Gunsmith feels pinch from waning popularity of Civil War reenactments

By Oliver Ward

John Zimmerman outside his shop in Harper's Ferry. (Oliver Ward)

In his red-brick shop on the edge of Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, past the door sign letting curious tourists know that they and their cameras aren’t welcome, John Zimmerman sits hunched over a low desk piled high with handwritten papers and empty soda cans, eyes fixed on a YouTube video of a carpenter assembling a wooden box by hand.

Zimmerman, 84, is a master gunsmith, well-known in the reenactment community for his ability to generate impeccable reproductions of Civil War-era muskets and his brashness, both of which he embraces. But on this particular Sunday afternoon, one of only two days a week his shop is open to walk-ins, nobody comes.

In 1998, the year after Zimmerman opened his shop in Harper’s Ferry, the annual Battle of Gettysburg, the pinnacle of many Civil War reenactors’ seasons, drew some 30,000 participants. In 2018, just 6,000 attended the event, according to reporting from the New York Times. This waning interest is hurting trades like Zimmerman’s.

“Business is really off,” Zimmerman said.

Born four days after Germany invaded Poland to launch World War II, Zimmerman has ballistics in his blood. His family has been gunsmithing since they left England for the United States in 1640. After his father was drafted and sent to Pearl Harbor as a naval engineer, Zimmerman—aged two—spent a lot of time in his great grandfather’s gun shop.

When Zimmerman’s own number came up in the 1961 draft, he followed his father’s westward route, landing in an artillery division in California. His unit was responsible for testing weapons under combat conditions. Scorpion tanks, Jeeps, trucks, and the famous M16 rifle— “a piece of junk”—were all put through their paces in the hills between Highway 101 and the ocean.

Zimmerman left the army in 1964and, after a stint spent setting up munitions factories in Brazil and Venezuela, he went into business with an acquaintance, opening a gun shop in Miami, Florida.

“He was kind of a pain in the ass,” Zimmerman says and the venture only lasted a year, but while there, Zimmerman was introduced to the world of reenacting when a customer invited him to a couple of Civil War events.

“I made pretty good money,” he recalls. “People's guns up there were quite simple —replacing a spring or tightening up a hammer, or whatever.” He left Florida and closed the shop, leaving the industry altogether, but the experience stayed with him.

A sign on the door to Zimmerman's workshop informs tourists his shop is no attraction. (Oliver Ward)
Zimmerman practices his craft in a workshop in the back of the store. (Oliver Ward)

Gunsmiths serve an important role in the reenactor community. A hand-crafted 1861 Springfield musket like the ones Zimmerman makes, will set a reenactor back around $3,000. There are, however, cheaper mass-produced models made in Europe that can be picked up for less than a third of that price.

“Problem is they're actually not really truly authentic,” Frank Beachem, a reenactor with the 4thU.S. Regulars explained. “They've got screws that are modern. They've got modern filings.”

Reenactors need a gunsmith with an eye for detail and deep historical knowledge to “defarb” the weapon—make it more authentic. For just a few hundred dollars, gunsmiths like Zimmerman will make it indistinguishable from the real thing.

Erik Shwetje with the 7thMaryland Regiment recalls how Zimmerman moved a serial number that was out of place on his musket and drilled a 7mm hole in the ramrod, barely perceptible to all but the most hawk-eyed observers.

When a workshop came on the market on the edge of Harper’s Ferry, Zimmerman knew he was onto something. Harper’s Ferry has a history of gun manufacturing spanning two centuries—possibly from Zimmerman’s very workshop; a metal detecting enthusiast recently unearthed antique gun-making tools from in the grass behind the building. But more than the long tradition of gun-making, 80% of the Civil War’s battles took place within a 300-mileradius of Harper’s Ferry, and that meant proximity to a steady stream of reenactors.

But in 2007, business started to dry up.

A gun for sale in Zimmerman's store. (Oliver Ward)

Movies offered Zimmerman a lifeline. Higher definition cameras have forced prop masters to pay closer attention to historical details and many have turned to gunsmiths like Zimmerman for munitions. Before moving to Harper’s Ferry, Zimmerman’s handiwork had appeared in some of the biggest period blockbusters of the late 1980s and the early1990s, including Dances with Wolves, Gettysburg—in which Zimmerman appeared as an extra—and the Oscar-winning Glory.

As the reenacting business has waned, he has been able to recuperate some lost earnings with prop-making, but it isn’t an adequate substitute.

Additionally, several digital payment companies do not allow gun merchants to use their platforms, making it more challenging to use e-commerce platforms. PayPal does not allow the use of its platform for ammunition, firearms or accessories, according to its acceptable use policy. Similarly, Stripe, Square and GoDaddy also prohibit firearm purchases using their platforms. The challenges of mobile and online payment solutions

The precarity of the business might be enough to cause consternation in some, but Zimmerman is too pragmatic for that.

“As old as I am, and with a heart condition?”

Staring down barrels, after all, is where he feels most at home.

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