Gettysburg, Whitworths & Blueing

I awoke the morning of July 6 to the voice of a radio newscaster relaying the story that a reenactor had been shot in the neck at the 135th Anniversary Gettysburg event. Initial reports indicated that the individual was wounded by a .44 caliber revolver bullet, which the mainstream media, with its usual penchant for inaccuracy in detail, was describing as "a bullet missile half an inch in diameter," and, later, a "minie ball." Other reports indicated that the projectile was a wad. As of the time I am wrapping up this column, July 8, the victim has been released from the hospital and a French reenactor is in custody and will be charged with assault and reckless endangerment in connection with the case.

How all this will finally shake down is still unknown at this juncture, although by the time you read this, you will have a pretty good idea of what really occurred. Early press reports are invariably confusing, and one should never jump to conclusions, but something unpleasant happened on the field at Gettysburg.

The unfortunate Gettysburg incident follows on the heels of another case involving a cap and ball handgun at the East Fairmont High School in Fairmont West Virginia, in April. During a skirmish staged at the school, a reenactor apparently discharged a .36 caliber revolver loaded with a blank charge which burned a student's leg badly enough to send him to the hospital. A police investigation of the incident continues, with a distinct possibility that the case may be presented to a grand jury for indictment of the reenactor.

Whether modern or antique, loaded handguns are inherently more dangerous than long arms in the hands of ill-trained persons. If someone unfamiliar or even only somewhat familiar with firearms turns around with a rifle in his hands there is a fair chance that he won't be pointing it at your midsection, but if the weapon in hand is a handgun, hit the deck!

While the press may be prone to make more out of these incidents than they warrant -- which they are not doing as of this date -- reenactment officers have to apply the same safety inspections to handguns that they do to artillery and muskets. There is no doubt that a thorough revolver inspection would have prevented this tragedy.

On a happier note, my own Gettysburg experience at the book show and the Farnsworth House was pleasant, and I would like to thank all of you who stopped by to see me at the Longstreet House tables. I signed a pile of my and Bill Goble's Remember You are Jerseymen, and my only regret was that Bill wasn't there to sign them as well.

I am happy to report that Larry Romano's Whitworth mold is now on the market and initial reports indicate that the bullet it throws is providing excellent accuracy. The Romano mold casts a flat based .45 caliber hexagonal 580 grain bullet which is 1.35 inches long. There is a slight boat tail bevel on the base for easy loading.

My trusty Whitworth correspondent, Tom Neigebauer, cast up some projectiles from his new Romano mold immediately after receiving it. Tom found the Romano slug a close fit in his gun; with a one wrap paper patch it wouldn't fit into a clean barrel. Instead of patching, he lubricated the naked bullet with a thin film of SPG and soaked some .45 caliber Wonder Wads in Lee liquid Alox lube to use between bullet and powder. Then it was out to the range!

Swabbing his Whitworth's barrel between shots, Tom fired the new slug in front of Goex FFG and FG loads at 100 yards and 200 yards. The most accurate charge in his gun proved to be 100 grains of FG. Tom covered the bullseye with his front sight at 100 yards and used a 6 o'clock hold at 200 yards. One of his 200 yard groups had two shots in one hole, two others an inch away on either side and a fifth "called" flier three inches away. The score was a 46 out of 50 on a standard 100 yard target. Tom figures the Whitworth, loaded with the Romano bullet, and a with a little more work on his part, is capable of minute of angle accuracy with open sights.

When Tom went out to shoot, the temperature was 95 degrees and a haze had drifted down onto his Florida range from forest fires raging 150 miles to the north. According to Tom, "these conditions resembled a battlefield -- and it was the 135th Anniversary of Gettysburg." He felt his gun's fine shooting that day was "a tribute to the rifle's designer, Sir Joseph Whitworth, and Larry Romano's new bullet, which allowed the rifle to shoot the way it was designed 140 years ago." I might add that it was a tribute to Tom as well, who, almost singlehandedly, has revived the art of shooting the Whitworth to its full potential.

There is more Whitworth news coming as well, including a proposed newsletter and other goodies. Stay tuned!

There is a continuing dispute over whether the barrels of imported Enfield guns were burnished bright by Union and Confederate armories and/or soldiers or left with their original blued finish. Although it is my practice to never say never, I have, to date, come across no primary source evidence that there was any regular policy of removing the finish from Enfield barrels in arsenals or in the field by either the North or the South. There were exceptions, however.

When the New Jersey nine months service militia regiments returned to the state in the late summer of 1863, they turned in their used Federal issue Enfields to the Trenton arsenal, where they were reconditioned and subsequently carried on the arsenal books as "Muskets, Enfield, Rifled, Bright, Caliber .577. Some of these guns were reissued to the 33rd. 34th and 35th New Jersey Infantry Regiments, which were mustered in that fall.

One rationale for the stories concerning the alleged polishing of weapons by soldiers in the field is the belief among some reenactors that the rust bluing on Enfield barrels was somehow delicate and would wear off rapidly, with the soldier merely finishing the job. This was decidedly not the case. Rust blueing, still available as a process from custom gunsmiths, is perhaps the most durable type of blueing available, and the only kind used on top quality double barreled shotguns. It is also very labor intensive and expensive. Reproduction Enfields, by the way, are chemically blued.

In my younger days I did some part time work for a German trained gunsmith, including assisting him in polishing and blueing guns by the rust blue method. My memories of this are vague, but I recall boiling the polished metal in water and then applying a chemical to the surface. When rust developed, we would "card" it off with fine steel wool and then boil and apply a second coat, until we got the deep finish desired. An excellent custom muzzleloading gunmaker of my acquaintance will rust blue a barrel for you today, at a considerable premium over the price of a chemical blue or brown finish.

Those who refer to rust blueing as delicate are confusing it with heat bluing, such as that offered as an option on some Uberti revolvers and the Uberti Henry. Although it has an attractive iridescent sheen, this type of finish will rust and wear off easily. I have a nice rust fingerprint in the barrel of my heat blued Henry -- a certificate of ownership in a way, even if I lose the serial number!

1998 by Joe Bilby

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