Posts Tagged ‘smokeless powder’
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
Nelson Lewis combination gun is both a rifle and a shotgun.
It’s been a while since I last wrote about this gun. Blog reader Kevin asked if I was going to write anything more and I answered yes, but what I did not tell him or any of you was that in October of last year I blew up the gun.
Blew it up?
That’s not entirely accurate. What happened is the nipple that accepts the percussion cap was blown out of the barrel and right past my face. When it went, it sheared off the hammer lug that connects the exposed hammer to the sear. I never found the nipple, but the hammer was lying on the shooting bench next to the gun. When my shooting buddy, Otho, asked me if I was okay (he was standing behind me, having a premonition that something bad was about to occur), I answered, “NO” for the first time in my life. Usually, guys will say everything is okay right after they’ve sliced off their thumbs with a circular saw, but this event was so startling that I wasn’t really sure what my condition was. “No” just popped out.
Okay, get ready to criticize and tell me what I did wrong because I haven’t got a clue. Do you remember me telling you that airgunner Mike Reams can make swages to make conical bullets of almost any caliber? I learned that at the 2012 Roanoke airgun show. And do you remember that I wanted him to make a set for the Nelson Lewis gun? Well, what I did this day on the range was called a “proof of concept” test. I loaded a conical bullet in the rifle — partly to confirm the diameter requirements for Mike and partly just to see if the gain twist rifling really would stabilize a conical. But the only conical bullet I had was a 250-grain lead bullet for my 38-55 Ballard, which coincidently has almost the identical size bore as the Nelson Lewis rifle.
I’d been shooting a patched .375-caliber swaged round ball in the rifle up to this point. That ball weighed 80 grains. So, 250 grains would be heavier — about 3 times heavier. What I did was load a proof load into my 160-year-old gun and shoot it. Nothing wrong there, right?
When the gun fired, it recoiled more than usual (no kidding!), but that wasn’t what I noticed. I noticed a jet of fire about a foot long coming out of the nipple hole that had been so recently vacated. Then there was the verbal exchange between me and Otho, and then he cautiously walked around to my front and looked at my head — mostly to see if it was all there.
I’d been wearing shooting glasses, which I always do whenever I shoot a black powder arm (and after this event, when I shoot anything else, too), so my eyes were fine; but above my right eye was a large patch of black powder that embedded itself in my skin. I looked like the “murdering coward Tom Chaney” from the movie True Grit, who coincidentally had a black powder Henry rifle blow up on him. The powder had to be picked out of the skin with tweezers over the next few weeks and there is still some of it in there today, more than 4 months later. But I was okay.
My Nelson Lewis gun, on the other hand, was broken. And, as far as I know, Nelson Lewis doesn’t work on his guns anymore, having been deceased for the past 135 years or so. What was I going to do?
Otho to the rescue
Now you need to know something about my buddy, Otho. He’s a retired Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanic who has worked on turbine engines and airframes since Vietnam. One of his skills (he has skills — and people like me need to know other people with skills) is welding. And I don’t mean trailer-hitch welding, either. I mean the ability to — well, let me tell you what he once did. His father stored a Gen-1 Colt Single Action Army revolver improperly, and it rusted badly. Rusted as in deep pits all over one side of the gun. So, over the course of a year, Otho spot-welded each and every pit, then worked it down with a file until it was flush with the rest of the metal. When it was perfect, and by perfect I mean perfect, he had the gun re-case-hardened so that today it looks new. All the factory lettering was preserved so you cannot tell that any work was ever done. Or at least I cannot tell, and I know Gen-1 Colt SAAs.
Both these Colt revolvers were stored together and rusted equally. Otho welded every rust pit and refinished the Single Action Army on top. This is a master at work!
So, Otho looked at the sheared hammer lug on the Nelson Lewis gun and says he thinks he can fix it. He thinks he can weld the hammer lug back up and file it to fit the hammer. This news sounds wonderful, coming as it does on the heels of the gun’s destruction. Let me show you what is involved.
The nipple is gone. All the threads are, too.
The hammer was sheared off at the lock plate. The other end of that square lug is the rifle’s sear.
The hammer was sheared off the lock as neatly as if it had been properly removed.
The flip side of the hammer shows the lug that was sheared.
See the part with the leg sticking out? That’s the sear. It also has the lug that the hammer used to be connected to — or at least it is supposed to.
I disassembled the lock and looked at the sear carefully. Surely, it was made in two pieces because how did Lewis put a square lug on a complex sear otherwise? You know what? He cast the part in one piece. Out of steel. In 1850! They wouldn’t have automobiles for half a century and here was this gunsmith in upstate New York making complex parts from cast steel! I thought Bill Ruger invented the casting of gun parts. (Just kidding. Please don’t hit me with comments. I am aware that the lost wax casting process is very ancient.) But seriously, did you know that gunsmiths in 1850 were casting parts from steel? That’s not the paradigm I’ve been given to believe.
And one thing was certain because of how the part was initially produced. It would either have to be welded or made entirely new. Otho’s plan now sounded very good.
In November, I gave him the lock pieces and he began to study them. His task wasn’t just to weld the lug, but also to maintain the correct orientation so the hammer would fire a percussion cap again. And that brought up the other thing — there was no nipple for the cap. It was blown off the gun and never found. And the threads in the hole where it was were completely stripped. Otho had an idea about that. Use a Heli-Coil. When I balked, he told me that a Heli-Coil is approved by the FAA for threading stripped holes. And the FAA is about as anal as they can be when it comes to parts’ integrity and safety. So, I guessed it was okay.
He began welding small amounts at a time. Welding and welding, and then filing when he got close to the right dimensions. Then it was weld and file, weld and file. This went on until January. I think he finished the job while I was at the SHOT Show. Then he told me about his worry. He had been worried that the sear metal might vaporize as he welded, but that hadn’t happened. So the steel was good. Now he was concerned that all the heat from welding had taken all the hardness out of the part.
He took the part to a knife-maker friend of ours to have it Rockwell tested. But the part was too odd-shaped and small to fit in this guy’s tester. So, he drew a file across it and made a guess what kind of steel it was based on the date of manufacture and how it took the file. Then, he hardened it in his kiln until it was hard as glass. Next, Otho did a complex series of tempering heats that drew the hardness down to approximately Rockwell 38, which the knife-maker guessed was the hardness of the original part. Do you think this is too much guesswork? How do you think Nelson Lewis did it in 1850? He heated it on his forge until it glowed brightly enough, then quenched it in whatever oil he had (possibly sperm whale?), then he drew the temper the same way.
The hammer lug (the square projection standing up in this picture) has been restored to the sear. No, the lug isn’t perfectly square. It’s shaped exactly like the hole in the hammer. The hole for the hammer screw was even drilled off-center and threaded exactly like the original.
The proof of the pudding
Otho installed the Heli-Coil and a new nipple I gave him, then the both of us reassembled the rifle. He was very concerned about the hammer, so I test-fired just a percussion cap in my garage and everything was fine.
I went to the range to test the rifle with a full charge of powder and a correct bullet. First, I shot off another cap, to clear the path in the nipple. Then, I loaded about 20 grains of powder and tamped just a wad on top. That was fired okay, so now it was time to load the rifle for real.
I loaded the rifle the same way I’d loaded it before — with a patched round ball ahead of about 20 grains of 3F black powder. I tied a 10-foot cord to the trigger and carefully cocked the hammer. I pulled the trigger with the rifle sitting in the rest and it fired without incident.
This shot was posed. I was 3 feet farther back when I fired the gun for real.
Once I knew the gun was safe, I shot it like I had before the accident.
Once the gun passed the test and I knew it was safe to shoot again, I settled down and shot a quick 5-shot group at 50 yards. It shot to the same point as before the accident and grouped about the same.
Five shots at 50 yards made this group. It’s in the same place and the same size as before.
How does the gun look now?
I’m sure you’re curious how the gun looks after this trauma. The fact is, apart from a small dent in the top of the pistol grip where the hammer spur hit the wood, you can’t tell anything ever happened. I thank the Lord for my safety, and I thank Otho for being so skilled. I’m so fortunate to have my gun back and whole again.
