Carl “Bill” Morrison shuffles slowly, purposefully working his way around his cluttered Bradford workshop, looking for something.
Morrison skirts a rack full of gunstocks, dodges an oily pile of raw steel, sticks one burly paw into a well-worn cardboard box, and pulls out an unidentifiable gun part.
Unidentifiable to you. To Morrison, the part isn’t just identifiable. It’s special.
To the 84-year-old gunsmith, it may be a collectible, or a historic artifact or, at the very least, the jumping-off point for yet another meandering (and likely hilarious) story.
Bill Morrison is among the most skilled gunsmiths in the region, or the state, or the nation (depending on whom you talk to and how many guns your source has had repaired by the local legend).
Ever since 1940 – except for that time back in ’58 when he decided a month’s vacation might be a good idea – Morrison has opened for business every day, and often ended up working late into the night.
Or so he says.
“She’s been nothing but eight days a week for a little over 65 years,” Morrison said, grinning mischievously. “Day and night.”
As you’ll quickly learn, Morrison is known far and wide for two things. One is his skill as a gunsmith. The other is his stories. Long stories. Funny stories. Sad stories. And many stories far too salty for these pages.
“He can swear for 20 minutes and never repeat the same word,” said Don DeLuck of Bangor, a longtime customer and friend. “He’s also the best storyteller I’ve ever heard in my life. My wife could never understand why I could spend so much time out there and get home so late, until she went with me.”
Trips to his shop are typically, theoretically, gun-related. But as his customers and admirers will tell you, spending just a brief moment with the man is nearly impossible.
It’s not Bill’s fault. Not really.
It’s just those darned stories.
Getting an early start
“You know how big I was when I fired my first gun? Huh?” Morrison asked, leaning on a counter at the front of his shop. “I was a little over 2 years old, believe it or not. And believe it or not, and you won’t, I fired a .30-06 from a cork-stopper gun.”
That’s the first line from Morrison’s first story of the night. And as he expected, he already has you hooked.
When you leave is no longer up to you. It’s up to the storyteller.
Morrison’s mother was busy ironing that day, and the budding gun enthusiast occupied himself lining up paper soldiers and shooting at them with a cork.
“But the cork stoppers weren’t too rugged, and I looked around,” he said.
What he found was some of his father’s old ammunition that he had brought home after World War I. That, Morrison decided, would be just perfect.
“Being quite active, I muckled some of that,” he said. “You’d stick ’em in the old popgun, tip it up, and Christ, you could blow them damn things right over if you whacked ’em pretty good.”
After a week or so of happy plinking, Morrison was in for a surprise.
“That morning I stoked her up and let her go and there was the most hellacious pop,” he said.
The spring that propelled the stopper – or the .30-06 shell – had finally agitated the ammunition enough to set it off.
“The damn bullet went up and struck the ceiling and knocked plaster down all over the place, and my mother of course let out the most ungodly scream you’ve ever heard in your life,” he said.
Then Morrison did the only thing he could think of: He ran under the dining room table, grabbed a table leg, and hid.
“I thought it looked like a pretty good place,” he said.
Eventually, after his parents calmed down a bit, Morrison skulked from his hiding space to receive his punishment.
But the worst was yet to come: He looked at his toy gun and found it had been destroyed.
“It ruined my popgun. It opened the thing right up so she was flat,” he said, pausing for a beat.
The punch line, of course, was left to his audience, and they obliged.
“Did you fix it?”
“I didn’t,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling.
Customers keep coming back
Bill McLeod owns Buyers in Holden and has been taking guns to Morrison since the late 1960s. He offers a glowing, if not uncommon, assessment of the man’s skills.
“He’s probably the finest gunsmith on the East Coast of the United States,” McLeod said. “Bill is pretty much one of the few geniuses in the gun business. He really knows his stuff.”
While some prefer to work in pristine surroundings, Morrison’s shop is a bit more, well, lived-in.
“You go in and look at it and it doesn’t inspire confidence, because there’s a light coat of oily dust over everything, and it doesn’t look like anything is where it is [supposed to be],” McLeod said. “But he knows where everything is.”
DeLuck has spent as much time as most in the shop and chuckles when he thinks about the scene that first-timers find.
“He’s got every chain saw ever made piled up in the corner. He can destroy anything, including an anvil. The man’s brutal on equipment,” DeLuck said. “But he can also take everything apart, put it back together, make parts, do anything. Real intricate, small stuff.”
John Simpson of Bangor has known Morrison for close to 40 years and recently returned to the shop to share a story with the storyteller.
