HORNER — The wooden sign that faces Georgetown Road says the shop doesn’t open until 8 a.m. But its owner may have already put in an hour of work before the official opening. Or maybe he’s working the other end of the day, long after the light has faded.The bluing chemicals that put that finished sheen on a rifle or pistol have to be maintained at about 290 degrees, and the heat can make the Custom Gunshop in Horner, Lewis County, nearly unbearable when the sun is shining. Extreme temperatures, long hours and tedious measurements are all part of producing a quality firearm. Joe McClain won’t settle for less.He works on them all — rifles, pistols, military firearms and family heirlooms. With each one, the challenge is to make it like new, maybe better.Gunsmithing is a natural vocation for McClain, who loves the well-crafted item. He’s combined an engineering degree from West Virginia University, metal working classes and life lessons to craft a career that fits him well.
McClain’s appreciation for fine wood and for precision was shaped by a grandfather, who was a carpenter. “They measured twice and cut once,” McClain says of craftsmen like his grandfather.
The same attention to detail goes into everything in McClain’s life — in the mint condition 1967 Dodge Charger he drives, in the solid structure of the house he built and shares with wife Kristie and son Joshua and in the firearms he restores and repairs.It’s not a high volume business, for adjusting a rifle can mean hours of work alternately with a lathe and a reamer to shave metal off the inside and outside of the barrel. Often the total of what was taken away measures no more than the width of a couple of human hairs.The patience required to be a gunsmith would disqualify most, but it’s part of the price of perfection for McClain. He considers himself blessed to have been able to learn from men like his grandfather and older gunsmiths near Horner, where he grew up. They were perfectionists, too, and McClain still calls some of them to look over his work when he’s finished with big projects.“To know something is good, but I think it’s a waste if you can’t pass on what you’ve known,” McClain says.As his son gets older, McClain is beginning to pass on his own knowledge.Some of the lessons will surely be about an old-fashioned work ethic and the pride that comes from creating something of quality.