Fred Stuzenberger has published approximately 300 articles on the history and construction of muzzleloading arms in periodicals such as Muzzle Blasts, Muzzleloader, The Accurate Rifle, Precision Shooting and The Gun Digest. So you are familiar with his writing, but you might forget that he is a very good builder of flintlock arms. Here is a reminder of Fred’s skill as a gunsmith and a few facts that I bet you don’t know.
Fred’s Southern Muzzleloaders is not so much a business as it is an educational entity dedicated to information on the construction and use of muzzleloading firearms. Occasionally a rifle or pistol that has been produced during the development of an article is sold to a private buyer or donated for public display. Sometimes, a rifle is built on request from a government agency, for example, the rifle built for the National Park Service’s Living History Program at the King’s Mountain National Military Park.
Fred has organized seminars through local muzzleloading chapters to demonstrate specific techniques useful in the building of muzzleloaders He has had 27 years in active Scouting and occasionally gives demonstrations of safe firearm use to Boy Scout troops and church groups. From time to time, students interested in the history and construction of muzzleloaders visit with Fred and receive instruction or materials for building their own muzzleloader.
Fred’s professional career as a research professor in Microbiology and Molecular Medicine has spanned 45 years across three continents. He is a life member of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association, Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society and the National Geographic Society. Currently, he is a staff writer for Muzzleloader magazine and a member of the National Rifle Association.
When Fred is not building or writing, he enjoys other activities such as his daily swim, hiking, restoring old original cabins, writing rhyming poetry and experimental bread baking.
I for one want to thank Fred for sharing his building techniques, scholarship and research through his writing on our great black powder hobby.
Thanks for reading,
Here are the pictures of his guns as promised.
Click on the picture to see a larger version.
When Rick invited me to publish rifle-building information on his website, I considered it to be a two-fold opportunity: first, to provide encouragement to the beginning builder and second, to establish a fitting legacy to honor Tom Harbin, my longtime friend, mentor and builder of 147 muzzleloading rifles.
I built my first muzzleloading rifle as a teenager well over a half century ago. I had no instruction book, no mentor, not even an idea of proportion in the stocking of the rifle. My inspiration came from a visit to the Kentucky State Museum. Uncle Albert was a friend of the curator there. One day, when my uncle and I were at the museum, the curator asked us to stay past closing time. He took us to the display case where a rifle purportedly to have been used by Daniel Boone was kept. He opened the case and let me briefly hold the rifle. Even to my untrained eye, it looked crude and weathered. I thought to myself “I can build a better rifle than this.” It took me years to learn how wrong I was in that arrogant conclusion.
In the next few years, I built two matchlock pistols and a cannon complete with carriage. By the time I was 17, I had saved enough money to buy a barrel, lock and hardware from Turner Kirkland at Dixie Gun Works. The stock was a slab of rough-cut walnut from my father’s stack of lumber in the barn loft. I sawed out the stock without his knowing…he was born in 1895 and had no regard for antique firearms…and I feared that he would not take kindly to my ruining one of his valuable walnut planks. By the time that he found out, I had already inlet the barrel. I was too big to spank so I got off pretty light.
Gradually, the rifle came together. Homely as the rifle was, it was a tack driver once I developed a proper load: 38 grains of Dupont Powder and a .389 caliber ball patched in pillow ticking lubed with sperm whale oil. The first time my friend George and I went squirrel hunting with my rifle, I got a clean limit of six without a miss. George was so impressed that he took a picture of me (Fig. 1) after the hunt. I wish every first time builder the same success that I enjoyed with my first homemade rifle. Hopefully, my Tips & Tools series will help you along that path.
Prepare your Stock Blank for Barrel Inletting
When Rick invited me to publish rifle-building information on his website, I considered it to be a two-fold opportunity: first, to provide encouragement to the beginning builder and second, to establish a fitting legacy to honor Tom Harbin, my longtime friend, mentor and builder of 147 muzzleloading rifles. Fred Stutzenberger.
