By Richard Dean
Some sons are unwilling to follow their father’s footsteps.
Humphrey T. Gilbert III is unlike such sons. Both in name and in action.
Every morning when he opens the Gilbert Gun Exchange, he follows the footsteps of not only his father, but his grandfather as well.
For Gilbert, learning the business was, as much as anything else, an exercise in observation.
“There was no school,” Gilbert said. “It was much more ‘watch and learn’.”
Serving the Chippewa Valley since 1952, the Gilbert Gun Exchange is a third generation family owned and operated business located in downtown Elk Mound, Wisconsin, amid small houses and old growth maple and oak trees. Humphrey T. Gilbert III, 41, who goes by Tom, is the current owner and proprietor.
The shop specializes in military style AR rifles and .45 caliber pistols, but buys, sells, trades and repairs all new and used firearms. But Gilbert believes that his services go far beyond even that wide range and feels that the counsel he provides those with only a passing knowledge in firearms is an important service.
“Guns, and what goes in them and on them,” Gilbert explained. “Gunsmithing, custom work… you name it. Advice, whether you ask for it or not, and an opinion, definitely, if you ask for it or not.”
The current shop, which in a strange twist of fate survived a collision with a tractor-trailer carrying a load of cow manure in 1937, is presently housed in a former bank building that is over 100 years old.
The oddest? No.
The shop started out in a chicken coop.
It was the coop belonging to Humphrey T. Gilbert, Tom’s grandfather, who besides being a gun shop owner and butcher, was the town of Elk Mound’s first constable.
The counters in the current shop are a remnant of grandpa Gilbert’s life as a butcher, coming from his butcher shop and making the shop eerily reminiscent of a deli out of a Twilight Zone episode, albeit one selling handguns instead of hams.
Before ending up in the hands of the current Gilbert, Tom’s father, Humphrey T. Gilbert Jr., ran the place. He gained ownership upon his father’s death in 1999. Gilbert Jr. was a professor of metallurgy for 30 years at the University of Wisconsin – Stout. The younger Gilbert considers him a genius with metals.
“Dad is master of metal finishes and wooden stocks,” Gilbert said. “You could give him a sheet of silver and a hammer and he could produce a decanter so fine – you couldn’t find a seam.”
Today, the youngest Gilbert runs the gun shop mostly alone, with grandpa long gone and dad mainly providing assistance only in some particularly detailed work. He admits that his favorite part of the job isn’t necessarily the guns themselves but instead providing guidance to people on firearms.
“Definitely the preaching,” Gilbert confesses when asked about the most satisfying aspect of his work. “When I can see that ‘I got somebody’, when I can see that I chipped away at whatever wall they had up or whatever perception they had and changed it a little bit.”
Additionally, Gilbert sees himself as a less of a gunsmith and more of a bartender at times, giving light advice to various young men who might be going through something tough. Often he goes home feeling that he changed some people’s perceptions for the better. Gilbert’s customers agreed that the advice they received might have prevented various missteps.
“Tom tapped the receiver of my bolt-action rifle saying ‘plastic, plastic, plastic,’” recounted Phil Schladweiler of Eau Claire. “He did it to show me that my rifle might not hold up to hard use.”
Another patron ran afoul of Gilbert’s penchant for choosing equipment made within the United States.
“Tom told me that the scope I was considering was made by someone without shoes getting paid $30 a week,” said Jake Johnson of Eau Claire. “The one he recommended was made by a guy making 30 bucks an hour… and likely better built.”
Gilbert knows that guns are divisive, especially in today’s climate, but has firm and fixed opinions on the matter.
“A gun is not evil,” Gilbert said. “Its just a machine: a collection of parts designed to come together for some purpose. There are no ghosts in the machine.”
Gilbert is not sure whether the gun shop will be passed to a fourth generation. He has two daughters who have some interest in shooting sports but their curiosity may fall short of taking over the business. But Gilbert knows what he would like to see for himself in the future.
“A consulting job would be a good fit,” Gilbert says with a smile. “I need a bigger soapbox.”