This is a story about closing circles in our lives. It is a story that took half a century from beginning to end. Looking back 50 years, I will try and summarize it for you today - Memorial Day, 2005. Bits will be added as time goes on.
The first time I ever heard that phrase - "lock, stock & barrel" - it was as a little kid in a sentence that went something like "He bought the farm, lock, stock and barrel." My childish mind visualized the meaning immediately; He bought everything on the farm, including the lock on the cabin door, the stock in the fields (sheep, cows, pigs...) and even the wooden rain barrel.
That was about 55 years ago, and some long time after that image was firmly stuck in my brain, I realized that the folk saying referred to parts of a gun - the lock, stock and barrel. In other words, if you had a lock, a barrel and a stock to mount them in, you had a complete, working firearm, i.e., the whole thing. (The meaning was the same; the images quite different.)
Back around 1955, when I was just a teen, my Dad took me to a local muzzleloader match in rural Otsego County, near Gilbertsville, where we lived. It was held in a field nestled between the rolling hills and forests that characterized the landscape in that area, and by the end of that day, I was bitten by the muzzleloading bug.
To see a couple dozen men and boys, shooting every variety of old black powder gun, many if not most of them back then original antiques, was dramatic and inspiring. I remember dreaming, on that sunny day so long ago, of someday being able to do that myself. To own an old gun and stand there on the line, pouring powder from a powder horn into the muzzle of a long rifle, then placing a cloth over the end and setting a small lead ball onto the opening, then setting it slightly into the bore, taking a small knife and cutting away the excess cloth, then pulling out the long ramrod and ramming the patched ball onto the powder charge, pulling back the hammer, and touching off a roaring blast of fire and smoke and sound!
That was 1955, and in the 50 years that have transpired since, I have approached that dream in a number of ways. In Tucson, Arizona, in 1970, I bought my first black powder gun; a replica Civil War era Colt revolver. Down there you could carry a pistol on you to the supermarket if you wanted to, and my friends and I would take it out in the desert and plink away, or go to the range near the Indian reservation and shoot at targets or (if no-one objected) tin cans. Back in New York in 1974, one needed a permit to shoot even a replica revolver, so after looking at it for 20 years, I sold it someone who would appreciate it.
While in Tucson (1969-1974) I got it in my mind that maybe I would become a desert rat and hunt javelinas (desert pigs) to survive (not for sport... I never had much stomach for the idea of killing animals for sport). I wanted to do this in an historically sensitive manner, so bought a Thompson-Center Hawken caplock rifle, which was made for hunting and only a close approximation of any actual Hawken rifle. I ended up NOT becoming a desert rat, and just fired that off now and then at targets. Back in New York I never found a use for it, as it was not really an authentic replica of anything, so sold it to an educational agency to use as a prop in school programs.
Around 1976, I got into Rev War reenacting and bought a replica Brown Bess .75 caliber musket., and for five years or more fired off blanks in that as part of living history programs. Like the Colt revolver, this was a bolt-for-bolt copy of an original musket, and so even though I was not target shooting, it was enjoyable to own and fire such a true copy. For sentimental reasons, I hung onto that gun long after I actually used it in programs, and eventually sold it, with all my Rev War reenacting gear, at a training camp of new Rev War "recruits", and so returned it to active service.
The closest I ever came, until now, to coming full circle to that 1950s muzzleloader shoot in Otsego County was in the 1980s. While doing annual 4th of July 1840s-style living history programs in Hoags Corners, I built a .32 caliber long rifle full-stock flintlock from a kit. We had muzzleloader matches as part of that reenactment and festival each year and a couple times I actually entered in competition with that gun. But it was not very a very good gun and I never got that serious about sighting it in, etc. So a few years ago I sold it to a kid who was just getting started in black powder. I now had nothing left of my muzzleloading adventures.
Now, however, in the spring of 2005, my interest in match shooting a la that 1955 shoot, has re-emerged, and I have purchased a used Lyman Great Plains rifle (above) to accomplish that goal, closing at last - a half century later - that great life circle that began 50 years ago in a field near my hometown.
And that brings my back to Dad's Old Gun because perhaps without too consciously striving to accomplish it, by buying the Great Plains caplock rifle (above) I have purchased as near a match to that old gun (below) as can be had in a "production" (not custom made) rifle.
So, what is the story? Well, as far back as I can remember, that old gun stood back in a corner of the upstairs closet, protected with a fringed red cloth sleeve. I was always fascinated with this ancient rifle, and whenever I could get away with it, I would sneak upstairs, take the extraordinarily heavy gun from the closet, carefully slip off the red sleeve and instantly turn into Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. This was way before I went to that muzzleloading match or had even seen such a gun fired off. (This gun was never fired, appropriately, since shooting antiques of questionable quality only risks the history they contain).
