Mel Chung, Gunsmith

Chung’s shop opens its doors for its first public show.

[Appeared in the Oct. 23, 2008 issue of The Molokai Dispatch]

By Catherine Cluett

Walking in the door of Mel Chung’s gunsmith shop presents every man’s dream: a selection of guns neatly displayed on the wall, along with gun accessories, tools and hunting supplies. It’s a Saturday morning, and the shop is attracting a good showing of Molokai men for Chung’s first gun show, featuring hunting shot guns. “I like to hang out at gun shops – who doesn’t?” asks one show go-er.

I laugh. It’s the first time I’ve stepped foot in one.

The right half of the room is Mrs. Chung’s beauty salon, with swiveling chairs draped in pink towels. Some might say it’s a contrast of the sexes at its best, but I soon learn the gun shop might be the dream of many women, too. “It’s not just men who come into the shop,” she explains with a smile. “Many women on Molokai have better aim than the men.”

I get sucked right in as Chung runs his fingers over the smooth walnut wood and intricately engraved metal of a Browning Auto-5. John Browning, the gun’s designer, was a Mormon from Utah around the turn of the 19th century who was a prolific gun designer, Chung says. The gun in my hands was made in the 1950’s, and the model was discontinued about ten years ago, he adds.

Next is a Winchester Model 12, a design last made in 1980. This one dates back to the 1930’s, Chung tells me. It’s a pump-action shot gun, and over 1.9 million of them were sold. “Winchester is like the Ford of guns,” he says. They were one of the largest gun manufacturers in the U.S., and were popular with everyone from bird hunters to military personnel.

Chung beams with pride as he shows me a gun his daughter rebuilt when she was 17 or 18 years old. It’s right on the wrack behind his desk, with his other highly-prized specimens. He points to an enlarged photo of his daughter on the wall. She’s leaning over a tool bench in the back, through a door he has discretely closed while the public roams the shop. The gun is crafted of shining black walnut, a customized sporting version of a Mauser military rifle. She has obviously grown up with a top-notch teacher.

Before replacing each gun to its resting place on the wall, Chung carefully sweeps clean its steel surfaces with a brush. “It’s important to clean a gun after even handling it,” he explains – especially after my inexperienced hands have left fingerprints all over the metal, instead of handling just the wooden surfaces.

Chung’s collection features a wide variety of gun types, and he says he collects them for their historic or operational value.

Both the gun business and gun-making have changed a lot in his 45 years of working on guns, Chung tells me. “There are a lot more legal requirements involved,” he explains. Chung is federally licensed to both sell and repair guns, Mrs. Chung assures me. Most of the guns in his collection aren’t manufactured anymore because the materials used today have changed to reflect economic demand.

“I get a lot of old guns that need refurbishing,” Chung says. “Sometimes it’s more expensive than buying a new gun, but it’s the sentimental value that often brings people in to have it fixed.”

Chung started the business in 1982, but has been working with guns since he was a teenager. His family has been living on Molokai for three generations, but he is the first to make a business of his interest in guns.

Chung has traveled all over the mainland for factory training in gun repair. He says his close connections with manufacturers around the country have gained him access to a lot of training not normally offered to civilians. Mrs. Chung says she has taken some of the courses, too.

Guns are more than a hobby for the Chung family; they represent a way of life that perpetuates a sustainable lifestyle of Molokai. “The business is important to support the subsistence hunting culture of the island,” says Mrs. Chung.

Chung offers such a full-service repair shop with services such as cleaning and inspection, parts supply, and repairs like metal refinishing, and barrel, sight and stock work. He also performs warrantee repairs. The gun show afforded people the opportunity to look at guns not normally displayed, ask questions, and become educated on a variety of gun-related subjects. Chung says the show also drew new people and created interest outside his normal clientele. I am glad to be one of them.

This was Chung’s first gun show open to the public, though he travels to Honolulu twice a year to participate in a gun show there. Chung says he plans to start having gun shows at his shop every month. Next month he will display his hunting rifle collection, and another month might feature French military weapons. He’ll keep us posted for updates.

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About Catherine Cluett

I'm a freelance journalist, editor and photographer on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
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