Restocking an Original Brown Bess Last summer, after making the move across country from Virginia to Washington, I was contacted by Bruce A., who told me, "I've been waiting for you to get here!" He had most of the parts to an original Pattern 1793, or India Pattern Type 1 Brown Bess, and he wanted to restock it. We met, discussed his ideas, and I took on what has turned out to be quite the educational experience for me, and a fantastic project to undertake as well, full of challenges and unknowns to explore.
I'm not a replicator, as a rule. I generally create my own designs, but this project has taken me boldly into that space I've never gone before!
As of this date, February 22, 2015,
Bessie is still a work in progress, and all our questions have not yet
found answers, either. The quest continues!
I began by researching the history of the Brown Bess, which can be a never-ending adventure in itself. Arguably the most iconic and long-lived military long arm ever made, with nearly a century and a half of active service, in one pattern or another, there is in some ways both a dearth and a wealth of information. Oh, the sources of information, correct or otherwise, the confusion of different patterns with different names, or same patterns with different names, the mix and match of parts used in the building of all those Besses, the availability, or not, of parts, original or repro, all give an added dimension or two to the task, and I'm enjoying every bit of the challenge!
The first photo (right,) is where she is as of 2/22/15.
As I near the finish line, as it were, (I should be doing coats of tung oil by this weekend,) I think back on the changes we've gone
through together during the process. At first, the concept was to replace
the missing stock with an original, which Bruce had already ordered.
Unfortunately, when it arrived, it was an "original" reproduction, and
not very faithful to the design, and it was full of sapwood.
Plan B. Look for a real original stock. Ha, Ha, funny. A 200-something year old stock without its parts, less than likely. I tried, anyhow.
Plan C. A quality repro stock. Yes, they are available, and Daniel, at Dunlap
Woodcraft tried to help, but more research revealed that the available pattern stock would not convert to the 1793, so out the door with that idea.
Plan D. Make a stock from scratch! Oh, yes. I admit I approached this plan with a bit of trepidation, for as I've said, this is a little out of my box, and I make no claim to being a Bess authority. But the opportunity to give this collection of pieces of history life once again was all I needed. Daniel provided me with a wonderful piece of Black Walnut (The English Walnut, our first choice, what was available was not so wonderful.)
Now what I haven't said, is that Bruce wants a shooter. Yes, an over 200 year old shooter. That bears some serious inspection & testing before such a thing can happen.
As I inspected the parts more closely, I realized they were most likely not from the same gun. The lock was quite worn, showing a lot of use, while the touch hole on the barrel showed no wear. Also, the trigger bar is way too tall for the sear position on that lock. Yes, they are all real Bess parts, but at least two different arms. While waiting for the wood, I got started on the lock.
The photo on the left shows the slop where the tumbler passes through the lockplate.
Below, the brass bushing is installed. I chose brass for this, the sacrificial part, as I'd rather replace a bushing down the line than I would the tumbler (which, incidentally, are currently unavailable, even in England!) Note the Nepalese stamp on the lock plate.
I did order a new saddle from England, Peter Dyson, LLC is the company, and a source for many arcane British gun parts. Unfortunately, it was too small for this lock, so I had to do the bushing thing with the original, as well. You can see the wear in the left, and the repair on the right.
The tumbler, like all the parts, was hand made, and symetricity is not all that great.
Some file work and fitting were required to make it work. Below, the lock plate bushing is fit to the tumbler.
I have tried to do a minimum of invasive repair to the original parts, but in some cases, as the lock and saddle, I performed necessary repairs as I thought they would be done way back when. I have also endeavoured (had to spell it British style...) to keep such repairs invisible.
Inspecting the barrel, I noticed what was either a scribed line, ie. a maker's or inspector's mark, or a crack at the breech. I decided to have some metallurgical testing done to ensure our barrel's integrity. Well, easier said than done!
I started looking here on Whidbey Island, and found one shop that could do it, but they were closed and in the process of moving to Oregon. Everyone else no longer did that testing, due to liability risk, as I was to discover anon. I extended my search, and eventually found a company in Bellingham that did metal testing. However, after making the trip up there, I found they were also unwilling to risk the liability.