One year, when I was about 11 or so and into woodcarving, I made a half-scale replica of my Dad's old gun in pine, complete with octagonal barrel and working patch box. I did this so I could truly become Davy Crockett as we ranged through the woods pretending to be whatever we wanted to be. Seems like the Davy Crockett TV series was running about then, so definding the Alamo was high on our list. This was way better than some plastic flintlock from Woolworths. Missing a few parts, this wooden gun still survives.
Over the years I began to absorb the story of the old gun, but not until I actually became the proud owner of it, last week, did I get all the details down on paper. Here' how it goes.
The rifle was given to my father when he was pastor of the Baptist church in New Woodstock, Madison County, New York (southeast of Syracuse) in 1945. We lived there for two years when I was 3 years old. The previous owner was Hart Pettingill, who indicated when he gave it to my father that he had had the gun "for about fifty years". That would place the manufacture date prior to 1900. Pettingill's powder horn (left), which was also given to my father, bears his name ("HARTIE" - a childhood nichkname?) and the date "June 6, '96", which is assumed to be the date he got the gun. This fits the timeline in the story. The tradition, oft repeated, is that the gun had been cut down in barrel length from an original long rifle (more on that later) and that the stock had been broken when Mr. Pettingill cracked it over the head of a woodchuck. Pettingill stated back in 1945 that he had "got a lot of woodchucks with that gun...". The story goes on that Pettingill then fashioned a new stock for the gun out of a "chestnut telephone pole".
And that is about all we have in terms of oral history. But the gun itself is an artifact rich with history, and as detailed as any book, if examined properly. So now what I want to do is let the gun itself speak about its past.
Let's reverse the order in the old saying - "Lock, Stock & Barrel" - and take up the barrel first. Most of the critical information about a gun is usually embedded in the barrel; either directly (stamped on it) or indirectly (style, size, shape). My Dad's Old Gun is no exception.
The barrel is 30 inches long (muzzle to breach plug junction) and measures one inch across the flats in thickness. It appears to be about a 45 caliber. The weight of the gun, which is mostly barrel weight, is about 9 pounds. In its present configuration it is relatively balanced but a bit heavy toward the front end. One would imagine a very front-heavy gun if the barrel were even longer, as tradition says it once was. The muzzle is turned octagon to round for 5/8s of an inch back from the muzzle, and inside the bore in that 5/8s inch there is no rifling. This configuration matches what is described in the following extracts:
It is equipped with a modified buckhorn rear site on a long spring tab with a stepped wooden wedge that fits under the tab to stop it at different set elevations. The sight tab is decorated with simple, but attractive punch-engraved decoration. The wooden stepped adjusting wedge is very oxidized and is assumed to be original to the gun.
The front sight is a simple brass blade mounted on a driven iron wedge (see picture above) that lets into a slot in the top of the barrel just behind the turned muzzle.
The most important "diagnostic" evidence a gun barrel can provide is, of course, a maker's stamp or maker's mark. This gun does not disappoint in that regard. Two stamps appear; one regular and refined near the rear sight, centered on the barrel flat and reading "A R CHAPIN EARLVILLE" and another mark closer to the breach plug which is irreglarly and haphazzardly stamped and reads "RECUT BY LEWIS TROY N.Y." (Click on the picture at left for a closer look. Note that this stamp is greatly corroded away closer to the breach, which suggests this "RECUT" occurred very early in the gun's history.)Both of these gunsmiths are documented. Chapin was a gunmaker from c. 1845 to c. 1870 according to historians in Earlville in the first half of the 20th century. Earlville is in the same county (Madison), and only about 30 miles to the southeast, as New Woodstock, where Hart Pettingill owned this rifle. An estimated purchase date of 1896 fits with the working dates (1845-1870) recorded for Chapin. (Cick on the image at left for a closer look).
So both the maker and the man who "RECUT" this gun worked in the same general time period: Chapin: 1845-1870 Lewis: 1843-1883
We will come back to the subject of just what Lewis' "RECUT" consisted of and also just how much of what we see today in this gun is the result of pre-manufactured parts versus local craftsmanship by Chapin.
Of note is the existence of what at first appear to be two superfluous holes in the barrel tang (left), which is actually part of the breech plug that screws into the back end of the barrel. Both are threaded to receive a machine screw; the larger one has closely-spaced threads while the smaller hole has more open threads. While one can debate about the function of these holes, the large one matches one on a Lewis gun in Troy (below, left), and fits the location of a supplemental rear sight, as can be seen in exactly the same location on another Nelson Lewis rifle (below, right) at the Rensselaer County Historical Society. Commonly called a "peep sight" or "lollipop sight", it was a small disk with a hole in the center mounted on a long threaded rod. By screwing this rod into the hole in the tang, the elevation could be altered up and down. Such a sight functioned only for target shooting, not for hunting.
