Episode 20 – Custom-made Rifles: Griffin & Howe and Dale Goens

PART 1 {Virginia and Roger sitting behind table, left profile of gun}{Read quotes}

VIRGINIA: My name is Virginia Hall and I’m here today to introduce you to Roger Rule, author of The Rifleman’s Rifle, and host of this series of episodes, Special Guns with Roger Rule.

ROGER: Thank you, Virginia, and welcome, …and welcome viewers to my 20th Episode of Special Guns with Roger Rule.

VIRGINIA: What do we have today?

ROGER: Today, we have two custom made rifles. While we are covering special guns that have an evolutionary and revolutionary role in the development of the industry, we would be remiss in not addressing the custom gun makers and the part they have played in gun manufacture. It would be impossible to cover a detailed history of the custom rifle in one of these episodes; but I will make an attempt to give a brief overview.
Before mass production (interchangeable parts and the assembly line), guns were basically all custom made, or at least made individually one at a time. With the advent of Eli Whitney’s system for making interchangeable parts, gun making changed. And adding to that, the introduction of the self-contained cartridge followed by the manufacture of the repeating rifle, pretty much caused the art of the hand-made individual gun to be relegated to companies specializing in that work, mostly in Great Britain and western Europe.
In America, nineteenth century riflemen were fascinated with the newness of repeating rifles and the first successful ones were lever actions available in plain and fancy grades. Here at home, the custom-made rifle market shriveled and nearly died.

VIRGINIA: This was in the 19th Century?

ROGER: Yes, but here’s what changed it. Most of us who have followed guns know that World War I introduced riflemen to the bolt action repeater shooting spitzer bullets safely and accurately. The riflemen coming home from Europe had become familiar with them. At the close of the war, the commercial gun makers had not pursued this interest and the market was flooded with inexpensive used military rifles. Most were quality Springfields, Enfields, and Mausers, at very low prices.

VIRGINIA: These surplus military guns were lower priced than gun manufacturers could make?

ROGER: Lower than any operating company could manufacture for a profit at that time. American riflemen bought these second-hand guns, which continued on the market for such a length of time, that a decade later youngsters growing up with them also developed interest in the bolt action. That interest, in general, was here to stay. Gun writers in the outdoor press, like Col. Townsend Whelen, endorsed sporterizing the military rifles during this time. Commercial makers saw this interest, but were slow to respond.

VIRGINIA: The commercial makers still couldn’t make them as inexpensive?

ROGER: They couldn’t make them as well without being much more costly. And for years, these surplus rifles continued to dominate sales and since they were ugly guns to sport-minded riflemen, it became commonplace to change the stocks. Articles in the outdoor press continued to support this. Small companies sprang up to answer the need. The best makers wanted their customers’ military rifles sent to them for fitting the stocks and most of those began working on the metal features as well, eliminating military clip slots, modifying the magazine follower to not block the bolt when unloaded, removing military sights, replacing the military two-stage trigger and changing the safety to operate with a mounted telescope, among others.
For a few years, these makers had a corner on the market. And while the custom makers flourished, to outdo each other, they kept improving and getting better and better.

VIRGINIA: Do we know who these custom makers were?

ROGER: By the twenties and thirties, companies like Griffin & Howe of New York; Hoffman Arms of Cleveland; R.F. Sedgley of Philadelphia; and Niedner Arms of Dowagiac (do-WAH-jak), Michigan; were all competing in this market, using actions from Springfields, Mausers, and Enfields. The better makers were replacing the military barrels and reworking and honing the actions. Many of these became so diligent that actions, after inspection, might be annealed, ground to remove markings and unnecessary lumps, and then re-heat treated and proof tested.