Then I received a call from a man I will call Jay, who wishes to remain anonymous, once again, for fear of liability. Right off, he proved his knowledge when he correctly identified the barrel as coming from a Brown Bess. Jay was so interested in this project, he came down here on his own to perform a dye penetrant test and an electromagnetic flux test on the barrel. The scribe line is that, no crack, and no other apparent problems were found.
As Jay said, '"This is no guarantee." This just shows we have no through or deep cracks. 200+ year old iron is an unknown variable, subject to manufacturing flaws or metal fatigue. So, before I strap that barrel into a stock I've spent over a hundred hours on so far, or allow anyone to fire it, I will take the barrel out to the woods in back, tie it to a log, and fire a test load or two. No full proof loads; I don't want to TRY to blow it up, but I want to make sure it can handle a reasonable light charge. I will inspect the barrel after firing to note any effect on its condition.
As for my own liability in question, I am not recommending that Bruce shoot this gun. I recommend that he use her for display, only. If he chooses to shoot her, he does so at his own risk, and I heartily recommend that he stick with a light load and an undersized unpatched ball as a projectile, to keep pressures at a minimum. That being said, I am doing all within my abilities to determine the safety and longevity of the gun.
Below, guides are fastened to the blank for the router cut.
This beautiful piece of Black Walnut arrived from Dunlap, and I was able to begin working on the stock. After squaring and planing, I lined off the blank and set up for routing the barrel channel. Below, what the router did.
The router takes out the majority of
the material, but gouges and scrapers are required to finish the job. As
you near the fit, inletting black is used to show what needs to come off.
Eventually, it fits!
This is the only Bess I have ever seen, not that I've seen all that many in the flesh, mostly pictures, but it's the only one with a rounded tang. All others have a square tang. Maybe this is a trait of the Nepalese guns, as the lock has the Nepalese stamp on it, as opposed to the Tower markings.
I spent a lot of time comparing photos of different Besses of the same model to acquire my dimensions and placement of parts. Variations and dimensional differences were common, as these guns were built by different contractors from a variety of pre-existing parts, often left over from previous patterns. You will find 1793's with trigger guards and buttplates from Short Land Pattern guns, for instance.
The next step was inletting the lock.The flash hole determined where it went, the plate itself determined the width of the stock at the lock, and the placement of barrel and ramrod hole determined how the plate would sit in the stock. I used my photos, primarily from "The Brown Bess," by Erik Goldstein and Stuart Mowbray, to plan the lock inlet. This guide was my principle visual resource, with great, detailed photos.
I fit the lock plate first, then inlet the rest of the lock. Note the big, beefy mainspring in the picture above right. Once the lock is in, then the trigger position could be determined. Knowing that the Bess trigger as originally inlet can be a bear, I moved the pivot point a little closer to the sear, and a bit below it, to improve leverage. I hope it works! Won't know til I put it all together....
Now with the trigger fit, I could determine length of pull and drop at butt & comb, and fit the buttplate. These long finial buttplates are tricky to inlet, but I am pretty happy how this one came out. Left, inletting black helps the fit. Below, chiseling the finial.
The proper buttplate for this pattern musket is not available, so I purchased a repro type 2 Land Pattern buttplate (and a type 2 trigger guard, for the same reason.) I modified both to more closely match the original style for the simplified 1793 Pattern. This involved shortening the finial on the buttplate, and "dumbing down" the trigger guard a little. I have kept the stock square thus far, to make drilling fastener holes easier. With my through-hole jig, accurate holes are possible on the drill press (below.)
Below left, the jig is being used to drill the tang bolt hole. The lock bolt holes, visible in the photo, are drilled the same way.
The next task was to drill the ramrod hole. First, I cut the ramrod groove, using my barrel routing guides and a scraper made to the size of the groove.
Then the hole. Only 9/32", there is perhaps 1/8" leeway either up or down between the lock bolt and the surface of the stock on the forearm. Must be accurate!!! I bought a new 48" ramrod bit for the job, and oh, so carefully drilled that hole..... And it came out perfectly! (Below, the set-up.)
