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J. Earl Bridges brings quality gunsmithing to the county
J. Earl Bridges visits with business associate Tyson Stephens June 21 prior to the official opening of Bridges’ new gun shop in La Vernia.
LA VERNIA -- It’s a modest workshop, positioned in the rear of a small building. A carpet-lined bench meets a wall lined with pegboard. The tools of his trade hang on hooks before him. Hammers of varying shape and size, screwdrivers, pliers, punches, and a variety of other equipment fill his space. A simple black desk lamp protrudes from the wall, lending focused light to experienced eyes. A towel-wrapped vise sits ready to serve as an extra pair of hands, and a sack lunch remains untouched to the side. He hasn’t taken time to eat it yet.
The workshop may indeed be modest, but the quality of the products built within its confines is anything but. The shop belongs to J. Earl Bridges, and he is widely known as one of the country’s finest custom rifle builders. Bridges Rifle Company and Gunsmithing officially opened its doors June 1, but is far from J. Earl’s first rodeo. His resume touts nearly 30 years of gunsmithing experience.
Originally from the Texas coastal region, J. Earl dove headfirst into the firearms industry back in 1983 when he moved his wife, Charlene, and his two daughters to Colorado.
“I wanted to do something I would enjoy,” he said, speaking of his decision to attend the Colorado School of Trades to learn the skills of a gunsmith.
Finding a niche
J. Earl loved working with his hands and quickly discovered his niche. After graduation from the school of trades, he and his family moved to Kalispell, Mont., so he could work as an apprentice under Jerry Fisher, Don Klein, and D’Arcy Echols -- three of the country’s greatest rifle builders of the 20th century.
In the late 1980s, J. Earl discovered he had another love -- teaching. It eventually took him back to where it all started, the Colorado School of Trades, but this time as an instructor.
“I love teaching,” he said with a smile, seemingly reflecting back on happy memories. “I really wish I could teach today.
“I loved it,” he said, lifting his eyes.
That love for teaching prompted J. Earl and Charlene to open their own school -- the Colorado Gunsmithing Academy in Lamar, Colo. Students who attended the school learned at a full-time pace of 40 hours a week for 15 weeks.
Things were good.
J. Earl’s school began to attract students from all over the world, and many of his graduates found a great deal of professional success. His already-strong reputation in the firearms community continued to grow.
Unfortunately, though, disaster struck, and the life J. Earl and Charlene had worked so hard to build began to crumble down around them.
In April 1999, one of our nation’s greatest tragedies took place. Two high school students walked onto their campus armed with sawed-off 12-gauge shotguns and 9mm firearms. The duo fired nearly 200 rounds, killing 12 students and a teacher, and injuring another 21 before taking their own lives. It occurred just 200 miles from J. Earl’s academy. It is known as the Columbine High School massacre.
Following the atrocity, a vicious backlash was felt throughout the gun community. Despite all his best efforts, J. Earl’s school was not immune to its effect.
“People’s attitude toward firearms changed, and businesses took a hit,” J. Earl said. “It made a difference all across the country. Even the NRA convention was canceled.”
Suddenly, a future in firearms became questionable to many prospective students, and enrollment cancellations began to pour in. Several gunsmithing schools were forced to close their doors, and the Colorado Gunsmithing Academy was among them.
“We were bankrupt. Our whole life was in that school,” he said.
It was at this pivotal point that J. Earl and Charlene also made the difficult decision to get out of the firearms business. The couple sold what they could, moved back to Texas, and established a residence in El Campo. It turned out to be little more than a mailing address for the couple, though, as they took up team trucking, and hit the road for more than two years.
“It was all about paying back debt,” he said. “It was tough, but we were able to get back on our feet.”
The couple kept the big wheels rolling nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regularly logging more than 1,000 miles a day.
“Sometimes it would be 1,400 miles in a 24-hour period,” J. Earl said with a hint of a smile, giving away that his memories of the road weren’t all bad.
He went on to talk about how he really got to know his wife during that time, and said he could even tell her mood by the way she pulled back the curtain that separated the truck’s seats from its sleeping quarters.
“She is an amazing woman,” he said with another grin.
After driving their way out of debt, J. Earl reconnected with a former student of his, Dave Fuqua. By this time, however, Fuqua was the owner of Hill Country Rifles in New Braunfels, and he offered his old teacher a job building custom rifles. Both J. Earl and Charlene went to work at Hill Country Rifles, and their trucking career came to an end.
“My wife and I are eternally thankful to Dave,” he said. “He got us off the road.”
After building custom rifles for Fuqua for five years, J. Earl decided to once again strike out on his own. He began working in a shop at his home, and built rifles for customers from all over the world.
“If a delivery truck could get to me, I could do business,” he said. “I could send and receive parts and rifles right from my house.”
What’s in store
The opening of his new shop in La Vernia is actually the first time J. Earl has ever had a retail storefront, but he is looking forward to the challenges.
“I know most people my age are retired, but that’s not really on my mind,” he said. “I look forward to getting up and coming in every morning. I’m really excited about our new shop.”
J. Earl loves to meet new people, and believes that gun enthusiasts generally tend to be “pretty good people.”
“They are really just people who want to enjoy their freedoms,” he said, stopping himself before getting too political.
He said the shop will take on almost any project, and will handle all lines of general gunsmithing.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to stay open and take care of customers,” he said.
Together with the two additional gunsmiths he has working with him, J. Earl and company can work on everything from antiques and reproductions to bench rest rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, and AR-style rifles.
“Everyone that comes in is different,” he said. “I want to have something for everyone. I want to be able to help every customer I get.”
Focus on quality
Although they can fix nearly anything, building custom bolt-action rifles is still where J. Earl’s true passion lies after all these years.
“I can talk for weeks about how to make a rifle more accurate,” he said. “There are a hundred different things I can do to make it shoot better.
“One example is mounting a scope. It will take me two or three hours to mount a scope,” he said. “I lap the rings to make sure everything is perfectly straight and that it doesn’t bind the scope. I grind the screws to exactly the right length. A lot of people won’t go through all that effort, but it makes the rifle more accurate.”
For those who aren’t into really accurate rifles, or who are in need of other gunsmithing services, J. Earl is also happy to help with the buying and selling of firearms. There already has been a good turnover of used firearms at the shop, and he is happy to help customers with new guns, too. He also is well aware of the growing market for “black guns,” including AR-style rifles, and is working with some folks to offer a variety of those firearms to his customers, as well.
“I may not have the lowest price on everything, but I can be competitive, and can usually beat Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops,” he said.
“Not that I am trying to compete with Cabela’s,” he quickly added.
So while it is still a bit early to know exactly where this new road will take him, J. Earl is optimistic and excited to find out.
“So far, it’s been great,” he said.
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