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Pa. man is a master of bullets and bamboo

April 06, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - The sign outside the little shop at 213 S. Main St. says just about everything one needs to know about a 68-year-old Mercersburg man: "Gunsmith Since 1955 Don Horowitz."

A small sign hanging below it gives another hint: "Fly Fishing."

While Horowitz makes his living making, repairing and restoring guns, the biggest thrill in his life is old-fashioned fly fishing using bamboo rods. The front of his shop is a museum to the sport and its equipment.

In the rear is his gunsmith shop. Horowitz learned the trade 45 years ago in a White Plains, N.Y., sports shop apprenticing under the watchful eye of a tough German gun maker.

"He was a bear," Horowitz said. "You did it one way, his way. If he found a tool on the bench that you weren't using, he'd throw it away. Two other guys started apprenticing with me, but they didn't last more than a couple months. I was there for 51/2 years."

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He turned to gunsmithing after four years of college, where he majored in psychology and labor relations, and two years flying air and sea rescue missions for the Navy.

Horowitz had hunted and fished all his life, and since he couldn't find work in labor relations in New York, he took a job in a friend's sporting goods shop. The career switch seemed like the right thing to do at the time and still feels right, he said.

"In those days a custom-made gun sold for about $350," he said. "When I make one today it sells for $1,600 and up. I make five or six guns a year. Each one takes about six months from start to finish."

Horowitz's shop spreads over two floors in a small, old two-story frame house. On one side of the first floor sits a complete machine shop: lathes and drill presses for turning and drilling barrels and making the parts that make guns. On the other side is a woodworking shop for designing and carving gun stocks from blocks of walnut. "It takes about 75 hours to make a stock," he said.

Upstairs is the buffing room, which has walls lined with plastic sheeting to keep the dust down. Next door is the bluing room where guns get their finish.

A favorite task is restoring historic weapons, from flintlocks to Civil War pieces to the guns of the Old West and the world wars. A Horowitz specialty is the Colt Peacemaker. One he restored hangs in the Texas Ranger Museum. His work on that one got him written up in Gun World magazine.

He works alone in his shop, enjoys what he does and is never lonely. "I don't feel like I'm going to work," he said.

The fly fishing headquarters is in the front of the shop. There stand fly rods - from old-fashioned bamboo to modern graphite, from reels and line to a cabinet holding hundreds of hand-tied flies, plus a few how-to books. There are also fliers that Horowitz writes on subjects from knot tying to an insect emergence chart to tell anglers which fly to use when.

"Restoring bamboo rods is the love of my life," he said.

Old ones from the best makers can bring $10,000 or more from collectors. Good new ones start at around $1,200, Horowitz said as he gingerly pulled a nearly century-old bamboo rod from an aluminum tube. "This one belonged to my father," he said. "I still use it today."

A well-made bamboo rod can last a lifetime with proper care, he said. If not, he can make it like new again.

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