To prepare your blank before inletting the barrel, it is best to remove some surplus wood. Tom and I always butt-shaped our blanks before inletting the barrel. That removed a lot of waste and made the stock lighter to handle. But we were working from blanks that had been shaped to plywood templates. No nasty surprises since we knew exactly what style we wanted and how to get there. If this is your first rifle from a blank, best to find/borrow a rifle that fits you to use as a template). A good way to determine if the rifle fits is to aim at a spot on the wall. Then take the rifle down, close your eyes and bring the rifle back up into the aiming position. Open your eyes. If you are close on target, the rifle fits. If not, try another rifle until you get one that brings you close to the target with your eyes closed. Although rifle fit is not as important as shotgun fit, a well-fitting rifle does improve marksmanship.
Place your template/rifle down on your blank to best advantage in terms of grain direction, figure and available wood (Fig. 1). Mark around your template allowing an extra 1/8” all around. Saw off the excess wood. Save the large pieces of that wood–it is not waste—you might need it later.
Plane the top of the blank the whole length of the fore end. That surface should be straight and square with the side since it will be your initial reference. With the breech plug installed, lay the barrel down on the right side of the blank to align the barrel with the planed reference surface. Make sure that the curvature of the barrel tang lies along the wrist of the blank (some bending will be needed there). Machined breech plugs are usually quite malleable and will bend easily. Cast plugs are harder and may require multiple heatings to get the right curvature. Attempts at cold bending a casting may result in a detachable tang.
Set your scribe to a depth 1/3 the diameter of the barrel (for swamped or tapered barrels, use 1/3 of the minor diameter). Run the scribe along your planed reference several times to indicate what will be the preliminary top of your barrel channel. You want deep scribe marks on both sides of the blank; if you are using a band saw, run a pencil along in the scribes to darken them and make them apparent even in the sawdust. Make a sloping cut at the breech end down to the line (refer back to Fig. 1, bottom barrel stock combination for a rough cut view). It is safer to saw the top wood off carefully using a wide-bladed carpenter’s saw (Fig.2). Saw an inch or two from one side, then saw from the other side to keep the cut from leading off. Band saws are notorious for leading off on the under side, particularly in hard wood with a dull blade.
Going back to Fig. 1, the lower barrel/stock combination is what Tom and I would have had after sawing off the excess from the barrel channel and inletting the barrel. Usually we would inlet the muzzle cap and mill the sides of the fore stock back close to the diameter of the cap (more about caps later). Be sure to save that nice slat of wood from the fore end. It might be good for a sliding wooden patchbox cover.
If you did a careful job of sawing, there won’t be much planning needed to bring your new reference surface back to straight and square. In Tips & Tools Part 6, we’ll get that barrel into the stock.
Tips & Tools #10A: Attaching the Barrel Part A.
T&T#9 described the bedding of the barrel in the stock. Whether you chose to epoxy bed or not, now is the time, while the stock is still “in the square” to attach the barrel with either pins or keys. For the standard 42” length barrels in fullstocks, I usually use four pins or keys. For the standard 36” and shorter barrels, I use three keys or pins. For halfstock rifles like Hawkens, I almost always use two keys.
The barrels in most early fullstocks (including Jägers) were pinned. Pinning using 1/16” diameter drill rod is relatively easy. Keying a barrel is considerably harder. Both methods will be described in Part B. Here the making and attachment of barrel tenons (also called underlugs or loops) will be shown.
Commercially available tenons are widely available in a variety of forms (Fig. 1). See supplier’s list at the end of this chapter. The traditional ones are installed by sawing/filing a shallow dovetail slot across the underside of the barrel. Make sure you mark what is the underside when you have the barrel out of the stock, particularly if the breech plug is not installed (I know you are probably saying “Duh”; however, one bright but absent-minded fellow came to me years ago asking how best to fill a slot cut into the wrong barrel flat). While the dovetailed tenon is OK, I do not like to cut a slot all the way across a barrel flat, particularly in thin-walled barrels such as 13/16” diameter x .45 caliber. On one heavy-walled large caliber halfstock rifle, I used a tenon attached with screws (Fig.2) and reinforced with Hi-Force 44TM low temperature silver solder (see suppliers’ list) Very sturdy, perhaps overkill, but style dictated a single key, so I wanted to make sure nothing came apart.
