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John Zimmerman, Firearms Expert

By Chris Howland 
Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: March 01, 2010 
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In the Hands of a Craftsman:
Master gunsmith John Zimmerman, an expert on Civil War firearms, is right at home in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

How did you become a master gunsmith?
I grew up in Ohio and then was in Army ordnance for three years. When I got out, I went to gunsmithing school in Colorado. My family have been gunsmiths ever since they came to this country in the 1640s. They made guns for the Revolution­ary War. One segment of the family worked in the armory here in Har­pers Ferry from 1800 to 1842. In the Indus­trial Revolu­tion, they were told they would no longer be gun­smiths and would have to tend mach­ines. They didn't like that; they were skilled artisans. That side of the family was named Hawken. They developed the Hawken rifle, which is a take-off on the Model 1803 Har­pers Ferry rifle.

How long does it take to repair or restore a gun?
That depends on a hundred million different things. It can take anywhere from a week or two, to two or three years. The big­gest thing is trying to find original parts. That can be like looking for a needle in a haystack a lot of times. Some people don't want to have parts made; they're insistent that everything be original. I try to find parts by going to gun shows, getting on the Inter­net, things of that sort. Trying to locate them can be a very difficult operation.

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What about modern reproduction guns?
Most of them come from Italy or India, and they have foreign writing on them. We do what's called "defarbing." We take off the writing, move the serial number from the side to the bottom of the barrel and then restamp it with the appropriate mark­ings of the period. The originals back then never had serial numbers. You cannot remove a serial number, but you can move it. As long as it's on the gun somewhere and is legible, that keeps everybody happy. We take our time and rework the gun so it looks more like an original for the customer.

Are there limits on what you can restore?
I don't restore guns manufactured after 1898, which is the cutoff date set in the 1968 Gun Control Act. I have to keep track of everything, and it's a mountain of paperwork. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could come in here anytime; if there's so much as even an "i" that's not dotted, that's a $500 fine. There are some gray areas. For example, the 1873 Winchester is a problem because the cartridges for it are still made, whereas they aren't for the '76 Winchester.

What's your connection to the Civil War?
Most of my customers are Civil War re-enactors, skirmish shooters, living historians and gun collectors. My great-grandfather, who ran the family gun shop in Ohio, was born in 1855, so he was too young to serve in the war. But he had two brothers and a brother-in-law that were killed. Another brother was in the ordnance department with Sherman's army. We like to call him a pyromaniac in General Sherman's arson squad. He said he burned off half the state of Georgia and the only thing he was ashamed of was not burning off the other half. After losing two brothers, he felt terrible revenge.


6 Responses to “John Zimmerman, Firearms Expert”


  1. 1
    Bruce Davidson says:

    If you are ever in the Harpers Ferry, WV area be sure to stop at Mr. Zimmerman's gun shop and see this man's work. "Expert" is an understatement in this case.

  2. 2
    donna says:

    I have recently purchased what i believe is an original hawken rifle from the 1800's but i can't find any markings on the rifle and i'm afraid to take the barrel off over all i would say its in good condition. can you help. its a 36 cal. overall length is almost 52 inches. half stock with original ram rod. octagonal barrel some dull design on the plate. looks like a pewter cap and brass on the butt end. tiger wood.

  3. 3
    Carl Reynolds says:

    Dear Sir:
    Among the possessions in my late father's estate is what appears to be, from my internet research, a Berdan Sharps new model 1859. It matches all descriptions and is in fine condition (serial# 55369). Would you know of an expert in the eastern part of PA who could take a look at this for me, and possibly give me an appraisal? Thanks in advance.
    Carl Reynolds
    Lancaster Co. PA

  4. 4
    George Rome says:

    I purchased a 1941 model Johnson 30.06 rifle SN-3099 Steel Butt SN-765
    I bought it in 1974 from an older X-Marine since guns were Illegal to have on Okinawa. I bought from him & shipped it back to the states I paid $40.00. He told me it was his issued rile before they made his unit go to the M-1 Grand. He has married to an Okinawa woman since then he has died he did tell me one day it would be worth some money? I fired it for the first time a few months back I shot 40 rounds flawlessly & was the most accurate gun I ever shot at 100 Yards. The only problem I had is the Bolt does not stay open even after the last shot? I saw other videos from web sites where the bolt says open after the final shot. Is this a flaw in the weapon? I have heard early models were like this until the military made them change is this true? When I pull the bolt back it does not lock which creates a problem at the range, Bolts must be in an open position when live firing is stopped, so I jam a wooden block between the bolts. What is the history of this gun & what is it worth below are photos? The gun to me is in very nice condition & is all original condition

  5. 5
    John Latty says:

    Sir,

    I am seeking information on tracking a Joslyn "October 8th 1861 June 24th 1862." The serial number is 1123. It is in the possession of a friend whose family members took it from a Sherman bummer south of Atlanta in late 1864. The bummer was hanged. I am attempting to trace the gun, if possible, to the soldier and his identity.

    I would appreciate any advice.

    John latty
    Gainesville, GA

  6. 6
    Diana Brown says:

    Hi Mr. Zimmerman. First of all let me say that I love Harpers Ferry. My daughter and her family lived there for several years and my granddaughter went to Harpers Ferry middle school.
    They lived in a townhouse across the street from King's Pizza.

    I have come across two identical swivel cannon guns that I think are from the Civil War and would appreciate any information you might be able to give me. They are 17 inches long and are cast iron, very heavy. I can send pictures if you tell me where to send them.



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