EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 30, 2013

Derry gunsmith hits the mark

Local gunsmith is a favorite of state champions

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — DERRY — Jim McMahon is helping the fastest guns in the West — not to mention the North, South and East.

Champion cowboy-style sport shooters, city slickers and cowpokes alike, call on the Derry gunsmith to provide firearms for their duels in the sun.

McMahon counts 47 state champions among his clientele that now spans the globe.

His Cowboy Gunworks serves customers in all the exotic ports of call: Puerto Rico, Germany, Australia, even Bangor, Maine.

“It’s not bragging,” McMahon said, “if it’s true.”

He is a master of his trade, so much so that at age 49 he is able to make his living as a gunsmith.

“It’s really gratifying,” McMahon said. “I don’t consider it work any more.”

The retired Teamster, a champion snowmobile dragster, fell into the competitive cowboy gun culture one mud season, when a friend suggested they give the sport a try after racing ended.

“I went to my first match and came out wondering why my guns were so much stiffer than everybody else,” McMahon said.

He recalled sitting in his workshop until 3:30 in the morning,pondering that question.

McMahon had to tinker with snowmobiles to join the elite of that sport, so it was natural he would do the same with guns.

“Basically, my background was in machining, performance and efficiency to make things go faster,” he said.

McMahon took his guns apart and went to work on them. Each week, he would go back to competitions, continue asking questions and show off his improvements.

He loved the sport, in which shooters compete under Old West aliases. His is “Jimmy Spurs” and he is a past state champion.

“I’ve been into the cowboy thing my whole life,” he said.

He remembers all the old TV shows like “Bonanza” and couldn’t get enough of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies.

As McMahon got faster, his rivals took an admiring interest in his gunsmithing.

A Rhode Island champion, Tom Calandra, recognized something special.

“He said, ‘Would you build me a gun? It’s the best action work I’ve ever felt,’” McMahon said.

Others followed Calandra to McMahon’s workshop, many others.

“I think Jim’s reputation speaks for itself at this point,” Calandra said. “He is one of the most prominent gunsmiths in the world, as far as cowboy guns.”

McMahon modifies Ruger single-action Vaqueros, a copy of the 1873 Colt Peacemaker, for competition, with his own lightweight parts.

“We’re not manufacturing guns here, we’re improving their performance,” he said. ““I design and build all my own parts.”

Clients pay him $1,100 for one revolver. They buy two at a time and orders take two months to fill, he said.

“We’re efficiency gurus,” he said. “We make them last longer and shoot faster.”

Speed matters to the shooters, because competitions are timed.

So he promises them one thing: “Five shots in under a second.”

But quality and craftmanship matter to McMahon.

“Every gun that leaves here has to be 100 percent right,” he said.

McMahon doesn’t advertise. He doesn’t have to, because word of mouth in the cowboy-shooting arena is a good word about Cowboy Gunworks. Dealings with clients are by appointment only.

He’s at work 12 hours a day in the shop. He has occasional apprentices — niece Rachael and nephew Zach like to come from Florida to work with their uncle.

But there’s a trusty sidekick, too, 16-year-old Cade Ciripompa, a junior at Hudson’s Alvirne High who met McMahon through his dad and the shooting competitions.

“He does all the shipping, receiving and billing,” McMahon said. “I build the guns and Cade does all the rest.”

McMahon, who also runs shooting schools for youth competitors, tries to instill a work ethic in his young helpers.

“Uncle Jimmy is a workaholic,” he said. “You’re going to be here all day, every day, 12 hours a day.”

Cade said he’s learning everything from McMahon’s experience.

“Be fair and people will be fair with you,” is McMahon’s advice to Cade.

McMahon tells customers his guns are warranteed for life.

“When I die, my niece and nephew will take over for me,” he said.

Potential customers also get advice at the right price.

“I give good advice over the phone; it’s free,” he said. “You can take the advice I give you and get your guns somewhere else, if you want.”

If McMahon thinks of it — sometimes he’s so busy, he forgets — customers get a signature authenticating his work inside the gun handle.

He appreciates the following his guns have attained in the sport.

“My guns are highly sought after,” he said. “My guns are known for the fancy embellishment and jeweling.”

McMahon expects to keep on gunsmithing as long as he’s around, but now that he’s mastered the trade, this former trucker and snowmobile champion is learning how to be a pilot.

“I like a challenge all the time,” McMahon said. “Many times, when you feel you’ve conquered a challenge, you feel you have to move on.”