The barrel loop (Fig. 3) is a good one to attach if you are using keys since it provides some latitude for differential barrel/stock expansion and plenty of room for a key. The legs of the loops are notched; shallow holes are drilled into the barrel wall and the legs of the loop inserted, then staked into place (indicated by arrows). These must be installed using a drill press or some other method that provides a positive control over the depth of the holes (ML barrels do not benefit from ventilation holes other than the flintlock touch-hole or the percussion drum vent). You will also need a spacing punch and a staking tool to install these easily and properly.
My favorite method is one I developed myself. Little T-shaped tenons are milled on my homemade milling machine (see Fig. 4 for set-up and shape of tenon). Little slots are then milled into the bottom barrel flat to a depth a little more than the thickness of the ears on the T-shaped tenon. Each tenon is then filed to snugly fit the slot. The sides of the slot are then punched over the ears the whole way around the tenon (Fig. 5) to stake it securely. Note that the tenon is offset to the right from the centerline of the barrel. This provides clearance for the drilling of the ramrod hole (to be described later). A very clean and versatile method removes minimal material from the barrel wall and will accept either pins or keys.
Tips & Tools #10 Part B
If you have not gotten around to choosing the method of barrel-to-stock attachment, here is a summary of some of the tenons (also called underlugs or tabs) that I have used in the past (Fig.1). Tenons a, b and e are of the dovetail type (e shows how I run the a-type off en masse on the milling machine in strips). For those, you must cut a dovetail in the bottom flat. C is a loop with feet that are staked into carefully drilled holes. D is shown in greater detail in Fig. 2 (I generally use the d-type for its versatility and strength, easy installation if you are friends with a milling machine). F is a stronger version of d; the tenon is left full thickness and is staked into the flat via a groove cut with a 60° dovetail cutter. The d-type tenon can be filed to shape in a few minutes if you do not have access to a milling machine.
You know by now that I like D best of all. It has a foot to be staked all the way around its perimeter. It is very strong and receptive to keys because it provides plenty of room for slotting (Fig. 3) to allow for differential expansion/contraction. If you are pinning a thick-walled barrel, you may be tempted to merely mill a little indent into the bottom of the barrel (Fig. 4). This method was suggested in Recreating the American Longrifle (William Buchele et al., 1983). This is a fine book, but don’t use this method of barrel attachment. It is very hard to slot the pinhole; if you don’t slot it, and the wood shrinks while the barrel expands in a heated area, you will find (as I did) that the pin is locked in, creating a real chore to remove.
I use 1/16” diameter oil-hardening drill rod for my pins. A three-foot length costs less than a dollar from Enco Manufacturing. It can be hardened and tempered, but I have found that it is sturdy enough as it comes from Enco. If you are building a rifle that requires keys (as most halfstock rifles do), you can buy them (see suppliers’ list) or make them yourself by first milling the blank and then shaping the head by peening and filing. Fig. 5 illustrates a purchased cast key and two stages of a homemade key. Making a key is pretty simple on a milling machine, but is a chore to make by hand.
The positioning of pins or keys is dependent on the length of barrel and type of rifle. On a fullstock, I position my rear pin eight inches ahead of the breech and the front pin about one inch back of the muzzle cap. Then the other one (or two on long barrels) are placed equidistant between the front and back positions. On a halfstock, I use two keys, one about seven inches forward of the breech and the other about two inches back from the fore end cap to stay out of the way of the entry thimble. Look at some old rifles to see how they did it and use enough forethought to consider where your ramrod thimbles will be placed later.
Now for the actual pinning or keying. I once saw Hershel House drill the barrel pinholes freehand with a hand drill, but mere mortals such as I require a bit more precision by using a drill press.