Now let's go back and look at the lock. Locks are very complex machines and need to work exactly right, so often country gunmakers would purchase assembled locks from a factory. At this time there is no way to determine if this lock was purchased or made locally. But let's recall the maker, A.R. Chapin of Earlville. His mini-bio states he was NOT a gunmaker as such, but a "...local mechanic and repairman who also made plain half-stock hunting rifles." (Emphasis mine) This was what we would today call a "side-line" for him, so it is unlikely he built his locks from scratch.
And taking a look at this lock, one might be almost certain of it, for it is a very fancy item, indeed. Many high quality locks of this period are plain, or have only a few lines filed on them for decoration. But this lock is lavishly decorated with a die-stamp engraved scene. As opposed to true hand engraving, where the engraver uses tools to cut the designs into the metal, die-stamp engraving uses steel dies to stamp the elements of the design in, similar to how dies are used to decorate leather. The combination of pre-made steel dies creates the result.
Here you can see a hunting scene artfully created, with the rifle-carrying hunter in broad hat (left) stalking two magnificently rendered wild American turkeys through stylized underbrush, with the faithful hunting dog (right) partly hidden by the hammer. The lock plate is additionally decorated with scrollwork and borders in a very fine manner. (You can click on the picture above, left to get a closer look.) The hammer also shows remnants of some stamped engraving, largely worn off, or perhaps not as firmly incised originally.
One gun collector I spoke with, when I described the engraving on this lock, said, "Oh, a shotgun lock. They used them sometimes on rifles." He suggested that locks were "imported from England by the barrelful" in those days, and local gunmakers just ordered batches of them, which they used as needed. The combination of the style of engraving, and the subject matter (a hunting scene with birds), suggest to him this lock was intended originally for a shotgun. Of course mechanically, rifle, or shotgun, the lock performs the same operation.
While not technically part of the lock, we can note here the single-set (instead of two triggers in a double-set configuraton) trigger and mount, which is all brass, enclosed by a nicely finished brass trigger guard, which completes the "machinery" needed to fire this gun. While we tend to think of double-set triggers as the hallmark of high-end target rifles, one being the "set" and the other a "hair" trigger. But Ned Roberts, in his 1944 treatise on caplock rifles, frequently cites evidence that a finely tuned single-set trigger is as good as any double set trigger combination, and he bemoans the fact that not more gunsmiths employed this configuration.
And note also that this is a "back action lock", in the 1840s a more common design than the regular side lock configuration we see later on. And notice also that an identical lock (undecorated) appears on the Nelson Lewis target rifle of the same perod (picture at left). Even though Lewis did not build this rifle, it is interesting to note common practices in New York State in the mid-19th century. Rifle-making was like rowboat making; there were only a limited number of variations on the theme. And if you add in the use of pre-manufactured parts that local gunsmiths purchased from common sources, similarities in guns cannot be attributed always to having had the same maker.
As we discuss the stock I will make comparisons to a target rifle illustrated on the Internet. This gun, (above,top) was built in the mid-1800s by Nelson Lewis of Troy (the man who re-cut my Dad's gun). While my gun (above, bottom) was not built by Lewis, they are certaiby close relatives and the comparison is useful.
So now we can look at the stock; or more correctly the attachments to the stock, since we know the stock was replaced at some point prior to 1945. We may assume the owner more or less copied the original stock. But Pettingill indicated to my father that he used this mostly as a varmint gun ("....got a lot of woodchucks with that gun..."), so we could assume that he would not have taken care to re-create the exact stock in the same quality as might have existed on the gun originally. So in a way we need to take an "archeological" perspective and see the original, broken stock like the "flesh" of the gun, now lost, and try and come to understand the gun through the "bones" and "teeth" that have survived; i.e., the metal furniture from the original gun that was re-attached to the new stock.
The part of the stock the shooter is most closely connected to is the butt, which on this gun contains a curved brass buttplate, a flat brass baseplate that abuts the bottom of the buttplate and protects the underside of the stock, and a brass patchbox with hinged lid that covers a round hole in the stock where greased cloth patches are kept. This patchbox is sometimes left off low-end guns, and this round form is the most common on the half-stock guns of this period, replacing the larger and fancier brass patchboxes used on earlier long-barreled Kentucky and Pennsylvania rifles.
Interestingly, the Lewis rifle mentioned above has virtually an identical set-up, except the patchbox is rotated 180 degrees. Now, Pettingill may have inadvertantly re-installed his patchbox backwards, but one might expect that by looking at the broken pieces of the old stock, or just from familiarity with the gun, he would have known which way it went. These items were generic enough it really did not matter much which way it went on.
