The N-SSA and Musket Modifications

As the 1st Ga. considers associating with the N-SSA, there have been some folks that have noticed the seemingly wide latitude allowed by that organization in the area of gun "tuning". As an N-SSA skirmisher for the last 14 years, and a long time student of 19th century military arms, I would like to make a few comments on the modifications allowed within the rules of the North- South Skirmish Association, in the hope of shedding some light on the subject.

The modifications allowed generally fall into two categories; First is fixing the sights. Second is getting the gun to shoot right. There are very good reasons for allowing these changes. The reason for the first is the way they were originally sighted, as well as aging eyes and the second is reproduction weapons.

A particular area where the N-SSA allows more modification than some would like is in sights. The first requirement of all skirmish weapons is that the sights are the original design and in the original position. That being said, there is also a serious problem, particularly in carbine competition, with the guns being zeroed for the maximum point blank range. The idea during the war was that a hit anywhere on a soldier (or his mount) was a success. In order to maximize the chance of success, the guns were sighted VERY high and the troops trained to hold on the center of the target. Most Civil War muskets will shoot about a foot high at 100 yards. This can usually be compensated by adjusting the sight picture. Some folks can't seem to handle this and opt for a tall front sight. Carbines are much worse, most will shoot at least 18 inches over. This includes such popular guns as the Spencer, Smith, Sharps, Maynard, Burnside and Merrill as well as many of the muzzle loaders, like the Richmond carbine and Cook & Brother. This is fine for shooting at horses, but can be a real problem when trying to hit those little 4 inch tiles 100 yards out. Carbines usually shoot so high that the sight picture adjustment is not sufficient. Therefore, it is not considered bad form to use a taller front sight.

Many skirmishers, particularly those with older eyes, drill peep holes in their sight leaves. This definitely helps focus the target for those lacking a full depth of field. However, since the sight must be in the original position and the leaf must be the original shape, the leaf blanks out all of the targets except the one actually being aimed on. This often leads to losing a lot of time searching through the sights for a target and sometimes cross firing on the adjacent team's targets. While the peep sight rule has allowed many skirmishers to continue to enjoy our sport as they get older, it is not exactly the advantage one would think having shot highpower or 22 matches with top quality peeps. Most people that don't need the optical advantage of a peep's greater depth of field avoid them like the plague.

The lifeblood of the N-SSA is the excellent supply of reasonably priced reproduction weapons. As much as we enjoy shooting them, fewer and fewer skirmishers are willing to take original firearms to the line. As the values of even the more common types surpass $2000, skirmishers are switching to reproductions. We can thank such fellow skirmishers as Brannen Sanders and Val Forgett for bringing us this resource. But, there is a catch.

Although some dyed in the wool skirmishers like to think that the N-SSA is the premier market for reproductions, the reenactment community and movie studios are both far bigger customers. They are also far less particular about authenticity and quality. Luckily, the N-SSA has enough "clout" that their approval carries some marketing weight. Still, N-SSA approval is based only on the gun's external dimensions conforming to the original model, not the actual construction details. Modern reproductions are made to compete in a very price conscious market. My first original musket for competition was a '64 Springfield and I paid $350 for it. At the same time a Navy Arms '64 Springfield was $410. Today that original is worth close to $2000, and a new Navy Arms '64 is going for about $450. In order to hold the line on price, the fit and finish of the typical reproduction is nowhere near the standard required by a Civil War era government arms inspector. Most customers (a) don't realize this and (b)could care less. This is perfectly fine for what they do with them. They are not trying to pick off Pickett's ill fated masses at 800 yards from behind a rail fence (at least not for real). If the trigger pull is a creepy 15 pounds and the barrel bedding is not right, who cares, the price is very acceptable.

There is no reason that muskets could not be made to conform exactly to the original design, the problem is that they would be about as expensive as Larry Romano's outstanding Spencer reproduction, over $3000 each. Recall that in 1861, the typical soldier was paid around $14 a month and a contract musket cost $18. So, the $3000 government quality musket is actually a bargain! The problem is, not too many skirmishers have over a month's wages to invest in a weapon, especially when one that looks almost as good can be had for a lot less than a week's pay.

The modifications allowed in N-SSA competition are usually aimed squarely at fixing the problems of reproduction guns. Things such as low density stocks, poor bedding, improperly tempered springs, unfinished lock parts and incorrectly made sights ruin accuracy potential (these last two are almost universal), yet are easily repaired. In order to bring the reproductions up to the standards of original guns, repairs and "tuning" are allowed. It is an unlucky skirmisher that has to fix all of the preceding problems, but almost every one of us shooting a reproduction will face some of them. Occasionally one will be blessed with the "magic gun" that shoots well right out of the box. But this is the rare exception. Few repro.s will shoot to the government standard of 4" at 100 yards without work. Virtually any original in decent shape will shoot well under 2" with little more than some effort at load development.

One area where some leeway is allowed is trigger pull. The government minimum was 3 pounds, although virtually all original US guns will be closer to 7 pounds. Original Enfields are often over 10. In order to set a standard and stop people from building custom hair trigger locks, the 3 pound minimum was selected. Plenty of skirmishers have shimmed their tumblers and shaved their sear springs right to this minimum. Honestly though, that does not mean you have to do it to be competitive.

In short, the modifications in most cases allow the skirmisher to shoot a gun as good as an original, not one that is better. In fact, most of the folks that build custom weapons advertise "built to original specifications" or "as good as an original". That is as high a standard as we should all strive for.

Your scribe has been shooting a Parker Snow contract '61 for the last 9 years with one modification. That is the addition of a 1/64" plywood shim under the barrel tang. This is to compensate for the stock wood compressed by 134 years of pressure. Otherwise the gun is as issued. With it, I have managed to stay on the "A" team, even with less practice that I would like. This gun shoots excellent groups and has hit better than 50% on water filled milk jugs, at 250 yards.

Ultimately, the N-SSA offers an opportunity unique for us history buffs, no matter what the other companies are shooting. Where else can one put on a 5 lb. loaded cartridge box, stand shoulder to shoulder with 500 troops and load and fire so fast that one dare not touch the hot barrel. The air is alive with the pops of muskets firing down the line mingled with the hiss and thump of flying balls. Echoes rebound down the valley. You glimpse the targets while sighting. In your front they are falling with every volley. Until you have taken your place in the line at an N-SSA skirmish, all the accounts of marksmanship in the Civil War are naught but words on a page.

(c)1998 by Tony Beck

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