The misadventures of a gunsmith

Gunsmithing is an interesting field, from the well-meaning efforts of amateurs trying to ‘enhance’ their personal weapons (frequently with disastrous results) to highly-trained and experienced bespoke gunmakers manufacturing a firearm to order for well-off individuals.  A ‘real’ gunsmith commented once, in my hearing, that the amateur variety should be banned from owning Dremel rotary tools and others like them, because of the damage they’ve done to guns with them.  His boss, another ‘real’ gunsmith, immediately disagreed, pointing out how much (very profitable) work their shop took in to repair the efforts of the amateurs!  Chuckling, the first gunsmith was forced to agree.

Be that as it may, English professional gunsmiths and bespoke gunmakers have always been highly respected in the world of firearms.  One of them, William Roper, died recently, and his obituary sheds light on some of the misadventures involved in a gunsmith’s work.

He [learned] his craft in old mews workshops in Birmingham, where he was intrigued to find that most members of the gun trade seemed to prefer snuff to cigarettes. All became clear when he was told of how his mentor “Pop” Dudden had once blown the contents of his workshop into the mews when his burning cigarette had come into contact with a pile of gunpowder.

On one occasion, Roper and his fellow apprentices decided to celebrate November 5 by turning an old gun barrel into a Roman candle, with the help of some disassembled signal cartridges. On lighting the touchpaper in the courtyard of Hellis’s shop, they saw their creation soar over the roof and disappear in a trail of smoke. Hopes that their indiscretion might have gone unnoticed were dashed when a policeman, on point duty in Hyde Park, came into the shop and deposited the mangled barrel on the counter.

. . .

Roper also became the first gunsmith to refurbish a wildfowler’s punt gun – an immensely powerful shotgun used for bringing down a large number of waterfowl in a single blast – and through this found himself working with countrymen such as Jack Hargreaves to refine the sport. Among other projects, Roper helped to develop a new gun known as “The Wolverhampton Monster”, which failed its safety tests in spectacular fashion by blowing the louvres out of the roof of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers’ London Proof House in Commercial Road.

On another occasion, Roper was trying to free the slide of a customer’s semi-automatic pistol by holding it between his knees and heaving back on the slide, when the gun, which he had assumed was unloaded, went off. At the time he thought that the bullet had buried itself in the floor and it was only some time later, when he had an X-ray after falling off a ladder, that the projectile was discovered lodged in his knee. Some years later, by which time the bullet had begun to cause him discomfort, Roper decided to have it removed. Rather than go to the hospital he persuaded a medical student friend of his son’s to remove the missile while Roper was sitting at his desk at an office party.

Another time, Roper’s left hand got caught in the gear train of his rifling machine, causing a friend looking on to faint with shock. Roper had to reach over and reverse the machine to extricate his hand, then wake his companion up and get him to drive him to the local hospital. Doctors told him they might have to amputate, but Roper refused. After skin grafts the hand proved perfectly functional.

Occasionally customers caused accidents. One picked up what he took to be two “snap caps” or test cartridges from Roper’s shop counter and loaded them into his shot gun, only to find, on pulling the trigger, that they were actually brass-cased cartridges. The resulting blast narrowly missed Roper’s head, blowing his glasses off his head, and his shop door into the street.

There’s more at the link.

Mr. Roper appears to have had a pithy sense of humor.  In 2002, commenting on the poor operational performance of Britain’s SA80 service rifle, he observed:

The seal of approval should surely come from Afghanistan. If the local tribesmen haven’t yet stolen any for their own use, it can’t be any good.

Sounds like Mr. Roper had an adventurous, noisy and sometimes dangerous career!  May his afterlife be more peaceful.



  1. I had the good fortune to be a semi-regular customer at The Old West Gunroom during the 1970's and meet Dave Cumberland.

    It was the kind of place I fondly remember from my younger days. Wood floors, rifle racks on the open floor with every surplus long gun you could imagine, wood barrels with '98 Mausers sticking out of them.

    I heard the following story some years after the fact, and then later had it confirmed during my employment at Huntington's by (the late) Buzz Huntington. Turns out he and Dave were long time friends.

    It seems that one fine day, a black gentleman came into The Old West Gunroom with a pump-action Remington 30-06. He explained (to someone) that he needed to have his rifle repaired because it would fire when the action was cycled without touching the trigger.

    At some point, Dave enters the picture, takes the rifle and cycles the action without clearing the rifle first. It does exactly as advertised and goes "BANG".

    On the street in front of Dave's shop was a bus stop, where a bus just happened to be stopped taking on passengers. The round traveled the length of the store, through one of the double glass entry doors, across the sidewalk, and hit the bus. No one was injured. So, Dave is a member of a very exclusive group who can claim to have shot an AC (Alameda County) transit bus.

    I don't think it was too long after this that Dave decided to move his operation to Nevada.

  2. Lemme guess: Dave had to move to Nevada so he could have a store with a big enough wall to display the bus he'd bagged?

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