Handmade Colonial English Flintlock

Handmade Tumbler Trouble

Lock Templates & Old Tumbler Mill
Lock templates & old tumbler mill made from a file
In conjunction with some recent repair/restoration work, I have started working on an all handmade flintlock. That means one made of wrought iron in the same manner as an 18th century Virginia gun shop including making all the screws. I have completed a set of templates for the lock and have forged a blank for the tumbler. I have also made a tumbler mill from a large file that is used to mill the parallel sides on the tumbler. I will probably do the plate next.

I had to use my last tumbler blank for another project, so I will have to make another for myself; most likely with a newly made die. It is probably instructive to explain why I had to use the wrought iron blank on another project. I had been trying to make a replacement tumbler for a contemporary flintlock pistol using O-1 tool steel. I was forging a blank just like with wrought iron which involves hammering out what looks like a large lopsided nail. Then I was machining the blank on a lathe and filing the profile and notches. The problem was that I had been running into forging cracks in these tumblers, and you don’t find them until you have machined each surface. I lost count of how many blanks I made. I almost finished two, only to self inflict some other injury at the end. That was two out of six or seven blanks that were free of forging cracks.

The problem was that the tool steel was being quenched by the colder anvil and hardened in spots. So, if you are working below the re-crystalization temperature, about 1500F (cherry red), you run the risk of cracking the tumbler on the side against the anvil. The more the blank was worked, the more likely to produce cracks. The two blanks that were free of forging cracks(or at least as far as I could tell) were ones that I worked the least. My blows just happened to be more efficient on those. I decided that it is just too much trouble to try to forge tumblers from tool steel.

Fortunately, I have plenty of third run 1.25″ round wrought iron bar that is just fine for lock parts. There are a few small inclusions, but not many. So, from now on, I will make all my lock parts and many tools, except the springs, from wrought iron or mild steel and case harden them. That is period correct anyway.

Tools for Creating a Handmade Flintlock

Die for lock plate with integral pan used by CW Gunshop
Die for lock plate with integral pan used by CW Gunshop
Work is underway on the dies to forge all the lock parts as finished as possible. The effort to make the dies has two purposes; to explore period lock production and more efficiently produce multiple locks. My intention is to make at lease two handmade flintlocks; one for a handmade flintlock rifle and one for a handmade flintlock pistol.

The documentation for the dies I intend to reproduce, come from two sources; articles in JHAT Vol I & Vol V written by Gary Brumfield, and subsequent research done by George Suiter. Gary was the second master of the gun shop in Colonial Williamsburg, and George is the current master. George has added dies and jigs to the lock production in the CW Gunshop since the JHAT articles were written.

Of particular interest is that the gun shop in Colonial Williamsburg has not been forge welding pans onto lock plates for some time. They are using a modified lock plate die and a fairly complex die to form the pan, pan bridle, and fence. They actually have dies for most of their parts as well as a drilling jig for the plate. The dies and jigs are based on documented tools and processes used by the lock makers of Birmingham, England.

Die for forming integral flintlock pan
Die for forming integral pan used by CW Gunshop

18th C tumbler mill for making a flintlock tumber
18th C tumbler mill
A photo a the beginning of this article shows a tumbler mill copied from the JHAT I article and made from a 12″ bastard file. This design never worked very well for me or the CW Gunshop (according to Gary Brumfield); and come to find out, the actual 18th C tumbler mills were not made exactly like a file. The photo to the right shows an fancy 18th Century tumbler mill of, supposedly, the same design; a design documented in Diderot and some period German publications. I plan to make a mill based on the tool in the photo. It is really hard to see from the attached photo; but the “teeth” in the actual mills were perpendicular to the long axis of the mill, cut with a triangular file, and flat on top. That is why they worked better that our uninformed attempts to recreate them with a file. The CW Gunshop currently uses a copy of what is probably more of a 19th century English tumbler mill with rotary cutters. This is a more effective design that the tumbler mill shown.

Handmade Lock Project Progress

Lock die & die sinker chisels
Lock die in progress for this project with die sinker chisels for clearing out waste metal.
Steel has been purchased for all the lock dies, screw mills, and tumbler mill. The pieces have been cut to shape and are ready for the dies to be cut and the hardie posts to be welded. The chisels have been made are are being used to cut the dies. I have also made the drill bit, reamer, tap, and screw mills for the internal lock screws.

