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Natchez-native shows replica guns at Historic Jefferson College

Matt Avance, the owner of Tennessee Valley Muzzleloading, replicates early U.S. weapons, including the rifles seen at right. (Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Stephen O’Dell was a gunsmith in Natchez during the mid-1800s. His life ended in tragedy when he was murdered in his bed in 1862, but thanks to Natchez-native Matt Avance, O’Dell’s guns, along with many others, still live on today.

Avance started recreating early American weapons a quarter century ago, and Saturday he displayed some of his work at Historic Jefferson College.

Avance’s work features weapons that date back to the American Revolution, but he said recreating O’Dell’s rifle was one of his favorite ventures.

“It’s one of my favorites because it was a local gunsmith, and it had some history that you could actually see,” Avance said.

Avance and his wife Toni both had a life-long love for history, and both had interest in recreating historical artifacts — Matt works with weapons, and Toni recreates historical garments.

The couple started their business from modest beginnings in 2000.

“We actually started the business just the two of us,” Toni said. “The first orders we took in our living room floor.”

Matt built the guns, while Toni took care of running the business.

“I wore all the hats except for gun builder,” she said.

From there the couple turned their love for making history tangible into a successful business venture. Matt said he has sold recreated weapons for as much as $3,500.

He said the company got a big boom in 2001 when one of his works appeared in an April NRA publication.

The rifle on the left was an original rifle built 150 years ago by Natchez-native gunsmith, Stephen O’Dell. The two guns on the center and right were replicas of the original built by Avance. (Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

“We were at a show in Alabama when the magazine came out,” Matt said. “The phone rang constantly. Everybody saw the rifle in the magazine and wanted one of those guns.”

Matt said that was the most difficult experience in his long career of recreating weapons, because they only had four people trying to build all those guns.

Matt said the process of building a replica can be tedious, and it usually takes him between 80 and 120 hours for each weapon.

But after 25 years the process has become second nature to Matt, he said.

“It’s not brain surgery once you get the right tools and learn what to do,” he said.

Toni said she enjoys reproducing historical clothing and weapons, because it allows people to see history.

“You’re taking something that’s very old and recreating it so people can see that history did exist,” Toni said.

Toni is an historian at Historic Jefferson College, and she said a love for history brought her and Matt together, and that love for history is something that they share with their community of history buffs.

“People that like history tend to gravitate toward one another,” Toni said.

Approximately 20 history lovers made their way to Historic Jefferson College to see Matt’s work Saturday.

The couple used to travel all over the country showing and selling their weapons, but now they have settled down back home in Natchez, and Matt said he hopes to continue to show his collection to smaller crowds like the one Saturday.

Matt’s collection Saturday featured four different styles of rifles from the American Revolution along with O’Dell’s rifle and two replica pistols fashioned after another of O’Dell’s designs.