It was back in the 1970s, and there was a lot of interest in traditional muzzleloading firearms. I had a gunsmith shop in the foothills of western North Carolina, and at the time, it was just about the only shop catering to blackpowder shooters in that part of the state. Needless to say, I saw a lot of muzzleloaders.
Every year around February or March, two or three guys would come in with long boxes that usually held most of the components of a partially completed muzzleloading rifle. More often than not, the kit had been a Christmas gift.
The quality of these kits was just about always at the bottom of the barrel. At the time, that was saying a lot because there were some really poor quality kits being sold. I saw bores that were only partially rifled, barrels with off-center bores, kits missing major components, and stocks made of material that would’ve embarrassed an orange crate.
In most cases, my business partner Wayne Spears and I were able to salvage enough parts to put together a reasonably decent rifle, and the customers always seemed pleased. I’ve often wondered how many of those guns were later proudly exhibited as the handiwork of the owner.
How times have changed.
Very recently, I was given an opportunity to try out a new muzzleloading rifle kit from the folks at Traditions Performance Firearms in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The offering is what the company calls a St. Louis Hawkin in .50 caliber; it’s a traditional half-stocked percussion rifle suitable for deer hunting or recreational shooting.
Upon receipt of the kit, the first thing I did was to look it over to make sure everything was there and to get an idea about the quality of the parts. Remembering those kits from back in the ’70s, it was evident that this kit was far better than what I encountered years ago. Not only is the material quality superior, the buyer gets much better designed and constructed components. A good example of this is the lock, which is the heart and soul of a muzzleloader.
The lock furnished with this kit incorporates two features that were virtually never available in kits years ago. It comes with a fly. This is a mechanical device to keep the sear from dropping into the halfcock (safety) notch when the gun is fired. Having a fly makes it easier to adjust the lock for a safe, reasonably light trigger pull. The lock also incorporates an adjusting screw to control the amount of sear engagement. This also aids in tuning the lock. If you can turn a screwdriver, you can adjust this trigger.
I should mention that this kit was made in Spain. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of cheap, poorly made guns were imported from Spain, and anything bearing a Spanish label was suspect. That’s not the case today. The Spanish currently produce some very fine quality firearms. This kit is not at all like the junk I saw years ago. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Traditions Hawkin kit sells for just a bit less than $300, and it’s definitely an entry-level kit. Keep in mind there are a number of kits available today from other makers that sell for close to $1,000 or more! In this kit you’ll get what you need to construct a good, safe, reliable gun—no frills; nothing fancy; just a good, basic gun.
Along with the kit is a nice little loading and shooting instruction booklet as well as assembly instructions. The instructions are detailed and extensively illustrated with drawings and photographs. These are some of the best kit-gun instructions I’ve seen in quite a while. The folks at Traditions are to be commended for putting the time and effort they did into these instructions. Detailed, well-written instructions can make a world of difference for the first-time builder. You just can’t give a guy too much help on his first project.
The actual assembly of the wood and metal components is simplicity itself. In an effort to help the novice builder, Traditions actually has the gun completely assembled before it’s packaged. Once it has been assembled and checked out, it’s then taken apart and packaged as a kit. There’s no chance the lock won’t fit the stock, or the barrel won’t fit the inletting, or the tang screw won’t line up properly with the trigger plate. The manufacturer has checked it all out.
One of the things I like about a kit gun is that you can customize or modify it to your individual tastes. Your gun doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. For example, with this kit, the sights furnished are fine, but they are of a very modern design. I have no doubt they’re very serviceable and will do a fine job, but I opted to install a set of used, traditional-looking sights I had squirreled away from years ago.
And the trigger guard is furnished with a spur, or vertical projection, from the bottom of the bow. Some folks like ’em; some don’t. I am one of the latter. I never saw much use for these spurs other than snagging on brush when moving through the woods. But that was no problem, I just cut the darn thing off for a more traditional and functional look. These are just a few examples of how you too can customize any kit and make it uniquely yours.
While the wood-to-metal fit has been taken care of by the manufacturer, the builder is still faced with the final finishing. Here again, you have lots of options. With the metal, you could use a cold blue or a more traditional rust blue, you could have your local gunsmith run it through his hot-salts tank, or you could use any of the many spray-on/bake-on finishes. If you wanted, you could even paint the gun camo. Remember, it’s your rif
le and you can do whatever you want. In the end, if you like the final results, that’s exactly the way it oughta be done.