Screw mills, drill bits, reamers, and taps in progress for handmade lock project.
Screw mills, drill bits, reamers, and taps in progress for handmade lock project.
I should note that while I intend to make the flintlock using period tools and techniques, I don’t intend to make the tools entirely same way. As these tools were usually purchased by the gunsmith from England, I feel perfectly justified in making them however I like. That includes using a belt sander instead of an old stone grinding wheel, a drill press, and a metal lathe, if necessary. I will point out that they did have water powered grinding wheels, drill presses and metal lathes in the English shops. As I have no other alternatives, I will still use the forge, files, and chisels in the old way.

Case hardened screw mills, screw plate, tap drill, and tap with a screw and tapped hole made with those tools.
Case hardened screw mills, screw plate, tap drill, and tap with a screw and tapped hole made with those tools.
Here is a photo of the first handmade lock screw I made. I used the screw mills shown just after case hardening them. Also shown is the tap drill and tap that I made as well as a plate with a hole that I drilled and tapped with those tools. It took less than an hour to make the screw using a rod of 12L14 steel (the usual screw making stock and very similar in softness to wrought iron) that had been previously squared for the brace on one end and pointed on the other. I could have done a better job with the screw by pointing the rod with more care to make sure it was centered.

Die to forge a tumbler blank.
Die to forge a tumbler blank.
I had a job come up repairing an antique lock that allowed me the opportunity to make a couple more lock making tools on my list. I had to replace a cracked tumbler, so the time was right to make a tumbler die for forging a wrought iron tumbler blank. I made the die so that I ended up with a blank large enough to machine a tumbler for most any rifle size lock.

Lantern stock chuck for turning 1/4" screw stock into a screw mill.
Lantern stock chuck for turning 1/4″ screw stock into a screw mill.
Since I had a couple hours at the forge to make the tumbler blank, I slipped in another little forging project; making a lantern stock chuck for screw stock. In the past, I hammered a square end directly on the screw stock, but that wobbled too much in the brace. I felt that a lantern stock chuck would be more stable, and it is.

Antique percussion lock with a replaced tumbler.
Antique percussion lock with a replaced tumbler.
I used the new tumbler die to forge a nearly perfect tumbler blank out of wrought iron. It took a little more time than I had thought, but I got a good result. Since I had not made a period tumbler mill yet, I turned the axles and the parallel tumbler faces on a lathe. I ended up with a roughly shaped disk that I quickly filed to shape to match the original tumbler. The finished tumbler is shown in the lock above.



Till later….




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John Davidson Rifle

AH Davidson - Full Right


Shown here is a previously unpublished John Davidson longrifle. It was made for a farmer in Rockbridge county Virginia and is still in the family. While the rifle is the victim of a very poor restoration job many years ago, there is still considerable artistic merit to the gun.

The longrifle is mostly intact. The original nose piece is missing as is the trigger guard. The guard on the rifle now does not belong by any stretch of the imagination. It was just stuck on there so there would be a guard. Missing wood in the forearm and around the lock and tang was replaced with body putty, but the thimbles appear to be original as does the lock plate with a period conversion from flint to percussion. The best part of the longrifle is the butt stock. It has a typical John Davidson patchbox with some great engraving, and some unique floral cheek side carving.

Rather than further describe the longrifle, I will let the photographs speak for themselves. I do have to beg your indulgence for any deficiencies in the photographs. They were, by necessity, taken at the owners house, outside, on a sunny, windy day, in the partial shade of a large tree. It is amazing they turned out as well as they did.

PDF Data Sheet for John Davidson Rifle

Excel Data Sheet for John Davidson Rifle


John Davidson Virginia longrifle - Full Left

John Davidson Virginia longrifle - Full Top

John Davidson Virginia longrifle - Full Bottom

John Davidson Virginia longrifle - Half Right

John Davidson Virginia longrifle - Half Left

John Davidson Virginia longrifle - Half Top

John Davidson Virginia longrifle - Half Bottom

John Davidson Virginia longrifle - Lock

AH Davidson rifle - Tang

AH Davidson rifle - Rear Thimble

AH Davison rifle - Patchbox

AH Davidson rifle - Cheek



Photos are Copyright 2011 Mark E. Elliott, All Rights Reserved, published with the permission of the owner. Please do not duplicate without permission.


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What is an American Longrifle?

Contemporary American longrifle.Contemporary American longrifle.
Contemporary Longrifle in the Style of 1775-1785 Augusta/Rockbridge County, Virginia

“From a flat bar of soft iron, hand forged into a gun barrel; laboriously bored and rifled with crude tools; fitted with a stock hewn from a maple tree in the neighboring forest; and supplied with a lock hammered to shape on the anvil; an unknown smith, in a shop long since silent, fashioned a rifle which changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately Freed our country of foreign domination.

