Americana: Griffin & Howe Custom Rifles

Americans have taken the art of custom rifles far beyond the levels of other craftsmen – and Griffin & Howe is the best window through which to see where it all began.

Threads in a fabric: A deer rifle by Griffin & Howe, built on a Springfield action. Teddy Roosevelt. The United States’ emergence as the preeminent political and military power of the twentieth century. The origin of the classic American sporting rifle.

Americana.

The 1898 war with Spain paved Theodore Roosevelt’s way to the presidency. Spanish troops in Cuba, armed with bolt-action Mauser rifles, proved America’s trapdoor Springfield obsolete. The military subsequently adopted the Krag as a stopgap measure and ordered the Springfield Armory to develop a bolt-action repeater in the image of Mauser and Lee-Enfield. The rifle was officially named the Model 1903, for the year the basic design finally was perfected. Among riflemen it became known as the ’03 Springfield, and it was America’s first truly great modern rifle.

President Roosevelt had a sporter version built, which he used extensively for hunting in the West and during his famous African safari in 1909-1910. Teddy’s accounts of Africa and his praise of the ’03 rifle, serialized in Scribner’s magazine, caught the fancy of a young New York cabinetmaker named Seymour Griffin. Griffin bought a Springfield barreled action and a blank of French walnut, tried his hand at stockmaking, and found it pleasant work. He went on stocking Springfields as spare-time work until 1922, when he met James Howe, a talented gunsmith working at the Frankford Arsenal. The two formed a partnership and opened for business at 234 East 39th Street, New York, on June 1, 1923, under the style Griffin & Howe.

 

All showed the classically elegant style and superb craftsmanship that was Griffin & Howe’s trademark. 

 

Bolt-action sporting rifles were their specialty, and it was a case of offering exactly the right thing at the right time. Veterans of World War I, familiar with the Springfield and with captured Mausers, saw the bolt rifle as the perfect sporter—but at the time, none of the big gunmakers built one, and wouldn’t until Winchester brought out its Model 54 in 1925. So, the bolt-action sporter—the classic American game rifle—was defined by the smaller makers and the custom shops: Lewis Wundhammer, R.F. Sedgley, Adolph Niedner, Hoffman Arms, R.J. Owen, and finest of all, Griffin & Howe.

James Howe left the partnership in December 1923 and went to work for Hoffman. Seymour Griffin secured a workforce of immigrant German and Austrian gunsmiths, and in the prosperity of the ’20s established Griffin & Howe as the preeminent rifle-maker in America. According to its records, the company completed 840 rifles from mid-1923 through the end of the decade. Most were built on Springfield actions. All showed the classically elegant style and superb craftsmanship that was Griffin & Howe’s trademark.

Other singular features evolved as well. The quarter rib, the hooded ramp front sight, the barrel band for the front sling swivel, the ingenious detachable side ’scope-mount—all have become Griffin & Howe signatures, as distinctive as the classic stocks and flawless metalwork.

In October 1930 Seymour Griffin sold out to Abercrombie & Fitch, a company already on the way to becoming the most famous American sporting-goods retailer ever. The symbiosis was perfect. As rifles sales flagged from the ’30s on, the shotgun trade flourished, and Griffin & Howe became both an important retailer and a custom shotgun shop—and remains so today.

And it remains a rifle shop as well. Orders are fewer than in the halcyon days of the ’20s, but the quality has never changed. The 7x57mm you see here is atypical of later Griffin & Howe rifles in that it’s a Mauser action and features a fleur de lis checkering pattern rather than the classic G&H multi-point found on later guns. But it does have the G&H checkered bolt knob and checkered steel butt plate with trap. 

The decoration is typically subtle: engraved floor plate and screw-heads, a bit of engraving to set off the front sight base, trigger guard and barrel breech. Although Seymour Griffin was always the final arbiter of company style and taste, chief engraver Josep Fugger established the standard of quality evident not only on the rifles and guns bearing the Griffin & Howe name, but also in the work of engravers who learned their art under his tutelage in the Griffin & Howe shop—among them Joseph Bayer, Bob Swartley and Winston Churchill.

There is no question that American craftsmen have taken the art of custom rifles far beyond the levels that anyone else has reached—and Griffin & Howe is the best window through which to see where it all began. +++

 

This story originally appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of  Sporting Classics and in Gamefield Classics by Michael McIntosh & Bill Headrick, available here. Photo by Bill Headrick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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