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An American classic reborn! Jack Brooks is a gunmaker in the truest sense of the word. The author gives us a close look at the process that led to the creation of this stunning brace of pistols. (The Philadelphia Pistol).

For hundreds of years, firearms depended upon fiery sparks from the forced impact of flint upon steel. Reliable, effective and affordable, the flintlock easily replaced matchlock and wheel-lock technologies as the premier ignition source (in pre-percussion-cap times) for muzzle-loading firearms.

In Britain and Europe, flintlock rifles and pistols won battles, settled disputes, and protected individuals. In America, soldiers, sailors, settlers and savages provided ready hands for flint-fired pistols and rifles, mostly of European origin. The very best firearms bore marks of London makers and became highly prized possessions of their colonial owners.

Fine Gunmaking In Early America

With the swelling of national pride (and anti-English sentiment) after the Revolutionary War, a golden age of flintlock gunmaking flourished in North America. Some of the very best American craftsmen practiced the gunmaking trade in regions around Philadelphia, notably Jacob Kunz and Tobias Grubb. These American gunmakers perfected the skills to approach the fit, finish, function and performance of their London-based competitors' guns. Colorado gunmaker Jack Brooks provided perspective on the accomplishments of these golden-age American gunmakers:

"London guns of this period brought together the work of many skilled craftsmen, largely trained as apprentices by the old masters of London or Birmingham. Some specialized in lock or barrel making, taking advantage of centuries of experience with the malleability and durability of various irons and steels, and the knowledgeable application of progressively finer files and burnishing tools. Their locks and barrels became fitting surfaces for color case hardening and browned finishes. Others inletted smoke blackened metal to ancient, air-dried blanks, and chiseled away superfluous wood to reveal the beguiling curves and contours of a properly fitted gun. Their stocks became showcases for the checkering, finishes and mounts of a London 'best' gun. The very remarkable accomplishment of American gunmakers of the period lies in the fact that single individuals developed and perfected the skills to do all the steps which were done by many specialists in Britain."

Beginning about 1815, a distinctive style of pistol emerged as Philadelphia gunmakers began to cater to wealthy, cosmopolitan clients with highly decorated pairs of pistols. Before Sam Colt's repeaters changed the nature of pistols forever, doubling your firepower meant doubling the number of pistols. Many folks prepared for the troubles of the day with a pair of pistols. The Philadelphia gunmakers' efforts proved successful, and a handsomely styled firearm was added to the roll of classic American firearms.

Typically measuring about 9 inches long and weighing 32 ounces, the Philadelphia pistol's smooth-bore .45-caliber barrel sported an elegant octagon-to-round profile and a fire blued finish. The highest-grade pistols -- stocked to the muzzle in curly red Maplewood with a violin red finish -- used sterling silver for the trigger guard, butt cap, ramrod thimble and nose cap. Decorative silver inlays also formed the barrel wedge escutcheons and thumb pieces. Tasteful engraving highlighted these silver mounts and inlays, as well as the case-hardened lock. Yellow brass mounts and plainer finishes characterized lesser-grade pistols in the Philadelphia style.

Anti-English sentiment notwithstanding, many American gunmakers recognized the excellence of London-made locks. Many Philadelphia pistols used imported locks. Bearing the names of American companies or importers such as Rogers Brothers or C. Bird, these locks appear identical in form and decoration to English locks that carried "London Warranted" markings. The frizzen spring used a roller wheel; the cock was single-throated with a stylized "S" shape. These locks featured a round pan and a flat lock plate suitable for engraving. Parallel horizontal serrated lines that suggested floral vine engraving embellished the tail of the lock plate, and also the cock. Combined with the slender barrel profile, the lock's trim size and shape defined the pistol's fine balance and feel.

Overtime, these classic Philadelphia pistols found themselves displaced by the technology of percussion-cap ignition, Sam Colt's repeating pistols and, later, self-contained cartridge firearms. Manufacture ceased around 1830, and for a long while, this classic firearm went dormant.

Dormancy ended in February 2001 when gunmaker and artisan Jack Brooks reintroduced the Philadelphia pistol to lovers of fine firearms. The nimble fingers, sharp chisels and fine files of this skilled craftsman produced -- just as Jacob Kunz might have finished in 1815 -- an exquisite pair of pistols for a gentleperson of refined taste.

The Work Commences

Notwithstanding the familiar "lock, stock and barrel" phrase, the construction of a flintlock pistol reverses that sequence. flintlock gunmakers, then and now, plan and execute their artistry first on the barrel, then the stock, the lock, and finally the finishing details. Everything fits around the barrel.

