A New Millennium of 18th Century Gunsmiths:
The 2001 NMLRA Gunsmithing
Workshop and Seminar.

This article was written for Muzzle Blasts magazine in July of 2001 and appeared in the fall.


The first NMLRA Gunsmithing Workshop and Seminar of the 21st century took place May 30 through June 8, 2001 at Western Kentucky University at Bowling Green. The seminar was attended by fifty-nine skilled, amateur and beginning NMLRA gunsmiths all eager to learn, practice and perfect a variety of the skills necessary to produce 18th century rifles, fowlers, pistols and horns. As in past years, the seminar began with several three-day short courses as preliminaries to the main six-day classes.

In 2001 the short courses included:

Gary Brumfield and Wallace Gusler: Drawing.
Gary and Wallace co-taught a class on design and drawing for the American longrifle. They used new rifles, because the carving is still sharp, as well as originals, slides and close-ups of a variety of samples. Gary and Wallace talked about Baroque and Rocco styles as well as American versus European art and how they were used and applied to the American longrifle. They talked about how to see where lines originate and flow and how to learn to look before you draw and draw before you design.

Mark Silver: Traditional Stock Architecture, Preparation and Finishing.
Mark’s 10 students shaped a stock from a rough blank using planes, rasps and files. They then finished the stock to the point of being ready for staining using only steel bladed scrapers. No sandpaper or steel wool was used. The results demonstrate that stock shaping with edged tools is not only traditional but is also quick and efficient. Mark’s class also experimented with traditional stock staining on maple and walnut using traditional dyes such as nitric acid, pine tar and bee’s wax as well as modern aniline dyes.

Jack Brooks: c.1815 English Lock.
Jack had 8 students who took a fine Jim Chambers c. 1760 pistol flintlock and modified it to look like a c. 1815 London Warranted Pennsylvania style lock. All the changes were cosmetic. Jack made cocks and roller frizzen springs to match the original. He taught his class how to fit the cock and temper and fit the frizzen spring. They worked on some introductory engraving as well as lock filing and polishing to make it look correct for the pistols in Jack’s weeklong class.

Hershel and John House: Forging Iron Mounts.
Hershel’s blacksmith shop at his home became the classroom for 9 students to forge, shape and finish the trigger guard, sideplate and buttplate for the southern mountain rifle. All the students quickly picked up the knowledge to make nicely shaped mounts. On Friday evening the women of Woodbury, KY treated the House’s forging class to a dinner. Nobody complained or went away hungry.

Ron Ehlert: Powder Horns.
Ron’s 9 students started with a raw horn and finished with a partially scrimshawed French & Indian or Revolutionary War antique. In between Ron explained and demonstrated how to select a horn based on color, thickness, curve and weight. Ron talked about plugging and sculpting, engrailing, shaping the horn and making and installing the butt plug. They located and drilled the small hole for the fiddle keys Ron provided. Ron also gave instruction on scrimshaw with a knife, scribe and graver and explained his method of artificial antiquing. Ron had several books with many photos of original horns for examples and ideas. (top)

Shoot and Picnic:

After the completion of the three-day classes at noon on Saturday we had a much-needed break. The manager of the Scottish Inn, Jim Smith, where most of the seminar participants were staying, offered to let us use his farm for a Saturday afternoon shoot. Most of the seminar folks were there and about 50 neighbors. Some of the spectators had never fired a muzzleloader before. There were several rifles, and one pistol, in nearly constant use. Mine got shot a total of 26 times by probably 10 different people. If each of the eight to ten guns present was fired by that many people, and I believe most were, that’s a total of 80+ people who were introduced to black powder and the NMLRA in one afternoon.
We ate well, too. Jim’s family, and the family of John DuVall from Sweeden, KY, prepared a barbecue dinner for all the seminar participants. It was good friendship, good eatin’ and good shootin’ all in one afternoon. Life is good!
On Sunday morning we began the six-day classes. These classes are the primary focus of the seminar and included:

