PART II: THE TRADITIONAL RIFLE
I realize that everything I am about to say is open to debate and that there are exceptions to every generalization. I’m not going to document everything I say. I’m sure Andy would love to engage in that conversation with anyone who wishes to site opposing sources. He, after all is the company historian. I’m just going to tell you that I’ve been doing this stuff for a while and my experience has convinced me that the following generalizations apply fairly well.
Generally speaking, the frontiersman’s rifle was longer than the typical off-the-shelf replicas available today. The period of the old rifle really doesn’t matter that much. Old muzzleloaders usually had barrel lengths between 36 and 44 inches with 40” being just about right. I certainly have seen original short barreled Hawkens and other short half stocked rifles but generally speaking, even they have longer and heavier barrels than, say, a Thompson Center. At first, original rifles feel awkward and barrel heavy to shooters accustomed to modern firearms. Learning how to carry and maneuver a rifle with authentic weight and balance takes some practice. Modern custom builders are usually pretty good about getting the barrel lengths right.
Sights on old rifles were aggravatingly low and heat mirage was a constant problem. I don’t understand why early shooters tolerated this defect or how they effectively compensated for it but very low sights were in vogue from the flintlock period to the late 1800s. By low, I mean not much higher than a shotgun bead. A ¼ inch tall front sight blade is too high for virtually any frontier period civilian rifle. The most common mistake made by modern custom builders is having sights that are too high. Tall sights detract from the overall grace and geometry of a rifle. Undoubtedly they provide for more accurate shooting, but they are not authentic.
Neither are adjustable sights. There are a few exceptions, but generally, old muzzle loaders had fixed sights. Covered sights and adjustable tang peep sights did exist and evidence for them is found surprisingly often on old guns. I am also surprised by the number of original rifles I have personally handled that had ivory or bone front sight blades for better visibility. But again, these sight blades were generally very low.
Keep in mind that a modern Winchester adjustable elevation rear sight or Lyman peep sight may have been installed on an original muzzle loader for later period shooting. Such sights are authentic for the early 20th century but not for the frontier period.
Ramrods sure weren’t made out of fiberglass. Oh, I’ve heard all the horror stories about how a wooden ramrod’s gonna break off and impale your hand with the ragged, splintery end. Heard the stories, never seen it happen. I’m sure it did, but I’ve never seen that in forty years of shooting old guns. I broke a ramrod – once. Just about every buckskinner I know has broken a ramrod – once.
If you’re regularly breaking wooden ramrods and need one made of fiberglass, then there’s something wrong with the way you load. Usually shooters break ramrods because they grip the rod too far from the muzzle. Push the ball down with short strokes, no more than eight inches at a time.
About half of my old rifles still have their original ramrods (though some may be period replacements). There certainly are references in the literature to plainsmen cutting hickory for replacement ramrods. That sounds like a very prudent thing to do. But I have yet to read a primary source account of a ramrod breaking at a critical moment, causing the shooter to be injured, scalped or eaten by a bear. A reliable ramrod was an essential element in making the rifle work. If wooden ramrods were dangerous or unreliable, somehow I don’t think the West would ever have been won. And when Osborne Russell was shooting it out with the Blackfeet in Pierre’s Hole, I really don’t think he had a “range rod”. He loaded and cleaned with the rod that hung under his rifle.
On the subject of cleaning. I have never seen an old rifle with a cleaning jag mounted on the forward end of the original ramrod. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a period version of the type of cleaning jag commonly seen on ramrods today. All the period cleaning devices I’ve ever seen have taken the form of iron worms or screws that threaded into a metal piece on the lower end of the rod – hidden inside the stock, not out in front. The only exceptions would be a couple carved wooden cleaning ends I have seen on southern ramrods.
Generally, though not always, original ramrods tended to be tapered. Only occasionally have I seen period rifles with straight sticks for ramrods.
Vent liners were high end items rarely seen on American flintlocks. They are more common on European guns, particularly fowlers. They were generally made from rare metals and never had screwdriver slots. Stainless steel was not available in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Installing a vent liner is a correct period repair for a flintlock touch hole that has eroded and become too large. The liner should be filed flush with the barrel and hard to see.
Style is the real issue. Just what did period rifles actually look like? I’d recommend reading classic longrifle historians like Kindig, Shumway, Cline, Bivins, Kauffman, Hanson and Baird. Visit museums. Handle as many originals as you can.
When you start looking at a lot of old guns, you’ll find that they don’t often fit into neat, stylistic categories. High end museums, and pretty picture books tend to show off their finest specimens, not necessarily what was typical during the period. I strongly recommend visiting small town museums and county historical societies to see examples of “working guns” that were passed down through the generations. They may not be as fancy. They’re probably in a bit rougher state of preservation. But I think they give us a better feeling for the kinds of firearms that were actually carried by the frontiersmen and pioneers. Interestingly, most of what survives seem to be shotguns!
I believe there is an unintentional but self-perpetuating dynamic between modern gun makers and black powder shooters that tends to lead us away from our traditional roots.
Gun makers are after all, artists. They are also in business to sell their work. They have a personal vision to express and they want to create unique pieces that will stand out and attract buyers. Buyers in the market for custom made guns are looking for something special that they can be proud of and pass on. They’re also looking for something that evokes their personal romanticized conception of history. Over time, guns and accouterments evolve based on what sells, rather than what is historically accurate.
Occasionally, somebody stumbles upon a design or feature that really sells. It spreads through the traditional shooting community like a wildfire and eventually becomes so ubiquitous that it is accepted as authentic. Sheath knives with real or simulated Damascus steel blades, decorative scallops and piercings and curly maple handles look really cool! They can be found in abundance at any rendezvous or black powder gun show. But knives of that sort never really existed during the frontier period.
We all struggle with our late 20th and 21st century sense of aesthetics when we try to replicate something that was made in the seventeen or eighteen hundreds. A few years ago, I was trying to replicate an authentic Bedford style rifle. I simply couldn’t find it within myself to correctly engrave a federal eagle for the cheek piece inlay. Try as I might, I couldn’t capture the “primitive” quality of an authentic design. I was always overdoing it, trying to show off my amateur engraving skills. I never succeeded. Luckily, about a year later I stumbled upon an original federal eagle inlay. I inlayed the period eagle into my Bedford replica. That was the only way I could finally get it right – and save a gorgeous original inlay.
Omitting the cheek rest is the only accommodation I have ever personally seen in original rifles to aid left handed shooters. I have never seen a period “left handed” rifle, though I will not deny the possibility that a very small number may have been made.
I think we’re all in danger of erring in the direction of over embellishment. It’s easy to overwork our stuff. It’s understandable. We all want to be proud of our work and show off our craftsmanship. But a laser perfect Kentucky rifle just doesn’t look right. Maybe we should use more authentic tools. Maybe we all just need to study more and keep practicing. We may never achieve perfect authenticity because, after all, guys like John Phillip Beck lived in another time. But we can have a lot of fun and, if we are careful, create work that looks pretty close to authentic. By the way, one of my personally most inspirational moments came when I had a chance to actually examine an original J.P. Beck rifle and see that the old master made some of the same mistakes I do!
My hat goes off to anyone seriously trying to create authentic, historical guns and gear. Best wishes to you! I’d love to see and learn from your work.