Pioneer Of The Past

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

A passion for old things and old ways carried a young gunsmith to frontiers of craftsmanship – and the work of passing it on.

by JOANNE KIMBERLIN
photography by ADAM EWING

It happens somewhere between the head, the heart and the hands. The magic that transforms a chunk of wood into an heirloom, a puddle of paint into a treasure, an ordinary man into a master.

Wallace Gusler – craftsman, artist, author, historian – has been percolating for 72 years. Known best as the maestro of the American long rifle, he spent decades as Colonial Williamsburg’s master gunsmith, becoming the first person in modern times to build one the old way – by hand, from stock to barrel.

A 1968 documentary, Gunsmith of Williamsburg, shows Gusler hard at work, a dark-haired young man in Colonial garb, forging, filing and chiseling.

The man who answers the door at his home today has a silver ponytail and sells his custom-made firearms for up to $50,000. But his interests and expertise have branched like a seasoned oak. A conversation with Gusler trots the globe and leaps through history – Early American furniture, stone-age tools, Colonial wallpaper, back-country dulcimers, British tea ware, Chinese burial artifacts, African masks, English gardens, Greek sculpture, classical paintings, pot-bellied stoves.

He’s quick to confess that he has no formal training in any of those areas. In fact, he was kicked out of high school for lack of attendance – the “boot diploma,” as he says, with a grin. Instead, Gusler is the embodiment of what can happen when a thirsty mind stays open for business.

The next time he stepped into a class, he was at the front of the room, lecturing at a university.

Wallace Gusler and the old ways are entwined, a relationship distilled in the hollows of Virginia’s Appalachians. He grew up in Roanoke County, in the shadow of Fort Lewis Mountain, roaming the ruins of its namesake fort, built during the French and Indian Wars. His pockets were filled with arrowheads, his imagination with the frontier.

His father was a timber man, and times were lean on the family’s small plot of land. “We were poor,” he says. “Everyone around us was. We plowed with a mule. Raised hogs. Grew our own vegetables. It was an 18th century way of life.”

It’s hard to say what changed Gusler’s course – tweaked his soul into something different from the more practical stock he hails from. Maybe it was the rheumatic fever. Around age 10, the illness confined him to bed or the porch for nearly a year, where he occupied his hands with model airplanes, his eyes with the flight of birds or the shapes of clouds.

He only knows that by the time he was well, he wasn’t the same kid. He took to running, long distances through the hills. And he noticed more – the small things – the smell of wood as it came off his father’s mill, the swirl of its grains, the hues of its fibers. “No one else at the saw mill gave a tinker’s dam,” he says, “but I was fascinated. ‘Why are some trees like this and others like that?’ I still love a good piece of wood.”

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Gusler lays sterling wire into channels of a hand-carved
gunstock. He prefers wood cured at least 20 years;
it’s more stable.

He worked on his first gun around age 12 – an old .32-caliber squirrel rifle that belonged to his father and refused to fire. Two years later, he built his own, a flintlock pistol with a stock carved from cherry.

“I picked the brains of the old-timers,” he says, “the guys who had really shot. They were characters – old shopkeepers, and drunks who lived in chicken coops because their wives wouldn’t let them in the house. They were just more interesting than the teetotalers at the Baptist church. They had incredible recall. I learned about guns from them.”

The budding gunsmith converted a coop at home into his own humble workshop, and began building a reputation for himself. Firearms came in for repair and their owners lingered, swapping hunting tales into the night.

Gusler found himself drawn to the older guns, the long rifles of the pioneers. To him, they were stewards of a golden age – time capsules of endurance, courage, independence.

At 16, he killed his first buck with an 1830 model – sealing the deal on a lifelong love affair.

School suffered. “I missed 64 days in the 10th grade and they asked me to leave,” Gusler says. “It just wasn’t my thing. It seemed like they didn’t want you to think – really think – and besides, I was more interested in hunting and making rifles. That, and running. I never missed a track practice.”

By then, he’d burrowed through enough dusty barrels and backrooms to amass an inventory of antique gun parts and nurture his taste for all things old. Always short on cash, he remembers one of his first non-gun purchases – an Indian ax head he bought on layaway for $5.

“And I’ve been in debt ever since,” he sighs.

The best gunsmiths can work both wood and metal, and as Gusler’s skills developed, word of his craftsmanship spread – an ever-widening circle that landed him a job at Colonial Williamsburg as a 20-year-old in 1962.

“I started in the blacksmith shop,” he says. “They had no budget for a gunsmith back then. There I was, my first day in costume – just a shy mountain boy – and someone led me outside and pointed to a cauldron and asked if I knew what it was used for. And, of course, I knew, because where I came from, we were still using things like that for making apple butter. From that moment on, I was right at home.”

Working on the inlay. Gusler, thrown out of high school for poor
attendance, rapidly became a recognized expert in gunsmithing.
Colonial Williamsburg hired him at age 20.

At Colonial Williamsburg, the largest living-history museum in the United States, Gusler was able to immerse himself in the yesteryear.

He founded its gunsmith shop, researched the evolution of the Virginia long rifle and re-created the techniques of gunsmiths past.

He became an expert at conservation and restoration, and moved on to become a curator, expanding his wheelhouse to include not just firearms but furniture, clocks, musical instruments, paintings, textiles, and on and on.