PART 2 {Audio only – show Photos 8} {22-G&H-01 thru 22-G&H-04 and 22-Goens-01 thru 22-Goens-04}

These were the early makers, and they turned out some beautiful work converting military rifles, or at least using the actions, into well-built high grade sporting rifles. Engraving and gold inlays became symbols of the highest order. Besides these companies, independent craftsmen got into the act and developed reputations for their work. Some of the better ones remembered are: R. G. Owen, Alvin Linden, August Pachmayr, Fred Adolph and Adolph Minar, most of which started in the custom stock trade.
Then, in 1941, here in the U.S., World War II interrupted the sporting rifle manufacture. But as the second world war ended, by 1945, surplus rifles were once again available and with the outdoor press increasing their attention toward custom makers, that industry resumed. Writers like Warren Page of Field & Stream, Jack O’Connor of Outdoor Life, Pete Brown of Sports Afield, and John T. Amber, the Editor of Gun Digest, sang high praises for the work of the independent craftsman. A new group emerged, Dale Goens, Al Biesen, Len Brownell, Monty Kennedy, Hal Hartley, Leonard Mews, the Barlett brothers, Keith Stegall, and others.
Today, the story continues. The gun writers are still at it and the list of great makers is incredible. I would recommend you get copies of both editions of Modern Custom Guns by Tom Turpin to follow the current custom makers and the specialists such as stockers, metal smiths, checkerers, barrel makers, carvers, engravers, and inlay craftsmen.
The custom maker today is basically an independent craftsman that uses outsourced actions. They re-work the actions and build every part by hand, creating a handmade rifle and if they are very good at their craft, the final product is much better than any mass produced gun. The best ones are a work of art, sometimes with fancy checkering and engraving, but even without these features, the overall design, the wood to metal fit and every aspect is meticulously crafted. The current American custom rifle has reached the pinnacle of the gun-making art.
When I look at the history, I divide this renaissance of the bolt action custom rifle into three periods: Period One consists of those following World War I up to World War II. Period Two includes those that began after WWII and comprises that generation of makers in that period all now deceased. Period Three in my list of categories includes the current makers still alive, which we refer to as the custom makers of today.
For the most part, with each period, the level of work improved.

PART 3 {Roger and Virginia sitting at table}

VIRGINIA: So we are going to look at two of these rifles today?

ROGER: Yes, today I have two rifles of makers from Periods One and Two, one representing a custom maker firm and the other representing a custom maker independent. The first one, from Period One, is representative of one of the first truly custom maker companies in the United States, still going strong, Griffin & Howe of New York. The other rifle, from Period Two, is representative of a deceased independent maker, the late Dale Goens of Cedar Crest, New Mexico.
Since most custom makers do not make their own actions, the basis for their rifles comes from the action they use. The three most common actions used during Period One were: the 1898 Mauser, the 1903 Springfield, and the 1917 Enfield (the latter used mostly for oversized cartridges). By the time Period Two came along, use of the Enfield action diminished and another one, a fourth action, became popular to use, the Winchester pre-64 Model 70 action. This one was also available to those makers of Period One who were still operating during Period Two. Custom rifles made with the Winchester pre-64 Model 70 actions seem to be the most cherished, my bias aside, if one just compares prices.
The two rifles I have here today are both based on the Winchester Pre-64 Model 70 action. This will help in keeping the descriptions of these rifles from being too long and involved since I have already covered the details of this great action in Episode 1 of this Special Guns series. For an understanding of how the pre-64 Model 70 Winchester action differed from the 1903 Springfield and the Mauser 98, I would refer you to watch Episode 1 again, to see the explanation of the improvements.
For our first gun here, when Seymour Griffin of Griffin & Howe began, his emphasis was just on changing the stock of a military rifle to take on the look of a sportsman’s rifle. But as already stated, the competition among these stockmakers grew to include metal work, and none reached the top of heap higher in that regard than Griffin & Howe did.

VIRGINIA: What caliber is this one?

ROGER: This G&H rifle is chambered in .338 Winchester Magnum.

