10 Steps to Preserving a Piece of History
September 23, 2010
Repairing, refinishing, or restoring a 19th-century military muzzleloader takes some careful work, but it's work you can do yourself by following these helpful steps.
Like a lot of folks, I grew up with an interest in military arms and history. As a teenager during the centennial commemoration of the Civil War in the 1960s, I was "bitten by the bug" and desperately wanted a rifle used during that historic conflict. I wanted a rifle of the type that was perhaps carried by members of my family. Unfortunately, even with what would now be considered incredibly cheap prices, I just couldn't afford one. My part-time job as a grocery store bag boy never produced enough money to spend on a Springfield 1861 or Model 1853 Enfield. I was lucky to be able to afford an old Mauser or Mosin-Nagant. Rifles like that could be bought for less than $20, which was about the limit of my less than substantial income.
I still admire and appreciate antique guns from that era, but I have gradually come to accept that it just isn't in the cards for me to own one. That being said, a part of me still wanted a gun to hang on the wall. The 19th-century guns are attractive, and they always stir my imagination. Whenever I hold one in my hands, I can't help but wonder where it's been, who carried it, and how it was used.
Some time ago I noticed an ad from International Military Antiques in Shotgun News. These folks were advertising "untouched" Model 1853 Enfield-type rifles for just $250. The rifles were part of a huge collection of firearms purchased by Christian Cranmer from the government of Nepal in September 2000. This is perhaps the last large group of antique arms that will ever be offered for sale in the U.S. By the way, by large, I mean huge. According to Cranmer, over 430 tons of guns and accessories were brought out of Nepal!
At that price, this rifle is definitely affordable. In fact, if I look at the price in terms of the 1962 dollars of my teenage years, it would sell for considerably less than $50! Also, it was from the right period. While this rifle never saw use in the American Civil War, thousands of its cousins did. The Model 1853 Enfield was the most commonly used rifle in the Civil War, and both Union and Confederate governments imported tens of thousands of these rifles. While most were made in England, many were produced in Germany, Belgium, and Spain.
You might think it's odd that a British-type rifle was made in the Himalayan Mountains. It seems that back around 1813 the British, who controlled India, fought a brief war with the Nepalese. The Nepalese came darn close to winning, but in the end the British prevailed and took control of the area. The Brits let the Nepalese run their own internal affairs, but they kept close tabs on the Nepalese military. One aspect of that was controlling the types of arms the Nepalese were allowed to have. The Brits tried to make darn sure the Nepalese, who were excellent fighters, never had arms that were as technologically advanced as their own. Consequently, the Nepalese were generally kept one generation behind the Brits. For example, when the British were using metallic-cartridge rifles, the Nepalese were still using percussion firearms.
As received, the 1853 Enfield rifle was coated with 150 years worth of dirt, grease, and gunk, and the metal parts were badly rusted. With patience and some elbow grease, the author was able to repair and restore the old relic.
It was almost impossible to see the wood grain due to the thick coat of hardened crud.
While some firearms were imported from India or other areas outside Nepal, the Nepalese were capable of producing their own. As the British noted in reports from Nepal, these folks were highly skilled and adept at copying or duplicating products from outside their country. These 1853-type rifles are a great example of this. The Nepalese military realized that the British 1853 .577-caliber rifle was a major advance over the flintlocks and other smoothbore firearms they were using. So they simply copied it and equipped their army with it.
These are not as crudely made as the guns from Afghanistan or the Khyber Pass area. Yes, they're not as well made or finished as those produced in London, Birmingham, or even the copies made in Belgium or other parts of Europe. I suspect the Nepalese made extensive use of small shops where various components were made and then passed on to a larger facility where the guns were assembled and completed. This provided for a bit more uniformity and standardization than you would find if guns were individually produced entirely within small shops.
These Nepalese-made 1853-type rifles were in service from the 1860s until being replaced by single-shot, Martini-type rifles. The 1853s were then consigned to a storage facility where they remained until 2003. At that time Cranmer shipped the entire stock to the United States. And that, my friends, has been a blessing!
Not too long after I contacted the folks at International Military Antiques I received a large, heavy-duty cardboard container. I had been told that these guns were "untouched" and had not even been cleaned or wiped down. They were exactly as found after lying in storage for almost 150 years. During that time they had been constantly exposed to dust, dirt, and grime.
