Rifle Muskets

In February I had an interesting conversation with a gunsmith who works on rifle muskets returned for repair to a major importer of Italian-made black powder guns. When I asked him what the most common problem he encountered with the returned muskets was, he looked me straight in the eye and answered, without hesitation, "the people shooting them."

The rifle musket is a relatively simple mechanical device. The majority of plugged barrels and buggered, stripped and frozen screws and nipples my gunsmith friend was called upon to repair would have been preventable if the muskets' owners had acquired even a basic knowledge of loading, firing, assembly, disassembly and cleaning procedures before touching their new guns.

There are some people with impulsive personalities who should never be allowed within six feet of a firearm with a screwdriver in their hands. These souls are a distinct minority, however, and most misadventures suffered by reproduction (and, for that matter, original) Civil War guns are caused by a simple lack of information on the part of their owners.

It is easy to say that people should know better. At least part of the blame for the damage inflicted on muskets, however, especially considering the large number of neophytes who have taken up Civil War shooting and reenacting over the past 15 years, must lie with manufacturers, importers and retail dealers.

Rarely, if ever, do the purveyors of imported reproduction guns provide an instruction manual or even a simple "exploded view" disassembly schematic with their products.

Perhaps more important than disassembly instructions, , which can be figured out by someone with average intelligence and a little bit of patience, is the lack of dealer-provided introductory information on shooting and safety procedures for the rife musket.

Last year I reviewed John Rountree's "A Reenactor's Guide to Shooting the Rifle Musket" in this column, and pronounced it a publication which everyone who owns a rifle musket, whether recruit or veteran, should have in his or her shooting box and/or bookshelf.

The information-packed little booklet has sold quite well, and it continues to puzzle me why importers, or at least dealers, haven't bought the modestly priced "Guide" by the bushel to stick in the box with every new musket. John, with many years of skirmishing, reenacting and long-range black powder target shooting behind him, knows of what he speaks.

John Rountree has published an expanded second edition of the "Reenactor's Guide" for 1997, and it's better than ever. He has added sections on shooting techniques and basic trigger work as well as information on shooting the .69 caliber rifle musket. Anyone who either currently shoots or is thinking about shooting a Civil War military muzzle loader should mail off a $3 check to John at Rountree Printing and Graphics, Box 363, Maplewood, NJ 07040.

"The Watchdog" is a publication that presents unbiased reviews on equipment and firearms for the reenactor seeking to perfect his authentic impression. I have drawn readers' attention to firearms information provided by this excellent litle publication in the past, and it is time to do so again.

"The Watchdog" gave a favorable report to the Armi-Sport reproduction of the US Model 1842 musket awhile back and a recent issue conveys further information on correcting the "minor deficiencies in…details" of the Italian made '42, as well as the name of a gunsmith who will make the corrections.

"Watchdog" writer Tom Shaw relates that gunsmith Peter Laughlin (3715 Columbus Ave., #2, Minneapolis, MN 55407. (612) 822-8234) can, for a mere $30, correct most of the gun's minor inaccuracies. Laughlin will polish off the armi-Sport's modern barrel markings, replace the steel front sight with a correct brass one and fill in and reshape the cupped ramrod tip (proper for a rifled musket, but not for a smoothbore).

According to Shaw, Laughlin is also considering methods to correct the minor configuration differences between the reproduction musket's buttplate and band springs and those of an original '42.

Although I forsee no problem with front sight and ramrod tip corrections, North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA) shooters who use their '42s in live- fire competition, and who intend to have their Armi-Sport "authenticized" by polishing off manufacturer's markings, should check with Inspector General Gary Vikar or Small Arms Committee Chairman Bill Goble to determine N-SSA policy before having them removed.

Those interested in a subscription to "The Watchdog," where they can get their information first hand rather than second hand through me, should contact that worthy publication at PO Box 4582, Frankfort, KY 40604-4582)

A few months ago I mentioned the Gibbs Rifle Company's revival of the Parker-Hale line of muzzleloaders, including Enfield rifle muskets, rifles and carbines. Unlike other Enfield reproductions, which are heavier than their 19th century counterparts, (mostly due to thicker barrels), Parker Hale replicas are built to the specifications of the original British sealed patterns and have the same heft as the original guns. The Parker Hale P53 riflemusket, for example, weighs in at nine pounds.

The patterns used to produce Parker Hales are those of the last series of muzzle loading Enfields. Since most if not all of these guns were converted to Snider pattern breech loaders, there are minor differences in barrel bands and sling swivels between the Parker Hale guns and weapons exported from Britain to this country during the Civil War.

This fact does not matter for skirmishing, as the Parker Hale is an N-SSA approved weapon as manufactured. The fastidious skirmisher or reenactor can "authenticize" his Parker Hale to a greater or lesser degree, however, and should consult back issues of "The Watchdog" for Geoff Walden's article on the subject.

Val Forgett III recently sent me a copy of Gibbs' new catalog, which includes, in addition to the standard Parker Hale classics of yore, a revived replica of the famed Whitworth .45 caliber hexagonal bore muzzle loading rifle. The Whitworth was used to great effect by Confederate Sharpshooters during the Civil War.

In addition to the standard iron sighted Whitworth, Gibbs now offers a Whitworth with a reproduction of the British detachable side-mounted Davidson telescopic sight, based on a gun on display in the Confederate museum in Richmond, Virginia.

The Davidson sight was intended for extreme long-range shooting with the Whitworth. At short to medium long-range distances, the Whitworth shooter was expected to use the gun's iron sights.

Although it seems a close to exact replica, the Parker Hale four power 'scope and mount positioning differs a bit from the original Davidson setup, which was designed for use in the 19th century reclining back rest position. The Parker Hale Davidson 'scope and mount appear to ride slightly higher than the original, so that the sight can be used from the off-hand or sitting positions favored by modern riflemen.

Elevation and windage corrections are made, as in the original Davidson system, through adjustments in the mount. The Parker Hale 'scoped Whitworth is manufactured in very limited quantities and retails for $1,699.

For more information on Parker Hale guns, as well as other, more modern, Gibbs Rifle Company offerings, and the company's collector's club, which publishes the "Gibbs Military Collector's Quarterly and Journal," contact Gibbs at: Rt. 2, Box 214 Hoffman Rd., Martinsburg, WV 25401, FAX (304) 274-0078. The firm has a website at http://www.gibbsrifle.com.

Jerry Decius of the South Carolina Sharpshooters is looking for some newly cast hexagonal Whitworth bullets for a living history display. If anyone out there can assist Jerry, who helped me considerably in the research for the sharpshooter chapter in my recent book "Civil War Firearms," I would appreciate it. Please contact him at 1031 Pleasant Valley Drive, Pleasant Hill, CA 94523.

© 1996, 1998 by Joe Bilby

return to homepage

go to Tony Beck index

go to Joe Bilby index

go to Tom Kelley index