The wood furnished with the kit is described as a “hardwood.” Generally that just means the wood is either beech or birch. In this case, it looks like beech to me. It’s a light-colored, dense wood. I first sanded with 60-grit sandpaper, followed by 80, 120, 150, 180, and then finished with 220 grit. I always used a backer or sanding block with the sandpaper to keep my surface level and even. Starting with the 120 grit, I dampened the stock with a wet cloth and then dried it with a heat gun to raise any small “whiskers.” These are tiny hairs of wood that, if left, would give the finish a rough, unfinished feel and look.
You can finish the wood any way you wish. I prefer darker woods on firearms, so I opted to use a dark water-based stain. It was applied with a sponge. To avoid overlaps or excessively dark areas, I followed up by wiping down the stock with a damp cloth. This allowed me to even out and thin the stain in some areas.
After the stain had dried, I applied the wood finish. In this case, I wanted a traditional oil finish, so I used tung oil rather than linseed. Tung oil will dry much faster than old-fashioned linseed oil, yet it will give the same traditional appearance.
While the stock finish was curing, I took care of my metal components. With the steel, I used Birchwood Casey Plum Brown. It provides a nice “antique” brown finish that is very appropriate for this type of firearm. The metal was already nicely polished, so I did not need to do very much in the way of preparation. I just degreased the metal, heated it with a propane torch, and swabbed on the Plum Brown. The more coats of finish I applied, the darker the metal became. Once I had the color I wanted, it was basically done. There are not many metal finishes that are simpler or easier than Plum Brown.
The brass nose cap, trigger guard, and buttplate were just given a dull 220-grit polish. Since I wanted an antique look to my rifle, I thought dull brass was more desirable than highly polished brass.
With the metal and wood finished, the last step was to assemble the rifle. All in all, the folks at Traditions have put together a nice kit that is simple enough for the novice and the first-time builder. The quality of the final product will of course be a direct result of the time and care the builder spends in working on his rifle. Given a little care and attention to detail, you can end up with a darn nice rifle.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!
Customizing Kits for Kids
Scott E. Mayer
An opportunity that muzzleloader kits present that should not be overlooked by parents or mentors is how easily they’re modified for young shooters. They’re also a great project for a parent and child to work on during the winter when cabin fever sets in, and being muzzleloaders, you can load them only as heavy as the shooter can handle.
This summer, my 7-year-old and I took on just such a project. He was bored with going to the pool and many of his little buddies were on vacation with their families, so I dug out a Traditions Hawken kit that I had been hanging on to for just such an occasion.
The kit I had was an older version in .45 caliber. It wasn’t pre-fitted like the kit Reid used in the accompanying article, but it was fully inletted for everything, and all the parts assembled nicely with no fuss.
Taking a cue from my son’s BB gun, we shortened the stock as much as the patchbox would allow, resulting in an 11 1/2-inch length of pull. Shortening was simply a matter of making a pattern from the existing butt and transferring it farther up the stock. More than a few strokes later from a coping saw and the new butt was roughed out. A little inletting with a chisel and rasp, and the butt plate fit. Then it was simply a matter of filing the sides of the brass buttplate down to fit the smaller cross section of stock.
Our next step was to shorten the barrel. That was beyond my means, so our local gunsmith cut it down to 20 inches. He also cut a new crown, counterbored the bore to make it easier to load, cut a new dovetail for the front sight, and filled the dovetail where the rear sight would have gone. I could have left the rear sight where it was, but that would have resulted in about a nine inch sight radius and wouldn’t look right. Instead, for a rear sight we installed a tang-mounted peep.
Since this was to be my son’s gun, I let him choose the finish options. He wanted a “silver” barrel and that was easily accomplished with a bake-on grey Parkerizing finish. We whiskered, filled and finished the stock, and once it was dry, we were off to the range.
For now, we’re using a little “powder-puff” load of 25 grains FFg. It’s just enough bark, smoke and recoil for him to know he’s really shooting something, and not so much that recoil could turn him off to shooting. Instead, I have an enthusiastic young muzzleloader shooter who can’t wait until he’s good enough to shoot in a competition or carry a gun when he goes hunting with Dad.