The Annual Pilgrimage

Annnnd – They’re off!

Dave and Andy have embarked on their annual trip to west central Wyoming through southwest Montana and eastern Idaho.  If you are going to be in the neighborhood, stop in and say hi.

1838 Rendezvous, Riverton, WY June 29, 30, July 1
Museum of the Mountain Man, Pinedale, WY July 4, 5 and 6

Also, they will be stopping in to visit with Glenn at the Antique Gun Shoppe in Post Falls, ID on the way there and back (June 27th afternoonish & July 9th mid morningish).

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“I’ve spilt my caps!”

Or . . .
What to put in a shooting bag

By Dave Braun,
Ruxton Museum and Traditional Shooting Palavar

On the morning of June 19, 1831, a “countless host” of Indian warriors on horseback descended upon a trade caravan headed up the Cimarron valley for Santa Fe. Josiah Gregg describes the ensuing chaos in his classic narrative Commerce of the Prairies:

“. . . a great portion of the men were unprepared for the emergency. Scores of guns were ‘empty’ and many more had been wetted by the recent showers and would not ‘go off’. Here one was calling for balls – another for powder – a third for flints. Exclamations such as, ‘I’ve broke my ramrod’ – ‘I’ve spilt my caps’ – ‘I’ve rammed down a ball without powder’ – ‘My gun is ‘choked’, give me yours’ – were heard from different quarters; while a timorous ‘greenhorn’ would perhaps cry out, ‘Here, take my gun, you can out shoot me!’

That doesn’t sound like it will end very well.

It does however, sound a lot like the sort of thing we hear on the shooting line, and more often than we’d like. Actually, I can’t remember a single club shoot ever, when at least one of those nasty, little disasters didn’t mess up somebody’s day. And sure, I’ve had them happen to me plenty times. It makes me wonder just how much better a company of us modern-day mountain men would fare if we were descended upon by a “countless host” of mounted warriors!

An after-action analysis of Josiah Gregg’s engagement leads to some valuable observations. First, flintlock and percussion firearms were both common on the Santa Fe Trail in 1831. That’s an interesting historical detail. Secondly, the boys who found themselves in trouble seem to have been negligent in one or more of a few basic muzzle loading practices:

  1. Familiarity with the basic operation and maintenance of their firearms. Ramrods break and balls get stuck when the shooter doesn’t hold the rod properly, uses the wrong size patch or lets the bore get too dirty. I wonder how many of those guys actually took their rifles out and practiced with them before they headed west – or at least before they got to Comanche country. And if someone were relying upon his rifle for oh, I don’t know, his very life, you’d think maybe he would put a little effort into keeping the thing clean and dry.
  2. Developing a personal loading routine and following it Doing it the same way every time is the best insurance against “dry balling” a rifle. .
  3. Target practice, which is the only way to develop confidence in your shooting skill so you don’t have to give your rifle to somebody else.
  4. Setting up a well-organized shooting bag that provides convenient access to appropriate supplies when you need them.

Let’s talk a little about shooting bags today.

1

This picture shows the contents of a fairly traditional shooting bag that measures only 51/2 X 6 inches. The bag is set up to support two long guns, a percussion .60 cal. smoothbore trade gun and a .47 cal. replica Hawken rifle. On the right is a shot flask for bird hunting with the smoothbore. I usually carry the shot flask in a coat pocket but it could easily be hung on a cord over my right shoulder.

The contents of this shooting bag in clockwise order are:

  • Strips of linen patch cloth including a roll of greased cloth
  • Three essential tools: a nipple wrench, a gun worm and a turnscrew
  • A tin of extra caps
  • A small tin of grease
  • A cloth pouch containing about a dozen 20gauge shot wads and over shot cards
  • Roughly a dozen fusee balls in a cloth pouch
  • A powder charger marked for 60 and 80 grains
  • A leather strip capper. These are very reliable, but cappers made from a leather disk are even better because all caps then have an equal chance of being used.
  • A leather, necked bag containing about 30 rounds of rifle ammunition. Since the two ball bags are made from different materials, they can easily be distinguished by feel.
  • A small, original powder horn with about a half pound capacity.

The contents of this bag are total overkill for a day of hunting or target shooting. Had I been along with Josiah Gregg in 1831, I would feel absolutely confident that my firearms were well supplied for a week long excursion away from the main caravan.

At this point, I expect that modern shooters could propose a “countless host” of essential items conspicuously absent from my outfit. So I consulted the sacred scriptures – Madison Grant’s The Kentucky Rifle Hunting Pouch (Maple Press Company, 1977).

After reviewing 122 images of original shooting bags, I concluded that Josiah Gregg probably wouldn’t have a problem with the contents of my bag. He might do a double take at my pouch of commercial, pre-cut shotgun wads. My guess is that something of the sort existed in 1831 but it probably looked a little different. A flintlock shooter would definitely need to carry a small wallet of flints and a vent pick, maybe a pick and brush set. Beyond that a few additional accoutrements frequently appear in Madison Grant’s photos but each is somewhat controversial and none is truly essential.

