Confusing Terms in Building

Christian Oerter Letter
18th-C Apprenticeships
Curly Wood
Fantasy Rifle?
Scratch Built???
Iron & Steel
Muzzle Blasts
Hunting Stories
What's a Virginia Rifle?
Why Straight Rifling
When I was the president of the Contemporary Longrifle Association I attempted to establish some standard definitions of the many terms used to describe the rifle building process. Terms like "scratch built," "built from scratch," "handmade," "hand forged," "pre-carved," and etc. are widely used but with different meanings/definitions.

Below you will find some of the discussion generated among builders when I asked their definitions on a gun building web site.

October 2003

A bit of time has passed since I suggested a discussion of the meaning of some terms used by contemporary builders to describe their work. If you have been following the various threads this spawned you will remember the terms I threw out for discussion were: handmade; built from scratch; stocked from the blank; stocked from a per-inlet blank; built from a pre-carved stock and built from a kit.

I think we had some good input and, as some of you speculated, I would eventually like the Contemporary Longrifle Association to come up with a set of formal definitions that at least our membership could agree to use. My interest in this dates back several decades to my time in the Colonial Williamsburg shop but in 2001 it was called to my attention that the exhibitors at the CLA show were not doing anything to educate the potential customers about all the different ways the guns on display were made. A man with money to spend became so confused by the huge variation in pricing (some of which comes from how the rifle was made) that he ended up not making a purchase. I’ve always said that gunsmiths make lousy salesmen.

This discussion seems to have run it’s course. Here’s my attempt to extract and summarize some definitions:

Handmade—I have to go alone with Ric and Webster’s Dictionary on that one—made by hand or hand processes…no power tools used in the manufacture of the object. On a “handmade” gun all the components are handmade. (I differ with those who said that the availability of ready made locks and barrels in the period would allow a gun with a Chambers lock and Getz barrel to be called handmade.) Even a forge welded barrel is not "handmade" if it is reamed by a power tool or surfaced with a mill or grinder.

Production of the raw materials from which the gun is made (stock blank, bar iron and steel, sheet and scrap brass, etc.) is not generally considered the work of the gunsmith. So, to me, it is okay to consider a gun “handmade” even though the raw materials have been produced by modern processes.

However, this definition of handmade leaves open the whole question of materials, processes and tools. As I mentioned in the original posting, sawing a flintlock out of bar stock (even some totally modern alloy) by hand could result in a “handmade” lock. Ryan McNabb from TN wrote me off list and asked if a hand cranked forge could be used, instead of a bellows, to make a hand forged gun barrel or lock?

So just saying something is “handmade” is not enough. To really define it we, as Joe said, need qualifiers. Maybe—Totally handmade, from period correct materials, using period correct tools and processes—would be enough.

Of course not even that mouthful is a clear definition of how the gun was made because there were, in any given period, many different tools and processes in use. A lock made in 1775 in a Birmingham factory was made very differently from one turned out by a gunsmith in Augusta Co. Va. in the same year. As several respondents said, to be completely clear a narrative would have to be written.

So is it hopeless? I hope not. I hope this attempt to define handmade has cast a strong light on what is not handmade.


Responses I got about the meaning of "built from scratch" varied widely. A few folks said it meant the same thing as handmade. Most interpreted it to mean a gun stocked from a blank but using modern commercially made components such as the lock, barrel, and castings. Whether the mounts were made or purchased made a difference to a few and it certainly would to me as a potential customer.

The consensus seemed to be that a "scratch built" gun differs from a kit in two important ways: the builder is selecting the individual components and the stock is not pre-shaped or pre-inlet. (top)