PART 4 {Audio only – show Photos 10} {22-G&H-01 thru 22-G&H-10}

Here’s a little history of Griffin & Howe. It was established in May of 1923, formed by five men. One of them was Seymour Griffin, a cabinet maker who had become a stockmaker inspired earlier by President Theodore Roosevelt’s complaint of the military stock on his 1903 Springfield rifle. Griffin had built stocks since 1910, thirteen years preceding his meeting James V. Howe, an accomplished metal worker and foreman of the machine shop at the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. The two had been introduced to each other by the outdoor writer, Col. Townsend Whelen, who was the foremost authority on rifles at the time. So, in 1923, the two craftsmen combined their talents, one making stocks, and the other refining the metal, to build beautiful custom-made rifles based on 1903 Springfields, Mauser 98s, and other actions. That company operated out of New York and introduced its famous telescope side mount in 1927, still renowned today. This scope mounting system was one of the first of its kind making it possible to remove the scope and replace it without losing zero
In 1930, the firm was purchased by Abercrombie & Fitch. During WWII the company had to discontinue its rifle business to fulfill making gun parts for the military and some 23,000 of their telescope side mounts for the Springfield Armory.
A couple of decades later, by the 1960s, G&H had become the gold standard of American custom rifle-making, having provided rifles for Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and Ernest Hemmingway, among others. In 1976 Abercrombie & Fitch sold the company to a longtime employee, Bill Ward, who has continued to keep the best artisans in staff building a limited number of America’s finest custom rifles.
With this long history, G&H rifles made during Period One, while fine rifles with some outstanding specimens, had reached the high point of the art of custom gunmaking at that time. However, for the most part today, those from that period are not as advanced as some of their later rifles because of the improvements in telescopic sights and the introduction of the Winchester pre-64 Model 70 action. Those first period guns are not as practical today as they were for their own period, but will always be valuable among collectors.
Yet, because of G&H’s enduring longevity, the rifle we are going to review today,
was still made of the highest order and is as advanced for the hunting fields as any custom rifle made today. It was actually made in 1973, three years before Abercrombie & Fitch sold the New York company.
PART 5 {Roger and Virginia sitting at table}
In reviewing this G&H rifle, let’s look at its Winchester pre-64 Model 70 action first. Based on its Winchester serial number, the action was made in September, 1960.

VIRGINIA: So, the rifle was made in 1973 but the action was made in 1960!

ROGER: Yes, you have it. This rifle has two serial numbers, one for the action (in this case a Winchester serial number) and one for the rifle as a whole, which is Griffin & Howe’s serial number. This is a common practice for custom makers. It also has been the practice used by the English rifle makers using outsourced actions for over a hundred years.

VIRGINIA: I remember that from the Rigby rifle we covered.

ROGER: Good, and a couple of others we’ve reviewed. Let’s examine this rifle closely at our side table set.