Now comes the hardware; trigger guard, side plate, ramrod thimbles, nose cap. Everything but the trigger guard and buttplate are original, and along with Bruce's wishes, I didn't sand or polish these parts beyond what had already been done, to preserve the story they tell, so they are installed warts, dents, scratches and all. In the photo to the left, the middle ramrod pipe is being inlet, with the black showing what to remove.
Below is the rear pipe, a most interesting device, and a trick to inlet.
The pointy end tucks into the ramrod hole, and the spring clamp holds the ramrod firmly in place. This necessitates a ramrod hole that is barely 1/16" below the surface of the forearm-squeaky close!
Drilling the pin holes for these pipes, and for the barrel loops, was tricky, and called for precise measurements and the use of my through-hole jig. I was lucky and careful enough that I only had to redo one hole (I'll never tell which!) Below, drilling for the rear pipe.
Two of the barrel loops were corroded too thin to trust, so I replaced them with new loops dovetailed into the original places, at right. The other two were still good.
The trigger guard required simplifying, dumbing down, I call it. Basically filed off the decorative beads at both ends of the Type 2 guard and made it more like the India pattern. The India pattern also used two screws in the rear finial, instead of one screw and a pin. It uses a pin in the front, like the other patterns, however. Below, it is being worked down with a file.
The guard is inlet rather shallowly (right,) and despite it's massive size, is quite graceful on Bessie's wrist (below.)
We have reached a point where we can begin the shaping process, as all our
boundaries have been established. In the pictures above, below and right, the butt
and wrist take shape.
Belt sander, rasps, files, chisels, gouges and scrapers all had a hand in the shaping. A whole lot of time went into getting the wrist right. Bessie may be a buxom lass, but her sex appeal is in her wrist, to my eye!
The butt and wrist first, the forearm next, and the lower forearm last. Leave that square until the rest is done, so you have something to clamp in the vise.
Once the forearm is close, the nose cap can go on. Above right, chiseling the extra wood away. The Bess has tabs that poke through the hole shown below left. Below right, the recess for the tabs.
And the cap in place (below.) You can see in this photo how slim Bessie is in the forearm. Built like a tank (that didn't exist then!) Bess' specs called for a stock strong enough to be used as a club in close quarters combat! Can't make her too skinny, but I tried to impart that grace Bess shows us, despite her oversize parts! Below, right, planing the forearm.
And scraping the forearm, below. At right, paring down the area around the rear pipe, at the Bess Bump. That's what I call the bulge at that point in the stock.
This shot shows the lower forearm and the "Bump." (Below) The side plate is in place, below right
Black Walnut dust. A word or two of caution; always, without fail, wear AT LEAST a particle mask when creating dust. Sanding especially, but even filing and scraping can release the toxins in the wood that can affect your respiratory system, gastro, and make you feel pretty bad. The effects vary depending on the individual, from none to intensive care. I'm somewhere in the middle. It crept up on me, and I mistook it for seasonal allergy, tree pollen & such, until I made the major boo boo of sanding without a mask on. The cause became evident. Be safe, be clean, be healthy.
Below, some of my most used shaping tools, including the light. Light and shadow tells all; bumps and lumps, scratches and boo boos show up where they won't in general overhead lighting. I use both, depending on the situation, but there's nothing like a nice bright close up, moveable light for showing you what needs work. To the right, you can see how this is helping me shape the bump.
Below, riffler files are very useful. Below right, light and shadow guides the scraper.
With shaping done, now's the time for the thumb plate to go on the wrist. Below left, a paper pattern was made, and glued to the brass to cut it to the proper shape. Here's a tip on symmetrical shapes-fold the paper in half, cut half of your shape, unfold, and you have a symmetrical piece. Note also the centerline drawn to help position the inlay. Okay, it's flat, and I have to bend it to fit. Well, I keep on hand a few blocks of wood that have different radii cut into them. A matching convex piece to pound on, and a ball pein hammer, and you can make it just so (below right.)
Once shaped, I tack the inlay in place with a couple drops of superglue, and scribe a line around it (below left.) Once the inletting is done, I glue it in place, below right. Note that it has been drilled for pins to be added later. Note also that I have padded the stock now held in the vise to prevent marring.