There is no moral to this story. And I hope you readers are all smart enough to not need to learn anything from my misfortune.
I will continue to shoot the rifle, but not a lot. I think, given the circumstances, this rifle has done enough for me. It deserves a rest and, except for an occasional day or two, that’s what I intend to give it.
by B.B. Pelletier
Dave Cole is this week’s winner of Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week contest on their airgun facebook page.
Nelson Lewis combination gun, made in Troy, NY, around 1850-1870. Rifle is .38 caliber; shotgun is 14 gauge.
Today, I’ll show you the results of the last two outings with this unusual combination gun. Lessons have been learned.
Before we get to today’s test report, I’d like to share a little more background on the gun’s maker, Nelson Lewis of Troy, New York.
The big match
As readers of the internet, you’re all aware that sometimes tempers flare and conversations become heated on the web. Would it surprise you to learn that this is nothing new? One hundred sixty-eight years ago there was a famous confrontation in the internet of that day — the newspaper — between Nelson Lewis and another noted gun maker, Morgan James of Utica, New York. Nelson Lewis had heard rumors that one or more of his fellow gun makers (presumably Morgan James, from the events that followed) had said he had not made the rifle he had used to beat a Mr. Williamson in a rifle match the September before. This was in the Feb. 18, 1854, edition of Spirit of the Times/A Chronicle of the Turf, Field Sports, Aquatics, Agriculture and the Stage, published in New York City. Lewis challenged whoever was spreading these rumors to put up or shut up.
Morgan James accepted the challenge, and the two men began a public correspondence in the newspaper that was not unlike what we see on the chat forums today.
Morgan James was also a famous rifle maker and a contemporary of Nelson Lewis. Like Lewis, he made long-range target rifles that were used by snipers in the Civil War. Many of James’ long-range guns were so heavy they could only be shot from a bench rest that was included as part of their equipment. He was justifiably proud of the rifles he made, as well as his own marksmanship (as was Nelson Lewis); so when he read what Lewis accused him of, he attacked with a letter of his own to the editor of the cited publication.
To make a long story short, the two men exchanged challenges in the paper, and they finally agreed to shoot five each of their rifles against each other with each maker and one or more of his friends doing the shooting. One-hundred dollars was put up for each rifle in the contest, so each maker had five hundred dollars at stake.
Morgan James and his shooters won all five matches and Lewis paid him the money (I believe); but in the end, Lewis was a sore looser. He wrote a final letter to the editor, citing the fact that Morgan James’ rifles were all heavier than his (15-18 pounds against 10-13 pounds) and of a larger caliber (.43 to .48 caliber compared to .36 to .38 caliber), plus James and his partner shot from a machine rest — but their rifles weren’t clamped down, while Lewis and his shooters all shot from common shooting benches. And Morgan James had some sort of elaborate wind gauge on the range that was operated by a separate man who reported the wind to each shooter, so he didn’t have to look at the flags. Lewis and his shooters used the common range flags that had always been used, and each shooter watched the one flag for himself.
From his report, Nelson Lewis seems to have been at a disadvantage, but why he didn’t pin down the details of the contest beforehand with so much money at stake (approximately $13,500 in 2012 purchasing power) is a mystery. He certainly should have. He claimed he thought the match was to be with hunting rifles that could reasonably be carried afield, but the small calibers he chose are a real puzzle! Morgan James did nothing wrong except to try his best to win.
So things haven’t changed, even though a century and a half has passed. Shooters still get hot under the collar and makers will do anything to defend their reputations. This is why I enjoy reading real history — because it shows that people don’t change, even though their technology does.
Enough history. Let’s go to the range.
This time, the gun was ready for the range. The loading and cleaning procedures have been worked out.
Patch problem solved
The second time I took the Nelson Lewis gun to the range, I’d solved the patch problem. Instead of the too-thick patch material I had been using the first time out, I discovered that handkerchief linen from Ireland was both the correct thickness and also was tough enough to do the job in this rifle. I cut my patches by placing a nickel over the material and cutting around it. That gives me a patch of just the right size. And when the ball is seated, I can press it into the bore with my thumb — exactly as the old masters reported a century ago.
The thinner patches fit the balls perfectly, so they can be pressed into the muzzle with the thumb as the masters of old recommend.
The proof that this material works well is seen in the patches I recovered after shooting. They are textbook examples of what a good patch should look like.
The fired patches look good. Irish handkerchief linen is strong, yet thin.
I also discovered that the powder charge could be increased a little with no detriment to accuracy. Now, the bullet gets downrange faster, which I can tell by listening to the sound of the ball striking the target at 50 yards. That may not be scientific, but it does work!
I also took the advice of Ned Roberts, who says to fill the powder measure to heaping, then wipe a straightedge across the top to level the powder. This gives a consistent amount of powder from shot to shot.
Fill the powder measure to heaping.
Then wipe a straightedge (like a knife blade) across the top of the measure to level the powder. This is called “stricken measure” in Ned Roberts’ book.
A tiny funnel Mac gave me is perfect for pouring the measured powder into the rifle barrel.
The new cleaning process
I clean the barrel after each shot. I did that the first time out, but I’ve added a few steps for a more thorough result. First, the bore is swabbed with a wet patch, followed by a brass brush, then another wet patch. These are followed by two dry patches that leave the bore sparkling clean and dry after every shot. It takes about three minutes to clean the bore this way, but that’s nothing when you’re shooting a muzzleloader.
The final thing I tried was patches lubricated both with grease and saliva. Grease is used for the patches of balls in hunting guns, where the ball will be in the barrel a long time. Saliva is supposed to give a slight edge in accuracy, but it dries out over time and also can promote rust in the bore — two good reasons why saliva is used only for target shooting.
I had high hopes that all these things would give me better groups than the first time out, but they didn’t! Something was missing.
Group fired with greased patches on June 16. Fifty yards.
Group fired with saliva-wet patches on Jun 16. Also 50 yards. No improvement.
Mac suggested that since this is a combination gun, perhaps shooting it as often as once every five minutes was letting the rifle barrel heat up enough to warp against the cold shotgun barrel. If this is a meat gun, then shouldn’t the first shot from a cold rifle be right on target? It was the best suggestion anyone had given me; so when I went to the range again this week, I did everything the same except that I waited 20-25 minutes between shots to give the gun plenty of time to cool off.
The first 4 shots went into the best group I’d seen to this point, but shot 5 went wild at 9 o’clock, ruining the group. I held as perfectly as I know how for all 5 shots, and I’ve held 5 shots in three-tenths of an inch with target sights at 50 yards this year with a .22 rimfire — so it’s not me!
Group fired with saliva-wetted patches and waiting a minimum of 20 minutes between shots. Shot at 50 yards on July 12, 2012. Four close shots, but the fifth shot opened the group to the size of the others. So this is no real improvement.
I’m now thinking that the rifling twist in this gun (remember it has a gain twist) is too fast for round balls, and that the gun wants to shoot conical bullets. A patched picket bullet is what the rifle is supposed to shoot. I’ve avoided shooting the picket bullet that came with the rifle, because making them in the manual swaging dies is a lot of hard work. But now it seems I have to try something other than round balls. We’ll see what happens next time!
Why am I doing this?
If you’re a new reader of this blog, you must be wondering if I’ve lost my mind — reporting on a 150-year-old muzzle loading firearm in an airgun blog. Here’s why I do it. Airguns don’t hold a lot of secrets from me. I’ve been around them long enough to have gotten comfortable with them and their ways. I’m not saying that I know everything there is to know, but perhaps I have become too familiar with airguns to remember all those confusing steps that baffled me when I first encountered them.
This antique firearm, on the other hand, is as foreign to me as it is to you. I’m discovering how to shoot this gun successfully and letting you watch me while I do it, so maybe you can relate to the things that stump me. This old black powder gun puts you and me on equal footing as shooters. That’s why I report on it — so you can watch me stumble around and get confused by the same things that are perhaps confusing to you.
