Making His Case
Marvin Huey lives in Kansas City, on a typical mid-town street in a common 1930s-style bungalow that is characteristic of his neighborhood. Even Huey, himself, seems rather mid-America average: ex-Marine, 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, 50ish, soft-spoken.
But there is an uncommon side to this Norman Rockwell picture that would probably astonish his neighbors. Huey has distinguished himself like no other in the world by becoming a craftsman to presidents, kings and other assorted world aristocracy. His clientele are the rich and, sometimes, the famous.
Huey is the foremost maker of cases and trunks for shooting arms. The average cost of the firearm that goes into one of his cases is about $25,000. Nor will a Huey gun case come cheap. In fact, the typical hunter doesn't spend as much for a gun as Huey commands for one of his custom cases.
"If you've got a collectible gun," says Bob Lockett, a midwest gun dealer, "and it's not in a Huey case, then it's just another gun."
The process begins with the best possible materials. Ozark ash. Mahogany plywood. Solid brass. Ebony and horn. Rich, wool billiard felt or Ultrasuede. Four-ounce top-grain leather. These are the basics that go into world-class cases, but there are customers who prefer theirs a tad more custom.
One person had a case designed to look like a book. Another had Huey design a case for his .38-caliber pistol to look like a tiny coffin. The accompanying accessories were a small vial of holy water and silver bullets. The man explained that it was a vampire gun. There is a bidding war currently going on in Europe for the package.
"I guess the fanciest job I've done was for a .470 Purdey Nitro," Huey says. "I covered it in elephant hide."
But whether it's elephant hide or leather, ivory or horn, the materials are only part of the formula. It's the way Huey weaves his elements together that makes a case unique. Everything fits perfectly together.
"I started out repairing cases," he explains. "I'd have to take them apart to fix them and as a result I discovered how they were made."
Then, the finest cases were made by the English, but by closely studying the strengths and weaknesses of their methods Huey has been able to refine the trade even more.
"The English case makers usually work from templates of guns, not the actual guns themselves. Most of their cases are partitioned and, as a result, the fit does not have to be exact. But I wanted French fitting, where there are no partitions and the contours are followed exactly. I cut from the exact tracing of the gun that will go into the case. Using the actual gun is one of my secrets ... that and experience."
Almost all of his cases have French and English fittings. "Don't misunderstand, the English fitting isn't sloppy, it's just not as precise."
A closer look inside one of Huey's cases reveals his methods: accessories and custom-made tools usually contained within the French fitting with the actual gun resting snugly in either French or English partition fittings. There are also polished wood top partitions, a technique that hasn't been seen since the flintlock era in the late 18th century. A lot of customers also bring accessories to be fitted in and around their guns. Huey has designed schemes that include pocket watches, flasks, hunting knives and handcuffs.
Huey first makes his cuts in plywood, using a jigsaw to outline the gun, barrels or scopes. He then painstakingly lines the cutout with felt or Ultrasuede to form an exact inlay. This fit is so precise that before the gun settles into its berth, it is momentarily held up as the air oozes out around the bed. This interior then slips precisely into the case frame. The ensuing days are spent lining the lid, fitting hardware, polishing and lacquering. One of the final labors is placing brass plates with serial numbers on the outside.
Horace Greeley, Jr. owns case No. 284 (one of a dozen). The Sultan of Brunai has No. 366. Numbers 600, 648 and 707 belong to former president George Bush.
The story goes that the president first discovered Huey's handiwork when he was given a finely engraved over-and-under shotgun in the Oval Office. The famous shotgun manufacturer wanted to make sure its gun was properly presented so it spared no expense and commissioned the Kansas City case maker. But when company officials handed the package to the President, he removed the gun, put it aside and examined the case instead. Shortly thereafter, he ordered two more of the cases.
Huey has been building his world-class cases for about 18 years. He started out as a bank investigator before becoming a stained-glass artist and finally a case maker. "I left the bank in 1969, bought some bell bottoms and let my hair grow out," he says. "I always thought it would be great being an artist working upstairs in a studio. Then I just got to a point where I had done all the stained glass I wanted to do. And I knew I wouldn't ever be the best at it."
But he had no inclination, either, to become the best gun case maker in the world. "I just wanted to make good gun cases. I didn't know what the best was. At the time it was Bryants of London and they had been around since the 1700s so they had a little bit of a head start on me."
Because of the demand, there is a six-month wait for a custom case. But, with the help of Mike Sweaney, Huey creates a case a week on the average. Sweaney, who lives in southern Missouri, builds all the frames. "After I design the case, I send him the dimensions. When the case box is completed he sends it up to me and I get to work. I couldn't do it all myself at this point. Besides, Mike now does such a beautiful job that I couldn't touch his work. If I had to do his work, too, he'd have to give me lessons."
Such is the modest way in which Huey goes about his life's work. But often clients will personally fly to Kansas City in their private jets just to meet the man who has become so renowned at his craft. They bring him their prized possessions for exact measuring, such firearms as Parker, Purdey, Holland and Holland, Boss and Westly Richard.
Huey has handled the best and most expensive guns in history. In some instances, these antique and handmade guns are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He's reluctant to discuss his client list specifically. He respects their privacy, but more than that, it's just his aw-shucks nature.
"I work for some nice people who just happen to have some pretty nice guns," he says.
Can you imagine having a $25,000 Parker lying in a $100 case? Those who can afford such a rare shotgun can't. That's why they, and others who own such rare or valuable firearms, turn to Huey to design and build custom gun cases. Price, generally, is not much of a factor, especially if they've already shelled out the kind of money they have for the gun.
But what does a Huey go for? It depends. A basic shotgun case runs $1,250. A basic rifle case goes for $1,425. A basic pistol case is $1,050. But keep in mind that few gun collectors just settle for the basics, and there are considerable options, such as space for additional guns and barrels, cartridge boxes and cleaning kits, shoulder straps, padded outer canvas covers or whatever your imagination can come up with.