In addition to the curved buttplate, this gun has a flat brass plate that attaches along the bottom edge of the stock, against the curved buttplate. Of note on this item is that it is fancier than it needs to be, with a nice "finial" style tail at the front. But of even more interest is the fact that there is a little round "door" or port in the flat, covered by a sliding steel door. This covers a large space carved into the stock, and may have served as a reservoir for percussion caps or lead shot. Ned Roberts suggests this was for caps:
You may be noticing a pattern developing here.... where the componenets of this gun are all a step or two above the norm. A base line gun would not have a highly engraved lockplate or a little cupboard built into the stock with a tiny sliding steel door. Does this suggest this is a target rifle, a high-end hunting gun, or just a mid-market hunting gun?
The reverse side of the stock is often an area of a gun that defines its "class", and even its intended use. This area can be lavishly carved and inlaid, and often there is a backplate for the bolt that holds the lock into the stock. As can be seen on the Lewis rifle (below, right), even an upscale gun can simply have just the bolt head itself. But on my rifle there is a very unsual decorated brass plate that has been used as a backplate for the lock bolt.
This plate, which clearly does not look like anything intended for a gun, is held in place with six flathead brass screws. This attachment seems unecessary in terms of support for the lock bolt head, but would lend strength to the narrow wrist of the stock - the place mosly likely to break under pressure. Perhaps it was Pettingill's experience with the woodchuck that caused him to add this extra support here, which would not have been part of the original gun. There is today a small age crack in the rather broad grain of the wood in the wrist area on the side opposite this brass piece. Perhaps the inherent weakness of the new wood, exemplified by the wide growth rings evident, prompted him to add this piece.
So, even though the replacement stock is consistent with a "varmint" gun in quality and design, the metal furniture suggests a better grade of gun, and perhaps one whose original intent might have been more target shooting than hunting.
There is still a lot to understand and discover about this old gun. Let's start with the legends that come with it.
"RECUT BY LEWIS TROY N.Y." means the barrel used to be much longer and was cut down by Lewis at some point. Possibly. But in the period this gun was made (c. 1850-1880), taste in guns was drifting away from the full-stocked, long-barreled rifles of the 18th century, with barrels reaching lengths in execss of 40 inches. People wanted easier to manage guns, with barrel lengths in the 32-34 inch range (this one is 30 inches) and the half-stocked gun was the norm.
It is interesting to note that this gun's maker - A.R. CHAPIN - is described by people who were in a position to know him well as a man who "made plain half-stock hunting rifles." While a half-stocked rifle with a long barrel is possible, it is very unlikely. So just knowing the gun was built by Chapin, tends to undermine the story of it being originally a longer gun.
So what is the "RECUT" that Lewis did to the gun? According to firearms historians, the word "re-cut" in that period refers to the process of re-rifling the barrel; i.e., cutting new grooves into the barrel or perhaps sharpening up the exiting grooves, which may have worn or corroded. This would be worth doing, and gunsmiths often prided themselves on their rifling. Nelson Lewis, who "RECUT" this gun was apparently no different, as his biography states:
"Lewis always cut his rifle barrels with a gain twist and absolutely refused to accept an order for a rifle to be made with a uniform twist. His "standard" type of rifling was equal width of grooves and lands and both cut with square corners....Lewis was very particular in the rifling and accurately fitting the bullet to the bore of his rifles, and never let a rifle go out of his shop until he, himself, had developed an accurate load for it by range tests. If he could not make the rifle shoot accurately, he "worked it over," or even partly re-rifled it and in this way made it shoot as accurately as desired. If this could not be done, he made a new barrel that was right and never let an inferior shooting rifle go out of his shop."
So this pride in workmanship would have made it important for Lewis that people knew who did this rifling, and it is reasonable he would have stamped that fact on the barrel before it left his shop. This seems to more than adequately explain the existence of the stamp: RECUT BY LEWIS TROY N.Y.
The term "re-cut" to describe "re-rifling" or re-cutting the rifling of a barrel, is common in the literature referring to the late 19th century gunsmith:
This gun was made by "A.R.CHAPIN EARLVILLE". Well, there is no doubt this is the case. But what exactly does the concept of "made by" really mean?
In the context of the middle 19th century, making a gun in a rural Upsate New York shop really meant assembling the gun from pre-manufactured parts produced in factories that were located elsewhere. One firearms historian stated it this way:
"Local NYS gunsmiths of that era were probably buying most of their "findings" from wholesalers who imported barrels of butts, trigger guards, nose caps, etc from England. The gunsmith's most important job was to "cut" or rifle barrels; but even this fell by the wayside when Remington began producing a flood of barrels in his factory. The second job of a gunsmith was to stock the gun, or mount everything in wood. This continued to be a mainstay of the trade, because so many guns were "customized" or made custom for a particular buyer."
