Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983
by Tom Knapp
Photography by Vickie Hooper, Anne Hall and Beth Burwell
The boy walked through the Ozark woods, the long gun over his shoulder almost dwarfing him as he looked around for traces of the deer whose tracks he had picked up that morning. The air was cold even at noon on that March day in the middle 1840s.
Since early morning he had been on the move, looking for something he could shoot. Fresh venison would be a welcome change from the family's dwindling supply of salt pork. The gun was already loaded with a patched ball and the main charge of powder. His big powderhorn, smaller priming horn and leather bag of supplies hung by rawhide strips which crossed his chest. If he caught sight of any game, all he would have to do was to load the priming powder into the pan and shoot.
He sat down for a moment to rest, carefully propping his gun against the tree to avoid the damp ground. He also took care to keep his powderhorn off the ground, even though the small open end was tightly stoppered against any moisture ruining the powder. He fingered the intricate carving on the horn. There was a little star on it showing north. The rest of the design was a map of the area his father had carved a few years past when the family first settled here so he wouldn't get lost. The horn was his father's as was the gun. The boy wouldn't get his own firearm until he could save enough money, but when he did get one, his gun would probably last him the rest of his life.
He heard movement off in the woods. Grabbing the gun, he waited silently as a spike buck made its way up the hollow toward him. Very cautiously he put a little bit of powder from his smaller priming horn into the pan, lifted the gun to his shoulder and aimed.
About thirty yards off the animal paused, looking around for danger. The boy's finger tightened on the trigger, and the deer fell. The boom of the shot resounded through the hollow as the boy made his way to the kill through the smoke from the shot. There would be a good supper tonight!
Throughout the Ozarks, and in fact all over the United States in unpopulated areas, this scene was enacted thousands of times as the settlers depended on their guns for food and protection. Never going out without them, their guns were as much a part of them as their coats or caps. During the nineteenth century and even into the early twentieth century, these guns were the muzzleloading guns. Over the years even though muzzleloaders improved, they were discarded when more efficient breechloading guns became available. From that time until recently, muzzleloading guns disappeared into museums, private collections, closets, attics and, unfortunately, scrap heaps.
In the past few years, however, there has been an explosion of interest in muzzleloading guns, both old and new ones. This revival has been inspired partly by the celebration of America's bicentennial in 1976. As a hobby or investment, muzzleloaders are ever rising in popularity. There are many clubs in America devoted to the shooting of black powder firearms. Dressed in the uniforms of the American Revolution and the Civil War, members of some of these organizations recreate historical battles.
Muzzleloading and black powder guns are the same thing. Instead of using the shells of modern weaponry, loaded at the breech, or rear, of the barrel, muzzleloaders use a quantity of black powder and a projectile loaded through the muzzle, or front end, of the barrel.
The muzzleloader is essentially a simple machine compared to modern weaponry. Although they can be purchased already assembled, many aficionados choose the greater sense of accomplishment by making their own. The beginner can construct guns from kits which are available for any number of historical weapons. These kits include all the necessary parts of the gun and are available in a wide range of com-plexity-some needing only to be assembled, and others requiring painstakingly intricate work.
People who own muzzleloaders have a variety of reasons for being interested in them. Don Amos, whose muzzleloader made in 1854 in Louisville, Kentucky has been passed down from his great-great-grandfather, has a passion for the history and background of the guns.
Jim Schroder has several black powder guns which he has restored or made himself. "I'm interested in anything our forefathers used or how they used it. And I have a special fascination for firearms. I love to shoot the muzzleloaders, but I think really, secretly, I like to build them most of all because I love to work with my hands."
Dayton Massey's interest in the muzzleloading guns is in the hunt. "I'd rather be out hunting than working with my hands on technical work in making guns," he said. Therefore he orders his period guns, hunting with a reproduction of the Hawken rifle, which was one of the first big caliber rifles that mountain men used to kill big game such as bears and moose. He also uses a better form of ammunition than that used in the heyday of black powder.
HISTORY OF THE MUZZLELOADERS
After gunpowder was invented in China in the ll00s and found its way to medieval Europe, somebody stumbled onto the prototype of the first muzzleloader. It was probably nothing more than a tube with a small hole in one end and a larger hole in the other. After the gunpowder and projectile were crammed down the tube, a torch was applied to the small hole.
If the gun fired at all, it was very inaccurate. It was also possible that the tube simply exploded rather than take the strain of the burning powder.
