Wallace Gusler, Master Gunsmith

Muzzleloading Season
Guns & Recreation
Priming Horns?
Editing History
Craft Apprenticeship
Wallace Gusler Retires
This was written for the January 2004 Muzzle Blasts magazine.

Wallace Gusler is a native Virginian who grew up in Fort Lewis Hollow at the foot of Fort Lewis Mountain in Roanoke, County. Living practically in the shadow of Andrew Lewis’s French and Indian War fort could have been what sparked Wallace’s interest in the frontier and longrifles but it wasn’t. Despite their name, Fort Lewis School largely ignored this local history. Instead it was the “arrowheads” that he found in plowed fields that inspired Wallace’s fascination first with Indians, then with the Virginia frontier.

In about 1954 Wallace’ father, Lester Gusler, decided to replace a family longrifle burned in a house fire years earlier. He purchased a full-stocked, iron-mounted, .32 caliber, squirrel rifle and, when he had trouble getting the old percussion rifle to fire, Wallace asked if he could try it. Mr. Gusler handed it over and, as they say, “the rest is history.” While many events come together to shape the direction of a person’s life, having that rifle to shoot and hunt with had a huge influence on Wallace and this writer, who was at the time his neighbor.

Like most folks living in the country, the Guslers had a small workbench in one of their outbuildings and a few hand tools so Wallace had a place to start work. By age 14 (1956), he had made his first muzzleloader, a cherry stocked percussion pistol. There were, of course, no “how to” books or videos so he began to visit with some of the old timers in the area, picking their brains for information and studying any old rifles they had. Sorting out the folklore from the facts was mostly a matter of experimentation—one fellow swore that mainsprings had to be quenched in blood.

About 1957, Wallace converted the tar paper sided chicken coup shown in the picture into a workshop. After tearing out the roosting poles and shoveling out the droppings he added glass windows and a concrete floor. Although Wallace worked long hours in this shop, he was not yet a full time gunsmith. He also worked at his father’s saw mill, tended the garden and livestock, and ran on the high school track team. In the summer, hardly a day went by that there was not some excuse to fire a few shots from the shop into the sawdust pile backstop or at any blackbirds foolish enough to land within range. In the fall Hickory Flats in Buck Hollow was a favorite place to camp and squirrel hunt. There was mountain humor in both those place names because the Flats were on a steep mountain side and the last buck was probably killed before WWI. In those days you could hunt for a week just to find a deer track on Fort Lewis Mountain.

It was in 1958 that Wallace first visited Howard Sites, a gunsmith in Covington, VA. Howard was the last working gunsmith in family of Virginia gunsmiths that began with George Sites in the Shenandoah Valley about 1785. Howard worked primarily on modern rifles but his shop held a collection of longrifles and barrels of old parts. Wallace got his first original carved rifle in trade for work he did for Howard. That fall Wallace killed his first buck with a longrifle made by J. J. Henry about 1830.

Soon word of the young gunsmith’s work spread and people began to bring in all types of guns for him to repair or restock. At one time $15 would get a new stock for an L.C. Smith double barrel shotgun and $100 a longrifle—with Wallace supplying all the parts. His shop also became a hang out for the other neighbor boys, and men, interested in guns and hunting. In about 1959 the Roanoke Times printed an article about Wallace and his work. One of those who read the article and came to see the work was Robyn Hale. A geology student at nearby Virginia Tech, Robyn was from Tennessee and helped Wallace connect with a larger circle of shooters and builders. Wallace went to shoots at Charlie Heffner’s near Franklin, TN and at Leonard Meadow’ shop in Shady Springs, WV. At the time neither Wallace nor Robyn knew how their friendship would end up changing Wallace’s life, but more on that later.

By 1960 a couple of the boys hanging around the shop had also started building rifles. A revival regional style had developed that incorporated features of the antique rifles available for study and what could be seen in the occasional magazine article. Because many of the old rifles brought in for repair and in local collections were made in the area, the new guns made in Wallace’s shop had a strong Virginia feel. This “Fort Lewis Holler” school of rifle design evolved before we ever saw Joe Kindig’s groundbreaking 1960 book Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in it’s Golden Age.

Cash was scarce and that made parts hard to come by. Old barrels were either “freshed out” or re-bored for use. Stocks were made from boards sawn at his father’s steam powered mill. There were no good quality flintlocks available so Wallace began to forge his own. As I remember, most of the guards and buttplates came from Dixie Gun Works. Fueled by R.C. Colas, Moon Pies and, at night, country music from WCKY out of Cincinnati, Wallace became a rifle maker.

About 1962 in front of old chicken coop workshop.

In 1962 Robyn Hale was working for the Virginia Highway Department and was assigned to a project in Surry County, VA. Surry is just across the James River from Colonial Williamsburg so Robyn came to visit. He learned that there was interest in adding a gunsmith to the small Craft Shops program. Who better than Wallace?