Simpson hadn’t seen Morrison for some time, and after visiting him, he decided to go shoot one of his rifles with a Morrison-made barrel.
“I hadn’t shot it for several years,” he said, explaining that he took the rifle to a range, sighted it in with a random box of ammunition, then settled in to see how accurate it was – or wasn’t.
“The eight rounds made one ragged hole that you could cover up with your thumb,” Simpson said.
Simpson quickly decided to take the target back to Morrison and tell him the story.
“He was so very pleased,” Simpson said. “He said he’d built so many rifles up, and the only time he heard about it was when there were problems.”
And when people have problems, they take them to Morrison and find solutions.
“I think that he is probably one of the most knowledgeable experts on firearms, certainly in this state, and probably in the country,” Simpson said. “He just has an amazing memory, and it’s all he’s done since he was a kid.”
And that’s another story Bill Morrison should tell.
Starting in the gun business
Bill Morrison was young – and he was a gun nut. For that, he had his uncle to blame.
“Old Uncle Ernie Wentworth had a gun shop at 500 French Street, where the famous St. Joseph’s [hospital] has a fine parking lot now,” Morrison said.
When Morrison gets rolling, he adds his favorite words to the verbal melange. People become “old” Uncle Ernie, or “the great” John Doe. Hospitals become “famous” St. Joseph. And as the words are added, the tales gather speed.
“[My uncle] was doing work for Wight’s [Sporting Goods store],” Morrison said. “They had a rack there, right next to the door, that was full of guns, some of them pretty nice guns. Old Arnold Webster ran the place.”
Old guns, yes. But they were also old, broken guns.
“”I said, ‘What the hell, Arnold, why aren’t those guns fixed?'” Morrison recounted. “He said, ‘They can’t be fixed.'”
Webster employed a man renowned as the best gunsmith in town, Morrison recalled. The thought was, if a respected craftsman didn’t want to mess with the guns, they shouldn’t be messed with.
That, of course, was a challenge. Morrison took a handful of guns, promising to repair them.
“That was in the spring of the year. Before hunting season rolled around, I had repaired all of them,” Morrison said.
This time, he saved the punch line for himself.
“I was 15 years old,” he said.
Morrison as expert witness
Over the past 65 years, plenty of people have gone to Morrison with their gun questions and problems. Most are gun enthusiasts.
But not all.
“He’s helped the police on a couple of cases they couldn’t break,” McLeod said, recounting the tale of a 1964 double murder in Bangor.
In that case, McLeod says (and published reports verify), Morrison was able to determine the murder weapon based on fragments of evidence left at the scene.
When police asked the gunsmith whether he could build a similar shotgun that they could use to try to fool a potential suspect, Morrison did just that.
According to Bangor Daily News coverage of the trial, Morrison’s mock-up was perfect.
The murderer’s response upon seeing Morrison’s work: “Where’d you get my gun?”
Three men were convicted and sent to prison, and the Morrison legend grew.
Stories, stories, stories
Eventually, a visit to Morrison’s shop becomes less about guns than it is about history, or about different ways an adventurous youth can get in trouble in the Maine woods.
The stories roll on, one into the next, and the next, and the next.
The hours progress, and that gun barrel that Morrison was building when you arrived still sits, unfinished.
You hear about the heifer that choked on a potato when Bill was out hunting (instead of taking care of the milking, as he was supposed to have done). You hear about adventures in the “famous” Model A Ford and its dollar tires (with the 35-cent inner tubes), which always seemed to blow when Bill needed to get somewhere quickly, after doing something he’d been forbidden to do. You hear about the Brady Gang, and the machine gun Morrison picked up a few years after they were shot dead on the streets of Bangor.
And eventually, you hear about his vacation. His one vacation. The one that nearly knocked him out of the gun business altogether.
Bill Morrison won’t readily tell you, but he was a tremendous marksman as a younger man. In 1958, he decided to head to Camp Perry in Ohio for the annual shooting competition and see how he stacked up.
“I went just exactly one year,” Morrison said. “The only vacation I ever had in my entire life. I was gone a month, won eight medals, which I think is considerably more than anyone I know of, period, from this part of the country.”
Then he returned and found that rival gunsmiths had told customers he’d gone out of business.
So much for taking vacations.
And so much for retiring.
All of his working life, Bill Morrison has been a gunsmith. And that’s what he’ll continue to be, he says.
“Oh, I’ll retire all right,” Morrison said, rubbing a hand across his chin and preparing for one last punch line. “They’ve got a box out there, somewhere, I think.”