Journal Table of Contents The Blackpowder Journal
August/September 1997      Volume 2, Number 4
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Building A Muzzleloading Rifle From "SCRATCH"
by Rick Kindig
Log Cabin Shop, Inc.


The students began arriving early for the first day of class, loaded down with all the materials needed for their lessons. The excitement level may not have matched that day long ago when they went off to the opening day of first grade, but the adults attending the first Gun Building class at the Log Cabin Shop were obviously more than ready for the experience of hand-making their own rifle from component parts.

Across the country, an increasing number of black powder enthusiasts are finding the challenge of building a rifle from "scratch" to be a logical next step as their interest in the hobby grows. Almost anyone with basic manual skills, desire, patience and some simple tools can successfully complete a muzzleloading gun building project. A prospective builder faced with a blank stock and a bag full of parts may feel intimidated if he pictures the building process in one step. However, if the process is broken down into a logical series of steps to be accomplished one at a time, the task takes on a more manageable look.

This step-by-step approach will not only make the job less intimidating, it will also help prevent serious mistakes. As with any project, you must first have a clear concept of what the finished product will be. If you don't know where you are going, it's hard to get there. In the case of building a rifle, you need to think through what you want and what you will do with your completed project. Will it be a hunting rifle? And if so, for what game? Will it be a target rifle? If so, will it be for off-hand or bench shooting, line matches or primitive events? Will it be used for re-enactments? If so, what era? All of these questions will impact on the choice of such factors as:

  • Type of Ignition - Flint or Percussion?
  • Trigger - Single, Single Set or Double Set?
  • Stock Design - Fullstock or halfstock?
  • Stock Wood - Plain or Fancy grain, Maple, Walnut, Cherry or other?
  • Sights - Adjustable or Fixed, Open, Peep or possibly even a scope?
  • Barrel - Length, caliber, outside dimension. Smoothbore or rifled. Straight octagon, Swamped, Tapered, Half-round/half-octagon?

The expected use may also influence your decision on the type of hardware you use. For example, will you use brass, steel or German silver parts? Will you use a wide, early style butt plate or a later, narrow design. Will you use a patch box, inlays, raised carving, etc.

When you finally have a clear design concept in mind, you are ready to start selecting parts. In person or by phone, a knowledgeable and reputable dealer should be able to help with the selection process. He can help you to become aware of the parts available, the relative quality of major components and which designs will fit the historical era, if any, you intend to copy.

Not all parts need to be acquired at one time, as long as you stick with your design, parts can be acquired piece meal and spread the cost out over some time. In fact, unless you are very, very flexible as to components, don't count on getting all your parts at one time. The muzzleloading industry is a relatively small one, and castings and other components take a back burner at many foundries and machine shops.

The first items you need to obtain are the stock, barrel and breech plug. Step #1 in building your rifle is to install the breech plug into the barrel. Barrels come with threads cut for the breech plug, and plugs are pre-threaded. The fitting process can be accomplished with a hand file and involves removing material from either the end of the barrel or the face of the plug. This is done a little at a time until the threaded portion of the plug bottoms out against the shoulder of the rifling inside the barrel at the same time as the top of the plug aligns with the chosen top flat of the barrel. While this job may take some trial and error type fitting and may be time consuming, it is not as complex as it may sound.

When the plug is in position, the barrel and plug unit can be inlet into the stock. Most builders today start with a stock blank where the barrel channel has been roughed in by machine. This leaves only some final fitting of the barrel channel and the inletting of the breech plug to be done. I find it helpful to establish a center line, top and bottom on the stock. This gives a quick reference for the alignment of breech plug, trigger guards, etc.

After the barrel is installed, the location of the percussion drum or flint touch hole must be determined. This is done by scribing intersecting lines on the side flat of the barrel. The intersection of a horizontal line at the center of the side flat and a vertical line that corresponds to the end of the breech plug will locate the drum or touch hole in just the right spot.

The lock must now align with this point so that it's position will center the lock horizontally and vertically. The lock can be rotated around this point as needed to a visually appealing position.

With the lock position determined, inletting can begin. Inlet the lock plate first by disassembling the lock, carefully positioning the plate, and drawing around it with a sharp pencil or scribe. A flat chisel is then used to make a cut line just inside the drawn line. Wood can then be quickly removed up to the cut line without fear of chipping away the material outside of inlet area. A transfer stain applied to the back of the lock plate will make the final fitting easier. When the plate is inlet to the proper depth, remount the internal parts one at a time and carefully create a recess for each.

