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McLaughlin Custom Firearms in Helena brings beauty and precision to gunmaking

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John McLaughlin machines a sight rail into the barrel

John McLaughlin machines a sight rail into the barrel of a custom rifle he is building in his Helena shop. McLaughlin owns McLaughlin Custom Firearms in Helena where he handcrafts rifles for customers around the world.

John McLaughlin held up a solid piece of steel, running the edge of his hand down its smooth surface to mimic the machining process he would soon employ. He then picked up a finished octagonal barrel, holding the two pieces of metal side by side and reflecting on the work both ahead and behind him.

“I’ll have about 28 hours into this barrel by the time it’s done,” he said. “If one thing is wrong it’s scrapped.”

Shown is a custom take down style rifle built by McLaughlin

Shown is a custom take down style rifle built by McLaughlin with two interchangeable barrels chambered in 38/55 and .22 LR.

McLaughlin duplicates a rifle stock

McLaughlin duplicates a rifle stock using a duplicator machine he designed and constructed himself.

McLaughlin test fires a custom rifle

McLaughlin test fires a custom rifle at the range before handing it over the client.

McLaughlin owns McLaughlin Custom Firearms in Helena where he handcrafts rifles for customers around the world. His 25 years of experience gunsmithing and machining produces firearms of rich beauty and balance only possible through a meticulous approach.

“I really enjoy it, I’m not sure I can tell you why – it’s a lot more than a firearm, it’s more like art and I like to be here making it from start to finish,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a gun for $300 to $800. This gun will be $22,000 when it’s all done.”

McLaughlin picks up a finished octagonal barrel.

McLaughlin picks up a finished octagonal barrel.

Metal shavings fly off a barrel in the milling process.

Metal shavings fly off a barrel in the milling process. McLaughlin teaches machining at Helena College and builds about five custom rifles per year to order.

After years of experimenting with gunstock finishes

After years of experimenting with gunstock finishes, McLaughlin decided to make his own. McLaughlin’s Old World Gunstock Finish creates a finish for high grade rifles and are simple to use with restoration of antique firearms.

Firearms have always been a part of McLaughlin’s life. He learned to shoot as a kid with his dad and later moved into the industry where he has worked as a gunsmith and taught the craft.

His business has grown nearly entirely by word of mouth and website https://mclaughlincustomfirearms.com/ with demand for his craftsmanship often bringing in more requests than he can fulfill. He machines the barrels and sights, carves the stalks from Turkish walnut, and assembles the finished product with some of the finest actions available.

Most of McLaughlin's clients hire him to build large bore rifles

Most of McLaughlin's clients hire him to build large bore rifles used for hunting African game. Here he holds the brass casing to an 8 bore rifle he's building for a client from Texas.

McLaughlin at work in his Helena shop.

McLaughlin at work in his Helena shop. Firearms have always been a part of McLaughlin’s life. He learned to shoot as a kid with his Dad and later moved into the industry where he has worked as a gunsmith and taught the craft.

McLaughlin shapes a barrel blank on a lathe.

McLaughlin shapes a barrel blank on a lathe. “I’ll have about 28 hours into this barrel by the time it’s done,” he said. “If one thing is wrong it’s scrapped.”

He has also branched into developing his own McLaughlin Custom Firearm calibers for some of his personal guns, going through the certification process to produce ammunition exclusive to his rifles.

McLaughlin teaches machining at Helena College and builds about five custom rifles per year to order. His work appeared on the big screen when he collaborated with other gunmakers while at Butch Searcy and Co. to build a .600 Nitro Express for the film Jurassic Park 2.

Shown is a longe range 45/70 caliber rifle

Shown is a longe range 45/70 caliber rifle based on the original Wesson Long Range no.1. It was made for a client who plans to target shoot and hunt elk in Montana with it.

One of McLaughlin’s first jobs in gunsmithing was building double rifles, a hallmark of African safaris. He loves their elegance and counts them as his favorite builds, although he does produce a number of long-range bolt action rifles as well priced in the $3,500 range.

While McLaughlin knows he could make more money strictly doing firearm repairs and modifications, it cannot match the enjoyment of custom gunmaking.

“I’ve been doing this 25 years and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.

McLaughlin fires up his mill,

McLaughlin fires up his mill, the machine he uses to fabricate and produce nearly all the rifle compenents he uses.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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