Ron Ehlert: Fowler.
Ron furnished his 8 students with a stock blank with the barrel and ramrod channels pre-inlet. He furnished a lock, buttplate and trigger guard. The students then inlet the breech plug, tang, lock and buttplate. They made the trigger and trigger plate from sheet and inlet both. They shaped the buttstock profile from lock to buttplate in the style of the American Fowler from the Revolutionary War period. Ron had two original fowlers for his students to copy or use as examples. One of these is a J.P. Beck of the Lebanon school while the other is unsigned. Both had the original flintlocks and made excellent guns for patterns. The buttstock of the American Fowler is unique and completely different from the American Longrifle.
Hershel and John House: Southern Mountain Rifle.
Hershel and John House co-taught a class of 8 students the architecture and traditional building techniques of the southern mountain rifle. One of their students used walnut while the rest used maple stock blanks with the barrel channel and ramrod already inlet. They shaped the stock, inlet the tang, trigger, buttplate and iron mounts. Five of these students worked on rifles of an early style, with three of a later period. All studied different styles and construction techniques. These students will go home with a nearly completed rifle. None of them were finished but all can be completed at home. Hershel and John also hosted a “porch sing” at John’s cabin on the last Thursday evening. It’s a great way to end the seminar with new and old friends.

Jack Brooks: Kentucky Pistol.
Jack had photos of an original c. 1820 Pennsylvania pistol probably made by John Rupp or Jacob Kuntz (Kunz). Jack had made two pistols from the photographs for examples to be used by his 8 students. Bob Elka supplied high quality blanks of hard maple with the ramrod channel and a round, partial, barrel channel already inlet. Jack supplied Getz octagon to round .45 caliber, 9” barrels, investment cast trigger guards and materials for the class to make the trigger, trigger plate, thimbles, barrel lugs and pins. He also supplied sheet silver for the escutcheon pin inlays. The class inlet the barrel, drilled the ramrod hole, inlet the lock, trigger and trigger plate, cut dovetails in the barrel for lugs and made and installed the lugs. Everyone got the forestock shaped but only Bob Elka succeeded in getting the stock completely shaped with buttplate installed. One student used an L & R Bailes lock while the rest used stock Jim Chambers locks or the locks from Jack’s lock preparation class. This is the class I took this year. Jack has been teaching a Pennsylvania rifle class for several years and decided to offer a pistol class as a change. I signed up for the same reason. I can verify the skills and techniques are the same for a pistol as for a rifle, except that it’s a lot easier to inlet a 9” barrel than a 44” barrel!

Mark Silver: Engraving.
Mark’s 8 students received instruction on American design and styles of engraving found on original longrifles. His instruction included scrolls, leaf work, shading and lettering. Mark supplied his students with gravers he had prepared. This way each student began with a tool that was correctly sharpened. His instruction included how, and why, to keep the graver correctly sharpened, planning, design, layout and execution. Mark also taught how to hold the graver and chasing hammer and how heavy each tap should be to get the correct depth of cut. Their “finial” exam was to copy a finial from an original patchbox. Many thanks to Dixie Gun Works and Sharon Cunningham for the brass practice plates they supplied for this class.
Gary Brumfield: Making and Inletting the Brass Patchbox.
Gary’s 8 students followed his 15-step procedure to make and inlet a brass patchbox from sheet. This class also used stock blanks because the objective is to learn the techniques rather than to complete a rifle. Dixie Gun Works supplied the sheet brass and buttplates. Gary’s instruction included designing a patchbox or duplicating an original as well as shaping and inletting a brass buttplate. His procedures include how to cut the pieces to make and fit a curved hinge, and how to design, cut and inlet the sideplates, finial and door. Gary’s students experimented with hidden latches and a variety of spring and button locations. They learned how to heat temper and work harden iron and brass and how to make springs.