I could just spout off a bunch of words that I read in some book and let you think I know what I’m talking about, but I prefer to do it this way. I know this approach bothers some people who wish I would just stick to airguns, but to my way of thinking, all shooting is interrelated. The more you know about all shooting subjects, the more you know about any specific subject. People who disregard black powder guns, for instance, lack a firm understanding of how pneumatics work because they’re very similar. And a poor crown will harm the accuracy of a .223 as much as it will a .177 pellet rifle.
I try to limit these reports to a minimum, but I will continue to make them from time to time because I have to. They are in me, and they have to come out.
by B.B. Pelletier
Adam Crowson is Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week.
This Nelson Lewis combination gun was made in the mid-19th century. It’s .38 caliber and 14 gauge.
A lot of readers have been waiting patiently for today’s report. Although we’re airgunners, we’re shooters first, and many of us appreciate the similarities between pneumatic guns and those that use black powder. Today’s subject gun was made about 150 years ago by a maker of some fame who made sniper rifles for use during the American Civil War. I’ve lived with this gun for several months now and have held it, admired it, considered it and wondered about it. And on Tuesday of last week, I took it to the range for its first outing.
On every TV show where old guns are shown, you’re advised to seek the services of a gunsmith before firing any old gun. They’re supposed to check the gun for safety. Last week, I discovered that I was the one performing that service on this piece.
While Mac was still visiting me several weeks ago, we pulled both locks out of the stock and examined them closely. They differ from each other only because one is for the right side and the other is for the left; but, in essence, they’re the same lock. The inletting in the stock is so precise that the left lock has to be “buttoned” into position to get it back in! It fits into an undercut section of the stock and cannot be inserted straight into its slot. A bolt passes through the left lock, through the stock and into the right lock. When tightened, it pulls both locks together in a fit so tight that a razor blade cannot be inserted between the stock and either of the two lockplates.
The locks are not complex, but they are made right and tight, which makes all the difference in the world. This is the right-hand shotgun lock.
The locks are back-action (meaning the hammer spring is located behind the tumbler, so the majority of the lock extends backward — rather than forward – from the hammer) and are remarkably simple in construction. Some file marks are still evident from the time each piece was fashioned by Lewis, who made all his own locks, triggers and barrels. For a short time, I was concerned about the gun having been “gunsmithed” because the rifle lock (operated by the rear trigger) fires with about 2 lbs. of pull and is glass-crisp. It feels too light for the gun, considering the hammer requires about 12 lbs. of effort to cock! But close examination under a 10x jeweler’s loupe shows no evidence of any work other than Lewis’ original job.
The rifle lock is on the left side of the gun, and the hammer on that side was a bit loose when I got it, so one of my gun buddies and I shimmed the square shaft on which the hammer rides with 0.0015″ shim stock. That took up all the play. Now there isn’t a hint of movement.
I removed both nipples and was pleased to see what good condition they were in. Both have tiny flash holes at their bottoms, exactly like they’re supposed to. Often, these holes will be enlarged from the hot gasses and cause greater pressure to flow back through the nipple and against the bottom of the hammer. They seem to be plated with platinum, which was a common touch on the finer guns of this period. The plating allows them to resist the erosive gasses of the gunpowder many times longer than plain steel. These are either original to the gun or are period replacements, and I would think at least the rifle nipple has to be a replacement.
Here you see the bottom of the rifle barrel nipple. It’s clearly in great condition despite its age. Notice that the breech plugs have been shaped into water drains, or “snails,” as they’re termed. They direct any water away from the nipples and also protect the barrel and lockplate from the erosive hot gasses that occur at firing. Much of the original nickel plating has been lost to these gasses.
I shined a powerful tactical flashlight down both nipple holes with the nipples removed to see down the barrels from the muzzle. Both were sparkling clean and shiny. The shotgun barrel, however, is not like any shotgun barrel of today. Instead of a mirror bore, this barrel still has tool marks, both horizontal and vertical, from when it was fashioned. You can see them in the photo of the muzzle in Part 1. I doubt there’s any choke — I can’t see evidence of one.
This photo is very revealing! Notice the graduated gap between the left and right breech plug? That’s not sloppy work, it’s intentional to provide clearance for when the plug shown right in this picture is unscrewed. Both nipples must be removed before the plugs come out. Notice the index marks that align the breech plugs with their barrels. They keep the nipples aligned with the hammers when the plugs are in place.
Then, I did some thinking about when this gun was made and what hunting was like at that time. This gun may have been made before the Civil War. Nelson Lewis made guns from 1843 into the 1880s at one location in Troy, New York. Internet research reveals that the building where he had his gun store and workshop is still standing on the corner of Congress and Church streets. Church Street is just an alley today, but Congress Street still exists, and his workshop has recently housed a small Greek sandwich shop.
It was a very different time
I can’t prove exactly when this gun was made; but as a combination gun, it’s very different from what we think of today. Let’s use the Savage model 24 for comparison. The model 24 is a modern combination gun with a rifle barrel and a shotgun barrel — just like this Lewis gun. The 24 is superposed, where this Lewis gun is side-by-side, or a Cape gun as some would call it. But Nelson Lewis also made combination guns with superposed barrels. A Savage model 24 is a lightweight, handy gun that’s useful for hunting all manner of game. The Lewis gun is also useful this way, but it’s not light!
As I reported in Part 1, it weighs 9 lbs. It’s decidedly muzzle-heavy and would not swing like a modern shotgun. But while thinking about the time period when it was used, it dawned on me that this gun may not have been designed to be used as a “handy” gun in the same terms we would think of today. It was handy because it fired both a single bullet and shot, of course, but I don’t think it was made for shooting birds on the wing.
Hunters in America didn’t always shoot birds on the wing back in 1850. They often shot them on the roost. In those days, game abounded and sportsmanship wasn’t the same as it is today. In both England and the eastern U.S., there were men in small boats called punts, and they were shooting ducks by the hundreds on the water with a small cannon called a punt gun. Nobody thought anything of a lone hunter shooting a few ducks, geese and swans while they were on the ground or the water. Yes, I said swans. Why do you think they called it “swan shot”?
“Shooting flying” is the name given to the sport of wingshooting. The flintlock made it more feasible to shoot a flying bird than anything previous; and the percussion lock, with its instantaneous ignition, coupled with the general improvement in the power of gunpowder at about the same time (1830-1840), made shooting flying gain popularity. But a meat hunter, subsistence hunter or just a plain hunter, wasn’t always interested in shooting as a sport. He was out to get food, plain and simple.
This Nelson Lewis combination gun is no more a subsistence gun than a Dodge Viper is a car for a soccer mom. Yes, it can do the job and yes, it seems to have all the necessary qualifications, but subsistence hunters can and do get along with a lot less. This is a fine sporting gun for the man who has the money to spend and wants something special. Just how special I will now discuss.
Nelson Lewis didn’t make up many guns (if any) on speculation. They were nearly all made to order, because at the price a person had to pay, which was several months’ wages for laborers, customers demanded exactly what they wanted. It’s my belief that the customer who ordered this particular gun was reasonably well-to-do, and he was also a man with very specific tastes. I believe the gun, itself, shows us that.
I’ve now seen six or seven of these Nelson Lewis combination guns in various auctions and on websites, as well as in the book by Ned Roberts, The Muzzleloading Cap Lock Rifle. They’re all similar in size, weight and caliber — with one exception. While more than half of the guns I’ve seen have the lollipop rear peep sight, mine is the only one so far that also has a hooded or globe front sight. That steel hood is there for just one purpose — to protect the thin post-and-bead “pinhead” target front sight — a sight that belongs on a target rifle.
The tiny post-and-bead front sight was meant for the most precise aiming possible with iron sights in the Nelson Lewis combination gun’s day. It seems out of place on a combination gun. Notice the beautiful condition of the rifle’s bore at the muzzle!
