Story and photographs by Frank JardimKnowledge is a fleeting thing if steps aren’t taken to preserve it. Whether it’s building the pyramids or a family recipe, if knowledge isn’t passed on to subsequent generations, it is eventually forgotten and lost. Thirty-four years ago, the passionate desire to preserve the 18th century gun-making techniques, by which American longrifles were handcrafted, led to the creation of an extraordinary training seminar by Professor Terry Leeper, Ph.D., of Western Kentucky University (WKU) and master gunmakers Wallace Gusler and Jon Bivins. Three years later the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) began cosponsoring the seminar and it remains the premier resource for serious subject-matter students. While classes are technically challenging, the instructional team has years of experience at meeting both the basic and most advanced skill levels of the participants. It is serious scholarly instruction in the true master-and-apprentice style.
Prior to every seminar, the instructors assemble a study collection of original and contemporary black-powder firearms (frequently valued in excess of a million dollars) for participants to examine and learn from hands-on investigation and observation. A glance over the five-volume Journal of Historical Armsmaking Technology that grew out of the early seminars indicates the depth of knowledge available for the asking. If you want to learn how every part of a firearm was made over 200 years ago, how to make the tools and dies required and what materials were used, there are instructors at the seminar who know.
Every year several of the best contemporary artisans/artists who specialize in making guns and related accoutrements in the manner they were made over two centuries ago, gather and spend nine to 10 days passing on that knowledge for the 50 to 70 students who attend.
Professor Leeper believes the success of the seminar stems from their focus from the very start in 1981 on getting world-class instructors. This year the House brothers – Herschel, Frank and John – along with Ron Scott, Mark Silver, Jim Kibler, Jack Brooks and Lally House taught nine different courses. In the past, Wallace Gusler, John Bivins, Lynton McKenzie, Monte Mardarino, Lewis Sanchez, David Wagner, Ron Ehlert, Jim Chambers, George Suiter, Jay Close and Gary Brumfield have all led classes.
The courses are intense and the days commonly run 10 hours. All but one of the courses are taught in the WKU industrial arts shops used for technical education labs on the Bowling Green, Ky., campus. The only exception is the Southern rifle-building class taught by the House brothers in the famous Woodbury School of iron-mounted gun-making in Woodbury, Ky., where they have several coal forges set up for students to learn and practice hand-forging iron parts.
The seminar is organized around three-, six- and nine-day classes, the longest generally focusing on the building of a complete firearm. Nobody can take it all in during one seminar, which is why many students opt to return again and again.
In the nine-day courses, the prerequisite parts (lock, stock and barrel) are usually brought to class either by the student or instructor. From a practical standpoint, there isn’t enough time to make every small part in class, so trigger guards, patch boxes, buttplates, nose caps, thimbles and the like are usually provided too. This allows the students to focus their limited class time on shaping the stock correctly (referred to as its architecture), proper placement, inletting and fitting of the various parts, and then finishing and decorating the wood and metal.
Herschel House was involved with the seminar from the start, and he and his brothers are the only instructors who teach the iron-mounted gun-making techniques prevalent in the mid- to late 18th century of the central South. The Houses set up three coal forges where students heat iron bars and hammer them into the raw shapes from which they will file out their own buttplates, trigger guards, lock plates and related stock furniture.
The atmosphere during the House course is like stepping back in time. The workshops are tucked into the forest and two structures that the students use are historic log cabins. I watched a dozen students beating iron bars into shape on the anvil, rasping out the first stages of their stock architecture, roughly grinding their newly formed iron parts to shape on an ancient bench grinder powered by a 90-year-old, single-cylinder engine, forge-welding their trigger-guard parts together, fine-filing the details of their metal stock furniture, and then locating and inletting them into their stocks. While this was going on other students were making knives, petting the many dogs that lounge around the area and firing rifles at targets in the woods. Throughout the day, the House brothers circulated continuously among the students, answering questions, demonstrating techniques, and providing guidance. To promote discussion and the exchange of knowledge, students and instructors ate their meals together on site either outside or inside one of the original log cabins. One student was living there during the entire seminar in the same cabin’s loft.
