Although Eldon has not been one of the more notable Cowboy Action Shooting gunsmiths, awareness of his skills has risen as a result of the recent release of the American Western Arms Lightning rifles. These new Lightnings are almost an exact copy of the original with most of the differences being internal changes to improve reliability in the competitive and fast pace shooting in Cowboy Action.
Eldon started college with the goal of being a gunsmith, but he didn't realize it at the time. He had always liked to work with metal and mechanical things, so in college he majored in machining and metallurgy. He started shooting and working on his own guns as a young man and over time he started working on guns for others. Then he started shooting IPSC and found he could not find the quality of work he wanted. He got his start by building his own IPSC guns and before long, others asked him to build guns for them.
He started shooting cowboy action about fifteen years ago and smoothed the action on his own guns. Other CAS shooters asked him to do their guns. He picked up a Colt Lightning Rifle at a gun show and could see the potential of the Lightning. He didn't realize at the time of the purchase of that first Lightning, that it would eventually change his life.
End Of Trail in the early 1990s was his first big cowboy shoot using the Colt Lightning rifle. It broke and cost him sixty-five seconds on that stage, which inspired him to try designing some new internal components. He took the Lightning home and went to work designing a new part that would not break the way the original one had. He was so successful that other Lightning owners asked him to work on their rifles. His customers were quite happy with how they worked after Eldon had done his magic.
Eldon doesn't claim to know everything about every gun, but does specialize in certain guns and feels he doesn't have to apologize for the quality of work he does on those guns. He has been told that he is the leading expert on the Lightning rifle. He feels his notoriety was an accident and says that he is the only gunsmith dumb enough to work on them.
It's been said that to be a good gunsmith you must be a good machinist. One of Eldon's most interesting challenges in the last few years was to return to collage to learn Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Machining (CAM). He was so worried that he wouldn't be a good student that he almost didn't go, but he found it was interesting and challenging. He was willing to put in the work needed to get good grades and even rebuilt a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) mill that he rebuilt and uses in his shop so he could do his own homework.
Eldon's return to school provided him with the ability to do one off parts from from the basic design to finished part fast enough to make parts for different guns that are otherwise impossible to get. A short time ago he reproduced a rear trigger for a Winchester model '94 set trigger. He was satisfied to have designed the part in his CAD program, written the G code to cut the part, set up the tooling and jigs, and ran a test part. Everything worked properly on the first attempt. He uses this setup to make many of his internal parts for the Lightning.
As far as advice to a hobbyists, he has seen several very nice guns that were ruined by people using a Dremel tool. He once heard another gunsmith say that the most dangerous tool in the gunsmith world is a Dremel, and he tends to agree. Eldon's advice is to think about what you grind on very carefully and then take off a very little bit, and try the fit. As the saying goes it is much easier to grind off than grind it back on.
Trigger or sear modification is one example of gunsmith work that is often attempted by amateur smiths. Unless the smith has a very clear understanding of trigger geometry, and theory of trigger operation, the person doing the work must be be very cautious about what is done. It is easy to make a firearm extremely unsafe, and could lead to a bad accident. It may be the best to hand that type of work to a gunsmith who is experienced with that type of gun.
Eldon recommends that anyone working on guns look at a project from every angle when thinking of starting a project. He suggests that the person carefully plan out the steps so they don't end up doing extra work or damaging a gun beyond repair. Eldon gives an example of the kind of mistakes that could happen with an example that recently came into his shop.
A customer asked if Eldon could remove the chrome from a rifle he had owned for several years and no longer liked the finish and now wanted it blued. Eldon told him it could be refinished and to bring it by the shop. When the rifle came in, he found it was a rare pistol grip 1892 Winchester take down rifle with special order wood, special order checkering, and full nickel plating. To top it off, the gun was in ninety-eight percent original condition and worth about ten-thousand dollars. If that person had touched that gun with a buffer or sand paper it would have dropped the value to about six-hundred dollars in less time than it took to read this. This was a very informed and competent shooter so a mistake like this can be made by anyone.
I asked Eldon about any interesting or unusual projects he might currently be working on. He reports that he has two 1901 Winchester ten gauge shotguns in the shop that that he is going to convert into 12 gauge in the near future. He promises to keep me posted on how that project turns out.
Eldon has tried to retire in the last several years, but it just doesn't look as if that's possible. He reports that there is too much work and too many guns to work on. In fact, he answered his phone a few months ago and the person at the other end said, "we need you in Italy next week." Eldon says it was an interesting few weeks in Italy, but that it is a story for another time.