Remember — this is a combination gun. A gun that is both a rifle and a shotgun. It’s main purpose is for getting meat of all kinds. It’s not a target rifle, because that would have just a single barrel, double-set triggers and probably a false muzzle for more careful loading of the bullet. It’s not a shotgun, because that would be at least two pounds lighter and not muzzle-heavy. This is a meat gun — pure and simple.
So, why does it need target sights? Who puts a Lyman Super Targetspot scope on a Savage model 24? Yet, this Nelson Lewis combination gun from the mid-19th century has sights that belong on the finest target rifles of the day. Why? What about the gun requires such a precision sight, when it also has a traditional sporting rear sight mounted forward of the breech, between the barrels (see a picture of that sight in Part 1)?
These are all interesting topics to ponder, but they don’t tell us anything about how the gun really works. For that, we’ve got to get real!
When I arrived at the 50-yard range last week, all these thoughts about the gun were rambling around inside my head. Did the owner want a meat gun that was also part target rifle? And, if so, how accurate would it be?
I was about to shoot a gun that was more than a little strange. And this could be the first time it’s been fired in decades! So, as a continuance of my careful examination, the first thing I did was fire a cap on the nipple of the rifle barrel. There was a moment of panic when the caps from one manufacturer proved too small for the nipple; fortunately, the Remington No. 11 caps I had fit perfectly. I’d guessed that the No. 10 on the nipple meant the cap size, and it may well have been a size 10 of a century ago, but today a No. 11 cap fits.
After the cap fired successfully, I loaded a charge of powder into the barrel and tamped it down with a cloth wad. There was no bullet for this shot, as I was still testing the gun. That charge fired perfectly. After that, I did something I’ve never done before. I cleaned the bore with a damp cleaning patch, followed by two dry ones. According to many authors, this is the only way to do fine (accurate) shooting with black powder.
The bore was cleaned and dried after every shot. This practice was universal among target shooters in the 19th century.
Then it was time to load the first ball. For the record, I’m using fresh GOEX FFg powder. You may be wondering how I figured out the correct powder charge for this rifle. It was simple, really. I used an adjustable black powder measure and adjusted it to a little more powder than I use in my .32-caliber Thompson-Center rifle. How did I figure that powder charge? I guessed! Was I right? I seem to have been, because that rifle shot a nice tight 5-shot group at 50 yards its first time at the range.
Black powder works differently than smokeless. You don’t have to weigh each charge. You measure black powder by volumeinstead of weight, and I have enough experience with black powder guns that I won’t overload the gun. The problem may be that I load it too light, but that gets refined the more I shoot. I fill the powder measure to level full, and that’s what goes into the gun. I discovered that I do need a funnel with a really tiny mouth to fit into the muzzle, but I improvised this day with a funnel made from paper.
I used a paper funnel to drop the black powder down the bore of the rifle.
The first patch was laid over the muzzle, and a .375 swaged round ball was centered and pressed into the muzzle with my thumb. I could see this patch was going to be too large, and of course it was. When I started the ball down the barrel with the short starter, the patch closed over the top of the ball and then extended a quarter-inch above it as it was rammed down. That’s way too much patch!
The ball is pressed into the muzzle in the center of a greased patch. This patch is way too big for this ball.
The short starter is used to start the ball down the bore. At this point, the patch material had bunched up around the ball and was fighting the loading effort.
This ball was difficult to ram down until the very end of its travel, at which point I was able to feel the ball settle against the powder charge. It’s very important to always seat the ball on the powder with the same force, so this lessening of effort at the end of the ram was a providential thing. The last step in the loading process was to put a fresh percussion cap on the nipple. I then rested the gun in my rifle rest and settled in for the shot. Once I was comfortable, I pulled the hammer back to the full cock position, making the rifle ready to fire.
When ramming a ball down the bore it’s very important that you purse your lips just right!
The trigger-pull was light and glass-crisp, as noted earlier. That first shot fired with authority. The report sounded sharp, as it should when properly loaded. The recoil was very light and not bothersome to my eye that was very close to the lollipop rear peep. Fortunately, this peep folds forward for storage, so if my shooting glasses contact it during recoil it will simply lay down. I have the same setup with my Ballard rifle that recoils harder, and I always push the rear sight forward a bit with every shot.
Getting set to touch one off.
Crack! The shot is off.
I had envisioned the first shot going to the X-ring, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the shot went wide at 10 o’clock in the 7 ring. Bummer! My thought was that the oversized patch was the culprit, but only more shooting would tell me for sure. Fortunately, I had a batch of smaller size patches with me as well, so I got them out for the next loading. But before that happened, the barrel needed to be cleaned.
The hammer was pulled back to half-cock, and a damp cleaning patch was run down the bore and back out with a satisfying hydraulic pop. This was followed by two dry cleaning patches, the second of which had very little dirt on it when it came out. Then, the rifle was loaded in exactly the same way as before, with the exception that the new smaller patch was used. This time, the ball started easier and rammed easier, though even this patch was still too large for the rifle. Now, before you point out the obvious and tell me that I could have cut the patches down, let me tell you that occurred to me on the range. But I didn’t have any scissors, and a knife makes a poor patch cutter, unless you’re cutting the patch right at the muzzle. I usually do cut off my patches at the muzzle with the patch knife that I had on the range this day, but that can leave scratches on the muzzle — which I don’t mind on my Thompson-Center rifles but wouldn’t think of doing to this vintage gun!
The second shot went to the 10 o’clock position at the edge of the black, cutting the nine ring. That was more like it! I then cleaned and loaded several more times until about the fifth shot. That patch also bunched up from being too large; again, I had a hard time ramming the ball. The shot went out to 7 o’clock in the 6-ring! This demonstrates the importance of a properly patched ball.
The first shot went high and left. Then I changed patches and they started landing in the center of the target, but high. Shot five was a thin patch that got bunched-up during loading and caused unnecessary pressure to ram it down. That shot went wide to the left and low. There are two balls in the same hole at the top center of the target.
I fired a total of seven shots in all, and two of them were fliers from patches that were too tight. The other five went into a group that measures 1.903 inches between the centers of the two shots farthest apart. Two of those shots are in the same hole and have to be examined closely to see that they’re separate shots. Given the difficulties I had with the oversized patches, I think this first session went well. Of course, I’d hoped for better, but this was the first time and there was a lot to be learned.
Seven shots may not sound like a lot, but it took about 45 minutes with the loading, cleaning, picture-taking and lip-pursing. I did notice that I fell into a pattern as time went on; and by the fourth shot, I was loading them pretty much the same every time. Only that one shot (No. five with the patch that got stuck) got in the way of a perfect session.
When I returned home, I cleaned the rifle barrel by removing the barrels from the action and then removing the rifle barrel nipple. I stood the barrels in a shallow tub and poured boiling water down the muzzle of the rifled barrel. The water rushed out of the threaded nipple hole, carrying all the ash and soot with it. The boiling water left the barrels extremely hot, which made any residual water evaporate immediately. When the barrels cooled a bit (but were still very warm to the touch), I ran a clean patch with Ballistol through the bore. The outside of the breech and the nipple were both cleaned with a brass brush and assembled once the bore had been oiled. The barrel exteriors were wiped with a rag soaked in Ballistol.
Getting ready for next time
I ordered some Irish linen handkerchiefs off eBay to use as possible patch material. I thought they probably wouldn’t arrive in time, so I cut down the smallest patches I used at the range this time by holding a nickel over them and trimming around the edges with sharp scissors and lightly oiled the patches with Ballistol. They’re now roughly the same size as the two patches I found in the patch box when I got the rifle. I think the smaller amount of material will allow these patches to load more smoothly (as they are supposed to).
When the Irish linen handkerchiefs arrived, I have cut a strip of linen into nickel-sized patches that I’ve left dry (for the moment). I’ll moisten them with saliva at the range. According to Ned Roberts (of .257 Roberts fame), that gives the absolute last bit of accuracy with a patched ball. That assumes the patches are of the right thickness, and this material seems very thin. We’ll just have to wait and see. At any rate, I now have two different patches to try next time I’m out, and they’re both sized correctly for the balls I’m shooting. A saliva-moistened patch is supposed to have a slight edge in accuracy over a greased or oiled patch. Since saliva can rust the barrel, this kind of patch is used only for target practice, where the gun will be fired and cleaned within minutes. For hunting, an oiled patch is better.