When the real thing no longer existed, he helped the foundation get it right, crafting accurate reproductions for the Governor’s Palace, including two elaborate cast-iron stoves.

Along the way, this high-school dropout wrote catalogs, magazine articles and books, taught carving at the Smithsonian Institution and rifle making at Kentucky universities, and served as an adjunct lecturer at the College of William and Mary, a position he held for nearly 20 years.

“I’m not saying I’m on any of their posters or any-thing,” he jokes. “I’m not exactly an example of how they’d like you to get your education.”

In 2003, after 40 years of job titles, frequent flier miles, designing, exhibiting and labeling – lots and lots of labeling – Wallace Gusler retired. Now he runs his own consulting business, teaches when he feels like it, works when he feels like it, and putters around a lakeside house on the outskirts of Williamsburg where he lives with his wife. Liza, a history major Gusler met at Colonial Williamsburg, shares his passion for fine wood, antiques and art. Their home overflows with interesting objects from across the world. In typical family fashion, none of their four grown children is particularly partial to any of it. “You know how it is when you grow up around something,” Gusler says. “You want to be different. They’re sick of all this stuff.”

Gusler’s handiwork is everywhere, in the moldings, arches, staircase. Out back, he created an extravagant garden with an engineered stream and rock outcroppings reminiscent of his roots in the Shenandoah Valley. And then there are his sculptures – mostly nude female forms, a testament to his appreciation for beauty, plus a dose of ribald humor.  One is complete with pubic hair, wisps made of 14-karat gold.

Liza calls his man-cave, located on the second floor, the “voodoo room.” Leather chairs and a large TV – he’s into sports – compete for space with ancient throwing knives, warrior shields, stone artifacts, and reams of books and periodicals. His collections extend on up the next stairwell to his workshop, where one thing is noticeably absent.

“I’ve probably made 300 guns in my life,” he says, “but don’t have a one of them.”

A work-in-progress sits cradled in a wooden vise – a rifle stock made from curly ash, waiting for the mornings when his hands feel steady enough to finish its intricate scrollwork and engraving.

Restoration jobs take up the other hours. The desktop of a walnut secretary lies on a work bench, missing a chunk of wood where a hinge ripped out. Gusler dates the desk to around 1772, and he’s
repairing it with a piece of walnut he’s had on hand for nearly 50 years.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

The tools on Gusler’s workbench are a mix of hand-made and modern-made.
The planes and mallet are from a dogwood that was dying in his yard;
he put corncob handles on other tools to remind
him of Appalachia, his home.

“Sometimes it pays to be a pack rat,” he says, showing how the slivers of age-darkened wood he’s cut and glued into the wound closely match the color of the original.

When he’s done, he’ll replace the hinge, using 18th century handmade screws he bought from an antique shop as a teenager. “They were going out of business and I bought every one they had,” he said. “I’ve been using them all my life.”

Next, he’ll remove the tiny dots of paint spattered on the desk at some point during its centuries of service. “Furniture has phases,” he says, “a time when it’s new and cared for, a middle age when it’s disrespected, and, if it survives, an old age when it’s treasured again. I only erase the signs of abuse, not of use. Those are beautiful. They’re character.”

On a nearby table, he’s “aging” a new hinge so it’ll blend in with the old ones on another piece of furniture. He dips it from a bowl containing a solution of black gunpowder and other ingredients. He shows how he’ll etch it with the date of his restoration, so no one will mistake it for an original.

“I hate fakes,” he says.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

The most elaborate gun Wallace Gusler has crafted: an American long rifle
custom made for acouple in Staunton. Its value: more than $100,000.
He used a curly maple stock cut in the ’60s and detailed it
with 10,000 to 12,000 pieces of wire, set one by one.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Authenticity is important in Gusler’s universe. Old things “have something from the time and the maker in them,” he says, “and over the years, they acquire something from every handler. They have a patina – a feeling that’s almost spiritual.”

He’s not a fan of organized religion, and says he’s “not intelligent enough to understand God. But I do know that humans are the only creatures with an understanding of their own demise. The things we leave behind, it’s like they’ve passed through the barrier of death.”

He says he’s “soul-searched, asked myself why the old times have dictated so much of my life. It’s not like I think things were so great back then. Daily life is so much easier now.”

He wonders if it’s the where and when of his youth – Fort Lewis, and black-and-white TV, with heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the frontier – any frontier. I would have gone to space if I could. I would have loved that. But since I couldn’t, I guess I decided to live as much as possible on the frontier of knowledge, to try to further the understanding of the obscure – the lost.”

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

At work relief-carving a stock of curly maple. Upright before him:
African knives made of iron and wood in the late 19th century.
Old things, he says, “have something from the time and the maker in them, and …
acquire something from every handler.”

One of his favorite sayings: “There is no royal road to learning.” In other words: No substitute for sweat and enthusiasm.

“And when you’re learning things for yourself, it never ceases to knock you off your pedestal. What you think you know is often all wrong.”

Knowing our roots lends all kinds of perspective. Gusler remembers when his salt-of-the-earth parents came to visit their now-successful son in Williamsburg. He was showing them his fancy garden, thick with shapely shrubs and  exotic trees.

“My mom looked at me and said, ‘When are you going to plant something you can eat?’ ”

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