Light in weight; graceful in line; economical in consumption of powder and lead; fatally precise; distinctly American; it sprang into immediate popularity; and for a hundred years was a model often slightly varied but never radically changed.

Legend regarding this rifle which have never been confirmed have drifted out of the dusty past; inaccuracies have passed for facts. Few writers have given more than a passing word to a weapon which deserves a lasting place in history, and it is a pleasure to present herewith the data collected during the past ten years and to dedicate this work to the KENTUCKY RIFLE.”

—- Capt. John G. Dillon, 1924, From his book The Kentucky Rifle

It is hard to beat John Dillon’s description of an Kentucky Rifle, the popular name for the American longrifle. This hints at the fact that there are a lot of names for basically the same thing. There is even some disagreement as to whether you spell it longrifle or long rifle. Generically, we refer to the American longrifle which includes all longrifles made in what would become the United States of America. We refer to longrifles made in specific States or regions by adding the State or region names such as in Pennsylvania longrifles or Southern longrifles; or even Kentucky longrifles, not to be confused with Kentucky Rifles. Remember that Kentucky Rifles is the popular name for all longrifles and is equivalent in use to American longrifles.

Fry & Jefferson Map from 1751 showing great wagon road
Fry & Jefferson Map 1751 showing the Great Wagon Road (red) and the later Wilderness Road (blue)
The Kentucky Rifle has been referred to in print since at least the third quarter of the 19th century. Some believe that the name came from the song “Hunters of Kentucky” by Samuel Woodworth recounting Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1812. The song referred to “Kentucky rifles” carried by the riflemen from Kentucky who were prominent in that victory. However, the American longrifle was not just made in Kentucky, it was made in many states along the Eastern Seaboard, including Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia(West Virginia), Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Indiana, New York and New England. In fact, the first longrifles carried into Kentucky via the Great Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road were made in Pennsylvania and possibly Virginia. The manufacture and evolution of the American longrifle followed settlers down the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia into western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina and then west along the Wilderness Road into Tennessee and Kentucky. In one British officer’s account of the effectiveness of the “over the mountains men” from Kentucky and Tennessee in the southern campaigns of the American Revolution of 1780 and 1781, he described their rifles as having been “chiefly made in Lancaster, and two or three neighboring towns in that vicinity, in Pennsylvania.”

The American longrifle originated in and about Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the second quarter of the 18th century and was made well into the second quarter of the 19th century. Martin Mylin, a German Swiss gunsmith, established a shop outside Lancaster in 1719, and is credited with making the first American longrifle about 1740. Eventually, the American longrifle gave way to more sophisticated, mass produced firearms starting with the Industrial Revolution in America around 1840. However, production of the American longrifle never completely ceased. Gunsmiths were making similar guns throughout the 19th century. Mostly, these were high end target rifles, but there were back country gunsmiths making longrifles for subsistence hunting in the Appalachians well into the 20th century. With the renewed interest in all things early American in the 1920’s and 30’s (the Colonial Revival period) as a result of the American sesquicentennial, there was a renewed interest in the Kentucky rifle. It was during this period that John Dillon wrote his book heralding an ever increasing interest in collecting, and recreating these uniquely American firearms.

But I still haven’t really told you what makes a gun an American longrifle. Well, they are long (usually five feet or more), graceful, slender, exceedingly accurate (by the standards of the day), muzzleloading (gunpowder and a round lead ball covered by a cloth patch were loaded from the muzzle(front) of the barrel), rifled (spiral grooves (furrows) were cut into the bore of the barrel to impart a stabilizing spin on the bullet thereby dramatically increasing accuracy), of relatively small caliber (average was around 50 caliber, decreasing into the 19th century), with either flintlock or percussion sidelock ignition systems, a full length wood stock, and usually a patchbox or grease hole on the lock side of the butt stock. The barrels were almost always octagon (“squared” in 18th century terminology) and tapered toward the muzzle and flared back out starting a few inches from the muzzle. This taper and flare (swamp) was generally very subtle giving way to straight tapered and then straight barrels in the mid 19th century. These guns were primarily mounted with brass fixtures (butt piece, toe plate, guard, side plate, thimbles and nose piece); but some, most notably in the South, had iron mounts; and, very rarely, there was a silver mounted gun. Many of these guns were decorated with baroque and rococo carving and engraving as well as inlays of silver and brass wire and sheet. Some of these rifles were extremely ornate and were one of the first truly American art forms. They are now recognized as a significant form of American decorative art and people collect them as such. This is what has driven the price of the best original flintlock American longrifles well into six figures.

