director of gunsmithing.
The three-leaf, gold-inlaid Griffin & Howe express sights (shown folded) are graduated for 100, 150 and 200 yards and an example of the "extras" found on some early bolt guns.
Later, Howe went into business for himself, then restored firearms for Henry Ford's museum and finally ended up at the National Target and Supply Company, working alongside Townsend Whelen.
But the name of Griffin & Howe--and the company's growing reputation for building some of the finest sporting rifles in the world--continued, thanks to the hard work of Griffin and the small but dedicated group of talented American and European craftsmen he assembled. In spite of the Great Depression and the impending war, there was a demand for Griffin & Howe's rifles, especially among sportsmen whose wallets could match their whims.
Still, author Petrov estimates that in its pre-WWII heyday, G&H made fewer than 2,000 rifles. Each gun took from four to eight weeks to complete. Only the finest figured walnut was used, the best chrome-nickel or Poli Anti-corro barrels were obtained from companies such as the Niedner Rifle Corporation, and the finest engravers were employed.
Options included full ribbed or half ribbed barrels to gold, silver or platinum inlays that ran the gamut from a simple gold band to a family's coat of arms.
Special front and rear sights included G&H's express sights as well as its detachable scope mount. A single-lever version of this mount was patented in 1927, and in 1931 a two-lever model was added. Later, this device was employed by Griffin & Howe during World War II when it was contracted by the War Department to make sniper scope mounts for the M1 Garand. This innovative scope mount is still available on Griffin & Howe rifles today.
In 1930, the company was purchased by Abercrombie & Fitch, although today it is once again privately owned. Its client list over the years reads like a Who's Who of the mid-20th century, including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Robert Ruark, Jack O'Connor and Bill Ruger.
Sadly, most of our other early American bolt-action pioneers are forgotten. Today one would have to search hard to find rifles made by Reginald Sedgley of Philadelphia; R.G. Owen of Sauquoit, New York; and Louis Wundhammer and Frank Pachmayr, both from Los Angeles.
But that's not to say the guns made by craftsmen I've discussed are any less fascinating. As Larry Wales told me, "There are many more people interested in Newto
n rifles than I thought. The interesting part is that a person can be a Newton collector with one rifle, since they are so rare."
Indeed, it's time these gun builders and their rifles were recognized for the classics that they are.