That’s why he went by P.O. all his life. Anybody claiming to be his friend and talking about, “Parker and I…” immediately made an ass of himself to Ackley’s real friends, who were many, and influential in the small world of American firearms.
This is just one of the fascinating details we’ve learned from P.O. Ackley: America’s Gunsmith by Fred Zeglin.
In a time when college graduates and even high school graduates were rare, Ackley was a magna cum laude graduate of Syracuse University (in New York, his native state). His degree was in Agriculture, and he was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
Why did he become a gunsmith? “During the Depression, there was nothing else to do anyway.” His college studies had made him a remarkably good potato farmer, but his potatoes found no buyers.
In 1936, he bought the Roseburg, Oregon shop of Ross King, who had in turn bought the business from the widow of his former employer in Los Angeles, Ludwig Wundhammer, arguably the first great American sporterizer of military rifles. King moved back to LA and kept gunsmithing for some years.
Ackley bought the shop sight unseen, sold the family farm, and drove to Roseburg to meet King — whose work he respected greatly — and see his new shop. He paid King $1,000 down and $1,000 over time, on a handshake. But he didn’t know barrel making, so he accepted the offer of a friend to teach him. Leaving the family in Roseburg, he spent most of 1936-37 in Cincinnati learning the trade from Fritz, last name unknown, an employee of the friend, Ben Hawkins.
Ackley built much of his own tooling. He could afford only one gun-drill, so his early barrels were all bored .22 and reamed to final size with reamers he made himself. His own rifling machine was one of the earliest button-rifling mechanisms — he claimed to have co-invented the process, although he never filed a patent on it — and an entire chapter of the book is Ackley’s own detailed technical description of this tool. Ackley wrote it for a book that was never published, and the rifling-tool chapter may be the only surviving fragment.
In that chapter, as in many other places in the book, Ackley’s wit shines through.
“P.O. said that Elmer Keith was the biggest bullshit artist in the United States, but if he said he hit something with a .44 Magnum at 1000 yards, you better believe it, ’cause he could shoot.”
“The best way to get an answer to the problem is to ask someone who has never made a barrel. They can always tell you.”
Ackley’s foundation of the school of gunsmithing at the Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado was a surprising story. Ackley left the Ogden, Utah arsenal during the war — some say, after a falling out with co-worker Elmer Keith, the story of which Zeglin was not able to establish, and unconfirmed stories about which Zeglin was unwilling to publish. He ultimately wound up in Trinidad, and, after the war, was buried in a mountain of correspondence from GIs seeking gunsmithing training under their GI Bill benefits. The college, meanwhile, was getting similar letters — thousands of them.
The gunsmithing school was a success from the start, and early students remember an unusual instructional technique: Ackley would disassemble a gun and reassemble it where students could not see it, talking them through the process. Then, in the lab, they’d have to do it themselves, forcing them to learn by doing, not monkey-see-monkey-do.
Lee Womack, one of his former students, wrote:
In spite of his 16-hour days, he was always available…. He gave freely of any information he might have. He used to say that anybody in the gun business who thought he had a trade secret was just kidding himself.
This year will be the 70th anniversary of the program, a living memorial to an interesting American craftsman.
We’ll close with a few more Ackley quotes. On bullpup actions:
My opinion of the Bull-pup idea in general would not be very complimentary, and like the man once said, “If you can’t say anything good about it, then don’t say anything at all.” Therefore, I am silent as HELL on this subject.
On relative and absolute strengths of rifle actions, something which he experimented on extensively:
[A]ny action can be blown up if you try hard enough.
On the strength of the Italian Carcano, proven in his blow-up tests:
In spite of the fact that the locking lugs looked as though you could knock them off with a tack hammer, we were unable to damage any one of the four bolts appreciably. When the actions finally let go the receiver ring flew off, but this didn’t come until we had reached loads whitch had previously blown up P-17 Enfields. I wish to point out. however, that none of this should be used to conclude that the rifle could ever be made into a desirable hunting arm because that is a fairly good definition of the word impossibility.
As you might imagine, we’re loving the book.