Short starters were uncommon, as were priming horns. Bullet boards were about as common back then as they are today. They’re a nice idea, but you don’t see very many guys using them regularly. Sheath knives are attached to maybe 25% of the original bags in Grant’s book, but a close look at construction and materials supports the conclusion that a good half of them were later period add-ons. Bullet molds were common. But you seldom see the associated lead ladle. Which makes me wonder why they would store two essential bullet making tools separately? Of course, items of personal preference such as razors, smoking pipes, turkey calls, fire starting kits, compact books of Psalms, etc. were carried in original shooting bags. But I think the bottom line is that the more equipment you want to carry, the larger, more cumbersome and less comfortable your bag must necessarily be – and the greater the odds it will be stashed away somewhere in the wagon when that “countless host” comes calling.

The one period item I might consider adding to my shooting outfit purely for the sake of period authenticity is, of all improbable things, a sewing awl. You see them a lot in photos of original gear and they’re even described in the literature as hanging from shooting bag straps. But since I’ve never yet needed one at a shoot or on a hunting trip, I think I’ll leave it off.

2

A look into my open bag shows that the necessary supplies are within easy reach and can be readily identified by feel: powder, charger, balls, patching and caps. Grease is accessible. The other tools are on the bottom. At a shoot, the essentials are taken out and distributed in convenient coat pockets for even more efficient loading – as would also be the case if I were under attack by a “countless host” of hostile warriors.

3

Viewed from the side, you can see that this shooting bag is very compact. It is lightweight, convenient, practical, and wears like an article of clothing. It contains sufficient ‘possibles’ to supply two guns for almost any frontier contingency.   Were I traveling with Josiah Gregg, this bag would be a regular part of my wardrobe. Then I’d never have to worry about spilling my caps, having the right size balls or being without powder when that “countless host” came whooping down. I still think I’d need to work on the confidence part, though.

Shooting bags by the way, are often referred to as “bullet pouches” in period literature. That can be a little confusing to modern readers. Speaking of period literature, so what ever happened to that Santa Fe caravan and the “countless host” down on the Cimarron in 1831?

Well, it’s in Chapter IV of Commerce of the Prairies. Check it out. It’s a great read!

The Annual Wyoming Trek

Andy and Dave departed this morning for their annual Wyoming rendezvous adventures. Riverton for the 1838 Rendezvous this week and the Green River Rendezvous (Museum of the Mountain Man) in Pinedale next week. After that they have a couple of alternatives for the route home that include stops at various historic places and museums.

I’ll update this post as they update me, and hopefully they remember to take photos.

Bill Willyums His Rifle

By Dave Braun

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The antique gun in this photo exhibits the classic lines of a J. Henry halfstock plains rifle from the mid-19th century. Its 31 inch barrel is somewhat shorter than usual for a Henry, but that was the original length. The bore is just over .53 caliber. The wide, trade gun trigger and authentic brass tacks imply a Native American connection. The top barrel flat is stamped “J P Lower Phila “. Perhaps the distributor? The bottom of the barrel is marked “H Leman Lancaster”, indicating that Mr. Henry found it more economical to outsource some of his parts rather than fabricate them in his Boulton, Pennsylvania factory. In all likelihood, this gun is an example of a contract trade rifle used somewhere on the western frontier. That’s all interesting enough, but when we flip the rifle over and install its lock, things get even better.

P1130275

This classic, percussion period American plains rifle is fitted with a British flint lock! For the sake of brevity, I’ll simply assure you that several experienced collectors have carefully examined this rifle and concluded that the piece is in remarkably pristine condition. The barrel was never fitted with a percussion breech or a drum and nipple. It was never shortened. There is none of the fulminate erosion typically found on old percussion firearms. All evidence indicates that the imported Brandor and Potts flint lock is original to the rifle.

That particular 150 year old lock by the way, functions better than any modern-made flint lock I have ever seen. Each “click” is still sharp, positive and loud enough to spook game. The shower of sparks is almost scary. Over the years that I have owned and demonstrated this rifle, the frizzen has never missed fire. I think the metallurgy, hardening and tempering of the steel must be close to perfect. It’s also impressive that the light, crisp trigger release of this rifle is accomplished without the use of a detent (“fly”) in the mechanism.

So what is a flint lock doing on what would otherwise have been a state of the art percussion period rifle? And what does that imply about the use of flint ignition on other late period styles, Hawken rifles for example? We know that flintlock trade fusees were manufactured late into the 19th century, and this gun can clearly be characterized as a trade rifle. But American rifle makers were innovative, continually striving to surpass one another in style and function. A flint lock on an American half stock plains rifle is definitely a throwback.

