There is a primeval passion buried in most children’s DNA. Forty-some years later, I still remember the first time I saw a gun fired during a sporting clays competition near my hometown in Maine and the reaction it engendered.
Before it was politically incorrect, kids grew up playing cops-and-robbers and cowboys-and-Indians. Ralphie’s tireless pursuit of the Red Ryder in A Christmas Story is the core nostalgic hook that has made it a holiday classic. BB guns may have evolved into Nerf guns, an Xbox controller and a Call of Duty® game. But the emotion is the same: “I must feel that rush.”
Rich Cole was one of those kids. But as so many of us discarded our toy weapons for the next obsession, Cole took those guns apart to see what was inside.
“I was blessed in that I had a childhood dream. I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life the first time I picked up a gun,” said the owner of one of the most revered gunsmithing shops in the country. “I immediately felt this connection. As I took the guns apart and put them back together again, that fascination only grew. I was always taking things apart, and they rarely went back together at first. I kept at it; I learned; I was energized with every step forward I took. There was the mechanical part of it and the precision, but there was also the beauty behind the craftsmanship.”
Now, grown-ups travel thousands of miles to visit Cole’s Naples, Florida, workshop to play in his sandbox and share in the fruits of that childhood fascination. His custom guns have become the weapons of choice for countless Olympians and marksmen. And his four-decade pursuit of the perfect blend of artistry and engineering has helped spawn a legacy.
The Coles grew up outside of Washington, D.C. Rich’s father, an engineer and rocket scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, fostered his son’s passion by crafting gun stocks in their home workshop together. Rich Cole rose through the ranks in the Boy Scouts in the early 1970s with his father as troop leader, and Cole spent countless hours in his high school’s 50-foot rifle range, testing out his early creations.
“He saw my love of the engineering and being able to apply an artistic bent to that engineering,” Cole said. “He was nervous though; [he] didn’t want me to pursue gunsmithing. He saw the way the world was headed and the increased gun restrictions and … push for gun control at the time, and he didn’t want me caught up in the politics. He passed away in 1978, but he helped set the wheels in motion for a wonderful life.”
That began by instilling a tireless work ethic in his son. Cole worked from the moment he was allowed, and when he wasn’t working on a construction job, he was studying the history of gunsmithing. As a teen in 1979, he got word that legendary gunmaker Beretta was opening a plant in nearby Bethesda, Maryland.
“I got in my truck and drove down to the plant they were setting up. I slept in front of the locked gate, and I put my name on a list to see the human resources folks,” Cole said. “It was wonderful timing. They were looking to hire a few people, and they were especially looking for an apprentice, someone with a precursor skill set to be useful and teachable. Someone who had knowledge but still knew that they knew nothing. I fit that bill. They paid me $5 an hour, a $7 per-hour pay cut from my construction job. Hell, if they had given me a tent behind the building, I would have taken it. I had my truck, my dog and a shot to fulfill my passion. The plant’s technical manager, Birger Boggild, saw that fire thankfully. He marched me into the GM’s office and said I was their guy.”
Cole spent the next six years learning the trade the Beretta way, at the bench with a file and a vernier. He worked an assembly line, then became the spare parts guy. But Boggild and head gunsmith Pete Valentine saw Cole’s potential. They sent him back and forth to Italy for shotgun training.
“(During) my time in Gardone Val Trompia, my skills got better with every trip. I was in the center of where gunsmithing began,” Cole said. “North of Brescia, this area was extremely rich in iron ore. Five hundred years ago, the river provided the power to work the ore. All the makers of the Milanese armor, they all came from that region. The highest-quality gun makers like Ferlach, they all came from there. Every trip, it was hard training, but it was amazing hands-on learning, like studying with Michelangelo.”
An American in Italy at a time without Rosetta Stone. The language barrier was tough, but he learned by watching. The Polis, a brother-and-brother team of gunsmiths, spoke English and helped him pick up the language, but more than anything, he absorbed the knowledge.
As much as he loved Beretta, he knew he was destined to branch out on his own.
“I didn’t want to go into sales, and I was destined to be in the repair shop working on specific guns. While that was fulfilling, I wanted more,” he said. So Cole headed to Maine, where he had family, and started to work his plan.
“Leaving Beretta, I had contacts, but it wasn’t easy,” he said. “I got my federal license and did a lot of contract work bluing shotguns.” Cole worked re-laying ribs and rust bluing barrels on older guns. “I worked as a brick mason tender, an offshore fisherman on shrimp and lobster boats, and in a machine shop. I did my gunsmithing at night and slowly built a clientele, first in Harpswell and then the entire region.”
He continued to subcontract with Beretta, specializing in over/under shotguns like the 680 series, a gun he says has exquisite design and one that he still uses as the backbone for so many of his custom guns.
While Cole developed many of the contacts to be able to import and sell the finest collector-level guns in the U.S., he was always more interested in the process of making them. The gun sales business has become so competitive, so dominated by cookie-cutter outfits like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, the mom-and-pops have slowly been squeezed out. Cole has stayed relevant by studying and evolving his process, and thus making a more personal product that stands out in contrast to the generic, big-box offerings.
