The Shotgun that Built the Free State of Jones
June 02, 2016
The Free State of Jones is a remarkable instance of secession within secession, a rebellion for union and equality in the Deep South during the Civil War.
The story is now the setting for the movie "Free State of Jones," directed by Gary Ross of "Seabiscuit" fame and featuring Matthew McConaughey.
McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a yeoman farmer and army deserter who rebels against Confederate forces in Jones County, Miss. Knight led a guerilla band of about 125 men and launched attacks on troops using a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun, which he affectionately named Sal.
It is said that Knight was incredibly proficient with his shotgun. History Professor Wyatt Moulds, a direct descendant of Knight's grandfather, told Smithsonian Magazine that Knight "was a Primitive Baptist who didn't drink, didn't cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around."
Though the exact configuration of Newton Knight's shotgun is not known today, several people involved in the production of "Free State of Jones" have taken a pretty good guess at what it might have been.
Two individuals who have given it some thought are Karl Weschta and Drew Petrotta of Independent Studio Services, a company that supplied guns for the upcoming film, "Free State of Jones."
"The Propmaster Drew Petrotta was responsible for this whole process," Weschta said. "Drew was hired by the "Free State of Jones" production to bring all the props, including firearms, to the big screen. He had to do this while maintaining the director's and production designer's visions. Doing a picture like this is not the easiest to do. Any time you have a historical film, you have to make sure you are keeping true to history and bringing the correct gear to the table."
Since "Free State of Jones" is set in the Civil War, Weschta said it was not a problem supplying some of the more common firearms, such as Springfield and Enfield muskets. However, there was one particular item that needed procuring.
"Newton Knight was known to have a particular double barrel shotgun, " Weschta said. "As one can imagine, there are companies where you can purchase Enfields and Springfields, but there really is not a great selection of percussion shotguns out there. Pedersoli has the best selection, and we purchased what we could in multiples."
The particular shotgun Weschta and Petrotta selected for "Free State of Jones" was the "Old English" 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun made by Pedersoli and imported into the U.S. by the Italian Firearms Group.
It was the Italian Firearms Group that worked with ISS to ensure that high-quality and historically accurate guns were supplied for use in "Free State of Jones." The Old English shotgun eventually ended up being used by McConaughey in the titular role of Sal, Knight's trusty double.
The "Free State of Jones" Gun
Shooting Times got in touch with the Italian Firearms Group and requested an Old English 12-gauge shotgun of the same type used in filming "Free State of Jones" for testing and evaluation.
The gun we received was a perfect example of the quality of reproductions sold by Pedersoli and the Italian Firearms Group.
Set in a gorgeous tiger-striped maple stock, the Old English shotgun features two case-hardened lockplates on either side of the gun and also features a case-hardened cap box at the rear and an escutcheon on the underside of the stock.
Each lockplate is ornately engraved, as is the cap box and receiver tang. A double-helix braid pattern is also banded around each barrel just forward of the percussion nipples.
The stock itself is checkered on the grip and girth just behind the receiver. The forearm is also checkered to improve purchase when handling the gun.
The two hammers feature a half-cock that functions as a safety and a loading position in order to place No. 11 caps on the percussion nipples. At half-cock, both triggers are immobilized.
Once the hammers are pulled back to full cock, the triggers are set. Each barrel has its own trigger, the front trigger firing the right barrel and the rear trigger firing the left.
In keeping with the traditional setup of a double-barreled shotgun, the rear trigger is slightly heavier than the front. On the Old English, the front trigger broke at 5 pounds, 11 ounces. The rear trigger broke at 9 pounds, 13 ounces.
The barrels are separated by a smooth rib terminating in a brass bead sight that will appear familiar to any regular shotgunner.
Barrel lengths on the Old English shotgun used in "Free State of Jones" are just over 27.5 inches with the overall gun being just a hair over 44 inches long. Those numbers fall right in line with the size of most modern shotguns, even a bit smaller. A factory Remington 870 with a 28-inch barrel is more than 50 inches in overall length.
Weight-wise, the Old English actually beats out many modern guns, weighing in at 6.83 pounds. For comparison, the lightest model Remington 870 tips the scales at 7 pounds.
Up to this point, the shotgun used in "Free State of Jones" looks much like a modern-day double gun would. However, the existence of a wooden-stemmed, brass-tipped ramrod sitting underneath the barrel betrays its construction as a muzzle-loading black powder gun. The ramrod is held in place by two bands underneath the barrels as well as a channel in the forearm.
Pointing the Old English downrange was very natural and comfortable. Unlike many 19th century firearms, this one felt nimble and traversed well without feeling bulky or muzzle-heavy.
Just as there is no photographic record of Newton Knight's Sal, information on what load Knight fired at Confederate invaders is also seemingly lost to history. However, it is possible to speculate on what Knight might have used to build the Free State of Jones by looking at the historical record.
To increase the chances of hitting targets in a military formation, a load combination called "buck and ball" was developed. It combined a single large-caliber round ball with 3-6 small-caliber buckshot balls stacked on top. When multiple rounds exited the barrel, the varying trajectories of each ball increased the likelihood that at least one would find its mark.
