Tips & Tools with Fred Stutzenberger – Part 17
Tips & Tools #17 Forming the Fore End
The grace of the American Longrifle resides largely in its fore end. From the first Germanic Jägers of the late 1600s to the transitional rifle forms of the mid-1700s to the Golden Age rifles of the early 1800s, riflemakers have employed a variety of techniques to “slenderize” the fore end. The use of single or multiple thin incised lines, the carving of delicate moldings, the lengthening of barrels and the thinning of wood along their sides all lent grace to the lines of the rifle. There were too many variations to cover them all in the space provided here, but I would like to provide a brief survey of some of the more widely used strategies.
To my mind, the most important of these slenderizing techniques is the reduction in the amount of wood between the barrel channel and the ramrod groove. Although seemingly simple on first consideration, getting a slender fore end can be relatively complex. It requires getting the ramrod groove very, very straight to guide the drilling of the ramrod hole past the contours of a swamped barrel with its protruding underlugs. Additional hurdles are the forward lock bolt and even the lock mainspring (Fig. 1); both can obstruct the passage of the ramrod, particularly in very slender rifles with skinny ¾” diameter barrels.
Getting the proper angle and depth of the ramrod groove is the cardinal consideration in avoiding problems. One strategy that was apparently used on some old rifles was the slight angling of the ramrod away from the lock (Fig. 2). It takes only a tiny angle, but it has to be relatively precise to pull it off successfully. I improvised a homemade milling attachment on my drill press (Fig. 3). The reversible horizontal bar is bolted to my milling table and the roughed barrel/stock assembly, with the barrel down, is clamped to it and also by the milling vise (Fig.4). I can mill the ramrod groove to the proper depth and even a slight angle that is not noticeable to the uninformed eye.
The cross-section of the fore end can also be shaped on the drill press if you have a milling table. I like to do this in short increments held firmly in the milling vise (Fig. 5). That establishes an even surface; any intervening segments can be easily removed with a chisel. The two most common fore end cross-sections are angled and rounded. As you can see, this one is angled toward the ramrod groove at 45° using a Craftsman #25579 V-groove router bit available at any Sears store. A rounded commercial muzzle cap is not completely compatible with this slender cross-section unless you carve a transition molding, so sometimes I swage a custom muzzle cap to match the angle. This does two things: it allows the cross-sectional conformation to continue right out to the muzzle and it also reduces the barrel-to-ramrod distance (Fig. 6).
If you don’t want to go to that much trouble devising a milling table just to build your first rifle (and who can build just one?), not to worry. What is presented here is fodder for your subconscious to gnaw on for future rifles. For your beginning rifle, you can do fore end shaping by laying out guidelines and using a coarse rasp and plane.
Remember these dimensions in shaping your fore stock:
Thickness between bottom of barrel and ramrod groove = 3/16” (commercial muzzle caps require this as a minimal thickness), never more than1/4” even on a Jäger rifle.
Depth of ramrod channel = half of ramrod diameter or even less, perhaps no more than 1/8” for 3/8” rod. Old original rifles show lots of ramrod and little groove for the slender look.
Then when doing your sawing from the blank, add 1/16” of additional thickness to provide a little leeway in case of a boo-boo.
No matter what the cross-sectional shape of your fore end, you should be aware of two slenderizing factors: the wood at the top of the barrel channel should round in to meet the barrel without any flat surface. Also, the wood must not come up higher than half way on the side barrel flats. Less than that is better, perhaps a third of the way up the side flats. In terms of the thickness of the wood along the sides of the barrel, I see authors recommending no more than 1/8” from the breech out to the entry thimble and no more than 1/16” from there to the muzzle. These dimensions were probably derived from old rifles with wood shrunken over 200 years. On these rifles, I often see slivers broken out from the channel sidewalls (of course, many have gone through hard use and some abuse too). That thin wood is fragile, and when the barrel is out of the stock, it is downright delicate. I made the mistake one time of leaning a stock sans barrel to dry against the wall out on my back deck. A wind came up and blew it down. The fore end fractured into three pieces. Luckily, they were clean breaks and the wood was highly figured. I just glued the sections back together with the barrel as support and it turned out fine.
