Surplus wartime manufacturing led civilians and veterans to customize military rifles for more practical uses, but also allowed a brand new market to arise
If you caught our previous episode and our discussion with the gunsmiths at Griffin and Howe, you will no doubt have a base knowledge of our topic of discussion today.
If you missed Episode 13, don’t worry: we will lay the groundwork for that episode right now.
The United States is a nation of marksman shooters. From winning our freedom, to westward expansion, homesteading and forging new frontiers, rifles have been an integral part of our history. But when it’s time to turn swords to plowshares, what happens to all those military rifles? This is 10 minutes on “Sporterized” Rifles.
Sporterized rifles are born of war
Sporterized rifles are essentially a byproduct of massive wartime production, resulting in surplus goods filling a market niche in peacetime. I would argue that rifles were not the only thing repurposed after a war. Take for example the fact that the ridiculously shelf-stable powdered cheese which the military developed and used in great volume during World War 2, was purchased by an enterprising individual who watched someone ‘puff’ corn dough as byproduct of cattle feed production. The man in question simply bought surplus powder cheese and added it to a puffed corn doodle and the rest is history (to the tune of over a billion in sales in 2017)
I digress. A sporterized rife, or sporter rifle as it is sometimes shortened, by definition is a disassembled, chopped up, modified version of its military counterpart. Generally, these rifles have been modified to suit the purposes of their peacetime stewards. For Americans, this generally meant modifications for hunting. Not to mention the fact that military guns are 100 percent utility, where most sporter rifles take aesthetics into account as well.
It is worth a brief discussion of the anatomy of a military gun, or at least some of the common features found on the bulk of them. It was common practice for military guns to have long barrels, enshrouded by full-length stocks. The majority of these rifles share this characteristic which was employed because of the expected heat generated by shooting many shots in succession.
Another common characteristic is bayonet lugs; essentially a stud or hook that allowed a bayonet to be fixed to the muzzle end. And speaking on the muzzle end, sights tended to be large. Heavy, durable front sights and rear ladder sights were common on military guns. Remember, these guns were produced rapidly and in great numbers and intended to face combat conditions. Fine sights that could be bent in the line of duty wouldn’t pass muster. Neither would a gun that jammed up if it got wet or muddy. It is these features that made the guns reliable but also typically made them bulky, heavy, and not necessarily comfortable to shoot.
Some military weapons came home with soldiers, others were captured in the course of combat, but the biggest source of guns was actually back home, on U.S. soil.
The idea of civilians purchasing military surplus began after the Civil War, and arguably the father of the sporterized rifle, if by circuitous logic, was Frank Bannerman. The complete Bannerman’s story is one of American grit and entrepreneurship. Frank was left to help the family business at the age of 10 when his father went off to fight in the Civil War. Fast forward to the end of the war, and Frank was successfully running a junk business and buying military surplus from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He quickly realized that there was more money in weapons than in scrap and the company took off.
By 20, Bannerman was buying mil-surp goods and bringing them back to New York City to sell to the highest bidder. They started a brisk catalog business that included many military rifles; essentially any military arm from the Civil War forward could be had through the mail via Bannermans. You could also buy any number of other surplus goods like uniforms, cannons, historical arms and martial relics from around the world.
Bannermans would operate through to the 1950s selling all variety of military arms. They saw the major wars of the modern era and each time secured excess weapons after. Sure, there was controversy, intrigue, an island in the Hudson and a Scottish castle/armory involved in the story, but that is one for another podcast. (If there is a Bannerman’s expert listening please – look me up!)
The real benefit was the access to inexpensive guns that many returning soldiers knew and trusted their lives with. Remember, these were the same guns carried into battle, which could be had for pennies on the dollar. Literally, Bannermans at one point sold Civil War-era carbines to a store that was reselling them for 69 cents each.
It was the easy access and dirt cheap prices that would drive many men back home to convert their military rifle to something viewed as more practical for their use. Typically, full-length stocks were removed and cut down, slimmed, and made more aesthetically pleasing. Large military sights were removed in favor of finer peep and aperture sights, and the newly evolving glass optics we know as scopes. Barrels could be shortened and in some cased rechambered for rounds that were more common.
A quick search on any gun sales website will reveal many sporterized rifles. A search today will show primarily Springfields and Mausers. But one can find sporter versions of so many other guns- Krags, Arisakas, Carcano, Nagant, the list goes on and on. Some of these sporters were carefully created by a craftsman with talent, others were bubba-fied, hacked up, with little remaining value.
I have not mentioned it yet, and I am sure any military collectors listening are waiting for me to say it. In today’s world, taking a clean military rifle and ‘mucking it up’ by sporterizing it is not recommended. From a pure value perspective, most of the work that would be done to such a rifle would render it less valuable. Original military arms command high dollars as they are becoming rarer as time passes. My advice if you find a high condition gun in granddads closet you don’t want, sell it and use the profits to buy a different gun. Perhaps one created by a firm that specialized in sporterizing rifles in the early part of the 20th Century.
Gunmakers utilized military surplus firearms
Civilians were not the only ones that took advantage of the surplus of strong, reliable, and cheap actions. Gunmakers used these very same actions to make some of the finest rifles of our time. On both sides of the pond, prominent gun makers utilized this plentiful resource – why create an action when a viable one was already available at a dirt-cheap price? It is not uncommon to see an English maker’s name on a rifle with a Mauser action or any number of American maker’s names on rifles with a Springfield action. Firms like Griffin and Howe, Sedgley and Pachmayr come to mind, though there were many more smaller shops turning out beautiful rifles during this period. In the correct, skilled hands, sporterizing a rifle can make it considerably valuable, as evidence by the prices commanded by the above makers’ guns.
The development of the sporter gave rise to many businesses providing stocks, sights, aftermarket triggers, and a variety of tools and parts to perform the sporterization process. Fajen stocks are one such example. Fajen specalized in creating ‘drop in’ stocks that would accept a military action with very minimal additional work. Access to parts made the process of sporterization even easier.
Tuning and tweaking guns is something that folks enjoy to this day. Whether you like Springfields or Mausers, 10-22’s or AR’s, we all love the idea of making a custom gun that suits your personal needs.
To some folks, a sporter rifle is simply a travesty. A cut-up and damaged version of what was once a great gun. Though I would never cut up a complete military rifle, I find myself drawn to sporters like I expect so many were before me. The idea that I could create my own custom rifle is too tempting. Call me a dreamer, but I have visions of taking that old gun that served its country well and giving it a new life and second chance.
Hey, all you need is some elbow grease and a bit of that true American grit and you, too, can own a custom rifle.
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The Gun Room Podcast is presented by Upland Gun Company
Joel Penkala is an Upland Bird Hunter and outdoors enthusiast from New Jersey. His love of all things upland has led him to travel and hunt around the United States and fostered his affinity for double guns and bird dogs. He runs English Setters in his home covers chasing Woodcock, Grouse, and Pheasants.