Sooner or later, every shooter and skirmisher entertains the idea of building a shootin' iron with his or her own hands. As a psychological phenomenon, this thought process usually occurs at about the same time a skirmisher thinks they can do a better job than the National and Regional Commander put together (and he or she already knows they could do a far better job then the unit Commander!), and these delusions seem to be as natural as thinking you know more than Mom and Dad and the teacher put together. The truth is, anyone willing to invest the time and money in a building project can do a credible job. But the road to Perdition is paved with the unfinished musket projects of those who fail to plan! The desire to build authentic Civil War weapons usually is spawned by the desire to shoot better, but not always. A lot of shooters I've known have said that they think they've gotten all they can out of their present musket or carbine, and sometimes they have. At that point, perhaps a homemade musket or carbine is the next logical step. But better shootin' isn't always the prime motivation to roll your own piece. My first complete "womb-to-tomb" construction job was to provide me with a unique reenacting arm. I wanted a three-band Harpers Ferry marked Model 1855, and nobody made one, so I did. But before you put chisel to wood or file to metal, carefully planning is required, and that's what I'd like to talk about this month. I had rebarreled and tuned many a musket before I undertook to bake one from scratch.
If you want to build a Civil War period arm, you have to decide (1) what you intend to do with it and (2) what exact model do you want to build. Are you going to shoot competitively with your arm? What caliber restrictions will be applied in your competition? What sight restrictions will apply? If you are going to build a reenacting arm, is it appropriate to your persona, or will it require new equipment and accoutrement purchases as well. Be honest in your evaluation. Don't build a gun that's not going to be right for you. If you have been shooting Springfield-style stocks all your life, don't even think about building an Enfield until you've shot one or two and know that the English pattern suits you, and suits you well. And don't forget that if you want to compete with that replica Hapsburg Bavarian Rifled Musket conversion model 1832 with barbecue spit bayonet, you will have to provide the documentation to support not only your claim that it was used during the Civil War, but you must provide accurate specifications as well.
What style and type of arm should a shooter build? The type depends on the shooters frame. I would not recommend a 3-band musket with overall dimensions over 40 inches to a shooter less than 6 feet tall. Generally speaking, over the course of the life of the average competitor and the average custom homemade weapon, a 2-band rifle or rifle-musket is going to prove quicker to load and aim during timed events. This is less of a problem in individual events, so ultimately the skirmisher must decide if they want to sacrifice team speed for more length and weight and perhaps achieve better individual success. By all means, I would recommend that you shoot the style of weapon you plan to construct several times before you begin to invest up to $750 in parts.
Style is possibly the most important criteria. Do you shoot one type of sight better then another? Do you favor the straight English stock, or do you like the drop of the American stocked Springfields, Harper Ferrys and similar patterns? Anyone contemplating buying or building a custom-built arm should become familiar with as many different types and styles as possible before deciding which to select. Another important question is, can I get a good set of dimensions for the gun I want to build? Reference materials such as any edition FLAYDERMAN'S GUIDE TO ANTIQUE AMERICAN FIREARMS are extremely valuable in providing many of the general specifications such as caliber, barrel and overall length, hardware style and composition, and other important construction information. Finding correct, and therefore approve able, sight radius is a more difficult endeavor. I have found over the years that a reliable part source, such as Bill Osbourne at Lodgewood Arms (414-473-5444) or Dixie Gun Works can often supply valuable specification information. When I was building my Harpers Ferry Model 1855, I acquired a very well written article from Bill on the proper construction of several variations of the Model 1855. While every model and make of musket or rifle is not currently covered by such encyclopedic catalogs, there are many books, articles and/or reviews available from bookdealers today which delve succinctly and accurately into all the necessary specifications to build a replica arm today. Prime consideration must be given to the availability of parts for the weapon you would choose to construct. The patterns/styles which enjoy the largest selection of quality parts are : 1842 to 1863 pattern Springfield/Harpers Ferry; 1841 Mississippi Rifle; Plymouth Rifles; and, the Enfield 3-band Musket type 3.
If building a completely new musket, rifle or carbine seems too large a project right now, I will also attempt to provide some tuning tips to make your current weapon shot a little smoother, and maybe it will just seem like you have a new gun.
If you're interested in constructing your own or making major improvements to your current arms, don't forget to mark May 19 - 22 on your calendar, and start saving your Yankee dollars now. The N-SSA Spring National Skirmish will be held during those dates at Ft. Shenandoah, and for these four days more gun-part dealers and sutlers will be assembled in one place then you can shake a credit card at. Make sure you stop by the Whitacre's Machine Shop on the eastern edge of Sutlers row. They supply excellent match grade barrels, and I have had a lot of success with my own Whitacre Barrel. Their ad says "These barrels are winning medals at N-SSA Matches," and I can honestly say I never won a musket medal until I started shooting my Whitacre barrel (Whitacre's Machine Shop, 703-877-1468).
So consider your choice of a new, custom-made shootin' (or reenacting) stick, call around for some catalogs and price information, and until the next time, shoot safe and have fun.
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