So Chapin may be seen as someone who ordered all the metal parts and then assembled them into a gun, much like a modern blackpowder shooter might buy a "kit" which contains all the parts and assemble it himself. Chapin would have created a gun either according to a particular customer's request, or based on his own ideas of what was marketable.
Even a famous "big city" gunsmith like Nelson Lewis did not make the entire gun with his own hands:
"Lewis, like all the old-time gun makers, has a surprisingly small number of machines in his shop as the major part of the work in making a gun or rifle was done by hand. A boring machine for smoothing or reaming the bore of the barrels and a 'rifling bench' with 'rifling guide' were practically all the machines found in these old rifle-makers shops on those times. Lewis bought his barrel blanks from E. Remington & Son, using the cast steel for rifle barrels which he smooth-reamed inside, rifled, finished, fitted the lock and stocked in an excellent manner."
Even the turning of the barrel ends was not done by Lewis:
"Lewis did not even have a lathe in his shop, but all such work as making bullet swages, bullet starters, threading the patent breech, and end of barrel was done by "Bill" Hart in his machine shop which was near Lewis' shop. The fine engraving that is seen on Lewis rifles was done by John Wolfe, a German, who worked for Lewis and was his only employee except for his son Kilby..." (who made the stocks).
So we can assume something of the intent Chapin had for this gun by the selection he made of a wide range of available pre-manufactured components. (More, perhaps, on that later.)
This is a hunting gun, right? Well, it may have been used as such for the past century, but all evidence points to it being originally designed as a target rifle. First of all the end of the barrel is turned from octagon to round. While this may seem a decorative element at first, it is, in fact, a functional component of the rifle. We already saw above the statement suggesting its use:
This is not the "false muzzle" arrangement, which had a section of barrel temporarily connected to the end of the barrel with pins for loading, since no holes for pins exist on this gun. Rather it is made to accept a plunger-type loading device that fit over the rounded section of the barrel (see left). This type of loading device had no utility in the field when hunting and only would have been employed on the target range.
In addition, the tang site, sometimes called a "lollipop sight", that was installed in those threaded holes in the tang of this gun, is in indicator of usage. It was an additional sight that was used for target matches, NOT for hunting. Along with the fancy lockplate, even with its engraved hunting scene, these clues suggest this was a rifle originally designed for the target range. The fact the Hart Pettingill indicated to my father that he had used it as a varmint gun suggests that its life began as someone's target gun a long time before he obtained it circa 1896.
But, another possibility is found in reading Ned Roberts' classic treatise THE MUZZLE-LOADING CAPLOCK RIFLE, published in 1944; almost the very same year when Hart Pettingill placed that rifle into my father's hands. Roberts states that in the middle 19th century, there were three basic types of caplock rifles being made: The hunting rifle, designed just for that purpose and weighing from 9 to 14 pounds; The hunting and target rifle, a combination gun weighing from 9 to 14 pounds; and The target rifle, designed just for target shooting and weighing from 10 to 20 pounds. My gun weighs just over 9 pounds, placing it in either the Hunting or the Hunting and Target category, BUT outside the purely Target category.
Read how Roberts describes this combination hunting and target rifle in his book:
So based on Roberts' description, my gun fits the pattern: it weighs about 9 pounds, it has a barrel turned to accept a bullet starter, it has holes in the tang for target-style peep sights or 'lollipop" sights and its lock is engraved with a hunting scene. It would seem to fall, therefore, into this middle category of a gun built for both hunting AND target competition.
Does Nelson Lewis's 19th century gunshop in Troy, where Dad's gun was taken at some point to be "re-cut", still exist? Roberts in his 1944 book indicates Lewis's shop was on the "corner of Congress and Church Streets", but which corner? Downtown Troy is an area heavily modified over the years, so hopes of finding the building intact were dim. I spent a warm afternoon in early June at the Troy Public Library looking at the City Directories for the years 1845 to 1880.
The earliest listing for Lewis is in 1844 and reads as follows:
By 1845 his listing reads:
Lewis Nelson, gunsmith, 50, h 19 congress
This means that his bunsiness was at 50 Congress Street and his home at 19 Congress Street. Congress Street is the main east-west route in the city.
In 1857 his listing reads:
Lewis Nelson F., rifles, guns, &c. 84 Congress, h. 131 Fifth
It is here, at 84 Congress Street, that Lewis maintains his gun shop until 1880, moving his home later to 170 Congress Street.
