Thursday, March 8, 2007
Monterey gunsmith Robert Ashmore bears a striking resemblance to Hollywood’s Sam Elliot—right down to the handlebar mustache and cool Western drawl. He stands easily behind a glass counter loaded with pistols and talks about the business of guns.
“I repair guns, occasionally rebuild them, do alteration and restoration,” he says with an easy smile. “All kind of guns. The market for old guns is fantastic. If it’s a firearm made before 1898, it’s exempt from the waiting period. People can buy them and walk out with them.”
Ashmore’s tiny shop is tucked along the aptly named Houston Street, just a few doors down from the historic Stevenson House, which was built at a time when most everyone owned a firearm. His equally easygoing dog, Ginger, lounges out front and cheerfully licks the hand of anyone willing to offer it.
“People say, ‘I can tell if you’re open because the dog’s out on the sidewalk,’” he says. “She loves coming to work.”
So does her owner, although 35 years in the business hasn’t made him a rich man.
“For the most part gunsmithing is not a lucrative business,” he says. “It’s a labor of love type of thing.”
But there are a lot of side benefits to doing what you love. In addition to running the store, Ashmore has a lot of intriguing gun-related sidelines. He’s been a hunter safety instructor for the Department of Fish and Game for the past 30 years, he does firearm appraisals for banks and trust offices, and he contributes expert witness testimony for firearms and ballistics in state and federal criminal cases.
“That’s big fun,” he says with a big smile. “They’re shooting cases most of the time. The last two have been murder cases. I wish I could make a living at it. I wish there was enough stuff. It’s like being a detective. Getting parts and pieces and trying to figure out what went on.”
Yet without a doubt his most interesting moonlighting gig is the work he did to help create a Hollywood icon. His expertise led to a job creating prop guns for movies, most famously for Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II.
“I did the swinging shotgun he carried in the tunnel,” he says. “Of course I made a big mistake. I sold the guns instead of leasing them. I was telling people, ‘Hey, I made a $100!’ and they were like ‘Man, you’re an idiot.’ I didn’t ask for screen credit either. I was just a babe in the woods with those people.”
Despite its glamorous highlights, Ashmore’s strange road to success in the gun world had its roots in a high school work experience program. While in school he escaped the classroom for an hour a day to be around guns, which he’d already fallen in love with while hunting wild pigs, deer and quail down in Big Sur in the ‘60s.
He still hunts today and can be regularly found squeezing off rounds at Carmel Associated Sportsman Incorporated’s in Carmel Valley and the County Run Shooting Range at Laguna Seca.
Although he doesn’t consider himself a gun collector, his favorite gun is a .22 Ruger Pistol with a scope from the early ‘70s. “It’s my favorite because I’m good with it,” he says with that big grin.
Ashmore says there’s a “fair” local market for his guns, but his business boomed three years ago when he expanded to the Internet. Now 80 percent of his business is online. He says there are a few wealthy collectors and a fair number of hunters, but that most local collectors are retired military.
“You get a fair amount of military guns with history. There are a lot of people looking for General Officer’s guns from World War I and II,” he says.
One day in the early 1980s Ashmore came face-to-face with an icon of the World War II generation when he was asked up to Carmel Valley to appraise the collection of Jimmy Doolittle, the great American aviation pioneer and WWII hero.
“He was a really great guy. Just a nice guy,” Ashmore says. “I went out to his house and he opens this drawer and he has, not one, but like four General Officer’s guns—all guys from his crew. He wasn’t even sure which one was his.”
Ashmore says the business has changed over the last 35 years. Today’s there’s a lot more regulation. When he was starting out you could legally sell “long arms” (or rifles) over the counter and there was only a three-day waiting period on handguns. Today there’s a 10-day waiting period on everything.
“I think it’s diminished the business a little, but not significantly. I think it’s good to do a background check on people,” he says. “I’ve only had three refusals in 35 years and if those three stopped a crime that’s a good thing. But it does create a lot of paperwork.”