Tips & Tools with Fred Stutzenberger – Part 19
Tips &Tools #19 Fitting the Buttplate
“The buttplate is the single hardest piece of stock hardware to fit on a muzzleloading rifle”.
-Tom “Old Bear” Harbin, maker of 147 longrifles
There are as many variations in buttplate style and size as there are schools of longrifle production (an understatement because there were variations within schools). Variations range from the massive broad and straight buttplates on the early European Jäger rifles of the 1600s to the slightly curving plates on the transitional rifles of the mid-1700s to the smooth, shallow crescents of Golden Age rifles nearing the turn of the century to the deeply curved butts of the Hawken plains rifles of the mid-1800s to the diminutive ¾ scale buttplates of children’s rifles being built today (Fig. 1).
If you have been prudent and patient enough to wait until your rifle has reached the functional stage (barrel, lock, trigger inlet) before shaping your buttstock, you now have the opportunity to test Old Bear’s warning. Of course, you want the rifle to fit you in terms of pull, drop and cast-off. The pull (distance from trigger to butt) would generally be in the range of 13 ½ ” to 14”, but this is a matter of compatible anatomy between you and the rifle. Likewise for the drop (amount the top of the stock drops away from the line of the barrel); at the comb it might average 1 ½ and perhaps 2” at the heel. The cast-off (horizontal angle from the centerline of the barrel that brings the eye in line with the sights) might be in the range of ¼“ angled to the right for a right-handed shooter. If you already have a rifle that fits you well with similar sighting to that of your ML rifle project, use that as a model for determining the ideal numbers for your buttstock compatible with the dimensions of your plate.
Shaping the buttstock is all about architecture along lines that confer class or clumsiness: the comb that comes to a fine edge, the wrist that retains its shape deep into the buttstock, the lines of the cheekpiece edge that converge as they carry forward toward the wrist and point the way to the apex of the lock panel. Architecture is the essence of the longrifle. Beautiful engraving will not redeem bad architecture. Beautiful carving will not. Precious metal inlays will not. It is architecture. Being around and handling a few fine rifles will teach you more about the architecture than I can tell you. That’s the advantage that going to NMLRA and CLA events will give you; there you will be bathed in the graceful beauty of the American Longrifle right down to your subconscious.
Here I can only tell you about lines. The first line to draw is from the center of the tang to the end of the butt on both top and a similar centerline on the bottom of the stock. Then align your buttplate on that centerline to determine how much wood you have left for a cheekpiece (see examples of cheekpieces in the A-J series of images). You must have a cheekpiece on your rifle; I have never seen an American Longrifle originally made without one (although the cheekpiece on a Jacob Dickert rifle had been sawed off by some idiot and replaced with a crude 8-pointed star). If your blank is skimpy, putting a bit of cast off will reserve enough wood on the left hand side for a minimal cheekpiece. Then draw your cast off line from where the comb will start (Fig. 2). A ¼” of cast off will provide a bit of a cheekpiece on a skimpy stock. The cheekpiece is a shallow concave surface starting vertical at the top and sweeping out approaching horizontal at its edge. As you will see later, its edge can be decorative in itself. The images A-J can tell you a lot more about buttstock shaping than I can in this short text.
Beyond numbers, consider this: the straight-stocked rifle seems to kick less than those with the absurd drop (4-5”) of the late Bedford percussion rifles. The rifle with a comb in line with the longitudinal axis of the barrel pushes straight back rather than bucking up under your cheekbone. Look at the Jäger rifle in Fig. 3; it is a joy to shoot even with heavy loads because it fits me and it doesn’t murder my cheekbone.Shooting the same loads with a rifle with excessive drop would make me a candidate for a 911 call. I will never know how rifle makers unlearned how to shape a stock in the percussion era. Don’t make their mistake. Shape the buttstock to you, not to the faddish styles of 200 years ago. You want the rifle to fit you, not attempt to warp yourself around a rifle that refuses to be comfortable.
In that regard, shooting your rifle “in the white” unfinished state is definitely recommended. I used to do that with every rifle I built for myself until I reached the point where I was building more rifles for others or as publishable subjects for articles. People would say “Aren’t you afraid you will stain or scorch or oil-soak the stock without a finish on it?” And I would answer “So much wood is coming off this rifle after every time I shoot it that stains and scorches don’t stay around.” Gradually, the rifle came to fit me, shaped through experience and finished only after it had reached the point of diminishing returns.
Rather than spend a thousand words trying to tell you how to shape the buttstock, I would rather let images A through J tell their tale from Jäger to southern mountain rifle. Look through those and then go out and look over some nice old rifles in museums or events. Books will help, but most don’t show the comb lines of rifles.
‘Nuffsaid about stock fit. Let’s move on to choosing and fitting that buttplate. You have the choice of sand cast (relatively inexpensive) or investment cast (twice as expensive with better detail and smoother surface). For the southern Appalachian longrifle, choose hand-forged iron buttplates and trigger guards for authenticity. Stay away from buttplates with complex returns that scream to be engraved (Fig.4) and will not give you anything but a blank look until they are. Whatever your choice, the first task is checking the alignment of the buttplate. Place it on a smooth flat surface with only the tips of the return and the flat of the toe area (Fig.5). If you insist on inletting a Jäger rifle or a fowler buttplate with those complex returns, forget the above paragraph. With those, just lightly clamp the buttplate in the vise with the return up. Does it point at a true 90° to the vise jaws? Once you get that OK, then check for twist on the return. You can handle those cold with brass or German silver, better heat with a torch for cast steel and adjust in tiny increments. Once you get the kinks straightened out, smooth the inner surfaces that will be fitted against the wood. Leave the rest of the surface rough; it will be easier to smooth after it is installed.
