A! Magazine for the Arts

Betsy White

Betsy White

Backcountry Makers: John M. Whiteside

November 26, 2013

"My boss was something of an artist in making designs for the scroll wire inlay he delighted in. For the fancy ones, he used sheets of German silver," said Milton Warren, apprentice gunsmith to John M. Whiteside.

Most people would agree, if the full-stock Whiteside gun shown at right made for John Peters can be considered an example.

This spectacular 61-inch Virginia long rifle has been in the same family since the present owner's father purchased it in 1916. With scrolled silver work under the trigger and surrounding the end of the stock, it is beautiful. Its finest details, however, may be the horse and rider with an adjacent open-petal flower that is seen on the butt end of the stock.

Though the grandson of a gunsmith from Virginia's Rockbridge County, Whiteside may have come upon his career as a gunsmith through opportunity and necessity rather than family tradition.

Warren continues his description of his mentor to say that Whiteside was actually an axe-maker who just happened to start making guns when he couldn't find one to buy that suited him. Hunting was an active endeavor in his community, and thus a good gun was all the thing.

Whiteside's grandfather was both a gunsmith and silversmith, which may account for his grandson's preference for silver as well as his skill in working it into some of his guns. He grew up in Rockbridge County, undoubtedly around his grandfather, as well as his father who was a clock smith. A thoroughly artisan family, the Whitesides were part of the large 18th-century Scots-Irish migration into the Valley of Virginia. John remained in Rockbridge County during his early adulthood – one has to imagine training under his father and grandfather – before moving further down the Great Road to Washington County, Va., in time to be included in its 1850 population census.

His apprentice gives us a snapshot of the busy daily routine of a 19th-century gunshop. Whiteside's was just south of Abingdon, and Warren relates how his boss was fond of using maple for his guns and went regularly into the woods to look for a special type of maple tree that is close-grained and curly. He favored curly maple ... "just about the prettiest wood in the world."

John M. Whiteside, Gunsmith is adapted from "Backcountry Makers: An Artisan History of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee." This is the 16th in a series of articles related to this new book by Betsy K. White. Featuring more than 200 color images, it is newly published by the University of Tennessee Press. "Backcountry Makers" is White's second book on the history of the region's material culture. The first, "Great Road Style: the Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee" was published in 2006 by the University of Virginia Press. "Backcountry Makers" is available locally in Abingdon at Zazzy'Z Coffee House & Bookstore and at Heartwood: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway or online from the University of Tennessee Press or Amazon.com.