Andy and Dave are members of the Skagit Muzzle Loaders club and attend the annual rendezvous – or as is commonly referred to – the rondy. For a traditionally rainy weekend in April, the attendance is pretty good and this year was no different. Even wet, a good time is generally had by all. The public is always welcome.
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.
We at the Ruxton Palavar tend to get a little put out when we hear traditional muzzle loading or stick and string archery referred to as “primitive” shooting. The implication is that traditional, or “primitive” shooting is sort of an ineffective novelty, entertaining but not to be taken too seriously. Writers today are flatly stating that virtually no caliber of muzzle loaded round ball is appropriate for hunting – “primitive” (meaning non-inline) muzzle loaded rifles being inherently too inaccurate and underpowered to humanely kill even small deer. Sadly, people are believing them. The scary thing is that some states are starting to listen to this kind of rhetoric too. It isn’t a farfetched notion that round ball hunting may soon be legislated out of existence.
An equivalent attitude has become prevalent in the world of archery. Recurved bows are quaint anachronisms, longbows are cool at the Renaissance fair but surely, nobody would consider actually hunting with one. Hunting with a stone point? How utterly barbaric and inhumane! It makes you wonder how the West was ever won, or how Native people ever fed themselves on this continent for the past fifteen thousand years.
Try an experiment. Make your own bow. First, you’ll need to learn how to do it. Then you’ll have to teach your hands how to accomplish what your mind has just learned. There’ll be some trial and error. You’ll need to cultivate a bit of patience. Now make that bow a precise copy of, say, a reflexed / deflexed sinew backed artifact hanging in a museum somewhere. A bit more work is involved in that, plus some historical research. Then, invest a couple years into teaching yourself how to shoot it well enough to hunt. OR . . . just go buy a commercial bow off the shelf and call it good. Shoot it a few times and take it out hunting. After all, the bow has sights. The process is pretty straight forward.
One of these scenarios strikes me as, frankly, fairly “primitive”, though maybe not in the conventional sense of the term. The other seems like a pretty sophisticated and potentially rewarding thing to do.
This summer I spoke with a Blackfoot guy in Montana who was chuckling about a couple hunters who told him they were out “primitive hunting” for the day. He asked what they meant by “primitive”. They told him that today they were leaving their rifles at home and only bringing their compound bows. He found that amusing because a few days before he had stalked a deer to virtually point blank range and harvested it with an osage bow he had built with his son. Nothing primitive sounding about that. I find it impressive on many levels.
Another Montanan showed me the composite Turkish bow he made himself and used to kill a running antelope from horseback (!). As far as I’m concerned, that accomplishment was staggeringly cool. Far from being primitive, it tells me that he, like the Blackfoot hunter was at the absolute top of his game. By the way, that man is also capable of shooting eighteen arrows into a paper plate at fifteen yards in twenty seconds.
Carve a rear sight out of a chunk of iron using a hacksaw and a couple files. Dovetail it into a rifle barrel so that the gun shoots center the very first time you fire it. Modern longrifle builders do that routinely. On the other hand, how often do you see somebody pull a scope out of the box, clamp it to a modern rifle and shoot accurately without making any adjustments? There’s nothing “primitive” about the gunsmithing that goes into a traditional muzzle loading rifle. There may be less moving parts, but the mechanical tolerances are just as precise as those in a modern gun. And many of those tolerances are achieved using hand tools rather than modern CNC technology. In the old days, it was all done by hand. Those early gunsmiths were very good, as are the modern generation of longrifle builders. How is that primitive ?
Neither is there anything “primitive” in the 50 yard touching groups I see Andy Ward shoot off hand with his Hawken. No scope, no rest. Andy regularly wins matches against guys using adjustable sights on muzzle loaders and even modern rifles equipped with optics. His success comes from the combination of a very well made rifle, the perfect load and years of experience shooting the same gun. “Primative”???
In all these examples, the technology may be relatively simple but the shooters’ skills are highly refined. So are those of the gunsmiths and the bow makers who created their equipment. Often, the shooters and builders are the same people. How can we call this “primitive”? That’s why we refer to ourselves a “traditional”, rather than a “primitive” shooting palaver.
Traditional shooters rely absolutely upon their technology, but never as a substitute for skill. We believe that traditional shooting cultivates personal qualities like focus, discipline, knowledge, practiced skill, self-reliance and good judgment. Successful traditional shooters are by the nature of the sport, accomplished individuals. Whether you seek to master the bow or the longrifle, or the skills of hunting with traditional weapons, or the arts associated with their production, like carving, blacksmithing, flintknapping, engraving, inlay, or metal casting, you will need to study, practice and work very hard over a period of years. You will have no choice but to cultivate skills and qualities that can enrich your personal life and contribute to the quality of the shooting sports in general.
So we don’t refer to the traditional shooting sports, their weapons and their associated skills, as “primitive”. There’s much more to it than that.
George Ruxton sought out answers….and had a strong desire to learn, share and experience people, places and things.
Ruxton was interested in the “Why is this so”…and “How is this done” type of questions. In his journal of his travels he asks those questions of himself and those who he meets. He also learned from others, even if this meant changing his own preconceived notions.
In his novel he shares what he learned and experienced. Ruxton helped put the Hawken rifle, the Green River knife and the term mountain man into mainstream American culture.
Ruxton was a avid hunter and shooter. From reading his writings one can tell he enjoyed telling of a excellent feat of marksmanship or the odd bit of hunting lore.
One of the goals of this blog and the “museum” is to do just as Ruxton did. To ask why or how. To share and experience with others. Perhaps even open up ourselves or a stranger to a new thought or idea.
I think the best way to learn is through a “hands on” experience. It is not enough to say to someone “This is a old gun, here is how it was shot, this is what it could do”. A better approach is to hand someone a gun from the 1840’s…walk them through how to load and shoot the gun. Then if possible have them shoot the gun.
All while asking questions and experiencing the gun and the lesson.
I think Ruxton would approve.