Master gunmaker Jack Brooks of Englewood, Colo., brought 40 years of experience to lead a nine-day course in stocking a Revolutionary War (circa 1775) Christian Springs-style longrifle. Brooks has extensively researched and documented the original weapon, which is heavier, plainer and more robust than the Golden Age longrifles of the postwar period. Students had to order the lock, stock blank and barrel in advance of the class while Brooks supplied them with reproduction rough castings of the trigger guard and buttplate, as well as patterns and photographs of the original historic rifle. In this challenging course the student’s form and inlet the massive rough-cut stock blank, file the parts to shape, and ultimately fit them to the stock. Not every student will complete the project during the seminar. The objective is to complete the most difficult parts of the project under instructor guidance and finish the fine details at home.
Brooks became interested in building long rifles as a college student in 1971. After graduation he worked as a chemist for the Environmental Protection Agency. His fascination with the American Revolution and the artistic elements of gun-making increased over the years but the pivotal moment came in 1976 when he was offered $1,200 to build a rifle for the bicentennial. He jumped at the opportunity and never stopped building.
Ron Scott, a long-time instructor at the seminar, believes its merit comes from more than just the exchange between teacher and student. The interplay between students is of great value because they learn from each other. Scott shared his gunsmithing expertise on European firearms in his course, designing and building a 1770s’ period fowler or rifle in the Parisian Rocco Art style. He conveys to students the architecture of the different schools of European gunmakers who worked within a rigid guild system, as well as the technical details of how they executed their work.
At the conclusion of the course, students know what the Old World masters made and how they made it. Scott provides the parts needed for the projects, including replicas of the highly decorative cast parts. He uses silicon molds to capture every detail of the original investment cast parts. These are ambitious projects!
Joe Valentin, a retired dentist from Marlette, Mich., has been a regular seminar participant since 1983. The artistic quality of historic guns appealed to him and drew him away from his previous hobby of target shooting with black powder rifles. He taught himself the decorative arts of engraving and gold-leaf application, and used these skills to finish last year’s seminar project, an ornate German holster pistol. Before the gold could be applied, the raised edges of the design were undercut and the flat surfaces covered with tiny “teeth” formed by gently tapping a pointy metal punch with a mallet, first in one direction and then another. This creates an array of mechanical connections so the back of the soft gold foil can adhere to it when it is hammered against them with a wooden punch.
At 40 years old, instructor Jim Kibler is one the youngest professional full-time longrifle gunsmiths, and an alumni of the seminar. He built his first longrifle in his late teens before college and didn’t build another for 10 years because he was too busy working as an engineer for the automotive industry. Longing to make a move towards gunsmithing as a vocation rather than a hobby, he took the loss of his job during the recent economic recession as a sign to do it. He taught a three-day course on the drawing and design principles for carving and engraving longrifles and a six-day course on the fabrication of rifle-stock furniture in sheet brass that covered patch boxes, inlays, thimbles and stock nose capes. I watched him expertly hammer out a nose cap from a cut brass blank in minutes, stretching and compressing the metal in a die of his own making to make a perfectly formed part.
One of Kibler’s students is Justin Chapman, the military programmer for Colonial Williamsburg, a historic city, whose job includes the building and repair of the reproduction weapons used by historical interpreters. He comes to the seminars for professional development and has built 10 rifles in last three years.
Master builder Mark Silver who made a career making custom sporting rifles before shifting to longrifles, also taught two classes. In a three-day course, his students learned their choice of American- or European-style silver- and brass-wire decorative stock inlay techniques, beginning with the making of the specialized tools and ending with the final finishing. Silver’s six-day course focused on both incised line and relief carving that commonly adorned both American and European guns.
Lally House, renowned authority and practitioner of the nearly lost Native American art of porcupine-quill and moose-hair embroidery, taught back-to-back classes for beginning and advanced students. They learned every step of the process, short of catching their own porcupines and moose. Instruction focused on traditional designs, materials and dying techniques to maintain the authenticity of the art form.
Tom Greco attended the Woodbury School iron-mounted gun-making seminar and felt he learned more in two weeks with the House brothers than he had in 25 years on his own. During my interviews with seminar participants, I found this type of high praise for the instructors common.
You may be asking yourself, “What would such and experience cost me?” The three-, six- and nine-day classes cost $360, $720 and $1,080, respectively, plus the cost of class materials. That’s no more than a cheap AR-15. If you want to learn how to build longrifles, there is no better way to do it than under the guidance of
At least 30 former seminar students have gone on to build rifles of such fine quality they were deemed worthy to include in the traveling Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition in 2003. Another five former students now build longrifles full time. Today, most seminar participants are middle-aged or older, with the time and money to devote to studying the complex and interdisciplinary art of building longrifles. Professor Leeper along with Herschel House and many other aging masters expressed to me the need to get younger people involved in the seminars to carry on the tradition for another generation.
