Darlington Gun Works marks 40th Anniversary

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, slyles@newsandpress.net

It’s a rare person who discovers their life’s calling at the age of 12, but master gunsmith Jim Kelly has been crafting and restoring firearms since childhood, and the hunters and gun owners of Darlington County have benefited greatly from his expertise.

Master gunsmith Jim Kelly and the staff of Darlington Gun Works are celebrating 40 years in business.
Photo by Samantha Lyles

As the owner and operator of Darlington Gun Works, Kelly has been restoring, repairing, and customizing shotguns, rifles, and pistols for customers – both local and nationally – for forty years.

Kelly already had a grounding in gunsmithing when he joined the U.S. Air Force in the late 1950s, but his work as an armorer while stationed in France – a country where gunsmiths participated in a nationally regulated apprenticeship and certification program – led him to broaden and deepen his skill set to the highest degree. While many modern gunsmiths specialize in one field, like engraving, finishing, or custom building, Kelly can do it all.

After returning from France, Kelly became a banker with C&S Bank and worked there for more than 30 years until his retirement, but he never stopped moonlighting as a gunsmith. In 1969, He teamed with Buck Henry Sellars and started a gun shop (Southern Gun Works) across from the Darlington Raceway. Kelly spun off Darlington Gun Works in 1977 and set a standard of excellence that has made him one of the most sought after gun craftsmen in America.

He is famous for his efforts to restore old guns with the highest possible degree of historical accuracy, and this sometimes requires Kelly to fabricate anything from a cheek plate to a trigger from scratch.
“One facet of doing this kind of work is that if you can’t get a part, you have to make it,” says Kelly.
Replicating nuanced and distinctive metal finishes is made a little trickier by the fact that Kelly is colorblind, though he’s found a way to work around that obstacle.

“I can look at the colors and tell them apart by their intensity,” he says, eyeing up a current piece of work – a Fox shotgun piece swirled through with blues and greens. “For instance, I can look at this and tell that this is blue and this is green because the intensity of the color varies.”

Over the years, Kelly has had a few brushes with exceptionally rare guns. One of these, a CHE grade 20 gauge Parker shotgun, entered the shop in 2003 as a pile of rusted parts tucked inside a blue Maxwell House coffee can. After purchasing the parts, Jim stashed them in the shop and forgot about them for several months. When he finally found the time to research the gun, he discovered it was a special order piece – hammerless, with 24-inch barrels – and was literally one of a kind.

With rigorous attention to detail, Kelly rebuilt the gun to its original specs and the “Coffee Can Parker” has become one of his favorite showpieces.

He had a brief encounter with another legendary gun, the Super-Fox magnum 12 gauge specially built for famed outdoorsman and author Nash Buckingham. This gun was so beloved it actually had a name: Buckingham called it “Bo Whoop,” due to the distinctive holler it gave out when fired across a pond. The gun was lost on a duck-hunting trip in 1948 and remained missing for 57 years, until a fellow walked into Darlington Gun Works and asked about replacing the stock on a shotgun he inherited from his grandfather.
“In 2005, it walked through my door,” Kelly recalls. “The guy who had it didn’t know what it was, but time I saw it, the way it was engraved and everything, I knew what it was. I proceeded to tell him, and then I proceeded to try and buy it from him.”

Kelly offered $20,000. The gentleman stepped back, startled, and refused the offer. He later auctioned “Bo Whoop” for the princely sum of $212,000. Kelly just gives a grin and good-natured shrug at the memory of the one that got away.

Though recent health issues have kept him away from the shop, Kelly is recovering well and is back in his favorite spot: at his workbench, reviving treasured heirloom guns and preserving them for future generations. Asked if he plans to retire at some point, Kelly shakes his head and scoffs.

“Never. Never. They’ll probably come in here some morning and find me leaned over at the bench,” he says. “I still love what I do and I’ll keep doing it so long as I can.”

Be sure to stop by for a visit when Darlington Gun Works celebrates their 40th anniversary on Saturday, October 7 from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. They are located at 516 South Governor Williams Hwy in Darlington. Phone 843-393-3931

Author: Duane Childers

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