This same low-roofed building can be seen on the corner of Congress and Church Streets in this extremely enlarged detail of the 1877 Birdseye View of Troy. The position of Church Street is determined by comparing the larger 1877 map with a modern street map of Troy, but can be made out here running left to right primarily by the gap in the buildings along Congress Street. It the time this Birdseye View was being compiled, Nelson Lewis was in that very building, working on guns and rifling barrels; perhaps even the very one being described on this webpage.
You learn something new all the time. When I owned my Thompson Center Hawken muzzle-loader in 1970, it had a barrel with a breech end that just hooked into the tang so when you popped out the wedges that held the barrel to the stock, it came right out for easy cleaning. No need to remove the tang screw like on "old" guns, where the breech plug screwed right into the end of the barrel (see left).
Just another concession to the modern hunter, I thought, like the coil spring in the lock instead of the more authentic leaf spring or "V-spring".
But as I was examining my Dad's old gun for clues, I noticed a small gap beteen the end of the barrel and the breechplug/tang unit (see right). "The breechplug was not turned in all the way," I thought. Just out of curiosity, I pushed out the barrel wedge and just as I was reaching for a screwdriver to loosen the tang screw, the whole barrel fell out in my hands. It had a hooked breech just like my "modern" Hawken. So apparently this convenient arrangement (like that illustrated below) was already old news as far back as 1896! You learn something new every day.
So who exactly was "A.R. Chapin"? He is described in the 1952 inventory by Holman J. Swinney, NEW YORK STATE GUNMAKERS, as "A local mechanic and repairman who also made plain half-stock hunting rifles..." So what is a "mechanic" in 19th century parlance?
So a "mechanic" is a broad term for someone who might make guns as well as other things. It does not necessarily imply that making rifles was a "hobby" or side-line for Chapin, as I first thought. Further evidence to this affect is found in the 1868-69 Hamilton Township Business Directory, as follows: Chapin, A. H., (Earlville,) gunsmith. There seems to be little doubt, at least when this directory was compiled, that A.R. Chapin WAS ndeed a gunsmith first and foremost. (NOTE: This mis-recording of "A.R" as "A.H." is mentioned by Swinney in his 1952 publication, but he confirms it is the same man. In script, often an upper case "R" can read as an upper case "H" (right).
My Grandfather's Axe? This gun has been re-stocked, and whenever we have replacement of some original component of an antique, I am reminded of the old saying about my grandfather's axe... how it is the original axe, but the head was replaced once and the handle replaced three times. Now antiques have things replaced. That is part of their history. But on this gun the question is, does the new stock resemble the original stock put on it by A.R. Chapin?
If you owned a basic utilitarian "varmint" gun, and the stock broke, would you try and make an exact replica? One might think the broken stock would serve as a pattern for the new one, and one firearms historian suggested as much, when he saw pictures of the gun. The shape of the stock was like other New York guns of that era. But while I could see that the general outline of the stock was correct, I was doubtful of the "decoration" of the cheek of the stock (left). It did not resemble the cheek of any muzzle-loader I had ever seen illustrated, being a sort of raised, elongated ridge feature outlined by two carved grooves - one on top and one below. I suspected this was some half-hearted attempt by Pettingill to put onto the new stock some simplified semblence of the fine carving that had been on the original.
Well, live and learn! When I saw the images of a Nelson Lewis rifle in the State Museum collections, made about the same time as my gun, I realized I was dead wrong. On that gun is the identical raised ridge carving, outlined by a groove above and a groove below. Now Lewis did not stock my Dad's gun; he just worked on the barrel. But his gun is representative of New York guns of the period and can be used for reference. While Hart Pettingill may have not been a master carver and simplified the form a bit, it is unmistakenly the correct decoration for a gun of this period.
Cart before the horse? One of the problems with myth and tradition is that it tends to color the way you interpret the facts you find later on. The tradition here suggests that gunsmith A.R. Chapin in Earlville made up a gun with a long 18th-century-style barrel, and stamped his name on it, with a nice, uniform stamp - "A.R. Chapin, Earlville". At some point later, that gun was sent to Troy, where famous gunsmith Nelson Lewis cut down the barrel to a shorter length, and using individual letter stamps, stamped onto it "RECUT BY LEWIS, TROY, N.Y." The letters do not line up very well, have varying depths and the stamping looks rather irregular and haphazzard. You might expect that, since this was just a repair job, after all.
But in trying to get the "archeological" evidence to fit this tradition, are we putting the proverbial "cart before the horse"? Is the recutting by Lewis in Troy the cart, coming after the gun was made, or the horse, coming before the gun was made?
In examining the archeological evidence and the historical documentation, I feel comfortable in suggesting, hypothetically, that Lewis was the horse in this case, having the first to do with this gun, and at a later date, Chapin actually finished the gun in Earlville. Following is the evidence as I see it.