They encourage men and women with passion and talent to make themselves known, as a lack of financial resources will not be an obstacle to a dedicated student. ASJ
Author’s note: For more information on the 2016 seminar, contact Professor Terry Leeper at Terry.Leeper@wku.edu.
Posted in Black Powder Tagged with: American Longrifles, Black-powder firearms, David Wagner, Frank House, Frank Jardim, Gary Brumfield, George Suiter, Herschel House, Jack Brooks, Jay Close, Jim Chambers, Jim Kibler, John House, Jon Bivins, Journal of Historical Armsmaking Technology, Justin Chapman, Lally House, Lewis Sanchez, Longrifle Building, Lynton McKenzie, Mark Silver, Monte Mardarino, NMLRA, Professor Terry Leeper, Ron Ehlert, Ron Scott, Wallace Gusler, WKU, Woodbury School
I really hope you enjoy the variety in our Women’s Annual June 2015 issue. We are featuring extraordinary women from all facets of the shooting world, and I’m sorry that I don’t have a thousand-page magazine to highlight more amazing stories.
Hailing from multiple shooting arenas to include top huntresses, SWAT chicks, mounted-shooting champions, girls in practical shooting competitions and sporting-clay trailblazers, these ladies are seriously bad to the bone!
Among our feature stories, we had an exclusive opportunity to interview and see inside the home and workshops of Frank and Lally House, creators of fine contemporary long rifles and Native American-inspired porcupine-quill embroidered gun straps and slings. No matter where in the gun industry you plant your passion, the work of these two Kentucky artists is not lost on anyone. Our team is proud to bring this story and images of the Houses’ amazing works to you.
Our cover feature should inspire some questions. Why in the world is that guy holding a gun to a microphone?!? My thoughts exactly, but our interview with John Johnston of Ballistic Radio on his sadistic tendencies towards guns and sharing the results with his listeners is quite revealing.
Looking ahead to our summer issues, next month is our patriotic and beginner’s guide, followed by the long-range shooting and working dogs issue in August.
For July, I am reaching out to you, our readers, to ask, “What does freedom mean to you?”
We plan on compiling some of the best phrases and comments from around the nation and will share them with you in that star-spangled issue. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please share them with me at
Photographs by Rick Lambert and John Oliver
Two centuries ago, just as today, most tradesmen were simply mechanics who churned out serviceable work to meet commercial demands. True artists were few and far between, but it is the artists’ imagination and skill that allows them to make things of exceptional beauty and genius.
Frank and Lally House are artists. Though they specialize in traditional trades of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, their work far exceeds that of typical artisans. Frank creates Kentucky rifles, tomahawks, swords, knives and powder horns and Lally works with brain-tanned deer
hides and 18th century dyestuffs to create a nearly lost Native American Indian art form of porcupine quillwork and moose-hair embroidery. Both create almost all of their art from raw base materials in the same manner as they were created centuries ago. When not creating, you might find Frank and Lally at the Contemporary Longrifle Association (CLA) gatherings, an organization dedicated to preserving the knowledge of American gun makers and associated arts from colonial times through to the early republic. Recently, the Houses shared some of their observations and experiences as artists who might just have been born 200 years too late.
American Shooting Journal How did you get involved with creating historic weapons and accoutrements?
Frank House My older brother Hershel started this all off. He was born in 1941, so he’s somewhat older than I am, and my younger brother John and I spent our young life watching him work, hanging around his work bench, burning up all his coal in the forge and turning all of his scrap wood on the wood lathe and all that stuff. So, we’ve been in this since we were kids. Hershel started building rifles full time in 1966 and then founded the Woodbury gun-making school with hard work and dogged determination. His greatest contribution was inspiring those of us who grabbed that torch. He’s got a great imagination; never followed somebody else’s lead, and I picked that up from him. It’s one thing to copy a knife or a rifle or tomahawk, but it is another thing to come up with the concept from scratch and design your own artwork, your own engraving patterns and your own patch boxes and architecture. The tricky part is keeping it historically relevant.
ASJ I’ve read that the drop in demand for gun makers after the wartime needs of the American Revolution led to an increase of competition amongst craftsmen.
