If you are a beginner, blackpowder gun kits can be intimidating. Don’t let that keep you from the special experience of making your own gun. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. Dixie Gun Works got me hooked through its broad-scoped, fascinating annual catalogs. Even in this age of online shopping you can still get a paperback copy of the best “wish book” a kid interested in shooting could want. It’s been 30 years since I was a kid and I still have my nose in it. Thanks to Dixie’s huge selection of kits and parts, I’ve been able to customize and build quite a few of my own blackpowder guns.
When I wanted a squirrel rifle to teach my son to shoot blackpowder (and deal with the army of rabbits assaulting our garden) Dixie Gun Works had the exact .32-caliber Pedersoli Kentucky Rifle kit in stock.
When I opened the box I was surprised to see a 95-percent complete rifle inside, lacking only the sights. If you were turned off from kits years ago when they came in the form of a box of loose, unfinished parts, this Pedersoli kit will appeal to you.
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All of the inletting tasks on the stock are done. The lock is beautifully color case hardened and the barrel is blued with a protective blue only. It will need to have a finished bluing. Finishing this kit is a mainly the simple matter of filing and sanding the stock to match the metal parts, and simultaneously removing the casting marks on the brass parts. Once the stock and metal part surfaces are leveled, all the metal parts are removed to allow for staining and sealing the stock in the manner you wish.
Once off the gun, the brass parts can be more easily hand polished and buffed to a mirror finish. After reassembling, fit the sights into the pre-cut dovetails on the barrel and you are ready to sight in. The flint is even nicely installed with a piece of sheet lead.
Start by getting your work area organized and assembling your tools. You’ll need a solid work surface with good lighting that you can clamp your rifle to. This is going to be dusty work with all the sanding so don’t use your kitchen unless you are single or planning to be. The rifle will be disassembled for at least a week, so you need to make sure you don’t lose any of the parts.
Tools You’ll Need
The basic tools required are a sharp pencil, medium and small straight screwdrivers with good tips, a rubber mallet, a small hammer and punch for driving in and out the pins that hold the barrel in the stock, and a small brass drift for installing the sights. You’ll also need a large and small mill bastard file (and file card to clean them), a needle file assortment, some 6-inch clamps and pads, electrical tape for taping off the barrel to protect it from damage while you work, a few sheets of sandpaper (80, 150, 220 and 320 grit) and some sanding blocks, fine steel wool or a buffing wheel, some rubber gloves and safety glasses. The latter will definitely help protect you when you are applying stains and finishes to the stock.
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Once you have everything, put a razor edge on your pencil by drawing it across 320 sandpaper and start marking off the high wood that will have to be taken down around the lock, back plate and barrel tang. Unlike the brass, you have to remove these parts before you sand because they are already finished. You might want to mark around the first thimble, too, lest you decide to remove it to work the wood. Once the marking is done, remove the ramrod, lock and back plate, triggerguard and trigger. Since these parts are either already finished or near so, you don’t need to risk messing them up by working with them on. Use caution in removing them so you don’t damage the wood. Sometimes a tap with a rubber mallet on the opposite side of the part can get it free. Now is the time to take note of where you don’t need to remove any wood. On my Pedersoli kit, the wood was fine around the triggerguard.
Once you mark the wood to remove it you can tape up the barrel, gently but firmly clamp down your rifle and start shaping. I suggest you work on one area at a time and get it roughed to size with files and 80-grit paper before you move on to another area. On this kit, the main areas were the buttstock and patch box, the lock area, the first ramrod thimble and the nose cap. You can do this work by hand with your files, sanding blocks and paper.
When filing, move from metal to wood so you don’t splinter the edge of the wood. You can speed up the initial shaping and leveling of the stock, metal parts and excess wood through the judicious use of power tools like an orbital sander and Dremel tool. Wear the safety glasses and work carefully. You can’t put any wood or metal back once it’s removed! Never use a belt sander. It removes too much material too fast.
After roughing each of the major areas to shape, pick up your barreled stock and look it over carefully. You’ll need to blend everything together so it’s even and flowing. Is there an even amount of wood on the top edge of the stock on either side of the barrel? Does the arch of the stock comb look right? Is the wood along the ramrod channel even on each side and straight? Now is the time to get all the shaping details right and matched on the left and right side of the stock and smooth out all the surface scalloping from when the stock was machine cut at the factory.
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When you are satisfied that the stock is in its correct final shape, level with the metal parts and properly smooth on all its surfaces, you can move to the next highest grit sandpaper. From this point on, I always sand by hand. You want to sand out all the scratch marks from the coarser-grit paper on the wood and brass. Wrap the sandpaper around a sanding block to do the flats of the stock where the lock and plate go, so you don’t round the edges of the wood in these areas. Since the barrel is still mounted, you won’t be able to do the top of the stock. You’ll tackle that last with a sanding block after you remove the barrel. For now, sand everything you can, gradually working your way through all the grades of sandpaper.