PART 6 {At side table, examing G&H Rifle, right profile showing}

I’ll be handling the rifle so let me give it a safety check. {Open bolt}
I can see the chamber is empty. {Close bolt, set rifle in rack right profile}
Let’s examine the metal differences from the standard pre-64 Model 70 action. These include a jeweled bolt, extractor and magazine follower (although Winchester provided those as well on many of their Super Grades), an engraved bolt knob with five panels of checkering and one star burst at the end of the knob, the rear receiver tang nicely contoured and rounded. Inside the action, the bolt has been honed and the action rails lapped creating an operating action that is as smooth as silk.
Continuing with the metal work, the maker of this barrel is unknown but it is a custom 24” round tapered barrel with cut-rifling. The barrel is fitted with three accessories: The first is the front sight, a bead dovetailed in a banded ramp. The ramp is finely cross hatched and wears a removable sight protector (hood) with a knurled front quarter section, for easy grasp and still aesthetically pleasing. {22-G&H-11}A second barrel accessory is the banded front sling swivel eye and the third and last barrel accessory is a famous G&H quarter ramp holding the rear sights. These comprise three folding leaves, inscribed 100 YDS, 200 YDS, 300 YDS, with inlayed gold vertical sighting lines. {22-G&H-12}The front of the quarter ramp is nicely sculptured with an artistic transition to the barrel and the top of the ramp is stippled evenly in three sections with borders around each section. {22-G&H-13} The barrel is inscribed “No.2488 GRIFFIN & HOWE NEW YORK, NY” {22-G&H-13}{Set rifle on its side}
Setting the rifle on its side, you can see the floor plate and trigger guard are Winchester, but the trigger face is checkered and the two action screws are indexed. From this orientation, you can see three more metal parts that remain to be mentioned: a coved-edge steel pistol grip cap with engraved center screw, an inlaid gold oval for the owner’s initials (this one is vacant), and a blued rear sling swivel eye located between the oval and the toe of the stock.{22-G&H-14}
All parts, except the jeweled bolt, extractor and magazine follower, are finished with rust blue in a polished and deep rich blue finish.
{Set the rifle on the rack, left profile}
Examining the stock. It is a classic G&H configuration with as fancy figure as can be had with this powerful cartridge, maintaining the critical balance between attractiveness and strength of wood. This is a rare and very-hard-to-find piece of beautiful English walnut with great color and contrast of the black and brown tones with the figure planned in the right locations. {22-G&H-10} The straightest grain is at the most stressful points and the fanciest grain is in the least stressful areas. Notice the shape of the cheekpiece. It is on the left side for the right-handed shooter and it has a very well sculpted shadowline. A G&H hallmark for Period II rifles is that the cheekpiece shape starts at the left top of the comb and makes a fluid line from there forming the cheekpiece. For the right side of the stock, the comb is fluted.
The forend is fitted with a genuine Macassar ebony tip.{22-G&H-15}
The forearm checkering is full wrap-around with eight points: four on each end of both sides. It has a combination of double and single borders.
The checkering on the grip is one continuous panel, wrapped around, fully checkered to meet the pistol grip cap and designed with five upper points: two on each side and one over the wrist pointed back to the comb. {22-G&H-16} It also has a combination of single and double borders and encloses the rounded upper receiver tang with a nice even margin.
All diamonds on both the grip and the forearm are 22 lines per inch. None are missing or mashed down on this piece and there are no runovers or errors – the checkering is executed in the highest degree of precision.
The wood-to-metal fit is perfect, as one would expect from G&H, and the wood is finished with the G&H renowned oil finish, hand-rubbed with many coats.
Stock accessories include not only those metal parts already mentioned, but also the butt pad, which in this case is a one inch black Decelerator pad. The length of pull matches the original Winchester Model 70 LOP of 13 ½”. The weight of the rifle without scope is 8 lbs. and with scope it is 8 lbs. 13 oz. This is the proper weight for the recoil generated by the .338 Winchester Magnum caliber.
The scope is mounted in the G&H removable side mount {22-G&H-17}. Notice the side mount attached with blind screws. The scope is an Austrian-made Swarovski Optik Habicht 3-9×36, which I think is the perfect scope size for this gun, this caliber, and the type of hunting it was intended. Let me demonstrate the famous G&H detachable release scope levers. {22-G&H-18}
{Roger picks up gun and lifts levers and releases scope}
Once removed, the shooter now has the option of using the iron sights. George Caswell of Champlin Arms once told me these scope mounts work great if you tighten the levers back in reverse order of how you loosened them
{then reverses the process and re-install the scope}
Let’s return to our main set.

PART 7 {Roger and Virginia sitting, Roger will stand. G&H rifle in the racks}

Overall, the condition of this rifle would appear that it has not been shot since it left New York as there is absolutely no wear.

VIRGINIA: It looks like a new gun.

ROGER: And it shoots well. It holds groups as tight as any man can shoot with a sporter rifle, ½ MOA. We have a video clip of me sighting it in at 200 yards and
{Stand up, Pick up the target}
Here is that target with two shots that were enough for verification that it was sighted in. I had discovered the right load for this rifle: 71.0 grains of IMR 4350 powder with Winchester Silver Tip 250 grain bullets, As you can see, it is quite accurate just from those two shots.
{Set the target down, remain standing}
So, to summarize this rifle, this is a premier sporting rifle with the professional touch by the firm of Griffin & Howe; set up with what has been a best workable scope mounting system since 1927 and is still today. This rifle is a perfect example, now becoming scarce, of a modern G&H rifle made in the heyday when G&H was still owned by Abercrombie & Fitch.

VIRGINIA: What is the second rifle we have here today?