- Clamp a piece of angle iron or other stop on the press table
- Clamp the barrel firmly to the stop in position so that you can bring the drill bit down squarely to the middle of the tenon. That shows you where the bit will drill through the tenon when assembled in the stock.
- Mark the relative position of barrel and stop on both by making index marks.
- Clamp the barrel firmly in its channel and extend the barrel index mark across the side of the stock. You will be drilling through that line on the stock, the tenon and out the other side.
- Clamp the assembly firmly to the stop, making sure it is square to the direction of drilling in all three planes and all index marks line up.
- When drilling for the pin closest to the muzzle, you will need a mechanical support or an assistant to hold up the butt end of the rifle from cantilevering the rifle off the table.
- Slide the bit up into the chuck as far as possible to stabilize the point.
- Start the drill press running and bring the bit down into the stock a bit to mark the desired location for drilling.
- Raise the quill back up and slide the bit out of the chuck far enough to allow it to drill all the way through the stock.
- Drill all the way through, raising the bit frequently to clear chips.
If you are installing keys, drill a series of holes and connect them with a needle file to make a nice even slot as shown in Fig. 3. You can also use a small end mill or a Dremel Tool to remove wood, but be careful. Tools that remove material rapidly also rapidly make mistakes. To remove the wood from both sides of the slot in the stock, you can grind a little saw from a piece of hacksaw blade that can reach in from both sides and carefully remove the wood between the holes. Remember that if you carelessly remove too much wood from the upper side of the slot, the key will not hold the barrel firmly down in its channel.
This part essentially completes directions dealing with barrels. For more details on barrels, check out the 8-part series, Essentials of Barrelmaking in Muzzle Blasts that appeared in 2000. See below:
| Muzzle Blasts (the magazine of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association)
|Essentials of Barrelmaking||Part I||March 2000||Page 9|
|Essentials of Barrelmaking||Part II||Aprril 2000||Page 11|
|Essentials of Barrelmaking||Part III||May 2000||Page 13|
|Essentials of Barrelmaking||Part IV||June 2000||Page 9|
|Essentials of Barrelmaking||Part V||July 2000||Page 7|
|Essentials of Barrelmaking||Part VI||August 2000||Page 9|
|Essentials of Barrelmaking||Part VII||September 2000||Page 11|
|Essentials of Barrelmaking||Part VIII||October 2000||Page 13|
ENCO, 1-800-873-3626, for drill rod and mild steel sheet suitable for a variety of muzzleloading parts.
Track of the Wolf (trackofthewolf.com) has a wide variety of barrel keys and pin stock.
Tips & Tools #11. Choosing the Lock
After your barrel is snuggled securely in its stock via pins or keys, you can turn your attention to inletting the lock. If you have Muzzle Blasts issues Lazy Man’s Guide to Lock Inletting Part I, Apr. 1997, p.4 and Part II, June, 1997, p.40, just go to them. They will provide in more detail the lock inletting procedure than what I have space to provide here.
For you deprived youngsters who have not had the good fortune to have been an NMLRA member that far back, a brief survey of the commercially available locks and how to inlet them will be provided in the next few T&T installments.
When I built my first rifle back in the mid-50s, there were no high quality locks available except old originals that were way too expensive for my budget of $68 for parts. Now all of that has changed (both availability and prices). There are many high quality locks available from American manufacturers. For flintlocks, prices will range from $130-200. Percussion locks generally cost about $90-110. There may be some good foreign-made locks over there…I just don’t know of any and have not made any special effort to find them. Check out Muzzleloading Forum for candid discussions of locks.
