Tips and Tools with Fred Stutzenberger- Part 3
Choice of Rifle Period and Style- by guest author, Fred Stutzenberger
Before the first time builder purchases parts or touches steel to wood, certain preferences must be addressed, such as historical period, school/style of the rifle and its projected use. Much of the debate over historical period is futile, considering that most of the early colonial rifles were not signed or dated. Even dates are misleading as they could have been fraudulently added later to deceive the collector. Few general statements regarding period are safe, since old hardware from shattered stocks was used to build later guns, stocks were reshaped (shortened/lengthened), dysfunctional locks were replaced and barrels were shortened and reamed to smoothbore. If period is important (such as for re-enactments) , an arbitrary classification might be made: Early Colonial, French & Indian War, Revolutionary War, Golden Age and Plains Rifle. Some readers may take issue with the simplicity of this classification. I don’t mean to start a debate, but look at Fig. 1. The rifle at the top is a Jäger style rifle (Jäger translates literally as Hunter, but has become the term used for this type rifle). Many Jägers (and the skill to make them) came over with the German and Swiss immigrants who settled into what is now Pennsylvania in the 1720-1750 period. Many more Jägers came over with the Hessian troops serving under the British against the rebels in the Revolution. Short barrel of large caliber, walnut stock equipped with a sliding wooden patchbox cover and a sling…it’s the handiest traditional muzzleloader for hunting deer from a tree stand.
The next rifle down could be considered a transitional form, longer octagon-to-round barrel, again stocked in walnut with a sling, appropriate to the French & Indian War/Revolution period, sometimes built as a “smooth rifle” (contradiction of terms, I know, but a smoothbore fitted with good rifle sights can be very versatile if fed properly by an experienced hand). Generally, guns carried in military service had provisions for a sling. A sling is handy to have on any rifle.
The third rifle can be considered an example of the Golden Age (1780s-early 1800s). Long slender barrel full-stocked in curly maple inlet for a metal patchbox and carved in a rococo design. The Golden Age is the period that most people admire as the apex of muzzleloading rifle artistry and grace. By the advent of the percussion era, that grace had degenerated into uncarved stocks festooned with multiple metallic inlays
The next rifle down is a half-stock Hawken-style. Short, heavy, hooked-breech percussion barrel of large caliber ready for bear (grizzly variety). Mistakenly regarded as the classic rifle of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Sorry ‘about that, Hawken fans. By the time the Hawken gained its reputation as a reliable tool, the fur trade was dying, the romance of the rendezvous was just a memory, and most of the Hawkens were heading west in the back of a covered wagon bound for California. As Dexter Morris used to say “Hawkens are not the rifle to cut your teeth on!”
The last rifle is one with a “hardware store” back-action percussion lock appropriate to the 1850-1870 Period. I vaguely remember back in WWII when many items were hard to get, Dad took me down to a grimy little hardware store on Market Street in Louisville. Behind the front counter, there was a bunch of old rifles on the wall that looked like this one.
Choice of style and school of rifle is made easier by such books as Shumway’s Rifles of Colonial America Vol I & II and Johnston’s Kentucky Rifles and Pistols 1750-1850. Then there is the choice of caliber, dictated largely by anticipated use: squirrel rifle (.25-.40), deer rifle (.45-.50), big game (.54-up). In my experience, any of these calibers have had success in competition, which depends more on the skill of the operator and familiarity with the rifle’s capabilities than it does on style and caliber.
Tips & Tools #4 will describe the choice of strategies for building the rifle of your choice.
Regards, Fred Stutzenberger