After the first primitive experiments, the inventors probably made the tube, or barrel, stronger, although it still blew up at times. A prime example of such primitive muzzleloaders was the wall cannon whose accuracy was about nil. However, the loud noise, the smoke and the occasional hit were sources of terror to those without this weapon.
Then came the invention of the matchlock, the first gun using a lock (the device used to ignite the charge of powder). Rather than using a torch to ignite the powder, they made a pan next to the small hole, and filled it with powder of a finer consistency called the priming powder. A trigger was developed, which when pulled would lower a glowing wick into the pan. This would ignite the priming powder, which would in turn set off the main charge. In order to hold the barrel and lock together the matchlock used a wooden stock, which was also valuable in improving the accuracy because it absorbed recoil. The matchlock, used mostly in the early 1600s, was the first practical small arm.
The matchlock had two main drawbacks. The glowing match and priming pan were both vulnerable to rain, and the light the wick gave off revealed the shooter's location.
Soon, the wheelock made the matchlock obsolete by an improved lock system. Although the priming powder was still open to rain, the wick was replaced with a spring-loaded metal wheel. When triggered, this wheel would turn against a chunk of iron pyrite, showering sparks on the priming powder. It was a marked improvement over the matchlock, because the time between pulling the trigger and actual firing was faster.
The next improvement was the flintlock about 1680. It was the landmark leap in black powder guns because of its overall efficiency. It had good lock time and could be used in inclement weather. The influences resulting from the invention of this gun on weaponry could almost be compared to the influence of the first atom bomb. The flintlock was used for over 200 years, and was the main weapon of the American Revolution.
As an ignition system, the flintlock utilized a hammer with a piece of flint on it, and a piece of steel, the frizzen, which was combined with the lid of the priming pan. When the gun's trigger was pulled, several things happened. The flint swept down, hitting the frizzen. Sparks flew from the steel, while the frizzen, having been struck by the flint, fell back, exposing the priming powder the instant the sparks arrived.
The final form of the muzzleloader was the percussion caplock. This had no priming pan or priming powder. Just over the main charge of powder was a nipple with a small hole in it. A cap, which was coated on the inside with a concussion-sensitive chemical, was placed on the nipple. When the hammer fell, the chemical would combust, shooting flame onto the main charge of powder.
The main advantage of the caplock over the matchlock, wheellock and flintlock was lock time, or the time elapsed from the squeezing of the trigger to the ignition of the powder. Previous guns had a slow lock time allowing the target to move or the shot to waver off target. The trigger was pulled, the priming powder fizzled and finally the gun went off. The caplock's ignition was almost instantaneous.
Instead of a priming pan filled with powder, the caplock required only the insertion of small percussion caps. These caps resulted in quicker loading and shooting than was possible on previous firearms. They were used in the mid-nineteenth century and in the Civil War. "By the end of the Civil War, the troops on both sides had become so used to their rifles and so expert with them that fortified troops were virtually impervious to a frontal assult or charge," said Don Amos.
The percussion caplock was the final evolution of the muzzleloader. In the late 1800s, they were replaced by breechloading guns.
Black powder guns played an important part in the history of the Ozarks. Small game taken with the Ozark family's squirrel rifle added to the daily diet of many a family. Don said, "The predominance of guns in the Ozarks were either small caliber rifles suited for the shooting of small game and deer or muzzleloading shotguns which provided great utility in the hunting of both small game and birds.
"I have seen a number of examples of muzzleloading shotguns in the Ozarks. Most of them are of the utilitarian variety as opposed to what would be called a sporting firearm of extremely high quality. I think this probably reflects the relatively low levels of income of the normal Ozark family.
"Many muzzleloaders were in fact made in Missouri," Jim said. "There were local gunsmiths and blacksmith shops on every corner like you have gas stations now." Since hand tools were all that were required, a blacksmith could make a muzzleloader. "A blacksmith would beat out a barrel and forge weld it together so there would be a seam all the way down the barrel," continued Jim. "Of course, made that way, they sometimes exploded. But they didn't know any better and they had nothing else. I have an original one that was made by hand exactly that way. Still, they would have probably lasted a lifetime. The gun was probably a bigger investment than our cars are to us today.