After a failed attempt for Wallace to meet with Earl Soles, Jr., the Assistant Director of Craft Shops, at the Richmond gun show, Robyn borrowed Wallace’s latest rifle and brought it to Williamsburg. The rifle was examined, disassembled, and examined some more. Soon Earl was on his way to Southwest Virginia to meet Wallace. After an interview that revealed not only a talent for gun building but also a passionate interest in Virginia history, Wallace was offered a job. He would start in the blacksmith shop while a gunsmith shop was set up. He came to Williamsburg late in 1962. About a year later he moved to the gunsmith shop and in 1964 was named Master Gunsmith.

One of the goals that were evolving for the Colonial Williamsburg’s trades program in the 1960s was for each shop to rediscover and preserve the skills and period technology of their trade. Rediscovery of lost processes and techniques requires both research and experimentation. In the museum world this combined process is now known as experimental or “above ground” archaeology.

When he came to Williamsburg, Wallace could make every part of a rifle by hand, except the barrel. He set out to rediscover the process of hand forging rifle barrels. Written descriptions of the process existed and a few old timers remembered seeing it done in the 1890s, but no one could be found who had actually done the work. Examination of old rifle barrels revealed that most had a single seam running lengthwise instead of the spiral seam found on pattern welded shotgun barrels. Acid etching also showed that most were butt, rather than lap, welded. Knowing how something was done and actually being able to do it are two very different things. By 1964 Wallace was ready to begin teaching himself to forge weld rifle barrels.

In 1965, I had completed my first year of college and Wallace offered me a summer job. I eagerly accepted because it was a chance to get paid for doing what I considered my hobby and to help him learn how to weld rifle barrels. (Twenty years later, when asked how I came to work in Williamsburg, I would tell visitors that it was a hobby that got out of hand.) That summer we were faced with an interesting situation. The shop was open to the public from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. and during the day our time was divided between working on guns and talking to visitors about the trade. The forge was next door in the blacksmith shop and in constant use making items for sale. Wallace and I had to experiment with barrel welding after both shops closed. Fortunately using the facilities and tools after hours was permitted and even encouraged as a way for apprentices to build their skills.

Because visitors were often on the street, we had to work with the doors and shutters of the blacksmith shop closed. That required us to hang up jury-rigged electric lights—three naked 150-watt bulbs cast harsh shadows. If you have ever been to Williamsburg in the summer you know that the heat and humidity can be intense, both often in the ninety’s. Working at a forge in a closed shop was a physical challenge but we did it enthusiastically on many nights that summer. It was a time of excitement and discovery.

We had no wrought iron and had to use mild steel for those first efforts. That made the welding more difficult because steel tends to burn if even slightly overheated. I remember picking up a partially welded skelp only to see half of my barrel left in the fire. In a careless moment I had burned it. Lesson learned, managing the fire is as important as knowing how to hammer. There were other setbacks, but, by summer’s end, Wallace had the hand-forged barrel that he used to build his first totally hand-made rifle later that year.

Wallace had become the first person in modern times to recreate all the processes of making a rifle with 18th-century technology. In [Terri look up month] of 1966 John Bivins wrote an article about Wallace and that first handmade rifle for Muzzle Blasts. During the winter of 1967 Colonial Williamsburg documented making a complete rifle in the film The Gunsmith of Williamsburg. Released in 1968, this 58-minute film is still the best selling video of the trades series.

In 1972 Wallace left the Gunsmith Shop to become the Curator of Mechanical Objects. Two years later he became Curator of Furniture. In January of 1985, Wallace transferred to the Department of Conservation as Chief Conservator, Furniture and Arms, and in June of 1987, he was promoted to Director of Conservation. Although he was away from the shop, Wallace continued to teach classes on carving, engraving and arms conservation and to build rifles at his home shop. He also expanded his work to include architectural carving, making period furniture and doing sculpture. And, all the while, research and photography continued for a book on Virginia gunsmiths and their work.

In the spring of 1994 Wallace returned to the position of Master Gunsmith, working part of each week in the shop and part on his Virginia gunsmith book. As his expected retirement date began to draw near Wallace was given a leave of absence to work full time on his book. The rifle whose photos accompany this article is the last all handmade rifle Wallace produced for the Colonial Williamsburg Gunsmith Shop. It was completed last spring.


After over forty years with Colonial Williamsburg, Wallace will retire this winter. Retirement does not mean he plans to quite working. There are many projects to be completed, including his book. You will also find him teaching classes at the NMLRA Gunsmithing Seminar at Western Kentucky University. In anticipation of having more time for doing custom work Wallace has opened a booth on rifle maker’s row at Friendship. Stop by and say hello to the man whose work lead the way in the revival of traditional rifle making and whose research and writing continues to expand our knowledge of the rifle and the culture in which it was used.