Wallace Gusler: Sheet and Wire Inlay.
Wallace taught 8 students his technique for sheet and wire inlays. He started with the basics of stock preparation and how to lay out a pattern. Wallace then progressed to wire inlay and the procedure of setting in with a “V” cut, the use and shape of a bottoming tool and how to make miters and other angle fits. He also instructed his students in thinning wire for tapering elements and methods of securing wire by shape upsetting the bottom edge. Wallace explained how to inlay wire around curved surfaces and methods of controlling depth and curve distortion. His students worked with wire of .004 and .007 thickness and learned how to hammer the wire to make other thickness. Wallace instructed his students in how to design inlays, make patterns, cut out the inlay from sheet and file the proper angles on the edges to make a tight fit. They next worked on bending the inlay to shape, scribing and how to remove the proper wood to get a good fit. Wallace also included making nails and nail heads as well as designing inlays that use both sheet and wire.

Jim Chambers: Relief Carving.
Jim’s 5 students studied and practiced the techniques involved in applying 18th century decorative arts to the gunstock. His instruction included final shaping and preparation of the stock, drawing of 18th century designs, studying both Rocco and Baroque design, how to lay out the carving design on the stock, execution of the carving and sanding or scraping in preparation for finishing. Jim’s class studied carvings, both good and bad, on original rifles as well as examples of some of the best of today’s gun makers. The class objective was not to obtain a finished product but rather to explore, practice and master the techniques necessary to produce a stylistically correct 18th century longrifle. (top)

John Miller and Christi Lemen paid us a surprise visit. John is the NMLRA Executive Vice President and Christi is the secretary in the office at Friendship and is instrumental in getting mailings and information to seminar participants. A hearty thanks also needs to go to Dr. Terry Leper for his efforts in securing the facilities at WKU and to Gary Brumfield for organizing the seminar. Dixie Gun Works and Sharon Cunningham deserve our thanks and patronage for supplying the brass sheet and buttplates used by the engraving and patchbox classes. Please don’t forget them when you’re ordering supplies. This seminar could never take place without the help of these fine people.

On Monday evening it looked as if I didn’t have enough socks to survive the week, so I loaded up and went to a local laundry. While there I ran into Mike Matteson from Hershel and John’s Southern Mountain Rifle class. Of course the conversation turned to guns and history and other interesting stuff. As I was driving back I thought “only at this seminar can a guy go to a laundry mat and come out with a new idea for a rifle sight and a lead on a book on early Virginia and Ohio Valley settlers. (top)

As always, every meal becomes a forum for discussion on everything from tool suppliers to huntin’ tales from every corner of the country. I usually believe the info on tool suppliers. If you’re coming to the seminar, be sure to bring enough pencils and notepads.
At the turn of the 21st century, it seems somewhat odd to be learning and practicing and rediscovering gunsmithing techniques from, now, four centuries earlier. Most of the work performed at the seminar is done by the same methods in use by the gunsmiths and horners four centuries ago. While some of the tools have changed, we may use a drill press instead of a hand drill, we’re still locating the tang screw and fitting the buttplate in much the same way. It’s nice to leave most of the modern, 21st century, world behind and spend 10 days immersed in art, history and flintlock rifles. There is an odd mix of the old and the new. At a dinner table or parking lot discussion, it’s possible to learn of an 18th century method for securing barrel lugs and of a web site for a supplier of dovetail cutters. (top)
We had people from 26 states including Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Florida, New Jersey and California. We were even blessed, once again, with Pete Fuller from Kent, England. A local, Bowling Green, television station came in and taped an interview with Pete. We were all thrilled at the chance to get what we’re doing in front of the public. Pete did a good job and was extremely photogenic. Unfortunately, the interview was edited to about 10 seconds and ended with a very quick shot of a rifle stock. This year’s seminar also included 6 women. They add a touch of class most gun shops could have used in 1775. There were four couples with both husband and wife enrolled in class, lending a new twist to a family vacation.
If you’re planning to attend the seminar in 2002, be sure to indicate a 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice of class. Instructor and classroom availability and student requests will determine which classes are taught. Please keep in mind that the purpose of the seminar is not to completely build a rifle but to learn and practice the skills necessary to turn out quality work. The seminar is intended for all skill levels with beginners and experts in every class. The instructors make every effort to teach to the level of each individual student. Look for information on the 2002 NMLRA Gunsmithing Workshop and Seminar in an upcoming issue of Muzzle Blasts. (top)