PART 8 {Audio only show Photos 10 } {22-Goens-01 thru 22-Goens-10}

The second custom-made rifle we have today, comes from my second period — following World War II. While G&H represents one of the best firms of custom rifle makers that started in Period One, our next gun is an example of one of the premier independent custom rifle makers that started in Period Two. This gun was made in 1982 and per my definition for Period II makers, the artist is deceased.
His name was Dale Wesley Goens. Because Mr. Goens used a Winchester pre-64 Model 70 action on this rifle, and because it is fitted with a modern telescope, its age has not displaced it to “collectors-only” status. It remains appropriate for the hunting fields today. This independent maker was one of the finest of Period Two. Mr. Goens lived from September 8, 1916 to July 18, 2005. He was born in Plainville, in Brooks County, Kansas. His childhood family moved to Horton, Kansas where he attended Horton High School taking wood shop and lettering in football and track. In his early adult years, he played guitar and sang professionally in dance halls and on radio.
When World War II broke out, he attended the North America Aviation Aeronautical School in Kansas City and after graduation went to work in North America’s Kansas City Kansas plant building B-25 aircraft. After the war, the plant shut down and he acquired a job in a music store in Enid Oklahoma teaching guitar. It was there that he built his first guitar. In the spring of 1949, he received an offer to work at Sandia Base in Alburquerque.
Married with children, his family then moved to Cedar Crest in August. He worked at the Base for twenty-two years; however, during that time, with his love of woodworking and his interest in hunting New Mexico big game, he began a side line business of making gun stocks for hunting rifles. His gun business grew to such a point that to pursue it full time he needed to take an early retirement from his day job at the Base. That was in October 1971.
His stock work soon grew to include limited metal smithing as well, and he became an early member of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild. Eventually, he received national and international fame and was renowned for his checkering patterns and his skill at checkering. He continued making custom rifles until November 2000, when he fully retired and stopped his custom rifle work. Tragically, he died five years later from prostate cancer.
PART 9 {At the side table, reviewing Dale Goens Rifle, rifle on rack right profile}
Let’s take a look at the gun I have here today, built by Mr. Goens. I will be handling this one as well and need to give it a safety check.
{Pick up the rifle}
Working the bolt, I can see the chamber is empty. {Set rifle on rack, right profile}
Like our G&H rifle just reviewed, this one is also built on the Winchester pre-64 Model 70 action. The action was made in 1952 based on its Winchester serial number, but Mr. Goens built the rifle in 1982. It is chambered in my favorite caliber, .270 Winchester.
Let’s look at the several metal differences from the standard pre-64 Model 70 action that Goens improved here. Probably the most noticeable, is the prominent bolt handle that is only slightly angled back, more than a Mauser, and less than a Winchester Model 70. It is also longer and it protrudes from the stock more than usual. My attention is drawn to the bolt knob which has two generous panels of checkered steel.
Examining the action closer, we can see other visible changes from the factory action. The maker has reshaped the rear receiver tang {22-Goens-11}to look similar to the factory tang on a Winchester Model 70 Type 1 and Type 2 receivers (pre-war and transition).
The bolt and magazine follower are engine-turned or jeweled, but the extractor is not. Unseen to the viewer, is the fact that Goens honed the bolt and lapped the rails making the action extremely smooth. The trigger is factory, but honed to a crisp let-off at 2 pounds.
The barrel is an early Krieger barrel (they started in 1982) and is tapered and round at 22 1/2” long. It has cut-rifling and is known for accuracy. The barrel has no attachments, yet is not free-floated but mated to the stock perfectly as are all Goen’s barrels. It is inscribed “Dale W. Goens #1141” in script, not blued. {22-Goens-13}
Here again, we find the common practice of these custom rifles having two serial numbers: one for the manufacturer’s action and one for the maker’s rifle number.
All parts, except the jeweled bolt and magazine follower, are finished with rust blue in a polished and soft rich blue finish.
Looking at the stock, this is another and scarce piece of beautiful English walnut with warm brown color and contrasting black, nearly parallel, streaks. Besides the streaks, there is some fiddleback. Again, the grain of the wood gives away that the figure is planned in the right locations for best beauty and maximum strength.
The stockwork is classic Goens in shape, quality fit and in the popular Goens style with the fluer de lis checkering. {22-Goens-05}
Let’s now turn the rifle around. {Turn rifle to left profile} From this view, you can see the maker built up and checkered the bolt stop release {22-Goens-12}, a feature found only on the finest custom rifles.
Like the G&H stock, the rifle was built with a cheekpiece on the left side for the right handed shooter. It also has a very well sculpted shadowline {22-Goens-14 and 22-Goens-15}. Unlike the G&H cheekpiece, this one does not start at the comb, but rather begins on the pistol grip about one inch below the comb. This allows the comb to be fluted on both sides, unlike the G&H rifle.
{22-Goens-16}But like that rifle, the forend is fitted with a genuine Macassar ebony tip.
The checkering is the famous Dale Goens’ fleur-de-lis pattern. For the forearm, the rounded checkering pattern fully wraps around with three carved fleur-de-lys and two masterfully-cut ribbons running through the panels {22-Goens-17}, a feature which is extremely tedious to execute. The panels have single borders.
On the grip, the checkering is separated into three panels that give the impression they wraps around. One small pattern is over the wrist and two separate panels are on the right and left sides. These side patterns are generous, starting from the receiver and going fully to the pistol grip cap, with fancy single borders and one large French fleur-de-lis carved on each side. These are placed best for looks and planned so that they least interrupt the hold on the grip. This allows the checkered diamonds to maximize the area where their purpose is intended.
The diamonds are small at 24 lines per inch. And like the G&H rifle before, the checkering here is perfect, with no run-overs, flawlessly cut.
The wood to metal fit couldn’t be better and Mr. Goens finished the stock with a satin French-polished oil finish that highlights the grain and figure of the wood.
Setting the rifle on its side, {Lift rifle and lay it on its right side}
…we can see the stock accessories which include front and rear sling swivel eyes inlaid and each tied down with two screws. Also, there are a coved steel pistol grip cap, and a Biesen checkered steel buttplate curved to fit the shoulder with an inlaid widow’s peak. {Lift rifle and twist it around to show widow’s peak, set back on its side}
I have not addressed the most prominent custom feature of all: the incredible engraving on the bottom metal. The floor plate and trigger guard are Winchester but as you can see they are ornately engraved. When the rifle is stored upright in a gun cabinet, this robust foliate scroll engraving by Mitch Moschetti makes it stand out. Mr. Moschetti has heavily engraved the under metal including the floorplate hinge, the floorplate, the trigger guard and the pistol grip cap, all with a design of deep chased Arabesque leaves and scrolls {22-Goens-18 thru 22-Goens-21}. The pistol grip cap has two timed screws, or indexed, and both are engraved as are the action screws.
{Place rifle back on racks, showing left profile}
The length of pull is 13 5/8” to the center of the curved Biesen butt plate. Without scope, the rifle weighs 7 lbs. 14 oz. and with scope, 8 lbs. 7 oz.
The scope is an Austrian-made Swarovski Habicht 3-10×42 mounted in fixed Talley rings; a good light gathering scope for early morning and evening stalking of medium big game for which this gun was meant to be used {22-Goens-22}.
Let’s return to our main set.

