Originally created 02/24/02

Birth of a rifle



JACKSON, S.C. - The way Kenny Jarrett sees it, the secret to being a good hunter is to respect your quarry.

And the best way to show that respect? Shoot an accurate rifle.

The quest for the perfect weapon - capable of a clean, decisive kill in spite of all the variables - is a perennial work in progress for the 52-year-old Aiken County gun maker.

Jarrett grew up stalking whitetails that grazed in the sprawling bean fields of his family farm. He became a competitive shooter, setting six world records - three of which still stand.

But more than anything else, the affable, bearded businessman likes building rifles - a craft he began 23 years ago. Today, Jarrett Rifles Inc. occupies a niche that stretches from Anchorage to Africa.

"A lot of local people think we only get busy when it's deer season here," he said. "But we've got guns in the field, all over the world, at any given time."

There are plenty of gun makers - but not many like Jarrett, whose clients have included Hank Williams Jr., Dale Earnhardt, Chuck Yeager, Norman Schwartzkopf, Ted Turner and outdoor writer Grits Gresham.

The factory, nestled within a cedar-siding building packed with taxidermy, is simple and unassuming. The rifles are made one by one. The vault where new guns await pickup is barely bigger than an average bedroom.

The calibers vary: from the .22 rimfire for competition shooting to a massive, shoulder-jolting .458 Rigby, capable of stopping an elephant - or any other creature - in its tracks.

Building a rifle isn't simple - nor is it cheap, Jarrett said.

"The price list goes from $3,550 to about $6,700," he said matter-of-factly. "That's about what a new four-wheeler will cost - the trick is to keep them both for years and see what you can get your money out of."

His staff includes his son, Jay, a stock maker; and daughter Rissa, who manages the office. There are others - testers and shooters - and specialists whose talents help give the final product its quality.

Pat Moore is the barrel man - his afternoons occupied by the intricate, precise steps involved in transforming blanks of high-quality stainless steel into rifled cylinders.

Larry Hill is the machinist, who supervises computerized lathes and milling machines that create receiver actions.

"He's got more than 200 steps - just to make the receiver," Moore said. "I just have nine."

Moore works in a linear room packed with cutting machines, drill bits of carbide and titanium - and viewing instruments that can examine fine rifling inside each barrel.

"Short, light bullets need a slow twist to fly right," he said. "Large, heavy bullets, well, they need a faster twist."

The exact recipe, developed through years of practice, is recalculated for each rifle.

"The twist rate is what causes the spin," he said. "If it's proper, the bullet flies true. If not, it keyholes."

One of the most important steps is "tuning" - a process that involves shooting it as many times as it takes to gauge the precise powder load and bullet grain size to make its impact perfect.

"After all the times we've done this, it's still trial and error," Jarrett said. "We do it till we get the recipe that gun wants, shooting the bullets the customer will need to hunt the game he hunts."

One of the most annoying things Jarrett ever heard was the argument that hunting rifles don't need competition bench-rest accuracy.

"Most people shoot a group of 3 or 4 inches on a paper target a week before hunting season, and say, 'That's good enough to shoot a deer,"' he said. "But you can't be too accurate. The clean kill is a matter of respect, and the connecting link between success and failure is the gun."

Not all Jarrett rifles are for hunting, though: Some are just for fun.

In the vault where completed arms await their new owners, there is one of the the biggest, heaviest Jarretts made: the Browning .50-caliber.

Shooters glutton enough to endure its recoil routinely blaze at targets up to 1,000 yards away. Its statistical lethal range is 10 miles.

"People ask what you can shoot with that thing," Jarrett smiled. "I tell them, any damn thing you want to."