Don Robinson came to my attention some years ago; this Halifax-based gunsmith had made a customised BSA Supersport stock for none other than George H. W. Bush – the President of the United States. He’d carved the stock with images of Alaskan mountains and pine forests, inlaid a bald eagle panel on the side of the butt and inscribed a silver shield: “George Washington 1789 – George Bush 1989. 200 years of freedom”. That rifle now resides in the NRA museum in Washington DC.
Don began making stocks as a teenage lad, simply because he was frustrated by the plain, simple stocks of the day. The first stock he made was for a BSA Martini Henry that had been converted from 45-70 to a .22LR by Bonehill of Birmingham. Don altered the stock to suit the use of a telescopic sight, adding a cheekpiece and raised comb. This modification of old stocks became a regular request from customers, as the trend towards the use of a telescopic sight started to take over from the standard open sights that had been the norm for rifles at that time. Other stock work entailed adding chequering to the plain stocks of the day, or simple decorative features such as inlays, contrasting spacers and grip caps or forends.
A few years later, Don joined the RAF and was trained as an armament fitter, working on the then state-of-the-art fighter jets, the Electric Lightning and Phantom. He also kept the small arms serviced and repaired. “This is where I learned my gunmaking skills,” says Don. “I’d keep the Browning side arms, Bren guns, Stirling sub-machine guns and standard issue SLRs in good working order.”
Don’s stockmaking skills were honed when he was stationed in Malta in the 1970s. “I taught myself to fashion stocks by making Kentucky long rifles, which had quite a following with re-enactment societies and period target shooters at that time,” he recalls. Don followed the traditional long rifle schools and became quite sought-after. “I even made long rifle stocks for other Kentucky makers,” he laughs. “I guess that’s where my love for fancy artwork comes from – all that mother- of-pearl or white wood inlaying on those beautiful long rifles.”
Towards the end of the 1970s, air rifles began to boom – and they, too, became a large part of Don’s stock-work commissions. In particular, Don had a penchant for the Airsporter, specifically in its MkIV guise. “This Beeza revolutionised air rifles,” he affirms, “not least because of its extended forend. It was a proper stock for an air rifle and brought proper rifle looks to the airgun scene. The only trouble was, it still wasn’t ideal for use with a telly.”
That meant much of Don’s airgun stock-work was raising cheekpieces – until the the airgun revolution began to gather pace. “I used to make my living purely out of crafting cheekpieces on to BSAs and Weihrauchs,” he muses, “but nowadays, air rifles are very good straight off the shelf and don’t really need a stockmaker’s attention in that area – though there are still many shooters who want some other bespoke work done to their woodwork.”
Don showed me a couple of the air rifles he’s stocked – BSA Airsporter MkIVs, naturally! One had its original stock reworked with panels of rosewood tulips along the forend and butt, with a left-hand dedicated solid cheek in matching wood. Along with the butt plate, the grip and forend are capped with tortoiseshell wood – and to complete the transformation, Don added finely-cut hand-chequering at 28 lines per inch.
Don also customised the metalwork. The steel has been matted, given rococo engraving and a colour-hardened finish – all done by Don’s fair hand in his small Yorkshire workshop. Small it may be, but it’s stacked out with stock blanks in all manner of woods. “I just have to snap them up as soon as I hear about – or see – the good ones,” he jokes.
The other Airsporter Don showed me is one that he’s particularly attached to – a .177 Airsporter ‘Club’ that he’s used for exhibitions. “I like to think it reflects some of the influence in my work that I attribute to my admiration of the great furniture makers,” he remarks. “The likes of Thomas Chippendale, Robert Adam, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton.”
And, sure enough, on this Airsporter, Don has let his juices flow. It’s hand-engraved, again in the rococo style, and colour hardened. The Club’s cylinder end block has been polished and engraved, as have the scope mounts, and these are attached to a retro-fitted, more contemporary Maxi-Grip scope rail. And instead of the single screw attaching the action to the stock, Don’s used a three- point mounting system, one bolt either side of the forend, then the BSA long bolt up through the pistol grip. Finally Don’s put in a crossbolt above the trigger guard.
The English walnut stock is heavily relief-carved, with a stippled forend and grip. This being an exhibition piece, Don needed to demonstrate all his styles and skills, so some panels of neat chequering have been included and, like the George Bush rifle, there is a bald eagle inlaid on the side of the butt. For this, Don’s used marquetry techniques, just like those old furniture masters, with decorative woods in different colours. “It’s one of my most cherished rifles,” he comments, “because it reflects many of my passions all in one compote.”
Don loves to work with exotic woods – and as a demonstration to how well burr walnut lends itself in the stockmaking world, Don shows me a highly embellished Theoben break-barrel gas-ram. “It would be impossible to create a gun stock from such wood,” he admits, “but by implementing the techniques those furniture makers perfected in bygone days, I can create a stock that looks like it has been.”
Basically, what Don has done is veneer his stock – applying a thin sheet of burr walnut on top of a base made from a more orthodox wood, like beech. It’s been given satin wood spacers to separate the ebony Schnabel tip and grip cap – and the result is quite stunning! “It looks like solid wood, doesn’t it?” he asks – and I have to acknowledge that it does. “But the truth is,” he proudly divulges, “it’s still the original stock. It’s just that it’s hiding underneath all the veneering.”
Don’s now been plying his work – no pun intended – for half a century, but admits that the majority of his work is on big game rifles these days. “Few airgunners want to have their guns customised nowadays. They seem quite content with a lump of any old wood – and, of course, the fashion is moving more and more to synthetic mouldings.”
But despite that, Don still gets great pleasure from turning a relatively boring stock into something rather special. “Even plain old beech stocks can be brought to life with a few tricks of the trade,” he says. “All it needs is a bit of know-how… plus a good deal of time and effort.”
And as I bid my farewells to one of the stalwart names in the airgun world, I can’t help thinking that it’s a shame his airgun commissions are decreasing in volume. He’s still got that magic touch when it comes to transforming a bland bit of wood – and will rightfully take his place in the shooting annals as one of the important characters who shaped the airgun world. In his case – literally.