A TYPICAL PERCUSSION CAP RIFLE
A TYPICAL PERCUSSION CAP RIFLE
Nearly all of these rifles had a cheek rest on the left side of the stock, and on the right side, near the butt-plate was placed a spring cover "patch-box" in which tallow was carried to be used for greasing the piece of cotton cloth used for patching the bullet. It was formed by cutting the receptacle into the wood of the stock and the spring cover, which was made of German silver, or brass, was countersunk so that it was flush with the surface. Some patch boxes opened by pressing a button in the edge of the butt-plate and others were opened by lifting the cover with the thumb-nail, the spring being arranged so as to hold the cover either open or closed, like that of a jack-knife.
The stock of the muzzle-loading rifle was usually made of curly maple and it was given a mahogany or cherry stain. The butt-stock and forearm were in one piece, grooved on top to admit the barrel, which fitted neatly into its bed and was held by two or three keys passing through slots in the forearm, and recesses in the barrel, and by the breech-plug, which was screwed into the breech end of the barrel and extended as a tang back into a bed cut for it in the top of the grip. The lock was small, of the "bar" type and fitted into a recess cut for it in the right side of the grip and beneath the breech of the barrel. The arm was invariably fitted with a double "set" trigger, a device which is now rarely seen on a rifle of any kind, but which probably aided greatly in accurate shooting; anyway, that was the universal opinion among riflemen. The trigger guard, of brass or German silver, was ordinarily extended at the rear in the form of two spurs, sometimes only one, which served the same purpose as the pistol grip on a modern gun.
Muzzle-loading rifles were, as a rule, fitted with octagonal barrels. The bore varied from very small to quite large; but the majority of marksmen favored caliber running from 80 balls to the pound to 120 per pound; this being the way the caliber was gauged at that time. The bullets were round and the 120 per pound size were about like medium or small buckshot, in fact many rifles would shoot a certain size of buckshot very well, which was a great convenience to the owners, inasmuch as it was seldom necessary for them to cast bullets. The rifling in the barrel usually consisted of five grooves cut spirally as in a modern arm, but much deeper than the grooves in a breech loading rifle, and with a much longer twist. The short pitch of rifling used in modern barrels would not do for a muzzle-loader, for the round bullet in its cloth patch had very little bearing on the rifling and would not follow the twist if it were sharper than one turn in, say thirty inches. I give this figure merely for illustration, for I do not know what pitch was given to the rifling, but I know that it was always very slow. From time to time gun makers experimented with barrels having what was called a "gain twist," which means that the twist, starting slowly at the breech, increases constantly in its progress towards the muzzle. The theory was that the bullet could be rotated much faster if it were started to turning slowly, and that the rate of rotation in effect when it left the muzzle would be retained. I am not sure that this system was a real improvement over the uniform twist, but I know that it is not practical when applied to breech-loading rifles, and the manufacturers have abolished the system entirely.
One accustomed to the firearms of to-day might look with wonder on the fine sights with which the muzzle-loading rifles were equipped. The rear sight on the barrel was set far forward so that it was brought into what might be called the field of universal focus, or to make my meaning clearer, into that range where the rear sight, front sight, and target, may all be seen at the same time with reasonable distinctness. This rear sight was usually a low, triangular bar, in the center of which was cut a fine notch. The front sight was long and very low, in shape and size very much like a grain of oats. Neither sight was adjustable for varying ranges, but either one could be moved laterally in its slot to put it in line with the bore. Elevation could be secured only by taking a coarser sight, or by holding high on the target. Very low sights were believed to be advantageous in that they were nearer to the bore of the barrel and thus admitted of more accurate shooting. But the extremely low sights were at time a detriment in hunting, for a drop of water, or a flake of snow on top of the barrel could sometimes obscure the sights. Some riflemen preferred
the round barrel gun because they claimed that a drop of rain falling on a round barrel would roll off, whereas on an octagon barrel it would remain until brushed off by the shooter. There was seldom any variation in the style of sights used on the muzzle-loading rifle, unless the arm was intended for use on inanimate targets only, in which case either peep and globe, or telescope sights might be attached. But marksmen generally made use of sight shades when shooting at targets, and they were a decided aid when the sunshine reflected light from the sights and barrel.