The next step I am going to suggest is blatant cheating. For a traditional longrifle buttplate, make two photocopies of your buttplate full scale. Cut those out carefully. Square the back of the stock and glue the patterns at the proper position for your desired pull, and drop. Using lines to assure the patterns are aligned squarely on both sides of the stock compatible with your cast-off line, you are ready for sawing.
If you have prudently left your buttstock in the square, you may be tempted to use a bandsaw if available. A good bandsaw cuts effortlessly and errs effortlessly too! Most of the goofs I have made on buttstocks over the years have been bandsawed. I would rather use a flexible, thin length of 8 TPI bandsaw blade stretched in a hacksaw frame that would negotiate the curvature of any buttplate. Second choice would be a thin, homemade contour saw (Fig. 6) that I used to fit a Hawken plate (pretty difficult for me because of the extreme curvature and contending with a pre-shaped stock). I always cut the curvature first, then section off the return wood and remove it with a chisel, followed by cutting the corner curvature to join the two sections.
Now comes the clamp-and-fit, clamp and fit, clamp and fit using inletting black. Now you begin to understand why fitting buttplates is considered tedious. There is just so much exposed wood-to-metal fitting involved. I use a three-screw edging clamp (Fig. 7) to hold the plate in place while giving it sharp raps with a mallet to let the black tell you where the wood/metal gaps are (Fig. 8). While you are working the plate into the wood, be constantly aware of the angle and its alignment with your guidelines. If I had to choose between proper alignment or wood-to-metal fit, I would choose alignment every time.
Once you have good contact in all three planes, the plate is attached with two screws. The top screw through the middle of the return should be domed, at least 1¼” long and at least a #6. The lower screw should be flat headed, placed about an inch and a half up from the toe; depending on the size of the plate, use a #8 or even a #10. On a plate like the Hawken (Fig. 9) with its pronounced curvature (the late southern mountain rifles had even more of a crescent) , the screw should be up a little higher or use a shorter screw. Draw a line to represent the path of the screw to avoid breaking out through the toe.I use a piece of 2×8 to support the plate for accurate drilling (Fig. 10). Countersink the plate and wax the screws before running them in.
Finally, if there are any little wood-to-metal gaps, beat them into submission with a ball peen hammer. I’m serious, you can do that with the soft sand cast plates. The old gunsmiths did it, you can too, but I would not try it with steel. Steel is so unforgiving, you might end up with two little buttplates.
There is much more to shaping the stock beyond fitting the buttplate. Most old rifles had a butt molding. In its simplest form, an incised line that ran from the buttplate up to the trigger guard return. Instead of the line, you can shape a molding such as that in Fig. 11. Such a molding adds a distinctive feature to the toe line on both sides of the stock. Whether it is just a line or a molding, it must gracefully sweep along with the contour of the stock and taper as it goes forward. To lay out a nice line, you need an edge guide. Make one out of a piece of plastic corner molding. It is flexible enough to conform to your lower butt.
Most old original rifles had a toe plate such as that shown in Fig. 11. Toe plates are particularly necessary with buttplates that have excessive curvature and an extended toe area. The plate serves three functions: it protects cross-grain wood in the toe area from splitting out from the force of the butt being jammed into the ground at each loading. It provides a medium for engraving (Fig. 12) in an area that is otherwise relatively plain.
If you are not confident in your engraving ability, remember that poor engraving is worse than no engraving. However, wire inlay using thin ribbons (1/16” wide by 0.010” thick) of brass or silver is easy to learn. Make little chisels of varying widths from a piece of scrap hacksaw blade. Draw little designs of scrolls, borders or foliage. Use your little chisel to part the wood through the lines of the design rather than remove any. Press the ribbon into the crevice (Fig. 13). Wet the wood and it will swell shut holding the wire. Pulling the ribbon over the edge of a file will score the sides of the ribbon and produce little ridges that help to hold the wire in the crevice. The simple toeplate is not that much of a chore to inlet. With crescent shaped buttplates, the most important caution is to position two or more screws so that they do not interfere with the lower screw holding the buttplate.
Some toe plates also have a third function by providing a little storage area (Fig. 14) for things like flints and caps, things that are easily lost, even in the bottom of a hunting bag. Keith Lisle (http://custommuzzleloaders.com/) expanded the storage area by crafting elongated toeboxes that can hold a variety of small items. With encouragement from Keith, I have installed several toeboxes on rifles in which I did not want to cover the nice figure of the buttstock with a big patchbox.
In the next chapter, we will talk about things that we must stick on the barrel.
Jerrow’s, 152 Fifth Avenue East, North Kalispell, MT 59901 for the best inletting black on the market.
Stutzenberger, Fred. Fitting Buttplates. Muzzle Blasts, Jan. 1996, p.4.
Ibid. Quick-fitting the Buttplate. Muzzleloader, Nov./Dec. 2011, p.68.
Ibid. Quick-shaping the Buttstock. Muzzleloader, Mar./Apr. 2012 .p.65
Ibid. The Toebox Alternative. Muzzle Blasts,Mar. 2014 in press.