And here it is, engraved with Bruce's initials. You will note that the lettering is done in an old style, with the last initial large in the middle, and first and middle to each side, smaller. To the right, the Grey Haven cartouche is engraved on the butt plate finial.
The next job on my list was to make the trigger bar and lock sear work together. You can see in these two pictures the trigger blade sticks way up in the lock recess, and the lock sear hangs actually a little below the edge of the lock. Some grinding on the trigger blade was necessary to make them fit together.
So much has happened since I last sat down to record this journey through Bess Land!
1. We took the barrel to the woods, strapped it to a 2x6, and lit off a 70 grain charge with two loose balls on top, using a fuse, and the barrel did just fine!
In use, maybe 60 grains, and one ball, of course. No photos of that task-we were hiding behind a tree!
2. Making the trigger and lock work together was a not so simple task, and took some trial and error before I got it right.
3. Lock fastenings were a real challenge. I went through several Plans (A, B, C, D, and so on,) in an effort to make it work right and look right. I mostly succeeded, but it took some reworking and use of alternate fasteners. The lock needed to be retapped for oversize lock bolts, as did the frizzen and frizzen spring (below, left.) I had to use full-thread for the lock bolts, but did use proper bolts for the frizzen & spring, modifying smaller actual lock bolts, and rethreading them to #10-24. I will continue to search for other lock bolts to replace the full-threaded ones.
Above, right, the drill press and a file make a proper head for a lock bolt, using a truss head bolt. In the photo below left, you can see how the mainspring now does not hang below the lock plate, as it did before the bushing job for the tumbler. Below, right, grinding the excess off the frizzen spring screw.
I tried several stains, and wound up using Homer Dangler's Dark Brown, with six coats of tung oil, which gave a nice, deep color, yet allowed the grain to show through. She's done, and here she is!
I'm sure true Brown Bess afficionados would find discrepancies to quibble about, comparing my Bess to the originals. Well, as every contractor who built these arms did, I built it as close to specs as I could, but in my own way. Each Bess was an original in its own way, and this Bess is no exception.
I did build her with a little more drop to the butt (above,) and fit the stock to Bruce's measurements for a more comfortable hold. Otherwise, she's as close as I could get her to original shape and form.
Tomorrow, Bruce is coming to get her, and we will go test her out at the range-the proof is in the performance!
March 27, a little more than a month since I started this page, Bruce and his lovely wife, Wanda came to pick up Miss Bess. A beautiful, warm spring day, we proceeded to the local gun club for a test shoot. With a target set up at fifty yards, Bruce took the first shot, with 50 grains of 2f black powder and an unpatched .75 cal ball (right.) Windage perfect, at 12 o'clock. I fired next, perfect elevation, 9 o'clock. JP fired third, and hit the black. Bruce fired once more, tightening up the group at 2 o'clock. The trigger pull is quite sweet, by the way! Because Bruce and Wanda had to catch the ferry, we had to cut the session short, and thus, we packed up, and Bess departed with her owner. He's very happy with Miss Bess, and I am, too. (Below)
Below right, I actually caught JP making smoke, so hard to do with my digital camera that has about a one-second delay-I have to guess when he's going to shoot.
A word on loads for this arm:
Originally, a 70 grain load was common, with a very loose ball, and the cartridge paper rammed down to hold it in place. Accuracy wasn't a concern, as the soldiers stood in tight ranks and fired at the other side, also standing in tight ranks. Hard to miss hitting something!
Well, nowadays we shoot at targets, and accuracy counts, so standard practice has been to use a tighter fitting ball with a patch.
The new method, advanced by those incredibly good smoothbore shooters in the North-South Skirmish Association, is to once again, use an undersize ball. The difference is in the knurling, or "whiskering" of the ball by rolling it between two big files or rasps (some use a file and a rasp.) This has the effect similar to a golf ball, in reducing air resistance and also drastically improving accuracy. There are different theories about how that works; no one is sure why, but it does. Coat the ball with lube, drop it in, tamp it down, and shoot! Check out the article in the January, 2015 issue of "Muzzle Blasts" magazine, "The Smoothbore Musket," by Jim Van Eldik for more on this method.
My thanks to Bruce for presenting me with this challenging and educational project, and for his patience and understanding as we made our way through the process. May she serve him well!