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Melvin Forbes, Designer of the Famous Model 20 Mountain Rifle, Dies at 77

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Melvin Forbes, founder of Ultra Light Arms and a pioneer in the building of light rifles—and an NRA Publications Golden Bullseye Pioneer Award recipient—passed away at his home in Granville, W.Va., on June 5, 2024. He was 77 years old.

A native of the Mountain State, Melvin Forbes was born on Nov. 25, 1946 in Morgantown. After graduating from high school in 1965, he became a mold maker in the glass industry. As a young man with a lifelong interest in firearms, he also was a bit of a gunsmith, and started working part-time in that endeavor. He soon became an expert machinist. Eventually, he taught machining classes at the Monongalia County Vocational School.

In 1983 he quit his job as a high-school shop teacher to build rifles full-time. He had a vision of the most accurate, reliable bolt-action hunting rifle in the world, one that weighed less than 6 pounds. His vision became the Model 20, which he introduced at the 1985 SHOT Show. Soon Melvin’s rifles carried an incredibly well-earned reputation for pound-for-pound accuracy and reliability. They have been featured in the gun press as models of excellence ever since, and are sought after by sheep hunters and all alpine hunters worldwide.

In 1999 the success of Ultra Light Arms caught the interest of Colt, which purchased the company. Unfortunately, under Colt’s management Ultra Light Arms struggled, leading Forbes to buy it back a few years later. In 2012, Titan Machine purchased Ultra Light Arms from Forbes, but the brand again folded under new management. Forbes simply bought it back again. This time, he re-named it New Ultra Light Arms. Ten years later, in 2022, he sold his company one last time, to Wilson Combat, The revered maker of custom pistols and rifles today continues to build Forbes’ signature Model 20.

In 2011 NRA Publications recognized Melvin Forbes’ craftsmanship and at the annual exclusive presentation of its Golden Bullseye Awards recognized the old shop teacher as its Golden Bullseye Pioneer. Melvin Forbes “shook up the shooting and hunting world with his 5-pound rifles that shoot every bit as good as many twice that heavy,” said John Zent, then NRA Publications Editorial Director. “Other firearm manufacturers and gunsmiths paid attention, studied what this fellow was doing, and, to varying degrees, have copied his ideas.” Today, American hunters have embraced the ultra-lightweight hunting-rifle trend wholeheartedly, creating a demand for a specific category of hunting rig. “Nowadays,” said Zent, “there’s no shortage and many models to choose from, quite a few that are pretty darned good—but only one original, still being made by the man we honor today.”

As a former member of the Granville town council, Melvin Forbes was a leader in his community. As a long-time teacher, he recognized the need to foster gunsmithing skills, and with his family in 2023 established the Melvin Forbes Next Generation Scholarship at Montgomery Community College in North Carolina. The first scholarship will be awarded in this fall. Melvin Forbes was of course also an avid hunter and outdoorsman. He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Patricia, two children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.



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