"A young man got his first firearm, probably when he was ready to go out on his own. Up until that time he probably used his father's or whatever was around the farmhouse, and then he bought, or worked off to pay for it, as good a gun as he possibly could. Usually he carried it his entire lifetime. Probably the most common firearm in those days was something very plain and simple. A gun in those days ran anywhere from eight to twenty dollars. That would have been several months' work if their average wages in those days was four dollars a month.
"Muzzleloaders were used here in Missouri from when it was first settled to around 1900. Even when I was a boy in the 1940s, a few of the old-timers down south of Seymour hunted with one of these. But when modern firearms were developed, some of the muzzleloaders ended up being fenceposts in gardens and that sort of thing. Usually when somebody could get a breechloader, they threw the muzzleloader away."
PARTS OF THE GUN
The importance of these guns in the development and history of our country cannot be overlooked. For almost three hundred years in America the muzzleloading musket or rifle in various stages of improvement was the leading weapon in hunting and war. Even expressions relating to the gun passed into common language, such as "flash in the pan," meaning very briefly, "keep your powder dry," meaning be prepared, and "lock, stock and barrel," meaning the whole thing. The lock, stock and barrel of a gun are the basic parts--the lock which includes the trigger to ignite the powder, a wooden stock to hold the parts together and a barrel to discharge the projectile.
Though the lock, stock and barrel were all subject to improvements over the years, the lock had the most improvements. One of the last improvements to the lock was a good trigger system.
The set trigger worked best in the control of the gun's discharge. The set trigger, consisting of two triggers, was pulled, making the second trigger very sensitive so as to fire at the slightest touch.
The stock is the wooden part of the firearm which holds the whole gun together. It extends behind the lock and forward under the barrel. It also helps absorb the recoil from the discharge. The pull on original muzzleloaders (distance between the trigger and butt) was an inch or two shorter than on modern models. In years past generally people were smaller in stature than they are today, resulting in shorter reach.
The barrel is a cylindrical tube through which the projectiles go. The barrel is either grooved as in the rifle or smoothbore as in the shotgun and musket. The wall of the rifle barrel is cut with spiral grooves or rifling, which put a spin on the projectile, increasing the accuracy and thus the range at which a target can be hit reliably.
One of the first rifles was the small caliber, long barreled Pennsylvania rifle which was used for small game and deer. By the standard of the day, it was extremely accurate and also quite ornate.
One of the most famous rifles was the Kentucky rifle used by noted pioneers such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Though its style was somewhat different being more angular from that of the Pennsylvania, it, too, was of small caliber and had a long barrel.
A smoothbore, or shotgun, has no rifling. It is designed to shoot several small chunks of soft lead in a spreading pattern. It is used mostly for hunting birds and occasionally small game. As these were the primary food sources in the Midwest, Ozarkians tended to favor the shotgun over the rifle. Also the ammunition could be rammed into the smooth bore barrel faster than into one with rifling.
There are several less important parts of the gun. Muzzleloaders require a ramrod to stuff the ammunition down the barrel. The ramrod must be made of flexible wood, such as hickory, to prevent it from breaking and injuring the shooter's hand as he rammed the ball down the barrel. The old timers kept it flexible by soaking the ramrod in kerosene for a time before putting it to use.
Sights were used for aiming the gun. Rifles had a rear and a front sight. Shotguns had only a front sight. To aim the owner had to adjust the sights to fire accurately with a certain load of powder. He did the adjusting by aiming the gun and shooting it, moving the sights back and forth until the ball would hit the target. Some sights were made of brass, but often they were sterling silver. In bad light the silver was easier to see.
The butt plate, a piece of metal at the very back of the stock (the part which rests against a shooter's shoulder when he fires the weapon), keeps the stock from splitting. It was often decorated to make the gun look more attractive. Some Tennessee rifles used horn rather than metal in the butt plate which joins the butt and helps protect the stock.
The patchbox is a small compartment in the stock, useful in keeping small items used for firing and cleaning the gun, such as patches and wax. Some of the patch boxes are very ornate. The simpler ones have a dovetailed carved wooden lid which slips in and out of the stock. The fancier patch boxes have a intricately carved metal hinged door.
Jim Schroder has been making black powder guns as a hobby for several years. His first two projects were old original muzzleloaders. Restoring is more complicated than building from scratch. Often, the original wood on older guns is very fragile. "When I purchased one of my originals, it was just a basketful of pieces," he said.