I have some specific goals for next time. One is to get a better-fitting patch so the ball doesn’t have to be rammed so hard. It’s essential for accuracy to always seat the bullet on the powder charge with the same pressure every time. You can do that best when you’re pushing the ramrod down instead of ramming it. I now have patches of two different thicknesses to try, so we should see some results the next time out.
A second goal will be to weigh the powder charge I’m throwing and adjust it to what the vintage books say is the right load. Some of you may have noticed that in Part 1, I referred to the rifle as a .39 caliber, while in this report I’m calling it a .38. The ball I’m shooting is a Hornady swaged 0.375-inch round ball, and the patch does take up some space, so the caliber is just larger than .38. For that reason, I think it should more correctly be called a .38 caliber.
According to Roberts, a .38-caliber ball should use about a 35-40 grain charge, with 35 grains being closer to correct. I’ll weigh the charge I was using the last time out and adjust the powder measure to throw the “right” charge, if necessary.
Why write about firearms?
I can’t do too many of these firearms-only blogs; but since there’s so much crossover between black powder and compressed-air guns, I feel that today’s report contains several good lessons for all of us. Also, since I’m not that familiar with either this muzzleloading gun or with my Ballard, you get to watch over my shoulder as I try to learn something new. That’s useful for any new airgunner who needs to do the same kinds of things I’m doing here to learn about his new airgun.
Have you noticed that I’ve not subscribed to any forums and asked other shooters what they think about this combination gun? That’s because, in my research, I find that most people don’t know very much about guns like this, so they make stuff up or they guess. The same holds true for airguns, doesn’t it? Whenever I read a question from a new shooter about a gun he’s just bought or hopes to buy, asking me what sort of modifications I think he should do to it, I shudder. I’m saying don’t do anything at all until you have shot that gun enough to know it well. Then, you won’t be tempted to make unnecessary changes that might not be reversible. That’s the real lesson in today’s report.
And, now, for something completely different…
In 1948, the Johnson Indoor Target Gun sold for $15. That was a lot of money for an airgun in those days. What kind of powerplant did the Johnson have and what caliber was it? The answer will be in Monday’s blog, but please feel free to leave your answer in the comments.
by B.B. Pelletier
This question came in last week in the form of a comment about pellet sizing. Pellets are sized by pushing them through a die, and it used to be popular to do it in the 1970s. Shooters eventually realized that the bores of their airguns were doing the same thing, and sizing wasn’t really necessary.
Pellet head size is a different topic that’s still very relevant, so today we’re going to look at what’s involved. It all begins in the past, when conical bullets were first used in firearms in the 19th century.
Conical bullets are longer than they are wide, so they weigh more than the round balls that served as bullets for several hundred years. But because they’re longer, they can also create more friction with the bore. When they’re loaded from the muzzle, this is a problem because it takes so much more force to seat them down on the powder that the effort will usually distort their noses, adding nothing to accuracy.
One early solution (ca. 1835) was the picket bullet, which is also called the sugar-loaf bullet due to its shape. It contacted the bore only at a narrow band near the base of the bullet. The rest of the side of the bullet did not touch the bore and, therefore, did not create any friction. Picket bullets were far more accurate at long range than round balls of the day. They pushed the maximum distance for accuracy from about 200 yards out to 330 yards. And they were also heavier in a given caliber, so they were deadlier on game in calibers that were too small for round balls. A .38-caliber round ball might be marginal for whitetail deer, but a .38-caliber picket bullet would be fine.
The picket bullet looks like a large piece of candy corn. It was a big advance from the round lead ball. Image from Ned H. Robert’s book, “The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle.”
But there was a problem. If you tilted the picket bullet during loading — something that was all too easy to do, it left the bore in a tilted position, allowing gas to escape unevenly at the muzzle. That caused it to fly wide of its mark. Picket bullets were considered very accurate but also very difficult to load correctly.
You can see how an incorrectly loaded picket bullet would cause inaccuracy. Image from Ned H. Robert’s book, “The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle.”
Straight-sided conical bullets were tried next, but shooters quickly discovered all the problems associated with friction that are mentioned above. Something was needed that would seal the bore against gas loss yet not create excessive friction at loading. Remember, too, that barrel makers were tapering their bores at this time, so that did help a little — but it wasn’t enough.
The next innovation was a bullet that fit the bore at its base, but rode on top of the lands for most of its length. A bullet with two diameters! This bullet worked very well and because it did, it increased the distance at which conical bullets were accurate from about 30 rods (330 yards) out to 1,000 yards.
The two-diameter bullet has a nose that rides on top of the rifling. If it’s sized correctly, this can be a very accurate bullet. Image from the “Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook, 3rd Edition.”
By the time breechloading rifles started coming into popular use (around 1850), the issues of bullet friction with the bore ceased being such a problem, so straight conicals continued to be used, as did the new bullets with bore-riding noses. The picket bullet even remained in limited used through about 1880 for handmade muzzleloading rifles.
A typical conical bullet has parallel sides and a short nose. Image from the “Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook, 3rd Edition.”
Black powder has one characteristic that smokeless powder lacks. When it ignites, it does so instantly, imparting a hammer-blow to the base of the bullet in front of it. Shooters of this era counted on the obturation — a blockage caused by expansion of the bullet bases to help seal the bore.
In the late 1800s, a world champion marksman, Dr. Walter G. Hudson, designed a bullet for breechloading rifles that mimicked the properties of a conical bullet in a black powder arm. Dr. Hudson, who was also one of the men who invented the gas check for bullets, designed a bullet of two diameters. The rear bands of the bullet were exactly bore-sized, while the remainder of the bullet was sized exactly to ride on top of the rifling without being engraved. This bullet didn’t tilt while it was in the bore if it was correctly sized.
Dr. Hudson shot his best matches with the new smokeless powder that didn’t obturate the base of the bullet. So his bullet went into the bore already obturated! It was an advancement that would have had far-reaching consequences if it hadn’t been replaced almost immediately by the new smaller-caliber jacketed bullets that went even farther and were more accurate at long range.
This kind of bullet must be handmade for each gun based on precise bore measurements, plus it cannot be loaded into a cartridge because the base bands are too large to allow the cartridge to be loaded into the chamber. The bullet must be loaded into the bore first, followed by a charged cartridge case that has no bullet.
Dr. Hudson’s bullet has two driving bands at its base that fill the bore of the gun. The forward bands ride on top of the lands. Though it’s difficult to see, the base bands measure 0.383 inches, while the forward bands measure 0.376 inches.
You may wonder what the difference is between the Hudson bullet and the two-diameter bullet. The Hudson bullet has bands and grease grooves that ride the rifling. The two-diameter bullet rides the rifling with a solid nose and no bands.
Pellets and their heads
Which brings us to the subject of diabolo pellets and their head sizes. In target guns, it’s considered ideal if the pellet is sealed by the skirt, which also takes the rifling, while the head rides either on top of the lands or is just barely engraved by them. It’s this “just barely engraved” phrase that causes target shooters the greatest concern. How much is enough? There’s really no way of knowing except by shooting the pellet and seeing the results.
Impossible to make every barrel the same size
Some shooters think that because barrels are made by button-rifling or by hammer-forging they can all be made identical, but they can’t. It’s impossible! Every barrel will respond differently to the passage of the rifling button. While the differences are minute, perhaps in the range of ten-thousandths of an inch, they’re still there and they do affect how the barrel turns out.
The goal for target shooters is to find pellets that group the best in their guns. We believe that these will be pellets that are either lightly engraved on their heads or perhaps are not engraved at all, but they do ride on top of the rifling with no tolerance. From the picket bullet discussion above, you can now see how tilting inside the bore would be a bad thing.