“Who was making the stocks? Who supplied this amazing Turkish walnut? How have the Italians perfected bluing? What is their soldering process? Learning this and creating those relationships with these local Gardone masters was more important to me than any sale I could ever make,” Cole said.
One of the relationships he values most is with the folks at Caesar Guerini and Perazzi. While Cole Gunsmithing is currently just one of five Beretta warranty service centers in the U.S., he and his family have become equally skilled at servicing the other Italian masterpieces. They have become the sole U.S. importer for Zoli and added another high-end maker, Kolar, to their inventory.
As Cole’s reputation began to grow, so did his family. He passed on his love of gunsmithing to his two sons, Brandon and Larry, who were equally intrigued and fascinated with the workmanship behind the weapons. They learned at the bench in Cole’s shop, but also spent plenty of time on weekend hunts and Sundays in front of the TV watching the New England Patriots with their dad.
“Both of them worked with me until it was time for them to go find their own way, but we have been extremely fortunate to come back together,” Cole said.
That plan took shape in 2010 when he and his wife, Jona, took their first vacation in a long time, along the southwest coast of Florida.
“Maine winters are harsh. We needed a better climate. We just fell in love with the region and decided it was time to expand the business,” Cole said. The couple bought a garage and workshop in Naples and began Cole-South, an operation that has since expanded to a 5,000-square-foot facility. The family spends nine months of the year in Naples and summers in Harpswell, where they maintain a thriving business thanks to long-time friends and staffers like gunsmiths Bob Guyton and Jim Bellegarde and store manager Kelly Field.
As Cole’s Southern operation took shape, his sons came back into the fold. Dad focuses on the old-school mastery of his craft, still taking frequent trips to Italy to foster relationships and continue his never-ending apprenticeship. It’s part of what has led publications like Sporting Clays USA to call Cole Gunsmithing the “go-to shop” for custom shotguns and Beretta repairs.
“A good writer pulls you in, and the story flows; you don’t have to look at every word; you feel the characters and the plot development, pick up the imagery. It’s the same with a great gun,” he said. “The actual process of gunsmithing hasn’t changed much through the centuries. It’s the attention to detail and precision that differentiates for the consumer. The personal relationships with the customer, their measurements and the way the gun feels on the shoulder and in their hands, that’s what matters.”
Cole said he has seen many come and go in the business, expecting a quick payoff, but that’s just not his business model.
“If you don’t make this your life’s purpose, you’re never going to have the tools to truly deliver for the customer,” he said. “Millennials are always looking for that quick payoff without the maximum effort, but that’s just not the deal here. So unfortunately we don’t have as much new blood coming into the gunsmithing business. We have what we need to be comfortable and to live a fulfilling life, but we are constantly reinvesting in the business.”
As much as Cole believes in learning at the bench, he has also tried to combine the personal touch with modern technology.
“We invested $100,000 in digital scanning and sophisticated manufacturing equipment,” he said. It allows them to put his son Larry’s expertise in machinery and laser measuring systems (CNC) to practical use. “We used to bring clients down for a fitting, and then it would be a time-consuming process to have them back down to test out their custom [gun]. The human hand build-out is nowhere near as exact, as much as I will always advocate for handmade. Modern machine tool technology operated by pros far outplays the skill of the human hand and in far less time. These machines are working to precision measured in ten-thousandths of an inch versus thousandths of an inch by hand.
“Plus, we can modify an existing stock, make a custom model out of that stock that’s like a tailor-made suit. This equipment now lets us take that customer’s specifications and make a pattern stock so he or she will not need a measurement with each order. We can take an existing stock, scan it and render a perfect replica. It gives us more time to do the engraving and the personalization we thrive with,” Cole said.
The result: the Coles are able to use an industrialized barreled action like a Zoli or Beretta and deliver the feel of a $50,000 bespoke English or Italian gun for a fraction of the cost. Plus, it can stay precise for 125,000 rounds, so you’re getting longer life for your investment.
“It may take me a long time to see the return on the machinery investment; others might look at me and say I’m crazy,” he said. “But I know that I’m setting up my sons and my family for the long run, to be able to compete using modern technology with a personalized touch.”
Cole celebrated his 60th birthday in 2016, and has no plans to slow down.
“Listen, I feel that with my family by my side, we’re just hitting stride here,” he said. “I’m an introvert. I work very hard to be socially fluid because I have to be. We’re in the entertainment business. No one needs a sporting clays shotgun; it’s a disposable income product, so it comes down to inspiring that want and taking an interest in every client. Those who know me know I’m happiest when I’m hidden away in the back at the bench. I talk to the wood as I coax it, more out of frustration. It would make for something for ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ at times, but it’s what gets the job done and what makes it so much fun for me.
“I try not to get ahead of myself. Sometimes I look around at what we’ve built, and I stare at the ceiling and ask, ‘What have you gotten yourself into?’ But I wouldn’t have this any other way,” he said. “My sons show all the signs of that work ethic and passion for the business, so maybe we’re building a legacy here. Time will tell. I can only control my time on earth, and as long as I have my family nearby and they allow me to throw on an apron and putter around in the back, I’ll be a happy man.”
Written by Tim Wood
Photos by Jona Cole