FH Absolutely! Competition and isolation fed a lot into that. Sometimes these guys were secluded in their own little enclaves and they had to rely on their own inspiration. They couldn’t go down the street to someone else’s shop and borrow their pattern. They had to develop their own styles.
ASJ How do you go about creating a rifle?
FH I have to come up with the concept first. I have to say, I want to create a rifle from this period in this caliber for this client who would have to come into my shop. He might want a .50-caliber rifle to hunt bear with or a target rifle that he’s going to take to the local shooting matches to impress his friends. I have to put myself into that frame of mind. I try to build a rifle based on what I would have had to look at, say, Thomas Simpson’s work or John Wilson’s (gun makers from eras gone by). What would I be building if that was my input? If that was what I was looking at and that was what I was seeing and surrounded by, what would I do? How would I make my work different, but still influenced by these guys? That’s the mindset I use.
ASJ In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, weren’t rifles a means of displaying a man’s social standing?
FH At that time there weren’t many ways of demonstrating your wealth; one was your plantation house. People always misconstrue the meaning of that. It just means a large farmhouse. A man’s house, horse and rifle were the only ways he had to show who he was, and they took a lot of pride in those things. Now we have cars and speedboats, new iPhones and flat-screen TVs.
ASJ The depth of your historic research is impressive. You’re more informed on early American history than my university professor.
FH I quit school in my junior year of high school, and I enjoyed it so much I went back for my senior year and quit again. Some people are cut out for academia and I’m not one of them. However, I’ve been exposed to historic weapons and accoutrements for 40 years. I’ve been a full-time artist since 1988 and Lally since 1990. I do a lot of restoration work on original weapons, tomahawks, the whole thing, so I get the opportunity to handle and take pieces apart to see how the work was done. It all contributes to education.
ASJ Neither you nor your brothers started out doing this. How did you come to the decision to make your living creating historically inspired pieces of Americana? I read that you were a boilermaker – nothing seems farther away from being an artist. The boilermakers I knew were rugged, plain-spoken union men who liked sports and drinking beer.
FH I still like sports and drinking beer [smiles]. My father was a boilermaker and my grandfather an iron worker. We came from a long line of heavy construction. I was actually national graduate apprentice of the year in 1985 among all the new journeyman in the country. I was a good boilermaker. I was a wonderful welder, but there’s something that won’t come out in a welding rod. There’s something in you that absolutely has to come out. You can’t help it and if you don’t let it out, you’re a miserable son-of-a-bitch.
ASJ Did your father think you were crazy quitting a good-paying union job?
FH Yep. My father never had an artistic bone in his body. He was one of the hardest working men I’d ever met. My mother was artistically inclined. She was a country music songwriter and musician.
ASJ Hasn’t this type of gunmaking always been a custom business, with clients coming in with their special requirements and having their rifles made to order?
FH Yes, but our work is in such demand, actually, that as long as it’s good it will sell, and our work is always good. We simply don’t turn out substandard work. We spend the time. That’s one reason we’re not as financially successful as some people think we should be, but no weapon leaves our shop until it’s finished. At this point, hell, I could take ten rifles to a show and probably sell five of them, maybe all ten, but then I only make two a year.
ASJ To say your work is good is quite an understatement. You don’t just make rifles either.
FH I also do restoration and knife work and a few other things. Hershel makes guns in addition to his knife work. John is primarily a knife and sheath maker and Lally is “eye ball” deep in her porcupine-quill work and moose-hair embroidery.
ASJ So there aren’t now and never will be a whole lot of House rifles out there?
FH Nope. Never will be. Hershel in his career, early on, did a lot of simpler, plainer mountain rifles and things like that to pay the bills getting started, but after he got his legs under him and got his mojo working, he slowed down. These guns are a tremendous amount of work. One of the things that makes this a very difficult occupation is that you literally have to master six, eight, 10 different vocations to be able to build a rifle from start to finish by yourself. You have to be a pretty damn good blacksmith, an architect, and you have to do some engineering work because all the mechanical aspects of the rifle have got to work. You have to be a foundryman, a carver, an engraver, a silversmith and a goldsmith. There’s a whole lot involved in making a rifle, and it takes a lifetime to master it. That’s one reason there’s not a lot of people who do it. If you’re talented enough to build a rifle from start to finish, there are a whole hell of a lot of other things you can do that can make a whole lot more money. I’m just being honest.
