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.