THE GUN MAKERS FAIR Kempton, Pennsylvania

by Bob Heath

Published in the Jan - Feb 2002 Issue of Anvil Magazine

In late July 2001, Walter Mabry and I drove up to the annual Gun Makers Fair in Kempton, Pennsylvania, to see what was going on. Walter is an old friend who does blacksmithing as a hobby. He is also interested in making high-quality powder horns that are used with the muzzle-loading rifles he crafts from manufactured components such as barrels, stock blanks and gun locks. It was the most fun I have had on something like this in a long time because there was so much to learn when we arrived for the three-day event.

Image: These will become either powder or drinking horns.

Kempton, Pennsylvania, is located near that part of the state where the famed Pennsylvania rifles or "Lancaster County rifles" were first invented and crafted by blacksmiths long before the time of the American Revolutionary War. Many Americans referred to these high-quality rifles as "Kentuckys" because they were carried into the Kentucky wilderness by frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett as the frontier moved westward.

The rifling cut into the barrels of the guns is what made them so desirable by the American backwoodsmen whose lives depended on how well the rifles would throw a ball. These rifles gave Americans an edge to help them survive on the wild and woolly frontier 200 years ago and were the beginning point in American leadership as practical marksmen and rifle designers, which continues to this day. The spiral rifling imparted a spin to a fired ball which stabilized the bullet in flight, thus making the gun shoot accurately.

Chuck Dixon began holding the fair 19 years ago based on his gun shop and store located at 9952 Kunkels Mill Road in Kempton. No entry fee is required and Mr. Dixon is the perfect host. The people there were so willing to share knowledge and to be helpful in every way. Mr. Dixon said the fair has grown each year and was attended by between three and four thousand visitors this year. Large tents were set up at locations around his shop (similar to the setup at ABANA conferences), where lectures, seminars, and demonstrations were constantly going on, relating directly to the subject at hand. Approximately 30 percent of the program was devoted to either blacksmithing, forging gun barrels, forging gun locks, barrel rifling, brass casting for trigger guards and butt plates, and forging tomahawks (see page 43). The remainder of time was spent observing and/or participating in some of the following: leather crafting, candle making, crafting in beads and real wampum, soap making, powder horn making, and many lectures on history. In all there were 27 separate lectures and slide programs that covered subjects such as Indian trade beads, how to "tune" a gun lock to make it fire better, how to forge a hand ax, how to straighten a gun barrel, how to cast steel and many more subjects that are of interest to us blacksmiths.

Image Welded!

There were two key demonstrations that riveted my attention during much of the time at the fair. The first was the gun barrel forging session by Jon D. Laubach, who forged a gun barrel. He used a small cast-iron forge that was blown with a squirrel cage blower. Jon operates out of his private shop at Williamsburg Forge, Inc., located in Barhamsville, Virginia. He has worked with the people at the Colonial Williamsburg gun shop and he knows well how to forge a gun barrel.

Jon forges his barrels in the classic butt-welding method by first forming the wrought iron skelp into a "U" cross-sectional shape. In this case the skelp was made of very pure and very high quality wrought iron that is about 3/8" thick by 3" wide by 44" long. I later found out that the iron was recovered from a shipyard in Massachusetts.

He used a tapered mandrel inserted in the "U" and brought the longitudinal seam together for the weld by starting in the middle of the "U"-shaped skelp that had been previously forged into the "U". The iron would be brought to welding heat, brushed with a wire brush to clean off the scale, fluxed with Twenty Mule Team Borax, reheated to bring up the heat again for welding, and then welded over a slender and tapered bore mandrel. The skelp and interior mandrel were supported by a swedge block that had "U" shapes in it during the welding operation. Approximately a one-inch length was welded at a time. The assistant would withdraw the mandrel and Jon would take another heat to repeat the process. Once the barrel was welded up, Jon forged the eight flats into the barrel blank to form an octagonal shape. He held a flatter on the barrel which was kept at a low red heat that allowed a rather smooth forged-on finishing to the wrought iron. The barrel blank was thus readied for the drilling or boring operation which is probably the most difficult task of making a gun barrel. The forged-in hole is really only a guide hole that the bore bit can follow in a rather curved path.

Image: Viking drinking horn made by author, Bob Heath

Brad Emig, who has a gun shop in Hellam, Pennsylvania, had a booth at the fair where he sold the rifles that he makes. He has experience at Colonial Williamsburg and learned his craft there. I think he said he had forged 17 gun barrels and gun locks for some of the guns he made that ranged in a variety of calibers. Nowadays he uses commercially manufactured gun barrels and gun locks. He expertly assembles flintlocks of the highest quality and was selling some of his rifles for about a thousand dollars each. He sells guns in all stages of fabrication, whatever a customer is looking for in a fine reproduction firearm.

Brad had a lot of useful information on how to go about boring out a gun barrel. He said that it is much easier if a bore mandrel was used since it made the forged-in guide hole much more rounded than if the barrel had been forged without a mandrel. A mandrel is not needed to keep the bore from collapsing during the seam-welding operation but if a mandrel is not used, Brad explained, the guide hole tends to remain in a "pear" shape. That causes the drill bit to catch much more often in the bore drilling or reaming process and makes for a much more difficult job in cleaning out the bore. Brad uses an assortment of forged drill bits to drill out a barrel. All of his bits are first forged square and tapered. Then they are filed square to sharpen the edges. Once they are filed they are heated red hot and given a twist in a clockwise rotation while looking up from the cutting end, up the shank. When they are used the bits are rotated clockwise from the other end of the drill stem. This allows the cuttings to proceed forward ahead of the bit as it rotates in the hole. It cuts along its entire length as it passes down the guide hole, since it is tapered. The back one inch of the cutting end is filed with parallel sides to allow a cylindrical cut as the bit cuts into the guide hole. The first bit used is about an inch and a half long at the twisted part. Brad says he increases the bit size by about 1/32 of an inch with each successive cut. A small-caliber gun barrel may take eight different bit sizes to ream out a barrel. Larger- caliber barrels may take as many as seventeen successive larger bit sizes. Once the first bit holes through the entire length of the barrel, the cutting ends of successive bits-where they are twisted-are lengthened in stages. The first bits are rather short at the twist while the bits used toward the end of the reaming operation are much longer at the twist-up to about nine or ten inches long. The longer twist lengths on the long bits tends to true up the bore more. Once the reaming is finished, the bore has to be finished with a specially crafted square bit that scrapes the interior to a bright finish. Once that is done and the bore is straightened, it can be rifled.

Walter and I really enjoyed the fair and the seminars that really hit home on the subjects we were interested in relating to iron. If this is your interest, try to get a chance to go to one of these events; you'll spend a few enjoyable days and will find a wealth of information there.

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