ASJ The rifles you make now are not the basic weapons that the
average guy looking to hack himself out a homestead on the frontier would buy. They are the high-end
pieces that would have been commissioned by the most successful and wealthy landowners. Back in 1790, fine guns like that would have taken a master gunmaker a half a year to build too.
FH Exactly right, and that’s one reason why these really great rifles are so rare. Because there wasn’t a great deal of them built to begin with. Only a handful of really great guns have survived.
ASJ You have a depth knowledge of American culture that most museum professionals will never have. How did you and Lally get involved with Hollywood, where they have a reputation for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story?
FH It’s a strange story. Randy Wilkenson, a friend of ours in Los Angeles who was working on the film The Patriot, brought in a rifle I’d made him and a horn strap that Lally made for a prop department show-and-tell where the director looked over all the props to decide what he liked and didn’t like. The director said he wanted our pieces for the movie. Wilkenson said he couldn’t have them because they were his own personal pieces. The director asked him, “Well, who made these, because I want them to do this for us.” That’s how it started. Then Mark Baker (a subject matter historian and writer) and I went down there and did the gun training for Mel Gibson, Jason Issacs, Heath Ledger and all the actors, and did a really good job for them. They got my name in their rolodex. We went from there to Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean and even Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for which Lally and I did all the monkey war clubs, spears and staffs props to give them an aged Neolithic look. I’m up to 16 shows now. Some of them major, some of them minor but all of them pretty big productions.
ASJ Lally, it seems to me that an unfortunate byproduct of today’s vast world market is that it has cheapened the value of handwork of all kinds, including art. What would have been a prized possession a century ago is now something you buy at the dollar story. Have you observed this too?
Lally House Yes. An example is Native American beadwork, which was once a highly collectible American art form until the Japanese started making loom beadwork. That changed the whole game for the really good bead workers out there. Because shop owners and importers brought in cheaper Asian-made products, people started to feel that the American handwork wasn’t that important of an item. I’m so glad they don’t do anything with quill work or moose-hair embroidery.
ASJ Embarrassed to admit my own ignorance, I had never heard of this art form until I saw your work.
LH Porcupine quill and moose-hair embroidery were almost extinct as art forms by 1800 when European-made glass beads became the dominant trade item with the native tribes on the America frontier. It’s not hard to understand how this almost happened 200 years ago. A handful of brightly colored glass beads was easy to store and the Indians didn’t have to do the preliminary work that goes along with quills and moose hair. Imagine having to trap the porcupine, pluck and clean the quills, gather the natural dyes and dye the quills before you can even get started.
ASJ So, porcupine quill and moose hair embroidered items were commodities?
LH The pre-1800 eastern woodland Indians commonly used quill and moose hair embroidery to decorate their personal items. Since it was so popular as a decorative art, it was a highly valued trade item between individuals and tribes. They made a lot of what we would consider tourist-souvenir decorative items, like wallets that would be hung on the wall to hold important personal items, pin cushions, eye-glass cases, picture frames and anything you can imagine that a European or Native American might want. More traditional items would be powder-horn straps, hunting bags and knife scabbards.
ASJ How many artists still do this type
LH There’s probably less than a dozen of us who do Eastern Woodland Indian-style work. Of that dozen, maybe five or six of us make our sole living this way. For many, many years, I was the only person using all-original 18th century natural dies, the same dyes used in early settlements and
ASJ How did you get started in this esoteric art form?
LH I grew up in Louisville. I had a great history teacher in 4th grade who sparked my interest and I learned how to do research from some elderly ladies in my local branch library. I found a book on quillwork and the rest I had to learn from studying surviving pieces in private collections and museums. My main goal is to ensure that this beautiful and culturally important
art form is kept alive. We aren’t just in jeopardy of losing an Indian art form, we are in jeopardy of losing a uniquely American art form. ASJ
Note: Those interested in helping Frank and Lally House preserve our nation’s history through the living art of its craftsman and women should consider supporting the Contemporary Longrifle Foundation. You can get more information at their website at ContemporaryLongrifleFoundation.org.
Posted in Hollywood and Pop Culture Tagged with: Contemporary, Contemporary Long Rifle, Dawn of the planet of the apes, Disney, Embroidery, Frank House, Frank Jardim, Kentucky, Lally House, Long Gun, Master and Commander, Moose Hair, movie, Porcupine Quill, Rick Lambert Photography, Rifle, The Patriot