The first and most telling hint is found in the word "RECUT" that Lewis stamped in the barrel. We saw above that this did NOT mean the barrel was cut down, but instead meant to re-rifle the barrel's bore. There can be no doubt in this, for the term is deeply embedded in the language of 19th century gunsmiths, and Lewis, being one of the top gunsmiths of his time, would not have used it in a different context, and certainly would not have stamped the word into the barrel if it meant other than most people understood it. Clearly if Lewis's "RECUT" meant shortening the barrel of an existing gun, in this case one made by Chapin, then he had to come second. He could not shorten the barrel of a gun that had not even been made yet.
But what if he worked on the gun BEFORE Chapin made it? What if he worked on, at least, the barrel of the gun Chapin was going to make later? Read and digest the following quotes, and then let's come back to this point:
To summarize, gunsmiths, even ones as famous for their barrels as Lewis of Troy, bought their barrels from other sources and rifled them. That a major part of what Lewis apparently did, and was famous for, was the rifling of barrels. That many times old, worn out barrels were sent in to be re-rifled and used in new guns. That these re-rifled old barrels reportedly shot better than new ones. The rural New York gunsmith, like Chapin, gathered the parts, largely made elsewhere, and assembled the gun in his shop.
As Lewis's Troy shop was widely known across the Northeast, and the Albany/Troy area would have been a major distribution center for gun parts shipped up from NYC in the middle 1800s, it is entirely reasonable that a small-time gunsmith like Chapin would have ordered gun parts from here, and that Lewis, well know for his rifling, might have been a source for barrels. It is even reasonable to assume that Chapin came to Albany and Troy every year or so to shop for parts, which he then took back to Earlville and made guns to order. A Lewis gun barrel would certainly be a selling point on any gun he made. Remember the quote from Roberts, 1944 which I cited above (below)?
"Lewis was very particular in the rifling and accurately fitting the bullet to the bore of his rifles, and never let a rifle go out of his shop until he, himself, had developed an accurate load for it by range tests. If he could not make the rifle shoot accurately, he "worked it over," or even partly re-rifled it and in this way made it shoot as accurately as desired. If this could not be done, he made a new barrel that was right and never let an inferior shooting rifle go out of his shop."
Since Lewis marked this barrel "RECUT", it means it was already rifled when he got it. So if we want to make Lewis the "horse" before the "cart" of A.R. Chapin, we have to see this as the re-rifling of an old barrel... ("These rifles made from old barrels thus re-rifled generally give better accuracy than those with new barrels, according to all reports.")... and perhaps a rural gunsmith shopping for a bargain, might have picked this up cheaper than a brand new Remington Arms barrel, rifled by Lewis.
But look again at the "sloppy" way in which Lewis recorded his work on this barrel. Doesn't that look more like the stamp associated with a later repair, rather than an original rifling job being offered for sale to other gunsmiths? Is this the way Lewis, a world-class gun maker, would mark something he created, as opposed to something he just worked on? In order to "prove" the hypothesis that Lewis in fact made this re-rifled barrel as an original product for sale, and not just a repair job, we need to find out how he marked the guns he himself DID make.
Three Lewis rifles are known to exist in the Albany/Troy area. The one in the State Museum collections, (below) which I used to compare stock carvings above, and two in the collections of the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy. The curator at the State Museum, when asked if the Lewis maker's stamp looked like it was a regular stamp, like Chapin's, or was stamped in letter-by-letter replied:
This is a rifle (above) any gunsmith would be proud to stamp with his name. Yet Lewis, on this very gun, indicates it as his creation with the same type of individually stamped letters used on Chapin's barrel. Unable to obtain a photograph of the NYS Museum rifle's maker's mark, I went back to Troy to examine their guns.Both guns at the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy were made later in Lewis's career, around 1870. Compare these maker's marks (below top and below bottom) with the mark on mine (below middle).
Close examination of the Troy guns suggests Nelson Lewis had at least two pre-made stamps. One had his name - N. LEWIS. You can tell this is a single stamp because on the one gun (above,top) it is "double-struck", with ghosts of the N, L and E above the letters on the left, and ghosts of the I and S below the letters on the right. This shows the entire name pivoted slightly when struck the second time. If these were individual letters, you would not get this uniform double imprint across the whole name. (The Earlville gun also probably read "N. LEWIS". Look at the position of LEWIS and you can see that it would be centered if it read "N. LEWIS", but the N has been lost in the pitting of that end of the barrel.)