For a Jäger style rifle, choose a lock with a banana-shaped plate (Fig.1). Jim Chambers, R.E. Davis and L&R all market appropriate Germanic locks for Jägers. For an early Colonial/Transitional/Golden Age rifle, there are many good English and Germanic style locks (Fig. 2). Choose an late period English style flintlock for a southern mountain rifle (Fig. 3); contrary to popular opinion, the southern mountain gunsmiths often bought their locks rather than hand-forging them. I have never seen a Germanic lock on an southern mountain rifle; perhaps readers can enlighten me in this regard. The same for flint Hawken mountain/plains rifles (if there ever were any). Charlie Hanson, who probably knew more about Hawken Brothers products than anyone, told me on one of my visits to his Fur Trade Museum in Chadron, NE, that he did not know of an original flint Hawken mountain/plains rifle. Perhaps there were some that did not survive the hard use Hawkens were put to; if you believe that, then build a rifle with a large English late period lock (Fig. 4). All the original Hawkens I have seen have been percussion. There were many different locks used on Hawken rifles; early ones had plate shapes like flintlocks (Fig. 5) with a curving transition from bolster to nose. Go to The Hawken Rifle website to see the range of lock styles.
Of course, there are many more types of lock/rifle combinations: trade guns, English stalking rifles, Gibbs-Metford thousand-yard target rifles, German Schuetzen rifles, hardware store rifles, etc. The first muzzleloader I saw as a kid was what I would call a hardware store rifle because I saw them in an old hardware store down on Market Street in Louisville, KY. Many years later, I finally learned that they had back action locks from overseas, probably Belgium. There is nothing shabby about a back action lock if properly made. L&R makes a nice back action lock (Fig. 6) that I like very much, although they should be mated with a patent breech for best effect.
My good shooting buddy, Don Habig, had a little halfstock with a Blue Grass back action lock. That little rifle was as plain as a fencepost, but it had a good bore and shot #0 buck really well. A lot of those cheap late period rifles did not have a half cock notch, but his did and it was a smooth lock. Many fine English pinfire shotguns were back action. So if you hanker for a late period rifle, don’t turn up your nose at the back action lock.
This lock disassembly procedure has been provided by Mr. Keith Lisle. See custommuzzleloaders.com.
First thing is Safety for you and for the good of the lock. Never….. fire the lock without a flint or wooden piece the size of a flint in the jaw. Always have the frizzen closed when you fire the lock. The frizzen retards the forward motion & energy of the hammer (also called the cock) as the lock fires. Otherwise, the hammer hits the lockplate bolster & the tumbler hits the back of the bridle on the lockplate. The tumbler shaft takes all the energy and could fracture the tumbler shaft.
Also, don’t work on the lock with a flint in the jaws. It will cut you severely if it comes down on your finger. It will cut you to the bone!
Figure 1: REMOVE THE FLINT. Pull the hammer back to Half-cock. Put the mainspring vice on the spring so it is flush against the lockplate over the spring, slide it to the right to where top part of vice is up near spring part going up into the lockplate bolster. Turn thumbscrew left to open jaws as you slide it. When it is in position, barely tighten the thumbscrew about 1/8 turn on vice. Holding lock in Left hand, with right hand pull back on hammer slightly & pull up on Sear Arm to release the hammer & let the hammer gently down to fired position.Sometimes you have to go to full cock to get the main spring compressed enough to where it will come out with a spring vice, but on a lot of locks half-cock is enough. Some locks have a screw that holds the stationary leaf of the spring to the lockplate. The screw will have to be removed and placed in a secure place (such as a flat-bottomed bowl with a top) where it won’t get lost.
Figure 2. Notice the end of the Mainspring is off the Shoe of the tumbler now.
Figure 3: Now wiggle the vice & pull out as you wiggle the vice & the mainspring will come out. Put the mainspring in the bowl and leave it there.
Figure 4: Take a small screwdriver tip that Fits the spring screw that holds the Sear Arm Spring to the plate. Loosen that screw about 2 turns. Wiggle the spring & it will pop out of the retaining slot in the lockplate. Remove the screw & spring & put them in the bowl. Next, remove the Sear Arm screw & put it & sear arm in the bowl. Remove the Bridle screw & remove the bridle & screw & put them in the bowl.