PART 10 {Roger and Virginia sitting at the table, Goens Rifle on rack, right profile}

VIRGINIA: Up close, this Goens’ rifle also looks absolutely new.

ROGER: Its condition would appear that it has not been shot since it left Cedar Crest, New Mexico. But, like the G&H rifle, I took this one to the range and sighted it in at 200 yards using my pet load of 55.5grains of IMR 4350 powder and 130 grain Winchester power point bullets and discovered this rifle is amazingly accurate as well. We have some video clips at the range shooting the verification shots.
{Stand up, pick up target}
Here’s the target from that day. You can see once again with two shots hitting where I wanted them, I didn’t want to spoil the potential group with another shot.
{Put target down and sit down}
In summary, this is another premier sporting rifle custom made by one of the great custom makers in Period Two of the independent gunmakers in the second half of the last century. With no more Dale Goens’ rifles being made, this example, in such pristine condition, if kept this way, will become quite rare with attrition. Yet I do not endorse that. The rifle was made to take its place in the hunting fields and I, for one, would use it for that purpose.

VIRGINIA: Too nice!

ROGER: That’s it for today, thank you Virginia, and thank you viewers for watching, and if you enjoyed this episode, I invite you to subscribe to my YouTube channel and share with others. And, I hope you join me next episode for my rundown on a very popular shotgun.