On early period rifles, I like to see the 1/8” terminating in a gentle swell at the entry thimble (the old Brown Bess had a bit of that) and then coming down to 3/32” out to the muzzle. Several shooters who shoulder a rifle having that gentle swell comment favorably that it gives them a reference point for placing their left hand at the exact spot every time. That’s a good practice…if you don’t believe it matters where the fore end is supported during shooting, just rest it near the breech for a couple of shots and then rest it near the muzzle for a couple more. The two positions will group differently.
On a rifle with 42” or longer barrel, the rear portion of the fore stock breech to entry thimble (the ramrod hole) should be about 12-13” long and the rest of the fore stock is ramrod groove in a proportion of 1:2.25 to 1:3.10 ratio respectively. Those proportions don’t hold for Jäger rifles. Of the six Jägers I have measured over the years, the ramrod groove to ramrod hole ratio ranges from 1.4 to 2.2 for an average of 1.8. So the ramrod groove is quite a bit shorter in proportion to the ramrod hole in those rifles.
I don’t know how to explain my subjective impressions of what the ideal proportions should be, but for an American longrifle, if the breech-to-entry thimble distance is more than 1/3 the length of ramrod thimble-to-muzzle, the rifle just does not look quite right. To explore these proportions for yourself in shaping your specific rifle (or if you are copying one of the old originals), measure pictures of that old original in the classic reference books such as Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age by Joe Kindig Jr. and Kentucky Rifles and Pistols 1750-1850 by James R.
Johnston. Better yet, go to the NMLRA and the CLA events and meetings and experience the old originals (and wonderful contemporary) rifles “in the flesh”.
Once the fore end is sawed to these dimensions and planed straight and smooth, take the barrel out of its channel and drill a little hole (I use a 5/64” bit) down through the exact middle of the bottom flat of the barrel channel and about five inches from the muzzle (this hole will be covered by the front ramrod thimble). Drill a similar hole where it will be covered by the entry thimble (or move it to the left a few thousands if you want to angle your ramrod hole away from the lock mortise a slight bit). Draw a straight line centered on these two holes. That is the axis of your ramrod groove. Forming the groove can be done in increments using an appropriate size ball end mill (see some of my groovy tools in Fig. 7) while clamping, drilling and moving the stock along an edge guide mounted on the drill press table (a piece of 2” x 2” x ¼” angle iron works well). If you have access to a milling machine (and someone who knows how to run it), well…problem solved right there. Failing those two options, do what the old-timers did…just cut parallel lines 3/16” on both sides of your axis line and use a gouge and a mallet working with the grain. Once you develop a rhythm, it goes pretty fast. Straighten up the little hillocks and wallows with a dowel wrapped with 60-grit aluminum oxide abrasive paper or cloth. If there is any error in the angle of the groove, it would be best toward the off side of the breech to avoid the mistake that is shown in Fig. 1.
After, and only after, you have that groove perfectly straight…well, nothing’s perfect…or at least very straight to the eye, you are almost ready to drill the ramrod hole. First, you must determine the barrel-to-ramrod distance using that little dowel with the piece of rod sticking through its end. Push the rod down through each hole in the ramrod groove while pressing the dowel firmly into the groove. Measure what sticks out; if you calculated correctly it will be close to 3/16” at both holes. If it measures more, you have a little more removal and straightening to get it right (unless you want your rifle to have a plump fore end).
You might think that the best drill bit to use is one made especially for wood with that little pilot spike on the end. Do not expect that type of bit to track accurately in maple end grain. It will not! Just use regular old machinist jobbers bits and proceed cautiously. A bit with a sharp point will wander into the path of least resistance. If it wanders out the bottom of the stock, you must install a “wear plate”, a euphemistic term for “boo-boo cover”. New rifles then or now were not sold worn out on the bottom from saddle wear. A bit ground almost flat on the end with only a slight relief angle will cut slowly and accurately to avoid having to make excuses for poor planning.