You might be able to see that little movable lever that can be moved back and forth in the tumbler. That is the fly; if you are not careful, it will fly off to workshop never-never land, never to be found. Some locks are made with the flies on the plate side, some on the bridle side of the tumbler. Some flies have arms that they pivot on, others pivot on an arm integral to the tumbler. If on the bridle side, you can remove it with a magnetic screwdriver tip or simply lift it out with tweezers.
Wiggle & pull straight out on it to remove it; either tape it to the lid of the bowl or an index card with a hole to push the arm of the fly to secure it. The lock Will Not work properly without the fly installed correctly.
You have the Lockplate with Tumbler still sticking through it into the Hammer. The frizzen and frizzen spring spring still on. Under lockplate is the Fly. Under that is the mainspring with the vice on it. On right, you have the Sear Spring with screw, under it the Bridle with screw, under it the sear. (Sear arm is the right angle piece that sticks out towards you).
Figure 5: If you do not have a second spring vise, make a Frizzen Spring Tension Tool. Note: As Keith remembers it, he got his first such tool from Dave Motto (who may have designed that tool originally), at Friendship ~20 years ago. Since then, Keith made a couple of his own as one size does not fit all frizzen springs.
You can make it from a piece of mild steel rod or a large spike with a diameter about 1/4″ diameter. Heat it, bend it and file so it fits over the spring. My frizzen tool pushes up on the part the screw goes in to. So you squeeze it into the lock & it holds up on spring tip as you remove the screw, and you do same and align the screw holes & insert screw upon reassembly. Mount the tool as shown & turn it all the way over in your hand so the tool is on your palm, depress slightly as you remove the Frizzen Spring Screw See Figure 6.
Figure 6: When screw is out, remove the spring. Put the screw back into the spring. Put in bowl. Remove the Frizzen Screw from lockplate. Remove frizzen, put screw back through frizzen & put both in bowl.
Figure 6a: Now you have it all apart except the Hammer & the Tumbler. All the parts are laid out on the cardboard for viewing (you should have yours in the bowl).
Figure 7: Remove the tumbler screw that holds the hammer. Keith’s method is to put a rag over the vice jaw. Slide the lockplate over the edge of the vice so it is laying flat on the vice jaws, but has to be close to edge so as to not to elevate it on the bolster underneath the plate. Take a 1/4″ piece of brass rod & file it square on about 1/2″ of the end. Use a Brass Rod, Not steel. The tumbler shaft is very hard & brittle.
You go punching it with steel and it can shatter or break in the threaded hole. Rod needs to have a square end that will barely go inside the hammer square hole. (Not down in the tumbler shaft hole). Tap the tumbler shaft with a small hammer & brass punch and punch the tumbler out of the hammer. See Figure 8. The rag will catch the tumbler as in Figure 8. If you have access to a milling machine (or a friend who has one), you can make a little fixture as shown in Figure 9. Mine is made of scrap aluminum. You could make one from a piece of hardwood. It is very easy to use.
Keith cautions: DO NOT put a screwdriver under the hammer & try to pry the hammer off the shaft. If you do, it will fracture the shaft & you will be sending the lock back to Jim Chambers to have a new tumbler fitted & it is not a warranty item when you break it! They are Very fragile if abused.
Assembly is exact reverse of above procedure. When you put the frizzen spring back in, you squeeze the tool on the spring & align the hole & put in screw. When you put the sear arm spring on you snug it down close, press the spring & pop the retaining lug on the spring into the slot in the lockplate.
Thanks for all your help on this one, Keith.
A Place to Work
In Part #5 of this series, I promised you that we would have that barrel into the stock in part #6. That statement was a bit premature. So let me back up a bit. Before the first timer gets into the nitty-gritty of rifle building, he has to have a place to work. If you have a friend who has a large machine shop and is desperate for company who doesn’t always know what he is doing, you can skip the rest of this chapter.
