From time to time I start hearing the same questions over and over again. Perhaps there are some answers here that might save you some looking around.
- I want to build a Kentucky rifle. Where do I start?
- What kind of barrel should I get?
- Which is better, flint or percussion?
- Stocks cost a lot. What should I start with?
- Is it difficult to inlet that long barrel and make the ramrod groove and drill the hole?
- Getting back to parts, what other parts do you buy?
- How much should I spend on tools?
- I'd like to decorate my gun, but I can't draw.
- That carving you do sure looks difficult...
- Do I really have to engrave, and how difficult is it?
- Basically, what are your favourite, most used tools?
There was or is no such thing as a generic Kentucky rifle, so if you charge out and buy any old parts, all your efforts will result in failure. You need to do some research, buy or borrow, and study the books available on the subject. Then restrict yourself to a period, a locality, a gunsmith. So, if you narrow your question, it might go something like this: "What would a Kentucky rifle look like if it had been made during the Colonial or pre-Revolutionary period, made by a Lancaster, Pa. gunsmith?" That kind of specific question will lead you to some pictures of guns that might please you, and guide your choice of appropriate parts. The more study you put in, the better will be your rifle. Good books are listed in the References and Resources Appendix of my book.
We need to break the question into two (related) parts: CALIBER and HISTORY.
CALIBER, or the size of bore and ball, should be related, realistically, to the kind of shooting you plan to do. For example, if you are really going to hunt big game out West, or are going to target shoot at ranges beyond 100 yards, choose a caliber above .50. If you are planning to hunt deer, small game, or target shoot at ranges of 100 yards or under, choose .45 caliber or less.
HISTORY: Generally speaking, Colonial period rifles were in the .50 caliber or bigger range, since big game was available in the East. By 1800, calibers shrank to .45 or less as the big game got shot out. As you can see, there is a grey area between the two parts of the answer, and since the barrel is the single most expensive part of your gun, you need to do your research. For a more thorough discussion, see the relevant chapter in my book.
When I started, 30 years ago, the answer would have been percussion, since the few reproduction flintlocks on the market were very poor and unreliable indeed. However, today we have some very good flintlocks on the market, which can be improved further by some fine tuning, so the opposite is true. When a percussion fails to explode the main charge, there are quite a few causes, all of which take time and finicky fiddling to fix. With a flintlock, there are probably only three causes, easy to fix. Still, if you are a beginner, you might want to start with percussion.
Actually, walnut and cherry are quite cheap compared to curly or tiger maple. But I presume we are talking about curly maple since 95% of the original longrifles were stocked in that wood. And, you're right. The more and tighter the stripes, the greater the cost. And the more work somebody does on the stock for you, the more you add to the base price of the wood.
And a really curly stock is hard to work. So, if you are a beginner, I would suggest you get a stock with some curl that starts at the wrist area and then is uniform to the muzzle. You don't really need much curl in the buttstock since your carving behind the cheekpiece won't show that much, and your brass patchbox covers most of the other side. Lots of fine original longrifles were made out of that basic quality. Make sure your stock blank is well seasoned, 2 1/4" thick, planed on the top and sides. You should budget about $70 for a blank. Add about $50 to have someone inlet your barrel and effect the ramrod groove and hole.
The answer depends on you. If you have never worked with hand tools and/or never gone through the process, you will find it difficult and discouraging. If you are an impatient person and want the gun finished yesterday, you probably shouldn't be here, anyway. After having made a few rifles, I can only describe the jobs as tedious. If you are a beginner, I recommend you have Fred Miller (see my book) do the jobs. But everyone should hand inlet a barrel at least once.
Apart from the barrel and lock, I buy the appropriate butt plate and trigger guard castings. I buy a ramrod, and a tip to accept the cleaning jag. All the rest I make. And the making of the other parts is a good part of the fun. However, you can buy every part to put together a longrifle, depending on your pocketbook, and inclination. My book shows you how to make most of what you need.
If you check out the relevant chapter in my book, you would be surprised a how few tools you really need. But the tools you need depend on how much you plan to do yourself. For example, you can buy a Jim Chambers kit, with almost all the work done for you, and so, need very few tools indeed. But my answer, is to spend as little as you have to. I haunt flea markets for old chisels, gouges, sharpening stones. I do spend money on files, because sharp files and rasps are essential.
You're wrong. Anybody and everybody can draw. All drawing involves is moving the lead end of a pencil across a surface. And they invented a straight edge to help you draw a straight line. No, your problem is that you haven't learned to see what you want to draw. There are two great chapters in my book which will teach you how. Beyond that, it's just practice. The most important part of a pencil is the eraser.
That's good, because I want to "WOW!" the viewer. Actually, carving is the easiest and more pleasurable part of making the gun. I can carve completely a rifle in three days, but that's after a little practice. Seriously, carving is easy and the most fun you'll have in making a gun.
Well, engraving IS more difficult than carving, not in terms of strength or complexity, but in terms of technique, which requires lots more practice. How lucky we are that few of the original longrifle makers were even good, never mind great engravers. You can, with time, patience and practice engrave at least as well as 95% of the original gunsmiths. With my students, I start them engraving early on in the gunmaking course, so when they need to do it for real, they're ready.
A big rasp, my Nicholson #50 Patternmaker's rasp, assorted files, my EXACTO knife, my 1/4" chisel, a few gouges, my jeweller's saw.