The shading device sometimes consisted of two metal tubes, or half tubes, which fitted onto the barrel over the sights, but more often it was a large sheet metal cover which fitted over the entire barrel and had an opening above the rear sight to admit light, a slide being provided to regulate the quantity of light and shut off direct rays. I have been describing the characteristic muzzle-loading rifle, for while these arms varied more or less in detail, the general design was about as described, and as shown in the illustration. Some of the areas were very plain, while others were resplendent in silver inlay. Rifles having almost ever; available part of the stock and forearm inlaid with silver ornaments were quite common Some guns were long and heavy while others were short and light, and the bore varied is much as anything else. I am not prepared to say what was standard in length, weight and bore. I have seen rifles which measured full; seven feet in length, over all, but the majority were I think in the neighborhood of four feet Likewise the weight might be anything from six to twenty-five pounds, but eight or ten pound rifles predominated. I remember one rifle, a special arm for match shooting, which had a forty-inch barrel and weighed twenty four pounds. Of course it was meant to be shot from a rest, for few men could shoot such a heavy arm offhand. It was of large bore and shot an ounce, conical bullet of sharp point. which required a special bullet starter for starting in the muzzle of the barrel. The ramrod had a hollow head which fitted the point 0: the bullet and insured it being seated square!; on the powder when rammed home. This rifle had peep and globe sights, and double-set trigger. Its shooting was remarkably accrual; up to about 150 yards.
Muzzle-loading rifles could not use conical bullets unless they were seated in this was and so they invariably used round bullets. The bullet was encased in a piece of greased cloth which served as a gas-check by closing the grooves of the rifling and also made a bearing in the grooves and thus insured the bullet following the rifling.
Cotton cloth was commonly used for bullet patching. After the powder charge had been measured, poured into the barrel and jarred into the recess of the drum and tube, the cloth was laid over the muzzle, greased side down, the bullet was placed on top with its flat side. where the neck had been cut off, next to the cloth, and was then pressed into the muzzle with the handle of the sheath-knife, after which the cloth was gathered up and cut off flush with the muzzle. The ramrod was then used to push the bullet down firmly onto the powder, after which a cap was placed on the tube.
The black powder fouled the barrel badly and it was customary, after firing a few shots, to wrap a small quantity of tow around the end of the ramrod and wipe the dirt from the barrel The inconvenience of cleansing entirely from the muzzle and the impossibility of doing this work thoroughly caused the barrels to erode and burn out rapidly. It was very common to find rifles with six or eight inches of the breech end of the bore burned so rough that the bullet could scarcely be pushed down onto the powder. When a rifle barrel became badly burned or worn it was customary to take the arm to a gunsmith and have it "freshed," which meant that the rifling was cut a little deeper and the lands also lowered, thus enlarging the bore, but giving practically a new barrel. The bullet mould also had to be rebored on such occasions. The necessity for this treatment caused many riflemen to choose a barrel of small bore so that the occasional "freshing" would not enlarge it to an objectionable caliber.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in regard to the muzzle-loader was its inefficiency as compared with present day rifles. The percussion-lock gun seldom had an effective range in excess of 100 yards, and 200 yards could be placed as the extreme limit of range for the muzzle-loading rifle. While the killing power varied more or less, depending on the caliber and length of barrel, it was approximately the same as that of such small caliber rim-fire cartridges as the .22 Long Rifle, the .32 Long and the .25. Think of hunting large and dangerous game with a single shot rifle
loading from the muzzle, and having the power and range of a .32 rim-fire cartridge, and never entirely dependable, for the powder was always very susceptible to dampness. Greater range or power could not be secured with the round bullet, for if the powder charge was increased the bullet would not follow the rifling. Some of the rifles had straight grooves which admitted of the use of any reasonable charge, but the shooting of these barrels was not as accurate as that of the "twist cut." A few barrels were also made without any rifling whatever and were known as "smooth-bores" but they were also inaccurate. The "straight cut" and "smooth-bore" barrels had one advantage, however, and that was that they would shoot shot as well as ball and for this reason were preferred by many hunters.
While the style of rifle described and herewith illustrated was the most common pattern it was not by any means the only type of arm in use at that time. Double-barrel rifles were seen occasionally, the barrels side-by-side as on a shotgun. Such arms were usually made shorter and with lighter barrels than single-barrel guns, for no matter how carefully designed, a double-barrel rifle was bound to be a heavy arm. Then there was another type of double rifle which had the barrels fastened to the breech by means of a swivel and could be turned so that both barrels were fired by one lock. This type was never very successful, however, for the swivel in the breech was the sole support of the two heavy barrels, there being no forearm, and in time looseness of the barrels was sure to make the gun objectionable. Another fault was that the under-barrel had its firing tube with the percussion cap exposed to contact and if the arm: were handled in any but the most careful manner a premature explosion was probable. | A much more satisfactory type of double gun was a combination for bullet and shot, adapted to hunting all kinds of game. The rifle was: invariably placed on top of the shot barrel. The rifle barrel had the regulation sights and the ramrod was carried in a recess in the side between the barrels.
Two locks were required on such a gun. The shot barrel was any gauge from 24 to 16, and these barrels as a rule threw shot to remarkable ranges.
Fur, News. Fur News, January 1916.
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