All pellets come with certain sized heads, and all true target pellets (not just those with the name “target” in their title, but pellets that are really controlled during manufacture) have their head sizes printed somewhere on their tin. It will be on a paper label most of the time — and you might have to look hard for it — but if it’s a real target pellet, the head size is there.
The paper labels on the back of two target pellet tins show the head sizes. In Europe, a comma is usually used in place of a decimal that we use in the U.S.
…you can now see how tilting inside the bore would be a bad thing.
Don’t stop yet!
If barrel makers cannot make every barrel the same, what does that say about pellet manufacturers that make tens of millions of pellets every year? That’s right, their pellets do have manufacturing differences. Even though it says a certain head size on the label, there’s no guarantee that every pellet inside the container is exactly the same. And, in the case of certain sloppy manufacturers, the head size might not even agree with what’s on the label.
Airgunners who are target shooters are fanatical about selecting their pellets. They try all the known good brands. If they have a good sense of what head size their gun likes, they might restrict their search to just that size; but often they’ll go both larger and smaller, to make sure they’ve checked everything. When they find the best pellet, they buy 25,000 or more, which will get them through a season of competition and practice.
Because this is such a chore, target shooters will often buy different lots of good pellets of different head sizes and trade them with other shooters. When they find the one best pellet for their gun, they then sell or trade the rest of the pellets they bought and buy a huge lot of the one right pellet.
Head size matters — sometimes
So pellet head sizes do matter — sometimes. But not for everyone. A guy who shoots an RWS Diana 34P for recreation would be wasting his time going through all the trouble I’ve outlined here. He only needs to find a pellet that works, and then shoot just that one pellet. And for most of us, that’s all you need to be concerned with.
When I test airguns for you, I usually don’t even bother to look at the head size. Indeed, a great many sporting pellets don’t even have their head sizes indicated. You can assume that it’s about 4.50mm, because that’s the size that seems to work the best for most guns. And unless you start shooting in competition or at very long ranges, that’s all you have to be concerned with.
by B.B. Pelletier
This subject came up as the result of a comment I made about choked and tapered bores. It turns out that gun makers were having this same discussion 140 years ago with pretty much the same results.
The best gun makers of the 1860-1910 timeframe (and Harry Pope for just a little longer) all either taper-bored their barrels or choke-bored them. I will describe each of these conditions in a moment. There really isn’t much difference between choke-boring and taper-boring, but the slight difference that does exist allows us to talk about each of them as a separate issue.
Most gun makers (or barrel-makers, because in many cases — like Pope, a man did not make the entire gun) did taper-bore their barrels. But that wasn’t what they called it, so the fact that they did it got lost because of the subtleties of the language.
What is a tapered bore?
A tapered bore is exactly what the title implies. The diameter of the bore gradually tapers down from breech to muzzle. The amount of the taper is slight — perhaps one-thousandth to as much as two-thousandths of an inch; but at the time this service was performed, the measuring tools needed to accurately measure it weren’t commonly available. So, most of the makers didn’t actually know how much they were tapering their bores — just the fact that they were.
What does this do?
Why taper the bore at all? Because there are advantages — the primary one being an increase in accuracy. The reasons for this increase are less obvious and not entirely understood — or perhaps I should say they’re not entirely agreed upon. We know taper-boring works, but exactly why remains something of a mystery.
One thing that we do know is that when the barrel squeezes the bullet down smaller, it prevents gas blowby, which is damaging to the bullet because it erodes the sides and unbalances it. But in guns that use black powder for the propellant, the hammer blow of the exploding powder actually squashes the base of the bullet outward to make firm contact with the sides of the bore. This is called obturation. A black powder rifle doesn’t need a choked bore to prevent gas blowby, because obturation already addresses it — as long as the bullet is fitted closely enough to the bore to begin with.
So tapering the bore must do something else, because it works for black powder arms just as it works for those guns that use smokeless powder that does not obturate the bullet. The theory that I believe is that a tapered bore grabs the projectile more firmly just before it exits the barrel. It stops any unwanted vibrations and sends the bullet on its way with no instability. It ends any side-to-side play the bullet might have inside the barrel. Just because the base of the bullet has been squashed larger by the force of the exploding gunpowder doesn’t mean that the entire length of the bullet is equally in contact with the bore; but if the bore narrows down enough, there will be no doubt about it.
How they did it
Now that you know what a tapered bore is, let’s find out how the barrel makers managed to do it. Actually, the process is simple. If you read how gun barrels were made back in 1840-1910, you’ll see that they did it as a matter of course. They called it “leading the bore” and by that they did not mean lapping the bore, which is a similar but separate step that some but not all barrel makers did.
When they “leaded the bore,” a bore-cast lead slug that was charged with emory was passed back and forth through the just-rifled bore until it had removed a tiny bit of metal from the inside. To do this, they first inserted a long bore-fitting wooden dowel down the barrel. The front section was turned down much smaller than the bore.
The rod was entered from the breech and positioned with its end flush at the muzzle. The barrel was next heated until it was hot to the touch, then molten lead was poured down the muzzle until it pooled up flush with the muzzle. The lead was stopped from going down the bore by the bore-sized wooden rod that was not turned down, and it attached itself to the smaller diameter portion of the rod near the muzzle. When the barrel cooled down, the rod was pushed out the muzzle and the lead mass that was on the end was removed. It was then trued up at both ends, and the wooden rod was pushed out, leaving about a 1/4-inch hole down the center of the plug. A small groove was cut in the lead cylinder, then the cylinder was screwed onto a tool-steel rod that was called the leading rod. The lead plug was then rolled on a steel plate that had emory powder spread upon it. The leading rod was free to turn in its handle, so the lead plug could follow the pattern of the rifling.
The leading bolt after cleanup looks like this. It’s then screwed onto a tool steel rod that works it inside the bore. Image copied from “The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle” by Ned H. Roberts, copyright 1952.
At this point, the inside of the bore received a light coat of fine oil, such as sperm whale oil. The emory-charged rod with its lead slug was then carefully inserted at the breech, making sure to engage the rifling exactly. The rod was then moved back and forth from the breech to within about three inches of the muzzle. By concentrating on the rear of the barrel and only going forward a relatively few times, they controlled the amount of metal that was being removed from each part of the bore.
Occasionally, the rod was partially withdrawn at the breech but never again fully removed. When it was exposed in part at the breech, more emory powder could be applied along with a little more oil. By never completely removing it, the lead slug always remained in the proper engagement with the rifling. When the lead slug wore down, the tool steel rod was screwed into it more, forcing the sides back out and into the bore of the rifle.
The rod was worked back and forth, with more time given to the portion closer to the breech and less as the lead slug approached the final three inches of the barrel. How long this procedure took varied with each maker, and probably with the type of material they were working with — i.e., soft iron, cast steel, compressed steel, etc. Undoubtedly, the exact process was a closely-guarded secret for each maker. But it did work, and what they got was a bore with a gradual taper from breech to a point about three inches from the muzzle. Since they never went past that point, that section of the bore remained a true cylinder and was the tightest point in the barrel. It was the choke point.
Since these are muzzle-loading arms and the muzzle is also the tightest point of the barrel, some of you may be wondering if the bullet wouldn’t squeeze down when it was initially loaded and then lose contact with the bore after passing the choke point. That’s exactly what happened, and it made the rifle much easier to load!
Remember obturation? When the black powder exploded, the bullet was upset by the force and enlarged to grab the bore tightly. TWhen it encountered the choke point, everything happened just as I’ve described above. This gave the bullet remarkable stability that had not been seen previously.
Many riflemen were no longer using patched round balls when this style of rifling came into vogue. They were starting to experiment with conical bullets, first with the sugar-loaf or picket-style, then later with the longer, heavier cylindro-conical shape.
The picket bullet or sugar loaf bullet (left) was an early first replacement for the round ball in rifled guns. It has a very short bearing surface that makes it easier to load, but also makes it susceptible to tipping inside the bore. It more than doubled the accurate range of the rifle but required extreme care when loading. The cylindro-conical bullet on the right has more bearing surface but also needs to be driven much faster to stabilize when fired from a barrel of a given twist.
