MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Gunsmith Marvin Wotring, who built every muzzleloader used by the WVU Mountaineer mascot since 1977, died Sunday at his home in Morgantown.
He was 78 and spent more than half his life making West Virginia’s most iconic firearm.
“He was the nicest man I ever knew, and he never had a bad word for anybody,” said Shannon Lewis, president of the West Virginia Muzzleloaders Association. “When we would have our shoots he was always there and always willing to help people learn to shoot. If we had a kid who didn’t have a gun, he’d let them use his. He would fix their gun or whatever. He was just a really giving man.”
Wotring was a 1965 West Virginia University graduate and spent his career working for the United States Department of Agriculture. His gunsmith work took a serious turn upward after he retired, but the skills he developed much earlier in life. He was a skilled machinist and learned his craft during high school at the Preston County vocational school.
He not only made custom black powder rifles but was also a talented custom knife-maker.
“When my son was 6 years old, Marvin made him a rifle, a flintlock 45,” said long-time friend Mark Sellaro of Morgantown. “The kid still uses it today. I couldn’t tell you how many deer that thing has killed. We take it to Jake’s Day and the kids love to shoot it. “
Jake’s, the youth organization of the National Wild Turkey Federation, is just one of the organizations Wotring supported. He was a strong backer of the Friends of the NRA, the Preston County Buckwheat Festival, the West Virginia University Rifle Team, the Governor’s One Shot Hunt, and various other organizations and charities which supported shooting, youth, and outdoors education.
When West Virginia University eliminated the rifle team and reduced it to a club sport, Wotring was one of those who pressed hard for its reinstatement. As the team was forced into fending for itself with fundraising, Wotring made certain they had quality items to use for raffle and auctions to raise the necessary funds.
“He would donate a couple of rifles and a dozen knives for auction and raffle,” said Sellaro. “He’d do that every year and we’d make more on those during the wild game dinner than all of the fundraisers combined.”
Wotring built muzzleloaders for the Governor’s One Shot event, an annual fundraiser for Hunters Helping the Hungry. After the hunt the rifle would be auctioned off and often bring the most of any item.
“He would look over at me and ask why people were bidding so much on a rifle he built,” said Jerod Harman, president of the West Virginia Wildlife Federation.
“I told him, when he wanted to start donating rifles, ‘Marvin that’s too much,’” said Dave Truban, a past member of the West Virginia Natural Resources Commission. “He said, ‘All I have to give is my time and my talent and I want to do it.’”
Wotring was best known as “the man behind the musket.”
As the story goes, in 1977, Mountaineer Bruce Heisler had a problem with the rifle. Faced with an emergency, the university and Heisler called on Wotring at his Mountain Rifle Shop on Cobun Creek outside Morgantown.
The rifle at the time, made from a kit, was a foreign design. It was so poorly constructed parts couldn’t be located for the repairs. Wotring took it upon himself to make certain the mascot was equipped with a quality, American-made custom black powder rifle.
He has made them ever since and they have been passed down from one Mountaineer to another over the years. Replicas have long been highly sought by fans and WVU alumni. As part of the process to become the Mountaineer, everyone has been taken to Marvin’s shop after they were named to the position to learn the proper way to load, shoot, and care for the muzzleloader. All have become lifelong friends with Marvin.
“It was a rite of passage,” said current Mountaineer Trevor Kiess. “He was a quintessential Mountaineer. He had all kinds of pictures in his shop of himself and other Mountaineers and him on the field presenting them with the rifle. It really meant a lot to him you could tell.”
“I built this shop, so I could work my best on the rifles, and now they’re being passed down by different generations of Mountaineers. I enjoy that,” Wotring once said in an article about his work on the Mountaineer rifle. “It’s not just about rifles and buckskins and coonskin caps. I do feel connected to the Mountaineer and to WVU.”