On a farm outside Morgantown, a remarkable WVU alum spends long days making guns the old-fashioned way.
➼ Marvin Wotring still has the first gun he ever made. Recovering from a knee surgery in 1974 that left his leg confined from ankle to thigh for 11 weeks, Marvin was looking for something to occupy the new swath of free time he had. His wife chauffeured him—literally, because he could only sit in the backseat—to a vocational school in Kingwood, where he learned to make a muzzleloader. “This ignition system was invented 200 years before the Civil War. It’s the oldest one still in use,” he says as his fingers run over each detail of the rifle. The flint on the flintlock elicits a few half-hearted sparks before fizzling out.
The flint may have lost its spark, but Marvin hasn’t. After he built his first rifle in 1974, things moved quickly, and they’ve only continued to speed along as he’s now crafted more than 900 rifles. Growing up in Preston County, he always liked working with his hands. He experimented with woodworking and enjoyed shooting and hunting as recreational sports, so learning how to make rifles was the perfect culmination of his interests. Marvin is an alum of WVU’s agricultural education program and was working for the Department of Agriculture making rifles in his spare time when he showed his work at the Buckwheat Festival in 1976. It was then that Rick Poling, the alternate Mountaineer mascot at the time, saw Marvin’s efforts and hatched an idea. The Mountaineer’s rifle was in bad shape. An Italian-made muzzleloader, the gun had been broken into two pieces and cobbled together again with athletic tape. It took a host of tricks to get the gun to fire a shot. “They needed something else, and I liked the idea of doing something for the school,” Marvin says. “It wasn’t something I planned. It just happened.” Rick became the mascot the following year and was the first Mountaineer to use Marvin’s rifle.
Thirty-six years and 26 Mountaineer mascots later, Marvin is still the proud creator of the Mountaineer rifle. To date, he’s made more than a dozen for WVU’s mascot. A basic model requires about 80 hours of work from start to finish. “I like to do this, but I can only work so fast. There’s no assembly line. It’s just me and one task at a time,” Marvin says. That’s why if you called him today to request a rifle, it would take him five years to even begin making it. “I’m about 85 rifles behind,” he says. “But I let people know when I start making their rifles. Then I can give them an approximate date when it will be finished.”
Now retired, Marvin doesn’t really like to take time off from working in the gun shop behind his house, just outside of Morgantown. But you might find him taking a break to travel to 4-H camps across the state with the Mountaineer, talking about the history of his craft and the significance of the mascot. He keeps in touch with nearly every Mountaineer who has brandished one of his rifles. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of his long service to the university. “They’ve been fine folks, and it keeps me young,” he says. “If I associate with a bunch of old guys all the time, I’m going to be an old guy, too.”
written by Miriah Hamrick
photographed by Elizabeth Roth