There’s much more, but not now
Bullet shapes of the late 1800s are a fascinating study. For instance, were you aware that some expert riflemen favored a hollow-based cylindro-conical bullet as the most accurate type? For now, let’s leave the world of firearms and return to airguns because choking has a definite place there, as well.
The choked bore
I haven’t described the difference between a tapered bore and a choked bore, so here we go. A choked bore is really just a tapered bore with a short taper. In other words, the bore is parallel from the breech to the choke, and then in a short distance of less than a half-inch the bore tapers down to a smaller diameter that stays parallel until the muzzle. In firearms, this distance for the choked part of the barrel was about three inches, but in airguns it’s more like two.
Intentional versus random and accidental chokes
The only intentionally choked airgun barrels I know of are made for pneumatic guns. Let’s examine why. The pneumatic is much like the firearm that uses modern gunpowder. Instead of a sudden, violent explosion, smokeless gunpowder burns at a reserved rate of speed. When confined, this rate is extremely fast, but it still cannot be called an explosion. So, modern smokeless gunpowder does not deliver the same hammer blow that obturates bullets. Nor do pneumatic guns blast out pellet skirts into the walls of the bore, which is very similar to obturation in the airgun world.
Pneumatic guns release their air at a restrained rate that, while it sounds sudden to us, is really measured in milliseconds. A lot of air is released when a pneumatic gun fires; and though the pressure in the barrel continues to decline as the pellet moves down the bore, this pressure is still enough to provide continued acceleration all the way to the muzzle.
Because the air pressure is restrained in a pneumatic, the pellet skirt is not enlarged and pushed into the wall of the bore. But in a spring gun, it is. A springer releases just a tiny bit of highly compressed air in an instant. This rapid burst of pressure is enough to swell the skirts of some pellets, making them have better contact with the bore.
So, to better stabilize pellets in pneumatics and remove any variations they might have, a choked bore is ideal. Therefore, all of the finer precharged, single-stroke and multi-pump airguns have choked bores. You can feel this if you push a pellet from the breech to the muzzle with a cleaning rod. The pellet will encounter resistance about two inches from the muzzle.
But spring guns don’t need a choke, since the act of firing swells the pellet skirts. However, some spring guns do have the same resistance near the muzzle that is felt in better pneumatics. This is an accident of swaging-in the dovetails for the front sight attachment. Weihrauch guns that have front dovetails all have this and we have called it a choked bore. It’s really just an accident of the manufacturing process and is as random as can be. But it’s there and some shooters feel it helps accuracy. Even though the choke doesn’t wrap all the way around the bore, they feel that it still provides the same stability that an intentionally-choked bore does.
Here is the lesson
The point is, if a barrel is choked, is it more accurate? The evidence suggests that it is. If that is true, can a choke be added after barrel manufacture? The answer is yes! In fact this may prove to be the most cost-effective aftermarket adjustment that can be made to an airgun.
A choke can be added by rolling the barrel between three precision hardened-steel rollers, one of which is adjustable. By gradually increasing the pressure on the adjustable roller as the barrel is rotated between the three rollers, some compression of the steel is possible. This will affect the inside of the bore, reducing it in size. The worker would have to proceed slowly and watch the progress of the choke, because we are faced with the same problem that the 19th century barrel makers had — namely barrels made from different materials.
This device allows the controlled swaging of a round barrel. The adjustable roller located at 4 o’clock is gradually adjusted inward as the rifled barrel turns.
What we have learned today is that airguns and firearms are very much alike in how their barrels can be made to increase accuracy. I haven’t addressed modern firearms shooting jacketed bullets because they do not respond the same as lead bullets. So in this respect, airguns and black powder arms are the most similar.
by B.B. Pelletier
Today, I’ll fulfill my promise to tell you about the greatest gun deal I’ve ever made. Although the title says airguns, today’s article is about firearms. But the process by which I did what seemed to me to be impossible is the same one I described in Part 1 of this report series.
I’m going to have to give you some background information, which involves other gun deals, because without them I would never have been able to swing this deal. But first, let me tell you what I was up against. You are about to read the longest and most detailed single blog report I have ever made, so you’d better put on a whole pot of coffee and get comfy.
There’s a gun store in Ft. Worth called the Winchester Gallery, and it’s right out of the 1950s. Besides modern guns, they have a wide selection of fine vintage guns for sale. You all liked the looks of my Winder Musket when I showed it to you. The Winchester Gallery has two of them available!
The Winder Musket is a target rifle chambered for .22 Short and was sanctioned for NRA matches in the early part of the 20th century.
They also have a great number of other fine collectible antique firearms. About five years ago, my buddy Mac was telling me how interested he was in a single-shot rifle in caliber .38-55 Winchester. Well, imagine my surprise to find such a rifle on the wall at the Winchester Gallery. It was a Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifle with tang sight and spirit level front sight with wind gauge (that means the front sight adjusts to either side for windage corrections). Don’t worry about all that terminology. I’ll show you everything and explain it today.
The only problem with this fine rifle was its price. They wanted $3,500 for it! I don’t look seriously at guns in that price range because, frankly, I don’t have that kind of money to spend. Life went on, I returned home and the beautiful Ballard remained on the wall at the Winchester gallery, where it had already been for many years.
I would return to the Winchester Gallery several times each year that followed and every time I would visit that rifle. I was drawn to it, even though I would never have considered it had Mac not been interested in the caliber. The wood was so beautiful that it looked edible and the color case-hardened receiver looked new! But at $3,500, it was all looky and no touchy!
Fast-forward to two years ago, when I acquired an unbelievable Winchester M1 Carbine in a deal that was the best firearms deal I ever made to that point. What I thought I was buying was a clean M1 Carbine that I could shoot. What I actually got was a highly collectible and rare first model spring-tube Winchester sitting in a presentation walnut stock.
This 100 percent spring-tube Winchester carbine was made in 1943, during the third month of production. It saw no service and was as new as the day it was proofed.
This Winchester was all that I wanted and more. Unfortunately, it was the “more” that broke my heart. You see, this was a rare collectible gun that was also prone to break early in its life. The spring tube that Winchester had used because they didn’t have the tooling to drill deep holes straight in the receivers was prone to crack the receiver at several weak points. I wanted something to shoot, but shooting is the last thing you should do with this particular model. What I really had was the famed Biblical pearl of great price — something so valuable that it could not serve its intended purpose.
After getting out of the hospital in June of this year, I engaged in a complex trade with a local M1 Carbine collector who took my Winchester and left me with a very shootable S’G’ carbine plus a rare 1862 Peabody rifle. The Peabody I have written about already. It’s a fine rifle but it had one fatal flaw, from my perspective. It was too valuable to modify in any way! Once again, I had a gun I could shoot, but not one I could put a scope on without destroying about a thousand dollars of collector value.
The Peabody rifle was a single-shot cartridge rifle that was purchased by three state militias and several foreign governments. This one is from Connecticut, the only state to rebarrel their rifles in .45-70 caliber with Henry rifling.
The Peabody has an outside hammer. When Martini of Switzerland modified it, he lost the hammer and went to an internal striker. The Peabody-Martini rifle design is known much better than the Peabody that preceded it.
Very few Peabody rifles are marked this clearly.
The Henry rifling in this rifle bore is close to pristine, despite use with black powder and corrosive primers.
You guys know that I ended up putting a scope on my Remington Rolling Block in .43 Spanish. And that rifle has met all my hopes for what it could be and do. Mac got to shoot it about a month ago and his first three bullets at 50 yards could be covered by a quarter!
This Remington Rolling Block in .43 Spanish caliber (the same as .44-77 Sharps) is now a real tackdriver.
So, I owned this nice Peabody in .45-70 caliber, but I already own a vintage Trapdoor Springfield rifle in the same caliber that serves me very well. I don’t need two rifles in the same caliber. Plus, I had to modify the sights on the Trapdoor to be able to see the front blade and also to be on target at 50 yards. The Peabody has sights that hit 14 inches high at 50 yards, and I can’t see its front sight blade anyway. Despite being a way-cool historical firearm, it wasn’t giving me a warm fuzzy as a shooter.