I have drilled at least a hundred ramrod holes and have had two come out through the bottom of the stock. Each one has been memorable. One was purposefully set up to do that for an article showing how to repair it (see references). The other happened because I believed the owner who vowed that the ramrod groove was properly aligned with the axis of the barrel. If you get the groove right, the hole will be right also. In any case, you will need a long drill bit a few more inches than your groove. Some authors advise having a bit welded on the end of a rod. I consider that a bit silly (and costly too) when you can thread the shanks of regular jobbers bits (which most people don’t know they are soft enough to thread). I threaded (¼ x 28) the ends of four 48” mild steel extension rods ranging from 5/16” to 1/2” (Example in Fig. 8). These rods screw into the threaded shanks of bits correspondingly from 5/16” to 1/2” in 1/64” increments. You must do this on a lathe for precision centering, but you end up with a ramrod hole drill for a fraction of the cost of one custom welded job and you can still use your jobbers bits for conventional drilling on other projects. Plus…and this is a big plus…if the hole needs a little enlargement, just screw on a bit 1/64” larger; you can’t do that with a welded-on extension. Plus…and this is another big plus…you can taper the hole using smaller bits at the breech end if you need to avoid run-out into the barrel channel or belly of the stock.
Finally, observe these cautions in drilling:
1. Have a helper hold the ramrod drill firmly into its groove using a grooved, waxed piece of wood (Fig. 9) at least until the bit has made it an inch or two into the wood.
2. Use a variable speed corded drill if possible. Avoid the cordless type. They are usually just two-speed and the battery runs down pretty fast in hardwood end-grain. Use low RPM to avoid heat buildup.
3. Withdraw the drill bit every half inch or so to clear chips (otherwise chip accumulation will burst the stock….very important!
4. Put a prominent mark on your extension rod where you want to stop referenced to the muzzle. Don’t drill into the trigger area or where the tang bolt passes through.
5. To gauge the thickness of web between barrel and ramrod, just use your same little depth finder shown at the top of Fig. 7. Look back to T&T #16 to see more substantial depth gauges for long-term use. Either type will measure precisely what room you have for drilling the hole for the forward lock bolt. Don’t go ahead blindly trusting to luck. The prudent gunsmith makes his luck by measuring twice and cutting once rather than the other way around.
6. If the web is too thin to allow passage of the bolt you intended, don’t be a phony by installing a fake non-functional bolt head in your sideplate. You can have a screw turned down as thin as 4-40 and still have an effective forward bolt. In addition, move the nose of the sideplate up a bit and file a little groove under your barrel to accommodate passage of the bolt. Better yet, use the English method of hook-and-screw (Fig. 10) and just don’t drill the forward hole in the sideplate. A boss on the inside of the Wilson lock plate (Fig. 11) hooks under the conical head of the screw to secure the nose of the plate.
Some parting comments about drilling the ramrod hole. Drilling into hard maple end grain is an adventure. The bit and extension will get hotter the further you go. Drill in many little increments with cooling periods in between. Do not keep drilling if you hear a screeching sound…the bit is about to seize up! Drilling this hole through hard end grain with little room for error is an exercise in planning, patience and prayer. Be particularly careful if you are drilling in a pre-shaped stock (they should already have the hole drilled, but they don’t always have it straight in those preemies.
Finally, a few words about making ramrods. Most old original ramrods (only a few old originals have survived) were tapered toward the bottom end (the end that is in the stock). The major reason for the tapering was to avoid interference with barrel underlugs or the forward lock bolt while keeping the fore stock slender. There are various ways to taper, including a fancy tool sold by Michael Lea. A ramrod can also be tapered by driving it through a series of diminishing diameter holes in a steel plate (Fig. 12). Tom made the square plate for me with holes in 1/64” increments. I made another from welding scrap to make other increments for really big and really small guns. The novice might not believe this, but you drive the dowel through one side and a nice round reduced diameter ramrod emerges on the other. Best to cover the driven end with a cartridge case to keep it from mushrooming and splitting. Don’t try to take a ½” rod to ¼” in just a couple of holes. Take it down in 1/64” increments to get a rod with a smooth finish and no splits. Stop me before I type again.
We still have to talk about triggers and buttplates to complete the back of the stock. T&T #18 and 19 will try to handle that.
Stutzenberger, Fred. Low Fat Fore Ends, Part I. Muzzle Blasts, June, 2002, p.63.
Ibid. Installing a Muzzle Cap. Muzzle Blasts, July, 2002, p.61.
Neumann, George C. The Redcoat’s Brown Bess. American Rifleman, April 2001, p.48.
Stutzenberger, Fred. Remedies in Riflemaking. Part I. Muzzle Blasts, Feb. 1999, p.4.
Ibid. Remedies inRiflemaking. Part II. Muzzle Blasts, Mar. 1999, p.75.