It is probably safe to assume that Knight took advantage of this devastating scattershot combination in his guerilla strikes at the Confederacy when building the Free State of Jones.
Unfortunately, I had no appropriately sized round balls for use in testing the Old English shotgun, but I did have several pounds of Hornady 00 buckshot, which are the equivalent of .33 caliber round balls.
Without the advantage of a self-contained paper cartridge, readying a muzzle-loading shotgun for firing can be a bit of a laborious process.
First, I used No. 11 percussion caps from Cabela's and fired several primers through an empty bore to ensure a clean vent hole. This can be verified by pointing the muzzle toward a leaf or a loose sheet of paper and seeing if the pressure from the primer cap causes movement. If it does, you have a clear vent hole. If not, firing a few more caps should clean it out.
Once you've ensured the vents and percussion nipples are clean, measure out your powder charge. I used a black powder substitute, Hodgdon's Pyrodex Select, in my testing. You'll get the same ballistic results as black powder, but reloading and clean up will be much easier.
Pedersoli recommends a minimum charge of 85 grains of black powder for a 12-gauge shotgun like the kind used in "Free State of Jones." The company's recommended maximum charge is 100 grains. For my loads, I stuck to the 85-grain minimum and was satisfied with my results.
After measuring out two 85-grain charges, I then poured each one down its respective barrel. When observing this step, it is imperative to trickle the powder in first with your hands and face well away from the muzzle. It is always possible for a smoldering ember from your last firing to ignite the freshly poured powder.
Once charges have been poured down both barrels, tap the butt of the gun a few times to ensure that the charge is evenly settled. Now, it's time to load the wad/projectile combination.
Shot cards and wads are available for purchase online, but it is also very easy to make your own. I made my own over-shot and over-powder cards from a thick piece of hard stock cardboard cut to fit the bore diameter. Barrels on 12-gauge shotguns can range anywhere from .72 inches to even .80 inches on overbored models.
After the powder is settled, the over-powder card is rammed down the barrel. This card seals the bore and keeps the powder charge dry. Next, I load an oiled lubrication card that serves to soften powder fouling and act as a buffer and shock absorber between the powder and the shot.
Next, the shot is loaded. If you're using birdshot, a rule of thumb to follow is to use an equal volume of shot with an equal volume of powder. Since I was using 00 buck, though, I simply selected 12 round balls for use on each charge.
When loading the round balls, I dropped in three at a time, tapping the gun in between each set of three. This ensures that the buckshot settles evenly over the charge and prevents the chance of a lopsided shot charge creating a dangerous bore obstruction.
After the buckshot is loaded, an over-shot card is rammed down on top of the shot to prevent the charge from rolling out during carrying. After the over-shot card is loaded, return the ramrod to its housing.
Now that both barrels are loaded, percussion primers must be affixed to the nipples at the rear of the receiver. When firing, it is prudent to leave the spent primers on the nipples while loading. This prevents air flow from traveling down the vent hole and through the barrel, reducing the chances of embers igniting your next powder charge. Once both barrels are loaded, thumb the hammers to half-cock, remove the spent primers and add fresh percussion caps. The gun is now ready to fire.
Shotguns never have been and never will be a long-range firearm by any means. This is true even when firing rifled slugs, and it is especially true when firing buckshot or birdshot.
To see what kind of spread occurred at different ranges with the same load, I fired both barrels at an NRA A21 bullseye at 10 yards, 15 yards and 25 yards. In each instance, the pattern spread, but multiple impacts were seen at center mass.
It is clear that, in the days of Newton Knight and the Free State of Jones, this double gun would have been a powerful firearm with a devastating impact on massed troops.
Shooting the Old English gun was a novel experience in itself. Recoil was much what you'd expect from a modern-day 12-gauge, but the aftermath of 85 grains of burning black powder makes for an impressive cloud of smoke that obscures the target for several seconds following the shot.
Despite the excitement of experiencing the shotgun that built the Free State of Jones, there were a few modern-day frustrations that plagued my shooting. First, returning the ramrod to its cut-out in the forearm isn't as smooth as it should be. It will get hung up, and you'll have to bend it a bit to make sure it returns fully.
The other thing to be aware of is that the included ramrod is very malleable due to its all-wood construction. It flexes and bends and will eventually break if you use it as your go-to loading tool. My advice? Leave it where it is and buy a modern-day metal ramrod.
Finally, when placing your support hand on the forearm, the inside of your support arm is fully exposed to the exploding percussion caps. The nipples are mostly shrouded, but the shroud does not wrap around the side of the caps, and when the primers fire, you'll be hit with bits of flying metal and burning fulminate of mercury.
It's not nearly as bad as it sounds, but it's worth remembering to wear a long-sleeved shirt at the range to prevent irritation to your arm.
Those few minor annoyances aside, the Old English double from the Italian Firearms Group was a great deal of fun and a fantastic representation of the guns used to defend home and hearth by thousands of people in 19th century America, including Newton Knight in his battle for the Free State of Jones.