“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” It’s equally true of custom rifles. Boron is an unprepossessing little town in California’s Mojave Desert. It’s famous for being the home to the world’s largest borax mine and Twenty Mule Team Borax. The company took its name from the mule teams that moved the borax from the original mine in Death Valley 165 miles away, to the railroad line in the town of Mojave, and that iconic image is emblematic of the town itself . . .
In 1894 the company tried to replace the mule teams with a new-fangled, steam-powered traction engine (that’s a tractor today), which they fondly and optimistically named Dinah, but the mules ended up having to tow the broken-down Dinah back to town. It wasn’t until a railroad spur was built that the mules were finally replaced.
Today, just as the railroad replaced the mules, a new highway bypass has replaced the old road through Boron, and the little community, never thriving, is slowly being reclaimed by the desert. In recent years its chief claim to fame is as an exterior set for some of the movie, Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney.
Yet over the years legions of well-heeled gun enthusiasts have made a pilgrimage to Boron, to the dilapidated World War Two Quonset hut on the main drag that is home to B. Searcy & Company, maker of the All-American Double Rifle. It is a curious mecca in many ways.
If you want the absolute finest, most accurate, most reliable world-class, bolt-action rifle made today, you look to America where there are men who can build a completely custom firearm, unequalled in quality anywhere, to your specifications.
But when it comes to double rifles, those who are able to afford such things have always looked to Europe. Purdey, Holland & Holland, Westley Richards, Rigby, Hartmann & Weiss, Lebeau-Courally, Krieghoff, Beretta, Merkel, Chapuis, Heym and a few others, all build excellent, world-renowned double guns, but it is a team effort: one man for the barrels, another—or a sub-team—for the action, another for the stock, and in each case, apprentices learn their trade by working alongside the team leader and doing tasks under the master’s supervision. It’s a time-honored tradition in Europe in multiple trades, from gun-maker to furniture-maker to violin-maker, a way to pass specific skill sets on from generation to generation.
Butch Searcy is America’s sole maker of conventional double-barreled rifles. Not only that, he is also the world’s only one-man band when it comes to building custom double rifles for dangerous game.
Because Butch Searcy is an American, he does things a little differently than the tradition-bound Europeans. For one, Butch never served an apprenticeship; he never even went to gun-making school, for that matter. He wanted to build rifles, so he started building rifles. End of story.
For another thing, he does it all himself. With the exception of the engraving, which he does send out, he makes each double gun himself—lock, stock, and barrel, to coin a phrase.
Butch CNC-machines his own receivers. The barrels are either mono-block or chopper-lump, your option, but he makes them. And Butch fashions his own stocks. More than that: many years ago he bought the finest pantograph available, decided it wasn’t good enough, and built his own.
He is also, as of this writing, the only man in the world who offers the option of a true Rigby-Bissell rising bite action. (A custom maker in Germany builds a square version, but only Butch builds the original oval.) If you are unfamiliar with this action—and most people have never even laid eyes on one—it was, as its name implies, co-patented by John Rigby and a little-known gun-maker by the name of Thomas Bissell.
Butch describes it as, essentially, a Greener cross-bolt turned on its side, but it’s actually an oval-shaped extension of the rib that locks into a corresponding recess in the top of the standing breech, where it surrounds a central post. It’s famous for being exceptionally strong and exceptionally complex, the latter being, in part, why it hasn’t been made by anyone since the 1920s or possibly the 1930s (depending on which account you choose to believe). But Butch makes them.
Even at an early age Butch Searcy was obsessed with guns and hunting, though he never intended to become a custom gun-maker.
“I wanted to be a wildlife biologist,” he told me over lunch at a local Mexican restaurant where they served a salsa that made steam come screaming out of my ears, “and I got my AA degree, but I couldn’t get a job. So I went to work at the [borax] mine, and then I worked as a heavy equipment operator and welder, though by 1975 I was building silhouette rifles on the side.
“I taught myself. I bought some second-hand gun-making equipment from a gun-maker who was going out of business, a lathe and drill press, chambering reamers, grinders, buffers, a small milling machine, that sort of stuff, and he gave me some direction on how to use it all. Then I started reading how-to books.”
And that was it.
The decision to make double rifles was motivated partly by the challenges it offered, and partly by a desire to eat. Where most men might have seen an absence of need for big-bore, dangerous-game rifles in America, Butch saw an opportunity.
“No one else was building them, so I decided there wasn’t much competition.”
Butch’s Quonset hut is as dark and dirty and disorganized as any Victorian gun-maker’s shop, especially in contrast to the brilliant California sunshine, but inside—ah, inside there is magic. When I first visited him, there were only a few completed rifles in the safe, but they included an ornately engraved .470 NE and a stalking rifle (a single-shot falling-block action similar to a Hagn style) in .375 H&H that made my heart skip a beat, along with several others, and various bits and pieces of other rifles in various stages of production. And there was a .700 Nitro Express double rifle.
Only an estimated 15—and that’s a generous estimate—.700 Nitro Express double rifles have ever been built, in the world, and Butch has built six of them. It’s a little like someone hand-building a custom automobile capable of going 200 miles-an-hour.
Okay. Someone built it and you bought it. Now what do you do with the damn thing? Scientists claim they are using wooly mammoth DNA to try and recreate that creature, but until the wooly mammoth exists in huntable numbers, there isn’t really much need for a .700 Nitro Express other than bragging rights. Butch himself, who is built like a walk-in safe, told me he had once taken a much lighter .577 boxlock on safari and that he couldn’t wait to get home to sell the thing.
Carrying a .700 Nitro Express is almost as much fun as carrying a railroad tie—a beautiful and very elegant railroad tie, but that’s about how much it weighs—and shooting it would undoubtedly play havoc with your fillings and critical parts of your skeletal structure, but that’s not the point. It’s the ability to build such a thing that is impressive.
And in the office of that dusty shop, there is walnut. Blanks of the iconic, magnificent, incomparably beautiful juglans reglia, famous for being the hardest for its weight of all woods, famous for its range of colors, from chocolate brown through shades of red and golden to an almost blue-black, the wood that more than any other single element catches your eye when you look at a fine firearm.
In today’s world of AR15-platforms and synthetic-stocked sniper rifles capable of shooting hyphenated calibers out to distances measured in four figures, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to build archaic, anachronistic firearms using frangible materials and techniques that have been around for two centuries.
Thank God someone is still doing it.
Unfortunately, how long someone will be doing it here in America is open to question. Like all of us, time has taken its toll on Butch. When I last visited his shop, he was recuperating from spinal surgery and talking longingly of spending more time with his grandchildren. He already has an offer for the business, so where it will go from here is anyone’s guess. But it’s nice to think that at least for a time there was a place in Boron where a single man did what storied companies in European capitals are famous for.
Note: Contact Butch Searcy at P.O. Box 584, Boron, CA 93516; (760) 762-6131.