The final position of the lock will define the position of the triggers. They can be inlet now or later, but in either case, once this position is set you can lay out your predetermined length of pull to find the exact position of the butt plate.

Installing a butt plate I find tedious and time consuming, but not particularly difficult. Use a transfer stain and keep fitting until the wood and metal match up. The toe plate goes on next, a simple job and the final step in defining the configuration of the butt stock. You can now start shaping the stock from the butt forward, the butt plate and toe plate being the control factors in this area. Once stock shaping is 90% done, then items like the ramrod pipes (thimbles) nose cap, inlays and patch box can be mounted.

This brief review of the rifle building process is certainly not meant to be an instruction book, but I hope it presents a guide to the sequence of steps involved and will help those interested to approach the project with more confidence. Compete, detailed instructions on building Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifles are available in the books and videos listed here. All are available at the Log Cabin Shop.

  • Building the Pennsylvania Long Rifle by Dixon.
    The most complete book currently available.
    Cost $20.00; Item No. #700418

  • Building the Kentucky Rifle by Johnston.
    Cost $7.50; Item No. #700112

  • Building a Kentucky Rifle by Herschel House.
    Video and companion book. At excellent set, lots of detailed instructions.
    Cost $39.95; Item No. #86011

  • Building a Kentucky Rifle, Part 2 by Herschel House.
    Video only.
    Cost $29.95; Item No. #86012

  • Building a Hawken Rifle by Herschel House.
    Video only.
    Cost $29.95; Item No. #86013

  • Engraving a Kentucky Rifle by Wallace Gusler, gunsmith at Williamsburg.
    Video only. Cost $29.95; Item No. #86041

    Also of interest:

  • Gunsmiths of Williamsburg.
    This video gives a fascinating view of how Colonial era gunsmiths built a rifle. While it is not a "how to" tape, most modern muzzleloading gun builders will find it interesting.
    Cost $19.95; Item No. #8626260

Suggested List of Tools for M/L Gun Building

Straight Chisels:
2mm, 4mm, 6mm and 10mm Straight Chisels - The small 2mm for inletting underlugs, triggers, trigger guard tabs, etc. The larger chisels for the various inletting jobs and some stock shaping.

Scribe: (or a very sharp pencil)
for outlining lock plate, side plate, inlays and other parts on the stock.

Plastic or Rawhide Mallet
used to "chase" chisels and tap parts into place.

Flat Wood Rasps
Three (3) sizes, fine, medium and course cut. A Stanley Sure-form plane also works well in place of the course cut wood rasp.

Farriers Rasp
rasp has a flat side and a rounded side. Each side has a medium cut and a course cut section. This is a handy tool for many stock shaping jobs.

Course Cut Rat-tail Rasp or Round Stanley Sure-form plane
handy for forming radius around cheek piece, lock mortise, etc.

Flat Metalworking Files
9" course, medium and fine cuts.

Three-Corner Files
about 6" long, 1/4" flats (grind one flat smooth - for cutting sight and underlug dovetails in barrel.

Sharpening Stone
a medium cut soft Arkansas and a fine cut hard Arkansas. 2" x 6"" is ideal, but small will work.

Honing Oil

Inletting Black and a small brush
an aid in inletting. The part to be inletted is stained, then placed in position and lightly tapped. Wood that shos the stain when the part is removed needs to be cut away.

Screwdrivers
most muzzleloading guns can be assembled with no more that three moderate size screwdrivers. Small screws as used on the patch boxes, toe plates and inlays take a small size. Lock bolts, tang screws and butt plates screws take a fairly large screwdriver. A medium size may be needed for rib screws, internal lock screws, etc.

Mainspring Vise
it's best to disassemble the lock during the inletting process. A mainspring vice will take this easier with less chance of breaking the spring.

Taps and Drills
8 x 32 (#29 drill) or 10 x 32 (#21 drill) for lock bolts; 1/4 x 28 (#3 drill) for touchhole and 5/16 x 24 ("I" drill) for drums.

There are some jobs that you may not feel particularly capable of or just don't have the right tools to do it properly. If you would like the Log Cabin Shop to do some of the basic metal work, the following is a breakdown of the rates:

LABOR COSTS

Cut & Crown Barrel - $15.00
Drill & Tap (sight mounting screws, lock bolt holes in lockplate, barrel rib, etc.) - $7.50 /hole
Install Drum or Breech Plug - $15.00 each
Cut Dovetail Slots (for sights or underlugs) - $10.00 for one, 2 or more $7.50 each
Brown Barrel & Lock, - $40.00
Brown Iron Mounted Rifle - $80.00

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