For the rest of us, we must have a place to work. Now I know most of you have heard of the guy who built his first rifle on his kitchen table. To me, that sounds like the same guy who built a rocket in his back yard and is now selling moon rocks for a living. Metal filings and wood chips on the kitchen table is not a recommended path to ensure domestic tranquility. If Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.
Some sort of a working surface is essential to rifle building. A good working surface has three characteristics: it must be sturdy, it must have a mechanism for holding the rifle assembly immovable, and it must be versatile enough to accept a variety of fixtures like a vise or other supports. The part of my workbench where most of my activity is concentrated has a swivel-base vise and adjustable supports on each side (Fig. 1). The vise has leather-lined inserts (made from pieces of 2×4, Fig. 2) that protect the stock from being marred by the vise jaws. Note also the cloth on the acme screw housing. That protects the stock against injury in case it falls down from the jaws. Clamped tightly in the padded vise and firmly supported by the side supports, that stock is not going anywhere even under frenzied pounding, planing and rasping. Check out my article (Muzzle Blasts, Vises and Virtues, Sept. 1996, page 49) for more ideas about vises.
Many of the old timers did a lot of their rifle building outside, particularly in the southern Appalachians (Fig.3, Muzzle Blasts, May 1992, page 6 by permission). The light was better, the air was cleaner with less smoke from the forge and space was practically unlimited. If you live in a house or apartment with a deck, you can take that concept into your rifle-building future. Just find a sturdy board (a 2×10 or 2×12 x 6 feet long is good) and some big C-clamps. Attaching a vertical support underneath will keep it from flexing. Cover the top surface with cloth, or better yet, indoor/outdoor carpeting. Clamp your work surface across the corner of your deck (Fig. 4).
The arrows indicate the clamps holding the board to the rails and the rifle to the board. The triangulation provides a stout surface for rifle work. Refer to Muzzle Blasts, Building your Rifle in your Back Yard. May 2001, page 69, for additions that will make your primary working surface more versatile. If you don’t have a deck, sink a couple of 4×4 posts in the ground and mount the work surface on those. If you attach a capping board on each post, you can clamp your work surface to those then take it in out of the weather when you are done using it.
In Part #7, we will get that barrel into the stock. I promise.
Tips & Tools #7. Inletting the Barrel.
Some wag once said “A muzzleloading rifle is a barrel with some parts attached.” That’s like saying an automobile is an engine with some metal bolted to it. No matter what the analogy, inletting a barrel into a fullstock is a long and exacting task. George Suiter up at Colonial Williamsburg told me that some evidence indicates that the old-timers screwed down flexible pieces of metal alongside the barrel to provide rails to guide a saw for cutting the sides of the barrel channel. Once the sides of the channel were cut, the bottom was removed casually with gouges rather than closely fitting the bottom barrel flats.
I modernized that system by moving the rails (2 x 2 x ¼ x 60” angle iron) to the outside of the blank and using one of them as a precise track for a ½ HP router with an edge guide (Fig.1). The track rail must mate against the side of the stock that is planed very straight. Worked great for straight-sided barrels; for tapered or swamped barrels, I installed an auxiliary set of edge guides on the track rail that I could move in or out slightly to cut any channel configuration I wanted. I always cut just very slightly undersized whether cutting straight, tapered or swamped. My first few barrels were inlet without any cast-off (the extent to which the buttstock is angled to the left [cast-on] or right [cast-off] relative to the longitudinal axis of the barrel), but I soon got to liking a bit of cast-off (no more than a quarter inch). The best way to determine the effect cast will have in your particular rifle is to handle a few with varying degrees of cast. Most of the old rifles for right-handed shooters had a bit of cast-off.
After I got used to using this fixture, I wasn’t satisfied with using that cumbersome combination of straight-sided bits, so I custom-ground a full set of router bits to half octagon shapes (Fig.2). The rounded or triangular cutters were used to inlet octagon-to-round barrels or shaping the fore end respectively. The straight-sided bits at the top were used to remove most of the wood from the tang inlet.
