Southern Narratives

Aiming for Perfection

From across the distance of a South Carolina soybean field, Kenny Jarrett set his sights on changing the face of the American hunting rifle.

There is not much chance of running across Jackson, South Carolina, while on the way to somewhere else, and there is even less possibility of stumbling upon the log cabin office of Jarrett Rifles, located down a narrow road even farther off the beaten path. But once you’ve found your way down the tree-lined dirt road, a sign reassures that this is indeed the home of the rifle known around the world for its unparalleled construction and accuracy. For the serious gun enthusiast, it’s like reaching the Promised Land.

The big yellow labrador in the parking area seems unaware of the hallowed ground beneath him, though he looks visitors over with great care before deeming them worthy to move toward the door. Inside, the pungent perfume of machine oil scents the air. Rissa Jarrett’s greeting carries the soft twang of rural South Carolina—“Y’all come on in. I don’t know where Daddy has gotten off to,” the office manager says, shaking her head, “but I know he’s around here somewhere.”

While she tracks down the misplaced gunsmith, the walls themselves present a preview of the man whose name is over the door, offering glimpses of a fierce competitor and a loyal friend. From mounted frames, the likes of General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf, Dale Earnhardt and Hank Williams, Jr. smile over their signatures and messages of friendship and gratitude. Behind the desk, row after row of sharp shooter patches line up to acknowledge the prowess of the recipient, and various plaques and awards rest on file cabinets and side tables. This office obviously belongs to someone very good at what he does.

The door opens to a bearded man in a baseball cap, jeans and suspenders, with a plug of tobacco snugged in his cheek. The yellow dog at his heels gives one more suspicious sniff before settling to the floor, as Kenny Jarrett throws his hand out in greeting. One might not immediately peg the affable, ruddy-faced man as international rifle-making royalty, whose name is spoken with awe in shooting circles. Hailed as “one of the most influential rifle designers of the 20th century,” by sportsman and publications alike, Jarret looks more like a farmer than the artist he so clearly is. Indeed, in his early years, he farmed the 10,000-acre Cowden Plantation on which his workshop sits. Dedicated to the conservation and management of wild game in their natural habitat, the tract of land has been home to his family for several generations—and to Jarrett Rifles since 1979.

Jarrett grew up in the swamps amidst the massive cypress trees, with a deep love of the land, its history instilled in him by his grandmother and uncle.  His almost-photographic memory and vast knowledge of the area’s prehistoric, Native American and Civil War history is exhibited in an impressive two-story museum he built on the property where he exhibits a remarkable collection of Smithsonian-worthy artifacts. Had he followed this path, his combination of wit and expertise would have undoubtedly earned him an equally large following of admirers—and probably his own series on the History Channel.

Like many rural youngsters, Jarrett learned to shoot a rifle at a young age. He was a natural at the sport, and once he started shooting competitively, he punched six world-record winning shots in bench shooting competitions throughout the years. It was the combination of his appreciation for accuracy and his love of hunting that came together to fuel his dream of creating the world’s most accurate hunting rifle.

He became increasingly frustrated with the actions of factory-built rifles. They were rough and often had barrels that were grooved or pitted. And it seemed that regardless at which end he sat when hunting over the vast soybean fields of Cowden Plantation, the deer inevitably stepped out at the other end, which was over 600 yards away. There was no rifle on the market at the time that could guarantee accuracy at that distance. Certain that he could build a rifle capable of providing both, Jarrett took on the challenge.

He began reworking customers’ existing rifles to make them more accurate, using pieces and parts from other manufacturers, but it was not long before he realized he would never be truly happy until he could manufacture a gun of his own design.

He studied with experts in the field to learn barrel-making and the ins-and-outs of bolt actions. He knew what he wanted in a rifle, and set out to make it a reality. It was tedious, expensive work, but for a perfectionist like Jarrett, nothing else was acceptable. But who would be willing to pay the kind of prices he would need to charge for a rifle like this?

He quickly found out there were those willing and able when he took a friend out to shoot the first Beanfield Rifle he built. The friend made one shot, took out his checkbook on the spot and said, “Name your price. I’ve been waiting my whole life for a rifle like this.”

As he perfected his craft, Jarrett’s workshop grew, eventually expanding to nine employees and a 6,000 square foot space holding machinery that defies comprehension to a layman, but renders those in the industry weak in the knees. And though he never had any formal training as a machinist, when he needed tools that did not yet exist, he simply designed and built them himself.

The company’s production manager, Jarrett’s eldest son, Jay, oversees the day to day operations of the company. Only the triggers and scope rings of their rifles are now produced elsewhere.

Indeed a family enterprise, each member plays a part to ensure that the product bearing their name lives up to its reputation. Cain, the youngest of Jarrett’s three children, is the barrel maker, and the stainless steel cylinders he produces boast smooth-as-glass surfaces.  They are a signature element in all Jarrett Rifles, each hand-lapped with over 1,100 strokes of a steel rod to achieve the level of quality the company demands. A barrel sawed into two pieces hangs on the wall of the shop as a reminder of what happens to any barrel that falls short.

In serious shooting circles, the Jarrett name inevitably arises, and when it does, grown men become as wistful as little boys in a toy store. Each rifle is broken in before it leaves the shop and is fired at least 150 times to ensure a smooth action and the matchless precision that has given Jarrett his much-deserved standing in the shooting community. The client also receives the actual target used to test their rifle. Each wears a grouping of the last three shots fired­—three shots that easily fit inside the diameter of a quarter, and most, within that of a dime.

Unless special engraving is to be done, the custom rifle is delivered into the hands of the client within ninety days of ordering­—along with a Murray leather sling, twenty rounds of custom loaded ammo and Jarrett’s guarantee that if they don’t like it, they can return it for a full refund. “We’ve only gotten two back, and one of those was returned simply to keep it out of a divorce settlement,” he chuckles.

To date, over 4,800 rifles have been custom built for clients across the country and around the world. A Jarrett Rifle can run anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, and Kenny is personally committed to making each one worth the price.  “I’m a Christian, and I’m also a Gideon,” he explains, referring to the group of international businessmen dedicated to personally spreading the gospel of Christ, and best-known for distributing Bibles. “It is important to me to be honest and to give people the value they pay for.”

Rissa reports that it has been a good week, with orders placed for three custom guns. The process begins anew in the log cabin on Cowden Plantation. Machines will whir to life, and receivers, stocks and barrels will be honed to within 1/10th of 1/1000th of flawless precision­—all in the hope of making someone’s sportsman dreams come true.

In his life and his work, it is clear Jarrett aims for perfection. If the past is any indicator, he’ll continue to hit the target every time.

By Susan Frampton