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OPINION | REX NELSON: Arkansas’ gun town

by Rex Nelson | February 19, 2022 at 3:39 a.m.


Charles Burton Saunders was born in February 1863 on a cattle ranch near Greenville in east Texas. In 1865, as the Civil War wound down, his parents decided to move back to their old home in Fayetteville.

Two years later, a professor named Isaac Clarke opened a private academy at Berryville. Saunders had six sisters, and his parents chose to move to Berryville so their daughters could receive an education.

"Before the family left Fayetteville, Burton's grandfather gave the 4-year-old-boy a muzzleloading rifle and taught him to shoot it," Frances McClelland wrote in a history of Berryville's Saunders Museum. "The grandfather would load the rifle and the child would hoist the long gun to his shoulder, sight and fire.

"In only a few years, the boy was out in the woods around his home, hunting small game. He grew to know and love the woods and streams surrounding the town. His marksmanship was the talk of the town."

Saunders earned the nickname "Buck" because of the large number of deer he killed. He attended Clarke's Academy, was an early entrepreneur when nearby Eureka Springs began to take off as a resort town, and later attended business school in St. Louis.

"He returned to work at Berryville and soon had a position in a new bank that had been established at Eureka Springs," McClelland wrote. "At age 25, he was made a deputy U.S. marshal. This was an appointment fraught with adventure."

In 1893, Saunders attended the World's Columbian Exposition, a world's fair in Chicago that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in what was called the New World. Saunders participated in shooting expositions there and later headed to British Columbia to work for a mining company.

Saunders joined a banking and real estate firm in Oregon, making a fortune from mining and real estate ventures in the Pacific Northwest.

Saunders' next stop was San Francisco, where he began a gun collection that he kept in a downtown office. In 1919, Saunders returned to Berryville. He purchased a two-story house that he filled with his gun collection and other items gathered in his travels around the world.

"He was much admired and loved by the townspeople," McClelland wrote. "On his birthday in 1936, he was honored with a big celebration attended by the governor and other dignitaries. It was then that he won his title of colonel when Gov. Junius Marion Futrell gave him a commission as colonel on the governor's staff."

Saunders died in October 1952. He willed his collection to the city of Berryville, donated a lot on which to build a museum to house the collection, and left money for the building. The structure, designed by architect Maury Friberg, opened in May 1956. Marble for some of the walls came from Batesville while floor tiles came from Carthage, Mo. The Saunders Museum continues to attract those interested in the history of firearms.

The museum includes Native American war bonnets, a collection of arrowheads, Persian rugs, teakwood furniture, an Arab sheik's tent and other items Saunders picked up through the decades.

It's interesting that a town of fewer than 6,000 residents that has long been known for a gun collection is also the home of two of the nation's leading custom-gun manufacturers, Wilson Combat Inc. and Nighthawk Custom.

Bill Wilson, who was trained as a watchmaker, has been in the firearms industry since 1974. He started with a retail store in Berryville known as Sportsman's Headquarters. Wilson, a competitive shooter, founded Wilson Combat in 1977.

In 2020, the company announced it was adding 16,000 square feet to its plant and increasing its workforce by 20 percent to meet surging demand. The new building houses equipment that makes parts for the company's firearms and provides additional warehouse space. Wilson Combat employs about 200 people and has an eight-building complex. The company produces what are known as 1911 handguns, tactical long guns and accessories.

Nighthawk, meanwhile, added 4,000 square feet in 2018 to house gunsmiths and support employees. The expansion cost $750,000.

Following a visit to the Saunders Museum, I went to Nighthawk to get a tour from Mark Stone, one of the people who founded the company in 2004. Stone, who first came to Berryville to work for Tyson Foods Inc., now supplies almost 600 gun dealers worldwide. There are about 85 Nighthawk employees.

"Each gunsmith puts his personal stamp on what he produces," Stone says. "One gun, one gunsmith. We've had seven people inducted into the American Pistolsmiths Guild, more than any other company."

A sign on the wall reads, "If it was easy, everyone would do it."

A 2018 report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation showed that Arkansas had 3,061 jobs directly related to the firearms industry with annual wages of $102.6 million. Arkansas ranked second in the nation in total economic output per capita and sixth for jobs per capita that are dependent on the firearms industry. That sector of the Arkansas economy has grown since then.

According to a December 2020 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story: "Gun and ammunition sales have skyrocketed nationally on fears spawned by the pandemic, civil unrest and the presidential election. Many types of rifles, pistols and shotguns sold out at retail outlets while shooters and sportsmen scooped up ammo, leaving store shelves bare and online retailers with extensive backlogs."

The Berryville economy benefited, a result that no doubt would have intrigued the famous gun collector Charles Burton Saunders.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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