Faces in the Crowd – Bob Snapp

May 18, 2018

By Gene Bodnar

As an invitee to Bob Snapp’s 90th birthday party on April 21st at Cops & Donuts, I was surprised to find over 75 people in attendance.  Who is this man, I wondered, for I knew nothing about him, except that he would make an interesting candidate for this column, having lived most of his life in Clare.  I noticed that his birthday cake, a large blue and white single-tiered affair, did not contain 90 candles, probably because if it did, we wouldn’t have been able to see the cake.  Or perhaps the absence of candles eliminated the

A lucky invite brought Gene to meet Bob Snapp in this weeks Faces in the Crowd article.

A lucky invite brought Gene to meet Bob Snapp in this weeks Faces in the Crowd article.

need to put the Fire Department on standby.  As it turned out, I congratulated Bob by shaking his hand, wishing him a happy birthday, and asking him for an interview on the following Monday.  He agreed.

Bob was all smiles when we met that morning.  He immediately sat down at a large round table occupied by several people, where he was greeted by all, ready to join in the conversation.  Since it was not too easy to hear him at this table, with a bit of regret I asked if he would join me alone at a nearby table.

Bob was born in Marshall, Minnesota, where he lived for the first eight years of his childhood.  His father reached a point where he could not find a good job in Marshall, so he moved his family to Detroit, where he soon found decent employment.

Bob graduated from Cass Technical High School in Detroit, with a specialty in aeronautics.  At that time, Bob’s interest revolved around the study and design of air flight-capable machines, and the techniques of operating aircraft and rockets in the atmosphere.  He is quick to point out, however, that aeronautics was a secondary interest at this time; his primary interest, he said with a smile, was women.

All of Bob’s family members were big on hunting and fishing, so he developed that interest as well.  He also became a prolific reader.  Of course, he began developing an interest in guns, and one of the magazines he read avidly was “Field & Stream.”  In 1946, out of curiosity, he wrote a letter to the editor of that magazine, asking him what one had to do to become a gunsmith.  Surprisingly, the editor responded with a personal letter, explaining that the best school in the country on the topic was located in Trinidad, Colorado.

By this time, Bob’s enthusiasm knew no bounds, so off to Colorado he went.  He enrolled in the two-year program on gunsmith classes in a school with a campus similar to that of Mid-Michigan College.  His instruction was divided between classroom study and hand-on lab work.  His teacher was P. O. Ackley, who, in his time and even today, is recognized as the foremost gunsmith, barrel maker, author, columnist, and wildcat cartridge developer in the country.  The “Ackley Improved” family of wildcat cartridges are designed to be easily made by rechambering existing firearms, and fire-forming the ammunition to decrease body taper and increase shoulder angle, resulting in higher case capacity.

Bob recently celebrated his 90th birthday with a cake at Cops & Doughnuts.

Bob recently celebrated his 90th birthday with a cake at Cops & Doughnuts.

Of course, Bob excelled at his studies.  After finishing the program, Bob returned home to Detroit, where he set up shop in his parents’ home.  Among his tools were a large 2-inch-thick oak bench and a vise, both of which he still has today.

He soon bought a home in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, where he set up shop in the basement of the home and plied his gunsmith trade for the next 15 years.  He acquired new business by advertising in gun magazines.  As his skills and reputation continued to grow, so did his business, so much so that a customer would have to wait up to a year for a special order to be filled.

In the early part of his career, his really big interest, he said with a smile, still revolved around women.  Eventually, he met “the most gorgeous woman alive.” Known as Lee, he courted her, and she soon agreed to become his wife. Married for nearly four decades, they produced five children, three girls and two boys.  Lee passed away about 20 years ago, and Bob still says, “She is the greatest human being I’ve ever known.”

In 1967, the Detroit riots created a certain amount of tension and fear for Bob’s business, mainly because looters would be most interested in guns.    Furthermore, Bob needed someplace where he could test his newly designed guns without driving 20 or 30 miles to a target range.  Therefore, he and his wife began house-shopping for a home in a more suitable area.

They looked at dozens of places.  Finally, in late 1969, a real estate agent in Clare showed them a place on 3 or 4 acres of land, with a river on one side and a road on the other, a very private location.  Its biggest selling point for Bob, however, was its huge 5-car garage, which Bob immediately envisioned as his new gunsmith workshop (“machine shop,” as Bob says).  They bought the place, and this is where Bob worked for the next 30+ years.

Bob is careful to point out that he only builds “custom built” guns.  He takes the word “customer” quite seriously, dividing it into “custom” and “-er.”  First, he sells custom ideas to his client, then builds – not the other way around.  His client determines every feature of the gun, including its bore, the length of the barrel, the type of stock, and so forth.
Although Bob has done some checkering on gun stocks, he concentrates his efforts on metalworking.  When the client has been sold on every point of his custom-made gun, only then does Bob begin to build.  Bob’s specialty, especially near the end of his career, was single-shot guns.

I asked Bob if he ever hired employees to work for him, especially on occasions where he was backlogged.  He answered, “No, the only person to ever enter my machine shop was my wife, and that was to regularly bring me a bowl of ice cream in mid-afternoon.”

Today, Bob is an inactive member of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild, which is headquartered in Monument, Colorado, but he is quick to assert that he has been a very active member for most of his life.  It is an organization dedicated to the advancement of the art and science of custom gunmaking.  Currently, there are only 99 registered members in the entire country.  In past years, Bob distinguished himself as being its president for a couple of years.  At another time, he was also its secretary, and he has also been on its board of directors.

Bob says he is independent today, as he has been for most of his life.  Nowaday he lives alone and never sets an alarm clock.  Nearly every morning, he can be found at Cops & Donuts, sitting at a round table and enjoying the camaraderie of others.

I asked Bob what other interests he had today.  Without missing a beat, he responded, “Women,” with his usual smile.  Although he admits that he no longer dates them, he never fails to greet them and exchange a few words, always with that big smile.  In fact, our interview was interrupted a couple of times by such greetings, and all the ladies obviously know him.

Thus, you can see that Bob is not “old” – he’s just been around a long time.  Someone once said that the secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing our enthusiasm.  This fits Bob Snapp to a T.

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