I think the mystery might be explained with a scenario something like this. Maybe Mr. Henry had a contract to fill and the specifications weren’t very rigid. Maybe he had a few imported British flint locks laying around the shop and this gave him an opportunity to put the obsolete things to use. It’s certainly cheaper and less time consuming to produce a flint breech as opposed to one of Henry’s signature percussion design, so he saved a couple bucks on a few rifles. That hand full of flint guns found their way into a contract lot of conventional Henry percussion rifles and nobody noticed or even cared. Eventually, the guns were sent west – perhaps via J. P. Lower.

I don’t expect collectors will find many other original, flintlock, halfstock plains rifles out there. I sure wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for somebody to turn up an original flint, half stock Hawken. This flintlock Henry halfstock may very well be one of a kind, or one of very few. That makes it a pretty rare piece.

But the story of this rifle isn’t finished yet. There is still the matter of . . . the inscription.

P1130278

Between the trigger guard and the toe plate are crudely carved, the words: Bill Willyums His Rifle.

Bill Williams? You mean, THE “Old Bill” Williams, famous mountain man??? That’s sure not the way Old Bill spelled his name. Could it really be? Naw! Could it?

Honestly, I’ve never taken the inscription very seriously. I’ve rather thought it more like vandalism on a cool old rifle. I’ve always imagined some kid, maybe 100 years ago, playing with an old family relic. Maybe he was inspired by a book about American frontiersmen and he just got a little carried away with his pocket knife. Or maybe the piece played a role in some local legend connected to Bill Williams, that probably had no real basis in history. I’ve discounted the possibility of intentional fraud because I didn’t pay enough money for the gun. When I bought the rifle at a Cody gun show years ago, I paid the market price for a generic half stock rifle in good condition. The dealer who sold it to me didn’t seem to even notice the inscription. Why fake something like that and then not try to jack up the price? No, my favorite theory has always been the kid with the pocket knife.

And then . . . Last summer I was re-reading George Ruxton’s novel, Life in the Far West , and it got me thinking. In his final chapter, Ruxton described the scene of Old Bill Williams’ death in 1849.   He specifically mentioned Bill’s rifle being among the personal items that were recovered when Williams’ body was found. Could “Bill Willyums His Rifle” be a period way of identifying the piece as “Bill Williams’ Rifle”, carved into the stock by the semi-literate mountaineer who picked the rifle up?

Though Life in the Far West was a work of fiction, Ruxton made a point of stressing the care he took to preserve the historical accuracy of all the background events depicted in his story. He was attentive to minor details and much of what he wrote has been corroborated by other sources. In general, George Ruxton is recognized as a reliable commentator on the lives and times of the mountain men. That being said, finding Old Bill’s rifle is just the kind of plot element you would expect in a romantic story from the mid-19th century. The detail could easily be just a sentimental embellishment.

It’s impossible to actually prove a historical connection between our flintlock plains rifle and Old Bill Williams the mountain man. Even the circumstantial evidence is awfully thin. Any connection can however be definitively disproven, could it be shown that rifles of that style had not yet appeared in the mountains prior to Williams’ death in 1849.

Just when exactly did J. Henry start producing halfstock plains rifles? My intuition tells me that our rifle was made later, maybe in the mid to late ‘50s – or even a decade after that. It’s hard to tell. My opinion is based on a “feel” for the overall style of the piece and I could very well be wrong. As they say: ”If only this rifle could talk.”

What we know for sure, is that this gun was actually there – somewhere in the West during a truly amazing period in our history. That knowledge makes it a genuine thrill to handle the piece, to speculate about it and to wonder. I would sincerely appreciate the insight of any collector or student of fur trade firearms who might help shed some light on the history of this very interesting antique rifle.

You are cordially invited to inspect, handle, speculate about, psychically channel and/or otherwise play with this rifle yourself, when the Ruxton Museum and Traditional Shooting Palavar comes a rendezvous near you. See you there!

 

 

Lauren “Doc” Brown: WWII Soldier Receives Long-Overdue Service Medals

This article was recently printed in our local newspaper – The Bellingham Herald.  I’ve copied it here in it’s entirety.

Doc Brown is the maker of Andy’s Hawken rifle, which he talked about in a previous post:  My Favorite Rifle.  A beautiful flintlock rifle made by Doc is also part of his collection.


Summer 2015 Road Trip: Museum of the Mountain Man

The guys are on the road and having a grand time.

On the way to the 1838 Rendezvous in Riverton, Wyoming, they detoured to Pinedale to visit the Museum of the Mountain Man.  Not only did they visit, they became part of the display.  They will be back tomorrow (Tuesday June 30th) until 2:00ish, when they will depart for Riverton.    (photos borrowed from the Museum of the Mountain Man Facebook page)