A shot into the past: Gunsmith restores family heirlooms

Carson City gunsmith Larry Stainbrook thinks of old guns as pieces of history he can hold in his hands.

Stainbrook, proprietor of Old West Guns in East Carson City, spends his days with these relics from the past, gently reworking firing mechanisms, removing years of rust and grime, and refinishing tired metal.

"There's a lot of interest here for what I do," he said. "Nevada is a very gun-friendly state compared to other states. People come to this area looking for history and they find it. The Old West spirit is still alive in a lot of ways."

Stainbrook doesn't get too excited about the newer generations of pistols, rifles and shotguns -- or even reproductions that look like their predecessors. It's the real McCoy that gets him up in the morning, to look at a rare antique gun and know it has its own story, whether it's linked to high nobility or humble family heritage.

"Old guns are a piece of history you can actually touch," he said. "The nostalgia is what it's all about. It's the phrase 'The romantic Old West.' You can live for a moment in time before our modern rush-hour lifestyle."

Among Stainbrook's favorites are the Colts, Winchesters and Remingtons associated with the United States' western expansion and the cowboy lifestyle. With a constant back-order of customers -- he's got a waiting list 50 guns long -- Stainbrook comes across a lot of the single-action, "six-shooter" pistols from the late 1800s that are popular with western firearms collectors. Many shotguns, as well as sought-after rim-fire firearms, make a stop with Stainbrook before going back into a gun owner's cherished collection.

On Monday he began work on an 1885 Remington shotgun with rabbit-ear hammers. With a refurbished firing mechanism, new welding for the stock-attachment, a little wood-work and a new blued finish, the gun will again be good to fire, and earn its place on the family mantle.

"The biggest thrill is restoring heirlooms," he said. "I once restored an 1850s double-barrel muzzle-loading shotgun a lady was going to give to her grandson. It's a piece of history that you cannot replace."

After nearly three decades in the gunsmithing business, Stainbrook, 51, has developed skills in every facet of the process from simple construction of mechanics, to actual in-house machining of replacement parts. Many guns of the Old West vintage were uniquely constructed one-by-one, and require original construction in their restoration.

In the back of his shop, at 2011 Highway 50 East No. 2, his workbenches are covered with lathes, vises and other metal-working tools. He even has a hot tank for replacement of bluing, the sheer protective metal finish that is one of the first victims of aging. The shop walls are lined ceiling high with shelves of boxes containing firing pins, triggers, barrels and springs.

"Parts are a very demanding part of the process," he said. "Sometimes, I get lucky, but a lot of times I have to make my own."

Stainbrook started his trade in North Dakota, working for a gunsmith in his hometown of Mitchell. After taking over and operating the business on his own, he migrated to Yuba City, Calif. in 1985, finally making his way to Carson City five years ago.

While Stainbrook spent time working under master gunsmiths, he said the bulk of his education happened on the workbench through trial and error. With a strong reputation, his advertising is word of mouth, and his customers come from all over the country.

"In a certain sense it's a form of art," he said. "A lot of gunsmiths have God-given talent. I have to work at it, but it's a pursuit of something I love."

Stainbrook lives in Carson City with wife, Cheryl. The couple have four children, two boys and two girls, and four grandchildren with one on the way.

For more information, call Old West Guns at 887-8848.


Tip for antique gun owners

- Talk to a professional gunsmith about restorations

- Don't attempt to work on a gun without absolute knowledge

- Make sure a gun is safe before firing, with properly loaded ammunition

- Cleaning and oiling are important. Some cleaning products are formulated for older guns.


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