Beginning with a pair of John Getz octagon barrels, Brooks turned the front half of each barrel round and carefully hand-filed the decorative transition between octagonal and round surfaces. Fine-toothed files shaped tangs on both barrels, one stroke at a time. Unblued, each .45-caliber, 9-inch barrel miked .815 at the breech and .667 at the muzzle.

Air dried for a quarter century, the hard, highly figured curly maple responded to Brooks' saws, taking the classic profile of the Philadelphia pistol. Sharp chisels and bits gave crisp lines to the exterior; precise cuts to lock plates, barrel channel and mounts; and straight ramrod holes.

No Modern Lock Would Do

Authentic pistols demand authentic locks. Brooks' collection of antique gun parts contained an original lock of appropriate style, shape and size. Using the "lost wax" process employed by fine jewelers, Brooks created rubber molds of the original lock parts and then injected hot wax inside each mold. When removed from the mold, the wax parts exactly duplicated the original lock parts. A commercial foundry coated these wax parts with high temperature compound to create another mold, melted out the wax to open a cavity, and poured molten steel into the mold cavity. Once the steel cooled and the mold shell was opened, the parts of two authentic locks lay on the bench.

Brooks filed each part to shape, marked both locks as "London Warranted," and finished them with color case hardening. Viewing the finished locks, even Jacob Kunz wouldn't be able to tell they were crafted in 2001, not 1815. Long before interchangeable parts, assembly lines and mass production tolerances, gunmakers created Philadelphia pistols with files. As a result, the locks on these pistols are closely identical to one another, but not interchangeable, and such is the nature of authentic handcrafted flintlock pistols.

Recreated Philadelphia pistols of the highest grade were mounted in sterling silver, reflecting high standards of shaping, polishing and inletting. With a silversmith's eye, Brooks cut and shaped thick sterling-silver sheets into trigger guards, butt caps, nose caps, ramrod thimbles and decorative inlays, making two of each part. The study of original Philadelphia pistols gave insight into the precise shape for each silver part. Engraving on these original pistols provided a standard for Brooks' gravers; engraving this pair of Philadelphia pistols required several full days of exacting handwork. Engraving covers the barrel tangs, lock bolts and tang screws, which were treated to a color case hardened finish, along with the breech plug.

Finished authentically with fire blueing, the barrels display the slightly mottled effects of high temperatures on polished steel. After studying traditional l8th-century metal-finishing techniques, Brooks developed this approach:

"Temperatures used in fire blueing are much higher than traditional temper blueing, and, of course, no chemicals are used. To prepare for fire blueing, the bores are packed with charcoal so barrel interiors stay scale-free. In a long fire trench, I heat the barrels in a burned-down (oxygen-starved) fire for about a half hour and polish them with a burning board. The charcoal on the board abrades the scale as the exterior surface colors change from brightly polished to dull grey at about 1,300 degrees. After carefully extracting the barrels from the fire trench, I cool them naturally in the air. Following a rubdown with linseed oil, an authentic fire blue finish remains on the barrel."

The highly figured curly maple stocks turned a golden-honey color after Brooks stained the bare wood with diluted nitric acid. Violin varnish tinted with red dye and diligent application of the French polishing technique brought the maple stocks to a deep red sheen, contrasting with the fire blued barrels and silver mounts. Flawless basket weave checkering on the grip follows the patterns that Messrs. Kunz and Grubb selected for their finest pistols.

Rosewood ramrods slip snugly into the engraved silver thimbles. For the doubleended ramrods, one end is threaded for cleaning attachments and the other end shaped concave for loading a patched round lead ball over 30 grains of FFFg powder.

First Firing Will Await The New Owner

Frizzens on both pistols show the scrapes of flint on steel, as both have been sparked, but not fired. Bespeaking elegance and decoration, this pair of Philadelphia pistols is both authentic and functional. Were it possible, a time traveler returning to Philadelphia circa 1815 with these pisols could hold high his head in any well-armed company. After a respite of almost wo centuries, the slim and elegant Philadelphia pistols, true to their predecessors, recapture the artistry and precision of he golden-age of flintlocks.

Information on these Philadelphia pistols Lnd other authentic flintlock firearms is Lvailable from Jack Brooks, 800 W. Oxford, Englewood, Colorado 80110. For readers interested in learning the techniques and tips of fine flintlock gunmaking, Brooks also teaches seminars for beginners and experts. Telephone him at [303] 789-4029 for details.
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Author:Ball, Bill
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:May 1, 2002
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