The roots of the American longrifle are in the German rifles, or Jaegers, that were brought to this country by early German settlers and gunsmiths. Among other stylistic changes, the barrels of the Jaegers were lengthened, and the caliber reduced to produce the uniquely American longrifle which made more efficient use of powder and was very accurate at long range. The American longrifle developed to serve the needs of commercial hunters traveling to the frontier and beyond to harvest deer skins for export. These commercial hunters or “longhunters” have long been portrayed as pioneers and explorers of European origin such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. However, there is good reason to believe that as many as half of the early longrifles went to native American hunters who had been using European arms to harvest skins for export to Europe since the first contact with European traders in the 16th century.

There is lots more that I could write about the American longrifle, but the best way to learn about them is to look at them and handle them. On this site you will find photos of some of the better ones that I have made in my Portfolio as well as photos of original longrifles that I and others have owned in the Antique Longrifles Gallery. Look them over good, get some good books on the subject, and seek out original longrifles for study at museums, gun shows, and private owners.

Bibliography

  • The Kentucky Rifle by Capt. John Dillon
  • The Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age by Joe Kindig Jr.
  • Rifles of Colonial America, Volume 1 & Volume 2by George Shumway
  • Recreating the American Longrifle by William Buchele, George Shumway, and Peter Alexander
  • The Gunsmith of Grenville County, Building the American Longrifle by Peter Alexander
  • The American Rifle: At the Battle at Kings Mountain by C.P. Russell, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1941
  • Rifle Making in the Great Smoky Mountains by Arthur I. Kendall, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1941




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Wm. Britton Rifle

Wm. Britton - Half Right showing fancy pierced brass patchbox.Shown here is an original rifle attributed to William Britton of Hampshire County, West Virginia.   It is published on page 64 of Gunsmiths of West Virginia by Lambert and Whisker.    This rifle has been re-converted from percussion to flint.   The Maslin lock shown is not original to the gun and is poorly fitted in the lock mortise.  The forearm has been replaced forward of the rear thimble.   Otherwise, everything else appears to be original.  The best features of the rifle are the incised carving in the wrist and buttstock and the engraving of the side plate, toe plate and patchbox.

  • Overall Length:  61″
  • Barrel Length:  46″
  • Caliber: 50

Wm. Britton - Half LeftWm. Britton - Half TopWm. Britton - Half BottomWm. Britton - Lock - a Maslin lock that is obviously a replacement - it doesn't fit the lock mortice.Wm. Britton - Side PlateWm. Britton - Tang - spear shaped with simple incised carving around it.Wm. Britton - Trigger GuardWm. Britton - Toe - showing a rectangular patchbox release button in the toe plate.Wm. Britton - Patchbox - a fancy, four-piece, pierced brass box with a stylized adelweiss flower in the finial and extensive engraving.Wm. Britton - Cheek - showing simple incised carving typical of the Winchester, VA area.

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Iron Mounted Eastern Tennessee Rifle

East TN Rifle - Full Right


This is an original, fully iron mounted rifle most likely made somewhere on the border of southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee probably between 1820 and 1830..   The lines of the breech stock look Virginia while the mounts are typical East Tennessee.   The stock is a plain piece of Black Walnut in pretty good shape with the exception of saddle wear through to the ramrod hole.  They barrel has been shortened at the breech at least once about three inches.   All the parts appear to be original, and the lock and triggers still work exceptionally well.  The lock is a cheap hardware store variety with no fly or half cock notch.  There is stamped decoration (circles) around the muzzle and the rear buckhorn sight.   The barrel is particularly heavy and coned.  The coning makes it difficult to guage the caliber, but I estimate it at about 38 caliber.   Particularly when you consider that two or three inches were cut off this barrel lightening it some, it is pretty clear that this gun was not shot offhand.  This gun had to be shot from some sort of rest.   This rifle shows lots of honest wear and in-service repairs. I see no evidence of modern repairs or restoration.

  • Overall Length:  60″
  • Barrel Length:  42″
  • Caliber: 38

East TN Rifle - Full LeftEast TN Rifle - Full TopEast TN Rifle - Full BottomEast TN Rifle - Half Right - shows East Tennessee iron mounts and a small greese hole at the back of the butt stock.East TN Rifle - Half LeftEast TN Rifle - Half TopEast TN Rifle - Half Bottom - shows saddle wear through to the ramrod.East TN Rifle - Lock - shows a late, hardware store type, flintlock.East TN Rifle - Side Plate - show short iron plate that is not much more than a simple strip of iron.East TN Rifle - Tang - shows a short spear shaped tang.East TN Rifle - Trigger Guard  - shows a typical, squarish, iron, East Tenneessee style guard.

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