Now you are ready to dismount all the metal parts from the stock and prepare it for final finishing. Make sure your screwdriver tip fits the slots in the screw heads properly and carefully clamp the rifle to the bench so it won’t shift on you. Remove all the buttstock and patch lock screws. If you can’t get the patch box loose, tap on the back of the stock with your rubber mallet. Cover it in a clean sock so it won’t mark the wood.
Next, remove the barrel and thimbles. First remove the single screw attaching the barrel tang at the wrist of the stock. The front part of the barrel and the ramrod thimbles are held into the forearm of the stock by metal pins. You must carefully tap them out without damaging the surrounding wood. Again, the rifle must be firmly clamped, but ensure there is enough space underneath for the pin to slide out. You can use a few padded spacers, or you can just drill a hole in your rifle holder like I did. You might want to start the pin with a 1/16-inch nail set because it’s sturdier and easier to hold in place. After you get it started, you can put your long punch in the hole and not worry about it slipping.
I offer a word of caution here. If you aren’t careful, you might splinter out the wood around the hole on the back side. I put a little block of soft wood underneath, right behind the pin, to support the stock around the hole when I start to drive out the pin. The pin dimples it when it gets started, and then I pull it out, drill a hole a little larger than the pin and put it back. Then I finish driving out the pin.
With all the metal free you can now finish sanding the top of the stock where the barrel was mounted. After you sand with your finest paper, you must wet the stock lightly to raise the grain. After it has dried it will feel like sandpaper. Sand the stock smooth again with your finest grade of sandpaper and repeat. Then let the stock dry overnight in preparation for finishing.
The final stock finish is a builder’s choice. In my case, I opted for a traditional hand-rubbed linseed oil finish over the unstained walnut. This involves simply rubbing a coat of linseed oil into the stock with a terrycloth rag and letting it dry. As you apply coat after coat, the stock begins to take on a finish that is weather resistant and warmly attractive.
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That being said, had polyurethane been available to 18th- and 19th-century gun makers, they would have surely used it to the exclusion of all else. It seals the wood totally and protects it from dimensional changes due to fluctuations in humidity that might be detrimental to accuracy. It’s also faster to apply. Two coats with a light sanding with fine sandpaper or 0000 steel wool is all you’ll need, and you can choose from high-gloss, satin or flat finishes. If you go this route, don’t waste your time with water-based polyurethane. Use an oil-based coating and make sure the natural fiber brush you apply it with doesn’t leave any bristles behind in your finish. Cheap brushes are terrible when it comes to shedding bristles. Inspect your work immediately and remove any bristles with a needle. If you do this while the polyurethane is wet, it will flow into the surface disturbance and dry without defect.
While the stock is in the process of final finishing, I work on the final polish of the brass parts. The patch box, buttstock parts and nose cap are already virtually done, requiring only the removal of the fine scratches from the 320-grit paper. You can use a piece of 500-grit paper followed by 0000 steel wool to polish them to mirror shine. If you use a power buffing wheel and polishing rouge, be careful not to overdo it and round the edges. You’ve surely seen this on badly re-blued guns in pawn shops and it won’t look any better on your project, so have a light hand.
The thimbles have a lot of fine detail and this is where those needle files will come in handy. First you file off all the casting marks and then wrap your sandpaper around the file. Gradually remove all the scratch marks from the previous operation and finish off like you did the other brass parts with steel wool.
All that is left before reassembly is the installation of the sights in their dovetails. In most cases, the sight is slightly too large for the slot. Before I go filing on the barrel, I will slide the bottom of the sight base on a piece of 150-grit sandpaper on a flat surface to remove a bit of metal. This has the effect of making the sight dovetail smaller. Make sure you slightly radius the front and back edge of the sight bottom, too, so they will match the radius of the cut on the barrel. Once you have the sight about 0.001 inches bigger than the slot, you can drift it in from left to right with your brass drift and hammer. It should fit snuggly and slide in with only light taps. Fitting dovetails is something of an art. Read up a little more on it before you begin.
Once the stock is dry, it’s time to reassemble all the parts, making sure to oil the lock well and the bottom side of the barrel. Some people apply grease to the bottom, which doesn’t seem like a bad idea if the stock is polyurethaned. I’m reluctant to do it with an oil-finished stock because I’m afraid it might seep into the wood and stain it. Install the pins that mount the barrel and thimbles carefully, and fill the holes with some beeswax to seal out moisture and dirt. To sight the rifle in, use your brass drift to make adjustments with the rear sight, and file down the front sight blade as needed to adjust the point of impact with your preferred load.
In reality, you can get this project done in a single day of determined work, with the exception of the multiple coats required to finish the stock. The final step is to get out your Dixie Gun Works catalog again and pick out your next project.
For more information, visit http://www.dixiegunworks.com or call 800-238-6785.
This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® 2015-#192 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® magazine are available here.
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