With the metal components still in the stock, the gun was washed down with turpentine in a large metal tank to remove much of the crud. When working with solvents like turpentine, the author uses a respirator, heavy-duty gloves, an applicator brush, and a Scotchbrite pad.
To be honest, I was shocked by the condition of the gun. It was beyond filthy. In fact, I can honestly say that in over 30+ years of gunsmithing I have never worked with a gun that was dirtier. The grease, grime, and gunk covering the gun had turned into a hard coating of thick, black crud. And as I looked at the rifle, I absolutely loved it! What a treasure! I couldn't wait to begin preserving it.
Repair, Refinish, Or Restore? That Is The Question
Before I started, I needed to determine what I was going to do. In cases like
this you really have three options: repair, refinish, or restore. You might think that these are the same, but to my mind there are some important and significant differences.
Repair entails fixing broken parts or replacing missing components. Cleaning can also be a part of that process. The basic idea here is to return the gun to the point where it is fully functioning. You may or may not alter the finish or the basic appearance of the gun.
Refinishing carries the project even further. The wood and metal would be refinished, and all the patina or evidence of aging would be removed. The materials and process used in refinishing may or may not duplicate the finish originally found on the gun.
Restoration is more involved and requires returning the gun to the condition it was in at some point in the past. Many folks think of restoration as returning a gun to like-new condition, but in reality, restoration doesn't necessarily have to take the gun all the way back to that point. A restored gun can still show signs of wear and use. Keep in mind also that restoration may entail using the same procedures and materials employed when the gun was produced. Proper restoration to me is by far and away the most involved, complex, and difficult process.
On old guns such as the Model 1853 Enfield, the buttplate screws may not be screws. There is a good chance that they may well be nails and are best left alone. The deep pitting on the underside of the barrel is just one more reason why this gun should never be fired.
I'll be the first to acknowledge that lots of collectable guns have been hurt by misguided efforts. In my opinion, the bottom line is that we should try to avoid doing anything that would hurt the gun and make it less desirable for the next owner. The next owner? Yep, we're all just temporary custodians of our guns, and sooner or later someone else will own every darn one of 'em.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not one of those fellows for whom every gun is a collectable, believing that nothing can or should be done to any of them. I don't go that far, but I do believe that at the very least we should try to avoid damaging the gun. Whatever we choose to do should, in the eyes of most folks, enhance the value or desirability of that firearm. It is ultimately a judgment call, and no matter what you choose to do, someone will praise you and someone will curse you.
I opted to do a bit of repair and a bit of restoration. It's an old gun, and it has obviously seen hard use. I don't want to make it look new. If I wanted that, I could just pick up a modern replica. I want it to look like an old veteran and basically just get it back to the condition it was in when it was placed in storage. I don't want it to lose the patina of age or marks of use that give it character.
The first step in working on an old one like this was to determine if it was loaded. Over the years I've found half a dozen or more loaded guns that were well over 100 years old. And no, none of the owners were aware of it. It's really simple to check a military muzzleloader. You take the ramrod and drop it down the barrel. If it's empty, you'll hear a metallic clang as the metal ramrod strikes the breechplug. If there's something there, you'll hear a dull thud. Another way is to note how far the ramrod goes into the barrel and compare that with the location of the percussion cap nipple. If the end of the rod extends down the barrel even with the nipple, the gun is normally not loaded. In this case, the rifle proved to be empty.
A brass brush was used to clean rust from the barrel bands so as not to remove the patina of age.
Next, I began cleaning with turpentine. Turpentine is a natural solvent made from pine rosin and will not damage the wood. Over the years I've used a lot of different materials to clean wood, including Easy-Off oven cleaner. It sure works, but I've since learned that it contains ammonia, which can harm wood fibers. Turpentine is, as far as I know, a much safer and milder cleaner.
I used a paintbrush to continually wash down the stock surface until much of the crud was softened and removed. At times I also used a Scotchbrite pad as well as "0000" steel wool. At this point all metal components remained in the stock.
Once the majority of the crud was washed away, I removed the lockplate and the barrel and barrel bands.