A second blue-chip trade
Now you need to know something else. A few weeks ago, I had a brief opportunity to purchase a Winchester model 55 takedown rifle for about half what it’s actually worth. The rifle is in very good condition, but I was able to acquire it for just $600, because the seller needed the cash to make his own incredible buy. I had about an hour to decide, but I knew I could always sell the rifle for a handsome profit. Even though it tapped me out of cash at the time, I bought it.
The Winchester 55 is a little-known cousin of the famed model 1894. Where about ten million 94s were made, Winchester made only about 35,000 model 55s. It’s three times rarer than the model 64, which is also considered to be a scarce cousin to the 94. This one is in caliber .32 Winchester Special.
The bluing has flaked off the receiver because Winchester used nickel steel for the receiver, which did not hold the blue. They even lose blue when left untouched. Later, they changed the alloy and the bluing stuck better. Oddly, the barrel retains about 98 percent of the blue, even though it’s also made of nickel steel. Apparently, the barrel alloy is different.
This rifle is a take-down design that worked flawlessly. They seldom, if ever, become loose.
This 55 is a takedown rifle, which is usually rare, but in a 55 it is the most common form. The solid frame rifle is the one you don’t see that often. This rifle is in .32 Winchester Special, which is ballistically slightly better than the .30-30.
The plot thickens!
Now, all the pieces of the puzzle have come together. I have two prime collectible firearms that I don’t really want, and I acquired them in either great trades or buys after June of this year. Together they’re worth — wait for it — between $3,000 and $3,800, though I didn’t pay anywhere near that much. Still, I didn’t put everything together until I wrote that airgun collectible piece for this blog. Then it dawned on me that I could take my own advice and get the gun I really wanted by trading the two I didn’t care about.
Or at least that is how the story would have gone in a well-written novel or movie.
In my case, the idea of trading had to be suggested to me by a gun buddy, because I was too obtuse to envision it. However, once he mentioned it, I saw the possibilities. Mac, this other guy and I had just visited the Winchester Gallery, and I finally got to show both of them the Ballard rifle I’d been drooling over for the past five years. And that was when my other gun buddy suggested the trade. Only he told me to offer my Peabody and my Winder Musket. But I didn’t want to get rid of the Winder. I really like it. Then Mac said I should substitute the Winchester 55 for the Winder and suddenly the clouds cleared and the sun shown strong and warm!
They already had two Winder Muskets on their walls, but no model 55s. In fact, the guy who handled the trade for the gun store said it had been many years since he had seen a 55. So, from a desirability standpoint, this was the rifle they wanted and needed more than a third Winder.
Long story short, I made the trade and came home with a drop-dead gorgeous Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 target rifle. Ballard began making their rifles in 1861, and Marlin bought them out in 1875. Ballard rifling was considered to be among the best in its day — the Lothar Walther of the 19th century — and custom barrelmakers like Harry Pope liked the actions above all others.
Marlin made the Ballard single-shot rifle from 1875 until 1890, and they made just less than 36,000 of all models. The Union Hill No. 9 was introduced in 1884. From the serial number of this rifle, it seems it was made around 1886, but it looks almost brand new. It has walnut that would be called grade four today. The bore is bright, smooth and fresh despite may decades of black powder cartridges. Whoever owned this rifle, in fact all of the former owners, took painstaking care of it.
Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 offhand target rifle in .38-55 caliber. This single-shot rifle was probably made around 1886. Distinctive features are the pistol-grip stock, the cheekpiece and the half-round/half-octagon 30-inch barrel. The rifle weighs about 9.5 lbs.
Although the lever makes the rifle look like a repeater, it’s actually a single-shot. Just look at those bright case colors on the receiver!
When the lever goes forward, the breechblock and hammer drop down for loading.
When the breechblock drops down, the breech can be accessed for loading.
The rifle is in .caliber .38-55. Today, with smokeless power dominating all our loads, we think of that caliber as a good deer and black bear round, but in the black-powder days of the late 19th century when bullets flew at much slower velocities, this same cartridge was viewed as a good offhand round for 200-yard target work.
Not familiar with the .38-55 cartridge? In the middle, flanked by the .30-30 Winchester (left) and the .30-06 (right). The .38-55 is a blackpowder cartridge that spawned the .30-30, but also continues to live its own life today. It’s a little more powerful than the .30-30, but in the 19th century was considered to be a great offhand target cartridge.
After some internet research, I’m 95 percent convinced that what I have is a Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifle. All the specifications, save one, fit perfectly. What doesn’t line up is that my rifle has a black flat gutta-percha buttplate, where the No. 9 usually had a nickel-plated butt hook. But customers could make changes to the base models, and in all other ways, my rifle aligns with the No. 9 Union Hill.
What thrills me to no end is the presence of both a tang-mounted diopter rear sight and a rare wind-gauge front sight with spirit level. Marlin made both of these sights, so there’s no maker’s name on them. The rear sight is graduated to 900 yards, but careful examination shows that only 800 yards of adjustment is possible, and that was what defined the No. 9 rifle. The wind-gauge front sight is unusual because it adjusts for windage. While we have plenty of these sights today, they were not that common in the 19th century, but a target rifle like this one needed to have one. The spirit level refers to a bubble level in front of the front sight, so when you take aim you are careful to also center the bubble before firing. That way, all tendency to cant is eliminated.
This Marlin flip-up rear aperture sight mounts on the tang and adjusts out to 800 yards. Actual sight settings should be found through shooting at the ranges you want and recording the actual Vernier readings from the sight post in a shooter’s notebook for the rifle.
The rear of the front sight (top) is facing the shooter, so he levels the bubble before shooting. The front (bottom) has a Vernier scale for recording windage changes. Notice the complete absence of any crowning at the muzzle. This was common in the 19th century and was considered the most accurate way to finish a muzzle. Just keep it safe from bumps!
This set of marks was applied to Marlin Ballards made in 1881 and later. The patent date is Nov. 5, 1861.
What attracted me to this rifle the first time I saw it on the wall at the Winchester Galley was the beautiful wood buttstock and forearm. The figure in the wood is so gorgeous that it appears to be chocolate! Both the pistol grip and forearm are checkered well, but not with fine lines. This checkering is meant to grip sweaty palms in the heat of competition.
This is what I mean by “edible” wood!
A fine gutta-percha buttplate is held to the butt with two engraved screws. Notice the screw slots are aligned with the bore — a sign of quality gun-making!
If you just have to know how much I am into this rifle, the total is $1,850, or a little more than half the asking price. But wait a moment — I said this rifle had been on the wall at the Winchester Gallery for many, many years. In all that time, the price tag had remained the same as the day it was put on. So, the gun’s price never appreciated through the years as it should have.
You can go on Gun Broker and find Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifles for $3,500 from time to time. But look at them closely, because none of them will have this grade of wood and their case colors will not be as bright and vibrant as those on this gun. Some may even have double-set triggers or Swiss butt hooks, but they’ll lack the spirit level wind gauge front sight. Get all the attributes the same as my gun and the starting price will be closer to $5,000.
This story has a point. Besides my sharing the tremendous find with you, I also hope to encourage you to think bigger than you have been. If you want a certain airgun, make up your mind to get it. A year ago, I would have said there was no way I could have ever acquired this rifle. But by putting into practice several of the tips I have shared with you in this blog regarding acquiring fine airguns, I was able to swing the impossible deal through a series of other deals within the past five months of this year.
Not only have I told you a great story about a fantastic deal. I now find that my vision of what is possible has been expanded to larger than its former size. It will never again snap back to where it was before. Having done this, I know I can do other things equally large, so now I want to do more. Not spend more money, but take some of the things I don’t care about and turn them into things I can treasure. This means I have to be open to great buys when they pass my way, even if I don’t want them. Someone wise once said the deal of a lifetime comes by about every 18 months — more often if you are actively looking.