Taneytown Gunsmith, 82, Still Shoots From The Hip


October 24, 1990|By Marie V. Forbes

Myrle Devilbiss is not optimistic about the state of our world.

"Too many laws, too many crooks," the 82-year-old Taneytown gunsmith says, testily.

Devilbiss' major gripe is with the federal regulations that require permits to sell pistols and with the registration forms he must fill out for all firearms except antique weapons.

"What's gonna become of our country?" he asks. "It's something to think about.

"Before we had all these laws, they (his customers) came to me to buy their guns because they respected me. I used to sell 25 to 30 pistols every Saturday or Sunday. All I needed was the money. Now there are all these forms to fill out and a waiting period for the permit. The gun business is way off."

The gunsmith doesn't like the way business is conducted these days, either.

"Thirty years ago, a farmer would come in to buy a gun that cost, say, $69, and he'd only have $20 on him. I'd tell him, 'Go ahead and take the gun and bring me your furs or hides or pay me when you can.' You could trust them. People aren't honest like they used to be."

Although his primary occupation is farming, Devilbiss has sold guns, repaired guns, traded guns and collected guns for more than 40 years. In addition, he buys and cures furs for resale to tanneries.

"The fur and hide business has gone down the drain, too," he claims.

"That's due to the game laws. They let people hunt too early in the season.

Hunters can start taking foxes Nov. 1.

"At that time of year, the fox is doing too much running after food. To develop fur, he needs to rest. The season ends Jan. 1, just when it's prime time for furs. Same with coons and muskrats."

He also blames the fur trade's dropoff on animal activists who have made the wearing of furs unpopular.

"In both the U.S. and Europe that's affected the fur market considerably," he says. "Demand is way off."

The lowered demand for furs and hides has had a direct effect on local farmers who used to supplement their earnings with hunting and trapping fur-bearing animals.

"Nowadays, a fox pelt in prime condition brings $10 or $12," he says. "I can remember a time when a fur like that would have brought $70. Or you take back when I was a boy -- a muskrat fur would bring $1.65 and wages was only $1 a day."

Myrle Devilbiss conducts his business of gunsmithing and fur trading in a cluttered shed at the rear of the farmhouse where he lives. Although he says he no longer repairs guns, his worktable is littered with dismantled weapons in various states of repair.

Much of his business consists of the sale of guns or pistols that fire black powder. These weapons do not require permits or registration.

"You could kill somebody with one of them," he says, "but it would take you half an hour to load it."

Also on display are a number of antique weapons, the oldest of which is a 200-year-old Arabian black powder gun.

"An antique gun is any gun made before 1898 or a gun made after 1898 for which shells are no longer available," Devilbiss says.

The gun that invariably draws the most attention, however, is a Model 37 Winchester with a custom-made barrel that measures 66 inches in length.

"Myrle's Gun," as its owner refers to it, was "made for fun."

One day when he had nothing better to do, he created the odd-appearing weapon by threading two barrels together.

This unique firearm inevitably draws plenty of attention, with many people refusing to believe the gun is actually operable. Devilbiss quotes the following conversation between himself and a customer: "You got any money?"

"No . . . gave most of it to my wife."

"You bet?"

"Why not?"

"Bet you 10 bucks that I can put a 6-shot in there!"

It is obvious that Devilbiss gets a great deal of satisfaction out of meeting that challenge and proving that the gun can, indeed, perform.

In spite of his pessimistic views and some physical difficulties, the octogenarian shows little inclination to slow down his activities. On the day of our interview, he was in a hurry to get out to the field and begin the job of cutting corn for silage.

"Can't send a young man to cut corn," he tells me as he hurries off.

"He's no good."

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