The next stamp read MAKER. It is pretty clear that this is one stamp. But he must have had more than one stamp reading MAKER, because on the gun in the bottom picture, MAKER is a smaller type face than N. LEWIS, while in the top picture, all the letters are the same type face.The word TROY is probably also a single stamp, on both these guns, but it appears that he had two sizes of this stamp also, as the TROY on the bottom picture is the same smaller type face as the word MAKER, while the TROY in the top picture is the same type face as the rest of the mark.
These guns show that Lewis did not have a single, uniform stamp even as late in his career as the 1870s, and that slightly irregular stamping on a completed rifle was not uncommon. I assume, therefore, that irregular stamping on the Earlville barrel also implies it was a product made by Nelson Lewis, and not just the mark of a repair by him. The regularity of the stamping did not indicate the significance of the product.
The fact that in 1870 Lewis had a set of three or more manufactured stamps, but used individual letters stamped singly on the Earlville gun, suggests this barrel was worked on much earlier than 1870. It supports the hypothesis that Nelson Lewis took an old barrel, re-rifled it, perhaps early in his career, marked it with his name and put it out for sale. That at some later date, Chapin purchased the barrel from Lewis and made a gun around it, and then marked the gun as his product with his own stamp.
Now, I hope, we have put the horse (Lewis) before the cart (Chapin), as they belong.
A.R. Chapin, revealed! So how do we flesh out the person of "A.R.Chapin", make him a living craftsman of the late 19th century, give him some semblence of humanity?
I turned to the standard documentation sources one uses for a genealogical reconstruction, and spent a couple hours - well spent, I might add - at the New York State Library in Albany. Having had already one abortive field trip to Earlville, only to find everything closed (local museum, library, and most of the commercial district)I wondered if I could research this man remotely, from the State Library.
I first thumbed through the New York State Census inventories from 1850 to 1870, just to get a general fix on the man. I tried to match listings for any "A.... Chapin" in Madison County. Here is what I found:
This reminded me of a reference in Swinney (1955) to this confusion of initials:
The next stop was the Beers Atlas of Madison County (left), done in 1876 and showing a detailed village map of Earlville. Each house and property line is shown, with owners names and sometimes the function of the building. In a detail of that village map (below, left) we can clearly see that the east half of a large, U-shaped building on Canal Street was owned by "A. H. Chapin" (again, why the "H"?) and at the street, immediately east of that house is a small building labeled "Gun Sh." Here then, in 1876, is a clear look at where Chapin lived and where he made his guns.
To see if the building still stands, prior to going back again to Earlville, I downloaded a 1994 air photo of the village from the Internet (below, right). Using street intersections to develop a common scale between the map and the air photo, I determined that the U-shaped building shown on the 1876 map still stands. The area east of it near the street, where the "Gun Sh." stood, is empty.
The most explicit census information came from the 1870 New York State Census, and by examining this, in conjunction with the 1876 map, we can almost peer into Chapin's daily life as it was when the map was made. The section of the census listing him is shown below from the original:
This listing shows us that in 1870 Ambrose Chapin was 68 years old (born c. 1802) and his occupation was "Gun Smith". That sort of puts to rest the idea that he was a "mechanic" who tinkered at making guns on the side. His initial is again listed as "H", but it is entered after the fact in a different hand. No other people listed on this same page have middle initials listed. (The mystery about this remains.) It also indicates that he is a male, white and born in New York State. People were listed as they were encountered, door-to-door, and in the same house we see a "Eliza (?) Chapin, aged 78, female, white and occupied as "House Keeper". Wives on this same page were listed as "Keeping House", but this woman is listed as "Houskeeper". But her last name is Chapin. (Why?)
So now Chapin seems real to me... he is a man of a certain age who lives in a house and goes to work in a little shop next door. His wife is ten years older and lives with him (apparently). At some point I may record his death, gravestone, or perhaps a photo of his house. Lots more can be added. But for now (June 13th, 2005), I am taking a break, having a cup of tea, and relaxing.
Oh, before I do... do you believe in ghosts? Well if you want to believe, here is some evidence. Before I had found the map showing where Chapin lived, I had driven out to Earlville in hopes of finding that evidence at the local Museum or the Village Library. I got out there early in the morning, found the Museum was closed, with workmen removing the windows to work on them, and the library would not open until 12:30; too long to wait. I had just parked on the street near half way between the museum and the library, never having been on foot in Earlville in my life. I remember seeing some painters scraping down windows on a large house next to where I had parked, and thought to ask them if the museum would open later, but then decided they probably had no idea.
Now, a week later, having seen the maps and air photos showing where Chapin lived, I find that on that abortive trip to Earlville last week, I had inadvertantly parked my car RIGHT IN FRONT OF CHAPIN's HOME!!!!! It was as if he was saying to me, "Don't worry about the Museum and the Library; you already found me... I LIVED HERE!"
To be continued..........