If you want to visit the place where the world’s finest rifle barrels are made, you have to climb four flights of fire-escape stairs zigzagging up the face of a red brick warehouse in Jersey City, N. J. At the top, you knock at a begrimed door bearing the faint letters: H. M. POPE.
Behind that door, for more than a quarter of a century, Harry Pope has been turning out precision barrels that have made him famous. A dozen times they have won hi the Olympic Games. Again and again they have smashed world’s records. When Gustave Schweizer, not long ago, ran up the phenomenal record of eighty-seven bulls-eyes at 1000 yards in a Peekskill, N. Y., match, it was a Pope barrel that directed the bullets at the distant target. When the five-man American team captured the international rifle match at Milan, Italy, a few yean ago, defeating crack shots from Europe and South America, it relied upon Pope barrels to carry it to victory.
Harry Pope never advertises. Yet, orders come from all over the United States, from most of the countries of Europe, and from as far away as Australia, India, and China. Wherever lovers of fine guns meet, the name Pope is familiar.
Several minutes pass after you knock. Then you hear the shuffling of feet, the lock clicks, and the door opens. A stooped little man with a long white beard, a black mechanic’s cap perched on the back of his head, and two pairs of spectacles—a gold-rimmed over a silver-rimmed pair—resting on his nose, peers out and invites you in. He is Harry Pope, an old-time craftsman in an age of mass production.
Inside the shop, you follow him down a narrow lane between dust-covered boxes, trunks, papers, yellowed magazines, toolkits, sheaves of rifle barrels, hogsheads of dusty gun stocks. A worn black leather couch is half buried under odds and ends. A small table, piled high with papers, looks like a haycock, white at the top and yellow toward the bottom. Pinned to it is a printed sign: “Don’t lean against this table. If these papers are spilled, there will be Hell to pay.”
The only flat object in the room that is not loaded down is a single board. Pope keeps it standing upright in a corner. Over two boxes, it forms an emergency table where he can lay his tools when working.
“You might think this is confusion,” he says as you reach his workbench, almost hidden under odds and ends, “but what looks like order to other people looks like contusion to me. This room is like a filing cabinet. I can put my hands on anything in it, even if I haven’t seen it for ten years. But if anybody moves something as much as three inches, it’s as good as lost.”
In the twenty-seven years he has been in the same building, he has washed his windows twice. He believes the accumulation of grime diffuses the light and enables him to see better. One of his windows he never will wash. It is covered with penciled notes. Half a dozen years ago, data he bad placed on a scrap of paper blew out the window. Afterwards, he made it a rule to jot down important notes on the walls or window where they can’t blow away.
Over his workbench hangs a sign, various words underlined in red. It reads:
“No delivery promised. Take your work when well done or lake it elsewhere. When? If you must know when I will be through with your work, the answer is now. Take your work away. I don’t want it. I have no way of knowing when. I work seventeen hours a day. Daily interruptions average IVi hours. Dark weather sets me back still more. I’m human. I’m tired. I refuse longer to be worried by promises that circumstances do not allow me to keep.”
The lower edge of the sign is smudged with greasy fingerprints, records of the many times he has jerked the pasteboard from the wall to hold before non-observant customers who persisted in knowing when. In fact, most of the guns that come in are now accepted with the express understanding that they will be fitted with new barrels when and if Pope ever gets time to do it. More orders are turned down than are accepted, yet between 200 and 300 guns are piled up ahead of him. At seventy-three, he is working seventeen hours a day and answering correspondence after ten o’clock at night. He makes barrels for pistols and revolvers when he has to. But what he wants to do is make rifle barrels.
After hours, when the warehouse is closed, customers who know the procedure stand on the street corner below and yell: “Pope! Hey, Pope!” until he paddles down and lets them in. Everybody in the neighborhood knows him and when you set up the shout they all join in until he pokes his head out the window four stories above. He never has had a telephone and he frequently brings a supply of food and sleeps in his shop until his grub gives out.
Not long ago, a man brought him a gun he wanted fixed. He found Pope bent over a vise filing on a piece of steel. When he started to explain what he wanted, he was told: “Don’t talk to me now!” A little later, he broached the subject of his visit a second time. Pope shouted: “I said don’t talk to me now!” By the time Pope laid down his file, the customer was packing up his things and muttering something about “a swell way to treat a customer.”
It was an obvious statement. But, what the man did not know was that Pope had been working for two solid weeks making a special too! to rifle the barrel of an odd-caliber gun. He had filed it down to two ten-thousandths of an inch of its exact diameter and the light was just right for finishing it. If an interruption had made him file a hair’s breadth beyond the mark, his whole two weeks’ labor would have been lost.
All his rifling is done by hand. He judges what is going on inside the barrel by the feel and the sound of the cutting took. To rifle out the inside of a .22-caliber barrel takes about seven hours. The cutter is fitted with a wedge and screwhead so the feed, or depth it cuts, can be varied from time to time. The steel shaving removed from the grooves at first is about l/5000th of an inch thick. Later, when the end of the work is near and there is danger of cutting too far, less than 1/40,000 of an inch is removed during a “pass.” It takes about 120 passes to cut each of the eight grooves within the barrel. All his rifle barrels are drilled from solid stock, special oil-tempered fine-grain steel being employed. For fifteen years, he has been getting his steel from the same company after trying almost every kind on the market. Some batches of steel cut more easily than others and he has to “humor the stock.” The worst steel he ever got came during the last days of the World War. It was so full of grit and cinders he had to sharpen a reamer fourteen times to get through one barrel. Ordinarily he can get through twelve on a single sharpening.
