Creating the 'most expensive air rifle in the world!'

The most expensive air rifle in the world

The rifle didn't just look spectacular, it had a fully-adjustable stock and shot like a match gun. - Credit: Archant

Daystate’s Tony Belas muses over walnut as a gunmaking material and reveals his role in creating the ‘most expensive air rifle in the world’

The most expensive air rifle in the world

A solid gold bolt handle? No problem. - Credit: Archant

Walnut is an interesting wood. I have been pretty much in awe of it since I bought my first airgun, a Webley MK3, with my first pay packet at the age of 15. Like many old Webleys, the stock was made from one of the most beautiful pieces of walnut. Years later, most of which have been around rifles and stocks made from varying types of wood, I still love its unique qualities. 

It’s a hardwood, which in an eco-friendly world is generally taken as a bad thing. In foresting, it is standard practice to plant two trees for every one harvested, but as always in life, it’s not always that simple. The replanted trees do not have to be planted in the place where they were harvested, which in the case of mature walnut trees, can be hundreds of miles away, deep in the forest. There are other factors, such as transportation of a heavy material from a faraway land, and a huge amount of waste. 

What people want from walnut is the beautiful pattern, but not every tree, or part of a tree will supply that. A walnut tree also takes years to mature, at least 70, in fact. Once, Daystate secured a supply of walnut from Kansas, which came with planting information that showed a planting date of 1865.

You can only imagine the story behind those trees, so intrigued, I asked the company who supplied the wood. I was told that the trees had been planted by civil war invalid veterans that the state didn’t know what to do with – so they were sent to plant trees, presumably for stock-wood for a future war.

The most expensive air rifle in the world

Of course the trigger shoe had to match the bolt handle, so a solid gold one was made. - Credit: Archant

Creating the most exclusive and expensive air rifle
My best walnut tale is from a few years ago. I was asked by our USA importer to organise an exclusive rifle for his best customer. This turned out to be a Mexican dairy farmer, who owed rather a large herd of cows, over 60,000 of them, in fact. Interestingly, there was no budget for this rifle; the only stipulation was that it had to be the best and most exclusive air rifle we had ever made.

Intrigued and enjoying the possibilities this gave us, building this rifle soon became more hobby than job because my full-time responsibilities didn’t leave a lot of time to research such a special rifle – whatever the budget. So, I fitted it in when I could, even doing some of the work over the phone in the evenings, which had the benefit that I could spend more time talking to American suppliers, who are in a different time zone and usually not open during the normal British working day.

To save some time, a reworked CR-MM was used for the action. This was Daystate’s top rifle at the time, the base rifle having a retail price of £2,750 – not a small amount when it was launched in 2000. The CR-MM was to be fully engraved and amongst other things, feature a hallmarked gold bolt handle. A high grade of walnut went without question, but this was to be a field-target stock and just getting a blank large enough and of the right quality became a bit of an issue because I simply could not get what I wanted in the UK. 

The most expensive air rifle in the world

Every detail was considered, commissioned, and carried out to the highest standards. - Credit: Archant

After a few calls, I arranged to meet a top US walnut supplier at the forthcoming SHOT Show in Las Vegas, where Daystate happened to be exhibiting, so before leaving for this all-important, and slightly last-minute meeting, I spent some time taking advice from some of my bespoke-shotgun contacts on what to look for when selecting what was going to be a $1000 piece of wood. 

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The appointed meeting time at the show came and went, with no sign of my man and after a 4-day show, I still hadn’t received a call or had any contact with him. By this time, I was sure I would be going away empty handed, which was a bit of a problem because the clock was ticking on the supply of this rifle, and I had held things back for the show. I really didn’t know what I was going to say to the rest of the team when I came back with nothing, especially as they had spent weeks and an absolute fortune on this exclusive titanium action. 

Then I had a stroke of luck. Walking by our stand, and I assume slightly lost, was the owner of a small Californian walnut-stock producer, Wineland Walnut, who had noticed the stocks on our rifles, enquired rather sheepishly where we bought our walnut, and asked if he could be of any help.
The gentleman had a few slivers of samples in a small briefcase – fine for the show and to determine what was available – but I asked him, somewhat casually, if he happened to have any ‘proper’ samples in his car. I tried to make it sound casual, but I was desperate, and flying back to the UK later that evening. 

It seemed to be a very long walk to the multi-storey car park, with a guy I had never met before. ‘So what’s the weather like in California?’ I knew, but I needed to stay casual. We arrived at his vehicle, and shortly after, I walked away with the two exhibition-grade blanks he had in the ‘trunk’ of what turned out to be an enormous and slightly clapped out American car. I did say this was a few years ago. I am sure, as they like to say over there, that I ‘made his day’. It did a lot for mine, as well!

The most expensive air rifle in the world

The figuring of the walnut was truly superb. Not bad for a deal done in a car park! - Credit: Archant

A stunning conclusion
You can see from the pictures that the finished job was stunning, with a starburst exhibition grade of Claro walnut. What has never been revealed until now was that during my intensive negotiations with Robert Wineland  – that trip to the car park – the price was exactly half of what I was expecting to pay, so I bought both pieces he had that were the correct size – and the grade I needed; one in ‘Claro’ and the other in an equally stunning English ‘fancy’ walnut, which was a sort of yellow with black swirly detail. This second piece remained stunning right until the final shaping when most of the black detailing ended up on the workshop floor – this can happen sometimes. The second stock now looked like yellow plastic and it wasn’t usable, so we ended up on budget after all.

The project lasted eight months, which to the customer must felt an age, but aged everyone involved in the making of it quite a bit more! What emerged was an older and walnut-wise me, with a taste for exotic wood and since then, I have visited many suppliers and I’m always amazed at how complicated and long-winded the stock making procedure is.

Wherever possible, we all try to shop with an eye on cost as well as green issues, and the use of hardwoods are the foundation stone of our current concerns. Growing and harvesting wood – despite sounding ‘green’ – has huge wastage and transport costs, and although it looks better for the environment than moulding stocks out of plastic, I really wonder if that is the case. Beech wood and birch laminates are arguably better because these woods are from more local renewable sources, which is not always the case with walnut. 

The most expensive air rifle in the world

The late, great Don Blocksidge engraved the rifle's action, but he, literally, had his work cut out. - Credit: Archant

Titanium trials and tribulations
In addition to the incredible wood, the rifle had a lot else going for it. Based on an existing but also rare rifle, which was just ending production at the time, the CR-MM was made from Titanium. Only a handful of these special rifles were made.  Nothing came easy, even the polishing of the tube took three days. The complete action in parts was delivered by hand (far too exclusive to post!) to master engraver, the late, great Don Blocksidge. Don worked on the rifle for just over two weeks. On collection, I learned that all Don’s engraving tools just bounced off, save one, a tool Don had when he was an apprentice! The final comment from Don ‘thanks for the work, but don’t bring me another one!’