Jim spends a year to a year and a half in his spare time on each firearm he makes. "It's just a hobby with me," he said. "I think it would drive me nuts if I had to do it for a living. If you're really interested in something like this, you can spend hours on end looking at pictures. I don't just start throwing a rifle together. I'll pick out a gun, study the design and follow the design of the stock and everything. Most of my firearms are styled after something that J.P. Beck built." J.P. Beck was a famous gunmaker who lived in the late 1700s.
Aside from the two originals he has restored, he has made four flintlock and two percussion muzzleloaders.
The metal parts
Jim orders his barrels. "One thing I do realize is my capabilities. I know What I can do and what I can't, and making barrels is a little beyond me." Modern barrels are stronger than barrels on old-time guns because they are not forge-welded together.
One of the originals he restored had a crack in the barrel. "I could look through there, and I could see a crack all the way. I thought, 'Boy, I'll kill somebody or they'll kill me.'" He sent it to a company where the craftsmen drilled down the barrel, and then tamped in a steel rod that had a very minute hole in the center. They soldered the rod in, and then redrilled and rerifled the barrel, making it as good as new, or very likely better.
Although Jim orders his locks from a foundry, they are merely roughly shaped pieces of metal. To assemble them Jim must sand down the metal to perfection, drill and thread the holes for assembly, harden and temper the parts. He used a propane torch to harder certain parts. The lock must be durable to be slammed around for making sparks, yet not brittle enough to break easily.
Tempering is a means of bringing the metal to a certain hardness and elasticity by reheating it after initial hardening. The frizzen needs only an hour of tempering in the oven. Other parts require an hour and a half or more. If the frizzen is tempered incorrectly, it will either be too soft to spark or will shatter when hit by the flint.
After tempering, he browns the lock to give it the color and mainly to make it more weather resistant. The browning method, which the old-timers also used, involves applying a coat or two every day for several days of a solution such as salt or ammonia.
Jim also polishes the lock and makes sure each piece fits perfectly. "There is a tremendous amount of honing and polishing on the backside of the lock so it will work smoothly. The old-timers were pretty meticulous about how everything fit together. The spring action has to have just the right amount of tension, so when the flint hits it, it'll have just enough tension to cause sparks. You can grind the spring to a certain thickness if it's too stiff."
The butt plate starts out as a thin, flat piece of brass about eight inches long. Jim hammers it out, puts it on the gun, and rounds the square edges with a file. "Thin the edges to look thin. That's a mark of good workmanship,'' said Jim. He fashions the toe plate in the same manner.
The engraving on the metal parts of a gun, such as the lock plate, the part which covers the lock's internal mechanism, is very intricate work. Using hand tools and a small homemade engraving block, he spends hours to etch designs into the metal, which is usually brass or sterling silver. "On older firearms everything that was used that was bright and shiny was actual sterling silver, and in most cases in American firearms it was coin silver. I think it was easier to come by than brass, but brass was used extensively," he said.
The wooden parts
The wooden part of a homemade black powder gun starts out as a blank, an unfinished piece of wood cut in the general shape of the gun, only larger. The edges are all square. When finished the blank will eventually become the stock of the firearm.
Jim uses blanks made of tiger-striped maple, a wood preferred by many makers, and one which was favored by early gun makers. It is hard and dense, and therefore ideal for carving on, as well as attractive.
He draws a line all around the exact middle of the blank. This way, he can do all woodwork and carving relative to the middle, keeping the gun balanced. Until the final carving begins he leaves the gun in square shape, allowing him to fit it in his vise or drill press for easier working.
When carving out a space for the lock, Jim takes great care in making it fit closely. "It takes several days more work, but I carve the space to where it fits around all the parts, rather than just take a gouge and gouge all the wood out." This extra work keeps the wood strong around the lock, and makes the lock fit snugly.
He then puts the gun stock in the drill press to drill a straight hole directly under the barrel for storing the ramrod.
Putting the end in the vise, he shapes the butt of the stock. His next step is to drill holes to insert the pins which serve to hold the barrel to the stock. There are usually four of them. Jim uses iron screws just as were used on the originals.
Jim considers it a mark of poor workmanship to leave a lot of wood directly around the barrel. He removes excess bulk first with a rasp, then with a carpenter's file, and finally with sandpaper.
After he completes the gun and the final sanding of the stock, Jim does the decorative carving, which enhances the beauty of the stock. Though not necessary, it makes the firearm look better. On one of his flintlocks he cut the rear part of the stock at three different depths for beauty. At this point, after putting on the sights, the gun is ready to be finished and used.