In working on an older gun that's in rough shape, it's sometimes necessary to avoid complete disassembly. The barrel band spring tabs, for example, were heavily rusted. If I tried to remove them from the stock, they would have broken, or the rust scale would have chipped out the stock. Either way, there would have been more damage. Since my objective was to preserve the gun and prevent any further deterioration or damage, I opted to leave them in place.
Coffield made extensive use of a brass brush and a steel scribe to clean the metal components. A mainspring vise (lower left) was used to remove the mainspring from the lock without breaking it. After cleaning, the lock appeared to be in remarkably good condition.
The trigger guard, buttplate, and nose cap were also left on the stock. While working with a similar gun, I discovered that the screws holding some of these parts in place were actually nails. That might not be the case with this or other guns, but I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and I left them alone. It wasn't worth damaging the stock to try to remove them.
When the barrel was removed I found extensive and deep pitting on the underside. This is not unusual, as many military arms of this period were never disassembled by the troops that carried them. The only maintenance was wiping down the outside surfaces and cleaning the bore. Troops would seldom separate the stock from the barrel or disassemble the lock. Only armorers were authorized to do that specialized work.
This heavy pitting is just one more reason why a gun of this age should not be fired. There is no way to know how deep those pits are or to what degree the strength of the barrel has been compromised.
The lock, while originally inoperable and packed with crud, turned out to be just fine. After close to 150 years, all the springs were still in reasonably good shape, and it functioned
perfectly. That was definitely a testimony to the skill of the builders. The lock was completely disassembled, the parts were cleaned and oiled, and then it was reassembled.
The small metal parts--such as the barrel bands--were cleaned using a brass brush. This was stiff enough to remove the scale and rust, but it did not scratch the surface or remove the historic patina. You might be tempted to use a motor-driven wire wheel that is more aggressive. I wouldn't encourage this because it will almost always cut to the bare metal. In dealing with the brass parts, I did no more than lightly clean them. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid polishing or brightening the brass. I definitely did not want the brass to have a "new," highly polished look.
As the cleaning continued, I found markings on the trigger guard tang. Based on what I read in Guns of the Gurkhas by John Walter, I believe the markings indicate this rifle was issued to the Jagdal battalion around 1860 or so. There were additional subunit markings, but I was unable to determine what they meant. Finally, this rifle was numbered "34" as issued to the subunit. That's not a lot of info, but even that adds to the romance of the gun.
Cleaning the stock with turpentine was a very slow process, and it took a lot of hours over many days. I worked on it for at least an hour a day for more than two weeks. To do work like this, you have to be patient. If you try to hurry the process, you'll probably damage the wood. Just go slow, take your time, and eventually you'll remove all the crud.
Once the stock was cleaned, I repaired two minor cracks. The cracks were first flushed out with Birchwood Casey Gun Scrubber to remove as much oil and dirt as possible. I then used Super Glue to bond the wood together. This high-strength but thin glue penetrated deeper into the cracks than any other adhesive I could find.
After the stock had been cleaned, Reid was able to carefully check it for cracks and other damage.
My goal was simply to keep the cracks from getting any worse.
With the cracks repaired, I wiped the stock down with tung oil. I don't know for sure what the Nepalese originally used, but I thought this would be a reasonable substitute. The tung oil served to penetrate and protect the wood and to give it a slightly dark, aged look appropriate for this firearm.
The bore was cleaned with a standard 20-gauge shotgun bore brush and rod. At first I thought that this might have been a smoothbore, but soon the very shallow rifling was evident. I confirmed it with my Hawkeye Bore Scope, which showed that the rifling was actually in fairly good shape. Once the bore was cleaned, it was lightly oiled to prevent further rusting.
The rifle was then reassembled, and the job was complete. It certainly isn't a pristine collectable, but it's an interesting and unique artifact from a bygone era. It'll make a wonderful addition to my home, and I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that I've helped to preserve a small piece of history. And who knows, maybe somehow I just might share an ancestor or two with the Gurkha soldier who once carried this old rifle!
A crack that extended from the rear lockplate screw hole into the barrel channel needed to be repaired, which Reid accomplished using Super Glue. Though the bore is rusted, you can still see the rifling.