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Open Season: Dartmouth's Ken Pacheco is keeping the art of gunsmithing alive
Marc FolcoOpen Season
Just as the character Newly, in the TV Western series Gunsmoke, was the town gunsmith (turned deputy) in Dodge City during the settlement of the Old West, Ken Pacheco has been plying the same trade in the Dartmouth area for more than four decades. At one time, every town had at least one gunsmith, but Pacheco now is one of the few remaining full-service gunsmiths in the SouthCoast. He operates as The Village Gunsmith at 21R College Lane in Dartmouth, in a rustic shop behind his home, which also features new and pre-owned firearms, parts, accessories and ammunition.
Born of a fascination of how guns work, Pacheco, now 69, has been repairing, servicing and building firearms since 1971 when he opened his first Village Gunsmith shop on Sanford Rd. in Westport. He closed the shop in 1976 to pursue commercial fishing, but “the money didn’t happen for me in the fishing industry so I got back in the gun business,” he said.
In 1981, he re-opened his gunsmith business at 604 State Rd. in Dartmouth, which he ran for 26 years, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and closing a little earlier on Saturdays, before building the shop behind his home 12 years ago, where he continues his life’s devotion to crafting and repairing mostly classic firearms from wood and steel.
Pacheco’s passions for firearms, hunting and the shooting sports started at a very young age and in addition to being a highly-respected gunsmith in the shooting community, he’s also an accomplished hunter and an expert marksman at many of the area’s shooting competitions. His favorite events are primitive muzzleloader shoots where shooters dress in period garb such as buckskins, and cowboy action shoots where competitors wear leather gun belts and fire single action six-guns, lever action rifles and double-barreled shotguns — “historic guns with soul and character,” he said.
“Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated with guns — and everything about them,” continued Pacheco. “It was largely due to the TV Westerns and shows like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. And I remember my father taking me to a clam bake at a gun club and there were some guys shooting on the skeet range. They had left some empty shotshell cases on the ground and I picked them up. I smelled them and they smelled terrific. There’s something about the smell of burned gunpowder — it never gets out of your system.”
As a boy, he would walk by Russ Gold’s shop in Fall River every day, where a Colt Gatling Gun with brass barrels and mounted on wagon wheels was on display.
“I would just stare at it and study it,” recalled Pacheco. “There also was a rack of muzzleloading rifles along a wall and on it was a particular Pennsylvania rifle I loved. It was $225, but in those days, it may as well have been $225 million.”
One of his first projects was a flintlock Tower pistol replica. It didn’t work because the frizzen was too soft, so it wouldn’t spark when struck by the flint. The Dixie Gun Works Catalog was his wish book, so he ordered hardening compound. His father had torches in the garage, so with heating and mail-order chemicals, he hardened the frizzen and got the pistol working.
“I was quite proud of myself,” said Pacheco, who also began hunting with a flintlock rifle when he was 14 years old.
After that first project, he studied every available book on gunsmithing and with a combination of self-teaching and tutoring, he has since accomplished every facet of the trade. He can fabricate gun parts by hand-forging with anvil and hammer as well as machining. His experience also includes metallurgy, heat treating, metal finishing (bluing and browning), and stock fabrication, altering and finishing.
Being old-school, Pacheco is one of the few remaining highly skilled gunsmiths who can build a firearm from scratch with hand tools and raw materials — a wooden plank and blocks of steel. One of his pet showpieces is a .50 caliber New England Rifle.
“I logged 852 hours on that rifle, working on it a few hours every week over a span of four years,” Pacheco said. “I made every screw. And many of the parts — the brass patchbox and even the round brass thimbles — were made from flat sheet stock.”
He also has built custom target pistols and rifles but his passion lies with classic and antique arms such as vintage Colt and Smith & Wesson double action and single action revolvers, the Colt Model 1911 and Colonial and Fur Trade era muzzleloaders. In addition to his fascination with the often intricate mechanics of all types of guns, Pacheco is equally absorbed in the role they’ve played in the history of this country.
“We wouldn’t be if it weren’t for firearms,” he said.
Early smithing lessons were learned from masters like George Strickland of Smith Mills Sport Supply in Dartmouth where Pacheco served a two-year apprenticeship. He also worked under the tutelage of the legendary Ed Lander of Lakeville, a full-time gunsmith since 1945, who has since re-established his business in New Hampshire.
“I remember Ed teaching me heat treating,” said Pacheco. “Heat the steel until it turns red, then when it starts turning from red to orange, quench it in oil. We even made springs by hand. I spent a lot of my life filing metal. The milling machine would do the bulk of roughing-out a piece, but the final fitting was done with files and stones. I have about 500 files – all with a particular purpose.”
Pacheco notes that most hunters and shooters from his generation appreciate the skilled man-hours it takes to build a classic gun — to craft and finish a wooden stock, and to fit, polish and blue the steel parts. However, he sees the majority of the younger generation having no interest in workmanship.
Referring to a high grade side-by-side shotgun a customer brought in, the veteran gunsmith was impressed with its workmanship and told the customer that the gun was made by hand. “He went blank,” said Pacheco. “He couldn’t get his head around it.
“Today, the new generation is growing up in a plastic world. With the older generation, things made of plastic were junk. They broke. Today there are more durable plastics that don’t break easily – but they’re still plastic and that’s what the younger crowd wants. Plastic stocks that get spit out of a mold machine — and baked-on metal finishes — modular, Erector Set type guns with bolt-on parts. There’s minimal skill involved and the average guy can work on them. There’s no smithing required. And it’s not just with guns — it’s with everything. It’s what we’ve come to.”
Sadly, Pacheco, who has converted a good portion of his business to estate sales and internet sales through federally-licensed dealers, foresees his profession as a dying art that likely won’t be carried on by the next generation.
“Not as we know it,” he said. “The handwork is disappearing, the class of shooters and hunters who appreciate craftsmanship is dying off and their guns will sit in the back of the safe in lieu of modern plastic guns. There’s no love that goes into making plastic guns. They have no heart, no soul, no character. They’re like disposable razors.”
Marc Folco is the outdoor writer for The Standard-Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org" style="color: rgb(0, 149, 221); text-decoration-line: none;">email@example.com or through OpenSeasonSpecialties.com
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