With a simple wooden workbench and myriad chisels, scrapers, gouges and files, one Englishman-turned-Cache Valley transplant is carving out a future in stocks. Gunstocks, that is.
Paul Hodgins grew up in Middlesex, England, and acquired an interest in guns after a friend's sister, who was dating a military man, exposed Hodgins to an air rifle and shooting.His father didn't own a gun, but his grandfather did. His grandfather was a veterinary surgeon and used a revolver to dispatch animals he couldn't save. Guns and hunting just didn't have a place in Hodgins' childhood home, despite its being in the English countryside. Sport hunting was common but not for commoners. So the encounter with the soldier's air rifle made a lasting impression for country-born Hodgins.
"I invited myself along and have been hooked on guns since," he said of his first encounter with the air rifle.
His interest grew to the point that at age 16, he won an apprenticeship at the legendary gunworks of Holland and Holland of London, England. "I was very, very lucky to get my apprenticeship," Hodgins said.
Such apprenticeships are indeed unusual today, especially in America, Hodgins said. But in England, it is still the traditional way a young man learns a trade, especially one as intricate as gunmaking.
Hodgins said he's not a gunsmith but a gunmaker and that early on he was reprimanded at Holland and Holland for confusing the two. At H and H, Hodgins was a "stock-er," meaning he fitted stocks to guns. Machining, engraving and other gunmaking crafts were done by other H and H crafts-men.
Gunmakers were considered to be the more skilled of the two. Gunmakers are craftsmen. Gunsmiths, tinkerers. At Holland and Holland, a wide range of crafts-men labored over varied workbenches to make a high-grade rifle or shotgun. A top-of-the-line rifle or smoothbore usually took 800 hours to manufacture. No wonder they cost so much.
Hodgins left England in the fall of 1982 to work in his trade in Canada. Six months later, Hodgins was hanging his hat in Texas; and in 1995 he moved to Cache Valley.
From those humble beginnings as an apprentice in 1973, Hodgins today is gunmaker and "stocker" of some of the finest guns in the world and contractor to gun owners who demand his work and can pay the price.
You don't seek out the likes of Hodgins to replace a worn or cracked butt plate on an old Remington or Winchester. But the Colorado owner of a Purdy 20 bore paid $500 to have Hodgins handcraft a piece of cape buffalo horn into a butt plate. The finished work is perfect.
And take for example a high-priced Boss and Co. side-by-side shotgun Hodgins worked on back in England. The owner's grandson shot a runt deer in England and, not killing the beast outright, chose to club the muntjac to death with the butt of his borrowed Purdy. Just starting his craft after completing his apprenticeship, Hodgins' task was to replace the entire stock.
Another fine sporting arm at Hodgins' shop is the 12-bore Boss hammer gun made in the 1860s. It was somehow knocked off a kitchen table, reportedly by a dog. The fall broke the stock and dinged the choke.
"Good dog," Hodgins joked.
And there are "good fences," too, like the one a Texas hunter pressed down with his Purdy 12-bore. Hodgins repaired the ding and refinished the stock. Most of the guns he works on were originally made to order and rarely are offered for sale from a gunshop shelf. Among the details on a Purdy: All the screw slots are lined up perfectly to the length of the gun. They blend right in with the detailed engraving on Purdy's famous and reliable sidelock action.
Many more fine sporting arms are in Hodgins' shop, and others have crossed his bench and his skilled hands in the past 15 years.
Although he cut his gun teeth in England, Hodgins' clients are exclusively Americans, he said, including some Anglophiles who seek out the English gunmaker to work on their English guns.
Lest one think it's only shotguns Hodgins toils over, one odd double rifle came his way recently. The rifle was made in 1914 by D. Leonard and Son of Birmingham, England, for the W.J. Jeffery company. It fires a .60-caliber, 900-grain bullet in a 3-inch case and was intended for use on African big game such as elephant and Cape buffalo.
For Hodgins, who has worked on the finest, most expensive guns in the world, the Jeffery double rifle is unique. About 30 were made, including one used to kill seven lions during a two-minute period in West Africa in January 1909. Nine shots were fired at close range to down the seven lions, according to a report of the day.
Hodgins took the .600 bore to the Cache Valley Hunter Education Center range and fired half a dozen rounds in an effort to adjust its sights. He also invited others like Dennis Clark of Trader's Den and Cache County sheriff's deputy Bob DeGasser to take a single shot with a gun few have seen and fewer have shot.
A few days later and back in his shop, Hodgins took apart the Jeffery double rifle. In a month or two it will be returned to its owner, better than new.
Over the years, Hodgins occasionally had the need for a machinist, and he wound up relying on gunmaker Darcy Echols.
The men wound up getting well acquainted, and the two friends now share a shop in Cache Valley.
In 1991, Hodgins was invited by a Texas political figure to the state Capitol in Austin to fit a gun to then-Gov. Ann Richards. The gun, a Winchester model 23, 20 gauge, was too long in the stock, and Hodgins shortened it for Richards.
Some might recall, that afterward, during a hunting showdown between Richards and challenger George W. Bush, Richards knocked down a dove, and Bush, to his chagrin, a threatened plover. Bush, however, got the last laugh.
When it comes to building a stock for a $50,000 Purdy or $90,000 Holland and Holland, the wood of choice is Circassian walnut from eastern Turkey. French walnut was the preferred wood for centuries, but Hodgins said that cherished and valuable wood was wiped out during the two world wars.
One piece of Circassian walnut, enough to carve out a gunstock, can cost $1,500. And Hodgins has a matched pair of walnut pieces he said are worth $3,000.
Hodgins insists the pair of wood chunks is superior. "That's a fine lump of wood, you know."