When he nears the end of a job, he pushes a bullet through the barrel and with a micrometer measures the exact depth of the grooves recorded on the lead. Sometimes it is two weeks before he is satisfied with a barrel he has produced. To him, they are almost like children and he will never do another job for a customer who abuses one through ignorance or neglect. On the other hand, he has made as many as nine barrels for a single individual who appreciated fine guns.
The high-pressure, smokeless ammunition and jacketed bullets used today are especially hard on the inside of barrels. Three or four thousand rounds is all they can stand. Owners of Pope barrels usually save them for important contests and practice with other rifles. In contrast, Pope has a .33-caliber black-powder rifle that has been fired 125,000 tunes and is still in almost as good condition as it was in 1892, when it was first made.
All told, Pope has turned out more than 8,000 hand-tooled barrels, fitting them on almost every make of gun produced in America and on many of those manufactured abroad. Most of the demand now is for .22- and .30-caliber barrels with only an occasional .32 or .38.
Thirty years ago, Pope records for off-hand shooting were almost as famous as Pope barrels. Once over a period of several days, he made 696 consecutive bulls-eyes at 200 yards and another time he placed fifty consecutive shots all within three and three fourths inches of dead center. His fifty-shot record, made shortly after the turn of the century, was 467. Today it is only 470. His hundred-shot record was 917. Today, the record is only 922.
But for a fluke during a match at Springfield, Mass., on March 2, 1903, Pope would still hold the world’s record for 200 yards on the standard American target. He was putting bullet after bullet into the bulls-eye, when a spectator disturbed him by asking questions. He forgot to remove the false muzzle, a one-inch auxiliary barrel placed on the end of the gun to protect the real barrel when the bullet was rammed home, and did not see it when aiming through the telescope sight. The shot blew the false muzzle off and counted as a miss. In spite of this break in luck, he ran up a score of 467 for the fifty shots, was high man for the day, and advanced the existing record four points! Some time later, after his gun had cooled off and conditions had changed, he tried an extra shot just to see what his score might have been without the miss. He scored an eight. If that could have been added to his mark for the day, the total would have been 475, five points beyond the world’s record in 1934!
As he tells you of these old-time matches, he fishes yellowed score cards from the inner pockets of an ancient wallet or digs into a pile of odds and ends like a squirrel finding a nut buried in a forest and brings forth a crumbling target riddled by his fire decades ago.
From time to time, as he ‘illcs, he lights a cigarette with a cigar lighter. But it is no ordinary lighter. It is e glass syrup jug a foot high filled with soaked cotton batting and having a flint wheel soldered to its top. One filling win last a year.
As long as he can remember, Pope has been interested in guns. He was born in 1861 at Walpole, N. H. By the time he was ten years old, he was running errands for a firm in Boston. Every noon he would duck up alleys from one sporting-goods store to another to gaze at the firearms in the windows. When he was twelve, he had one of the largest collections of free catalogs in the world. He wrote to European as well as American manufacturers for pamphlets and price lists.
In 1881 he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. For twenty-three years afterwards he was in the bicycle business, ending as superintendent of a plant at Hartford, Conn.
While he was turning out bicycles, he worked with guns on the side. At least twice a week, he used to get up at three o’clock in the morning, climb on his high-wheel bicycle, and pedal out to a target range, his muzzle-loader over one shoulder and a fish basket filled with ammunition and targets slung over the other. After shooting for two hours, he would pedal back uphill to town and be ready for work at seven.
When he traded in his .40-caliber Remington for a new .42-40 which had appeared on the market, he found himself confronted with a mystery which led him into making barrels of his own. His shooting dropped off as soon as he began to use the new gun. He blamed himself at first. Then he began making tests of various loads, bullets, and powders. He built a machine rest for the gun to take the human element out of the experiments. In the end, he discovered that the trouble lay in the pitch of the rifling. The twist was so slow it didn’t spin the lead fast enough to keep the bullet traveling head-on. The slug was actually turning somersaults.
Working nights on an old foot lathe in his basement, he turned out his first gun barrel in 1884, and fitted it to the defective gun. His shooting scores not only equaled his old marks with the Remington but exceeded them. Some of his friends at the local gun club wanted barrels on their guns. Immediately, their scores jumped. The records made by the club attracted attention all over the country and letters of inquiry began coming in. In 1895, Pope took a few outside orders. In two weeks, he had enough to keep him busy nights for six months.
A few years later he headed for California. San Francisco was then the center of shooting interest in the United States. He set the opening day of his gun shop for the eighteenth of April. 1906. At five o’clock in the morning, the great earthquake and fire struck the city and wiped out his shop and everything it contained. Returning east, he settled down at 18 Morris Street, Jersey City, in the building he still occupies.
Only once in his half-century of handling guns has he had an accident. A friend asked him to fit a rifle barrel to one side of a double-barreled shotgun so he could hunt deer with the rifle side and ducks and small game with the shotgun side. Pope finished it just in time to catch a train for a week-end visit and hunting trip without being able to give it shop tests.
The next day, he took the curious combination gun out for a trial. On the first shot, the rifle side drove the firing pin bade out of the gun almost with the speed of a bullet. Only the fact that it struck the stock a glancing blow and a cross grain deflected its course kept it from striking Pope squarely in the right eye. As it was, the spinning piece of steel, an inch long and a quarter of an inch thick, hit flat just above his left eyebrow, burying itself in the bone. After a surgeon extracted it. Pope went on with his hunting trip and bagged the first buck shot by the party.
It is just fifty years this spring since Pope made his first gun barrel. After half a century of machine-age progress in which most manufacturing has been turned over to automatic mechanisms. Pope remains a New England mechanic. Still using home-made tools, still employing time-worn methods, he is producing still, in his high-perched little workshop, gunbarrels that lead the world.