SW Minn.gunsmith creates firearms

BALATON, Minn. (AP) - Some hobbies stay with you for a lifetime. Rick Johnson says his family enjoyed hunting and shooting sports when he was growing up, and when he was a boy, he even tried making his own rifle.

BALATON, Minn. (AP) - Some hobbies stay with you for a lifetime. Rick Johnson says his family enjoyed hunting and shooting sports when he was growing up, and when he was a boy, he even tried making his own rifle.

"I built my first gun when I was 7 or 8 years old," said Johnson. "It was just a piece of pipe, a stick and a couple of rubber bands."

Johnson is still making guns today, but the process is a lot more complicated. He has a gunsmithing and repair business, Red Line Custom Guns, at his rural Balaton home in southwestern Minnesota.

Johnson said he started out customizing his own handguns for competitive shooting events. Eventually people started asking him to work on their guns, too.

"I really started part-time about 20 years ago," he said. "Three years ago I took it full time."


Johnson's shop is full of tools, gun parts and metalworking machines, including milling machines for working on flat surfaces and lathes for making gun barrels. Out back is a shooting range where he tests the guns' accuracy using a machine rest, a special table-mounted clamp, to keep them steady.

Johnson said he starts out with gun parts that are already manufactured and then modifies them.

"It's like the guy that makes race car engines. He doesn't cast his own engine blocks," Johnson said.

"One thing about a custom gun is you can have it any way you want it." Johnson said. "You can have the stock the color you want, you can have the action the way you want it. It's unique to the world, it's yours."

Johnson said a lot of his custom designs make guns easier for an individual customer to use. He can make them fire a specific type of ammunition or function in a certain way. Most of the customizations are things you wouldn't be able to get from a mass-produced gun, he said.

He does simpler jobs, too.

"I do a lot of cleaning, or just fine-tuning, accuracy tuneups," Johnson said.

One of Johnson's more unusual requests was to make a rifle for a man who had lost his right hand. The customer's right side was still dominant for shooting, Johnson said, but he needed to be able to pull the trigger with his left hand.


"I had to move it up so he could shoot with his left hand," Johnson said.

"I took some measurements of him, just to make a prototype," he said, and kept testing, "to make sure it worked for him."

Some of the projects Johnson works on involve restoring antique guns. He held up a rifle one customer brought in for his grandson. It was made around the turn of the century, Johnson said.

"It's the fifth generation that it's been in the family," he said. "I'm going to put some new wood on the stock, refinish it and put a new liner on the barrel."

A plastic container in the shop held parts of an even older pistol Johnson was restoring. It had belonged to one of the early settlers in the Russell area.

Once restored, he said, "It will be in firing condition," although the kind of bullets the pistol shoots aren't made anymore.

The older the gun, the more challenging it can be to refurbish.

"With old guns, really often there isn't even a drawing of it, or if there is, there aren't any dimensions on it," Johnson said. "If a part's missing, you have to reverse engineer it."


Johnson said he takes some time every year to take classes on gunsmithing and machining, although a lot of his training was hands-on.

Johnson said some of his favorite guns have been handguns he made "from scratch."

"Some of these are sporting guns, and some are more defense-type guns," he said as he displayed a few.

Johnson said the safety of making and selling guns full-time doesn't bother him. State and federal laws require him to get identification and background information from customers buying handguns, and the customization process is long and expensive enough to discourage people looking to misuse a gun.

"They're not going to come in and order a gun to rob a 7-11, because you'd have to rob 10 of them to pay for the gun," Johnson said. "And I've got no problem saying no to a customer. If everything's not right, you don't get a gun."

He said he does worry about theft, so he makes sure to keep all his guns locked in secure areas.

It's not just love of guns that keeps Johnson smithing, he said. A lot of the work's appeal is its creative aspect.

"You're building something that's uniquely yours. It's one-of-a-kind," he said.

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