BIGFORK, Mont. — Jerry Fisher’s big and careful arms cradled a polished cutout of English walnut, which was aging in his workroom like a fine wine. The slight tapering along one edge gave a ghostly hint of its future as the stock of a handmade hunting rifle.
His eyebrows lifted as he explained the properties of this piece of walnut. “This wood will assume the moisture content of the atmosphere you store it in," he said. “It takes five or six years to dry it."
Vice President Joe Biden may feel, as he said on Tuesday, that people who want to protect their homes would do best with a simple shotgun. But Fisher, 82, is aiming at a higher target.
A gunsmith whose exquisite firearms, some decorated with designs by fine artists, have attracted customers from around the world, Fisher built on the work of older gunsmiths here, just as younger ones hope to learn from him.
He epitomizes the values of the Flathead Valley of northwestern Montana, where people grow up with, relax with and live around guns.
Since the 19th century, hunting has been a pastime in the forests that climb up the tiara of rocky peaks around Flathead Lake.
Members of the growing group of high-end gunsmiths say it is the mountains, the air and the game that draw them, not the presence of other artisans.
But the area’s reputation for this kind of gunsmithing has also made it a growing destination for more prosaic manufacturing of gun parts and guns — including high-end semi-automatic rifles and military weapons.
In Kalispell, the Flathead County seat, 250 people earn a living making guns or gun parts, a tenfold increase since 2005. That growth helped mitigate the effects of the recession, which was a body blow to construction, a major local employer. Another longtime industry, logging, has also withered.
Clint Walker’s company, New Evolution Military Ordnance, became one of the newest entrants in the business within the last couple of years, joining a roster of companies that included Montana Rifle, McGowen Precision Barrels and SI Defense.
Walker, who had been an editor of trade magazines covering video equipment, said Montana Rifle was “doing literally tens of thousands of barrels" for large gunmaking companies back East. “They have to slow down and stop what they are doing to help us out," he said. “And they’ve done that. They said: ‘You guys are local. You’re family.’ "
“That is a large part of the success of this area," Walker added.
To provide trained hands for companies like these, Flathead Valley Community College started a course in gunsmithing last summer. Students learn everything from hollowing out a barrel to checkering a stock — carving fine crosshatched indentations behind the trigger both for decoration and to create a solid grip.
Jane Karas, a former New Yorker who is the school’s president, said the program “focuses on craftsmanship that maintains the historic values" of the area. Her colleague Susan Burch, who worked with a transplanted Oklahoma gunsmith, Brandon Miller, to teach the course, added, “You’re looking at the intersection of art and the outdoors."
Homicides with guns are relatively rare in the area. There have been three in Kalispell (population 20,000) out of six killings total in the past 12 years, said Roger Nasset, the local police chief. His officers are never surprised to find a gun inside a car they stop for a traffic violation — and seldom bother to discuss it, much less confiscate it. Montana’s laws on gun possession are among the least restrictive in the nation.
Guns are not permitted in schoolrooms, but they have been used to raise money for education. Last fall, Stillwater Christian School received more than $20,000 when its parent-teacher organization held a raffle for a locally made semi-automatic AR-15 rifle donated by Walker, a parent of two young students there.
“When we did the fundraiser, it didn’t cross my mind, ‘Wow, we’re donating an assault rifle to a school for a fundraiser,’" he said. It was just, ‘This is one of the No. 1-selling rifles in America.’"
The gun debate
Butch Hurlbert, whose daughter and teenage granddaughter were fatally shot near Kalispell on Christmas Day 2010, blames the killer — his daughter’s former boyfriend — and the police, not the gun. Having a gun, he said, “is pretty much just a normal thing."
“My granddaughter that was murdered, she had her own .270" hunting rifle, Hurlbert added. “She was hunting for what would have been her third year. She got two bucks. Mounted the horns herself."
Certainly Kalispell has not been impervious to changes brought by people who do not own guns and come for the scenery, the skiing, the hiking and the community cohesion. But most of the debates here about controlling guns pit gun owners and Second Amendment supporters against one another.
Since a gunman killed 26 people in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the columns of two local news outlets, The Flathead Beacon and The Daily Inter Lake, have been filled with debate over gun control.
A piece in The Beacon by Bob Brown, a Republican and former state Senate president, called on gun owners to take back the National Rifle Association, which, he said, has been “hijacked and radicalized."
Online comments were almost evenly divided between those who agreed and those who excoriated Brown. The opposing views were distilled in this comment: “As long as the American people are able to arm themselves properly there will never be a ‘cultural revolution’ that takes 60 million lives like that in China. A disarmed man is no man, he is a slave to his oppressors."
Semi-automatic assault rifles are selling well right now. Walker at New Evolution Military Ordnance owns several of his own.
When three men tried to steal his truck a few months ago, he said, he scared them off with his wife’s handgun; he had left his assault rifles in the garage. But, he said, “If I had to defend myself and my family, there’s no question I would choose my assault rifle. No question I’d want a 30-round magazine."
Walker added, “In a defensive situation, not every bullet is going to find its target."
For Lee Helgeland, 65, a high-end gunsmith who, like his friend Fisher, lives deep in the country, the rise of assault weapons has been a problematic development, but an understandable one given the widespread admiration for all things military.
“We grew up with gun safety pounded into our heads when we were kids," said Helgeland, who moved the area from Idaho, where he was a sales manager at a large food business. “It’s a problem — the misuse of firearms — without a solution."
“There is a great distance between the world of the guns I make and the criminal element using the semi-automatics and the Saturday night specials," he said, adding, “The urban attitude, the attitude of the anti-gun people, is based on unfamiliarity with the use of firearms in this part of the world."