Although modern finishes such as polyurethane are easier to work with, Jim uses linseed oil on his muzzleloaders because linseed oil is more historically accurate.
Using oil takes about a month. He heats the oil to a high temperature, being careful not to start a fire. He mops the oil onto the wood with a paintbrush and then wipes off the oil which was not soaked up by the wood. He continues this every night for a month or so, dampening his hands with linseed oil and rubbing it into the wood.
This finish isn't very reliable. "It turns water about as well as a sieve, but it is the traditional way," said Jim.
Each custom muzzleloader is unique, revealing a little of the maker's personality. Not only is it an investment, a good black powder gun is nothing less than a work of art. The average muzzleloader when finished, weighs six to ten pounds, the length varying with the type of weapon. If well made, the weapon can be shot and should last the maker the rest of his life if cared for properly.
To go with the gun, there are several small items which are needed. A leather bag is ideal for carrying the ammunition, patches, extra caps or flints and other items.
For powder, a horn and powder measure are needed, and also a smaller priming horn for the finer priming powder if the gun is a flintlock. The horns, usually made from horns from cattle, may be intricately carved if the maker so desires. Old-timers sometimes carved maps onto the horns, both for beauty and to avoid being lost.
In the heyday of black powder guns, the popular ammunition for rifles was the patched ball, whereas shotguns were loaded with small chunks of lead, or shot.
The patched ball was a small, round ball, in the appropriate caliber, made of soft lead. To load in the gun, the gunsman would wrap a piece of cloth, the patch, around the ball. The patch helped the ball slide in. When the ball was shot from the gun, this patch would grip the rifling on the interior of the barrel causing the ball to spin.
In the 1800s, the minie ball was developed. It was a conical shape, with a concave hollow base. The minie ball did not need a patch. When the minie ball was fired, the concave surface at the bottom would mushroom, gripping the grooves.
Jim Schroder and Dayton Massey mold their ammunition. This process requires a means of melting the lead. When heating the lead, dropping in a piece of beeswax will cause impurities to come to the top, where they can be scraped off. The melted lead is poured into molds of the appropriate size and allowed to cool.
Dayton Massey enjoys using old-time muzzleloading guns for hunting, however, he uses a different type of ammunition from that used in the heyday of black powder. Instead of the round ball and cloth patch of old, he prefers a conical ball, jokingly called the maxi ball as a take off on the name minie ball. The maxi ball projectile is similar to the minie ball, except that its bottom surface is flat rather than concave. It is a very tight fit and uses no patch, but ne must smear a lubricant of some type on the maxi ball to get it down the barrel. In cold weather shortening will work, but Dayton uses a commercial brand of lubricant.
To load the gun first place the gun in an upright position with the butt on the ground. Then pour a load of powder down the barrel. Rifles are generally sighted in for a certain load as the amount of powder affects the trajectory. For example, a gun sighted for 100 grains of powder would not be accurate with a 60 grain load.
Next place the projectile in the barrel and ram it down with the ramrod. Be sure to ram the ball until it contacts the powder because air space between the powder and ball increases the amount of recoil. The gun is ready to fire. If the gun is a flintlock firearm, put the frizzen in position. Place a small amount of priming powder in the pan. After this, aim the gun and shoot just as any firearm, except realize that the lock time is slower than in modern guns.
"Firing a black powder gun is quite an art," said Don Amos. "It's also quite a thrill. Black powder guns offer something for everyone no matter how diverse their interest.
Owning and using guns has been a way of life of American men and boys all the time the nation was settled and still continues generations later with those who grow up in rural areas. As the whole nation seems to be interested today in the older crafts and ways of living of our ancestors, it is logical that some are interested in old firearms, and not just for the historical aspects that Don Amos enjoys or the satisfaction of making his own as Jim Schroder does. The scene of the boy shooting deer for his family with a muzzleloading gun is still being enacted today. Dayton Massey now uses muzzleloading guns and black powder to bag his deer in the same area and very much in the same manner as his great-great-great-great grandfather Enoch Odle did in the 1830s when he was a newcomer to the Ozarks. Hunters today like the extra sporting challenge the old-style weapons give, and enjoy the thrill of shooting the primitive weapons including the greater recoil the gun gives and the noise and smoke of the explosion.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.