Such an investment of time and money would not be worth it if you plan to build only one rifle, but building only one rifle is like eating only one potato chip when you’re hungry. Once you complete that first rifle, your enthusiasm feeds on accomplishment and draws you into planning your next rifle…or two…or three. I warn you, it can be addictive.
Of course, if you are strong-willed enough to stop at one rifle, you can go at it with only mallet and chisel, but it is a long and tedious job. If you choose that course, draw a straight line where you want the center of your channel to be with the appropriate amount of cast-on or cast-off, then drill out three-fourths of the wood with a set of Forstner bits on the drill press (or even using a good electric hand drill). Forstner bits do not wander once they are started. They leave flat-bottomed holes that are easy to clean up. For a straight sided barrel, say one inch diameter across the flats, choose a 15/16” diameter bit to remove the wood down to where the oblique flats start and then use a 3/8” bit to drill down to the bottom flat. A barrel that is 1” across the flats has a 0.414” flat width. A 15/16” barrel has a 0.388 flat width. For thinner barrels than that, chose a 5/16” Forstner. That combination of two bits will leave a profile similar to Fig. 3. The corners can be roughed out for the bottom oblique flats using a 5/16” chisel. The final shaping can be done using a scrap section of barrel equipped with a handle. Tom Harbin made for me a nice set of finish scrapers for seven different barrel diameters. If the facing edges are kept sharp at the corners, they will take out a lot of wood in a hurry (Fig. 4). If you wish to use some bedding compound to seal the barrel channel against moisture and warpage (a good idea for a fullstock longrifle), leave a little extra space under the bottom flat.
The fastest and most precise way to inlet a barrel is using a milling machine. If you are so fortunate to have a mill (or a friend who does), then by all means use it. You might want to read “Machine-Inletting the Swamped Barrel”, Muzzleloader, Jan/Feb. 2009, p.46.
Next time, let’s get that tang inlet into the wrist.
Tips & Tools #8. Inletting the Breech and Tang
So now you have the fore end channeled so that the barrel is just an easy press fit with no unsightly gaps. The only barrel inletting left to do is the breech/tang.
It is very important to inlet the breech carefully so that the back of the breech plug makes full contact with the shoulder of the stock. Using a very sharp ¾” chisel, cut down across the grain as shown in Fig. 1. If the wood is hard and the chisel is sharp, you will get a clean cut with no grain separation at the shoulder. Weak wood will collapse a bit on a deep vertical cut. It can be reinforced with a bit of AcraGlas gel (Brownells.com). Under the recoil of thousands of shots, a badly inlet breech will pound itself back into the stock, causing a split in the stock at the end of the tang. Also, bad inletting may actually contribute to poor grouping of the finished rifle if the barrel is allowed to shift back and forth (more on that later).
Once the inlet is square with the back of the barrel, clamp the barrel down into the inlet with the tang pressing firmly on the wood (Fig. 2). A properly shaped tang will be undercut with a bit of draft to provide a wedging effect as it is let into the wood. If your tang is square, now is the time to shape it to facilitate inletting by filing a bit of draft tapering toward the underside.
Using a sharp knife, cut closely around the tang and remove a layer of wood. Cut again and remove another layer and another and another until the tang is level with the wood (or perhaps slightly below) and there are no large wood-to-metal gaps (Fig. 3). Use some form of inletting black to check contact of the back of the breech with the shoulder of the inlet. Remember, it is functionally more important to have the breech in firm, even contact with the wood than to have the tang pressing against the back of its inlet. You might even want to take off an additional sliver of wood at the rear of the tang inlet to keep the wood from splitting out (you see little checks like that around the tangs of some of old rifles).
There, you see? You’ve done it! The hardest single part of rifle building is behind you. Your inner self—where fortitude and determination lie—deserves a treat of its choice as a reward for a job well done. If you want to coat the nicely cut inlet with epoxy bedding to reinforce the fragile fore end and seal it against the ravages of moisture, tune in for Tips & Tools Part 9.
Regards, Fred Stutzenberger