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The most famous rifle of Texas! Recreating Colonel Crockett's rifle at the battle of the Alamo.

Mystery surrounds the most famous rifle of Texas--the one Colonel David Crockett used in combat at the battle of the Alamo. The guns Crockett fired during the siege of the Alamo, or which rifle finally fell from his hand when the Mexican infantry surprised the outnumbered Texans in a pre-dawn assault against the north-east fortress wall may never be known with certainty.

Known Crockett Rifles

His first rifle, a .48-caliber flintlock, hasn't been outside Tennessee since 1806, and now resides in the pioneer collection at the East Tennessee Historical Society Museum in Knoxville. For much appreciated service in the Tennessee State Assembly, Crockett's Lawrence County constituents presented him with a .40-caliber flintlock crafted by James Graham around 1822.

Calling this rifle "Old Betsy", Crockett used it to kill 125 bears between 1825 and 1834. When he departed for Texas in 1835, Davy left "Old Betsy" with his son, John Wesley. Today, it resides in the Alamo Museum collection in San Antonio.

"Pretty Betsy," a rifle presented to Crockett in 1834 by the Whigs of Philadelphia, is located at Nashville, Tenn. None of these rifles took part in the Alamo fighting in the closing weeks of Crockett's life.

Historical documents record Davy Crockett sold two dries to Colonel Neal of the Texas Army in January 1836, and that he had not been paid for the rifles when the Alamo fell in March 1836. After subsequent entreaties by his daughter, the Texas government finally paid Crockett's estate for these two rifles. Unfortunately, no specific details exist about the rifles Crockett sold to the Texas Army.

Echo Of A Craftsman

In San Antonio's Alamo museum, visitors can view an old flintlock rifle with brass patchbox and barrel markings strongly suggesting a specific 19th century gunsmith, Jacob Dickert, as being the maker of the rifle. This display rifle, according to the museum curator, was re-constructed in the 1920s by a local gunsmith using various parts donated by many Texans, and reported to come from rifles once used at the Alamo. This rifle makes a powerful statement that Dickert rifles were used by at least one of the Alamo's defenders.

As historian and master gun maker Mike Branson explains, original siege reports from Mexican officers at the Alamo record the presence of a tall, slender man wearing fringed leather clothing and a hat made from an animal skin, whose long-barreled rifle proved deadly at 100 and 250 yards. All historians agree Davy Crockett died at the battle of the Alamo, but actual facts are hard to pin down.

Some hold the sharp-shooting frontiersman fell in battle, surrounded by piles of slain Mexican soldiers. Others argue Crockett realized the futility of continued resistance early in the crisp, smoke-filled dawn of March 6, 1836 and surrendered, only to be summarily executed at General Santa Anna's order later that same morning.

New Rifles For A New Crockett

When Disney's new movie, The Alamo. debuts, Davy Crockett, played by veteran actor Billy Bob Thornton, will sharp shoot Mexican artillerymen, and tend off assault troops using an authentic period rifle. The rifle used by this actor-marksman is one of a pair of .54-caliber Lancaster County flintlocks, crafted in the early 1800's style by historian and master gun maker Mike Branson.

The movie company's request to potential gun makers was deceptively simple--describe for us the rifles you believe Colonel Crockett and the other Kentucky frontiersmen might have taken to the plains and hills of Texas around 1835. Drawing from his extensive library and studies, and working closely with friends and fellow gunsmiths Jack Brooks and Bob Lienemann, Branson examined many photos of original Kentucky rifles, making careful note of distinguishing characteristics such as caliber, barrel contour, locks, sights, furniture, stock shape and patchboxes.

"Between 1775 and 1836, firearms changed only in style, but not in technology," Mike concluded. "Davy Crockett was 50 years old when he arrived in Texas in January, 1836, and would have been comfortable with the type of rifles he'd used all his life on me Tennessee frontier, Percussion caps, in existence for about 10 years, would be too new to be really trusted and available on the frontier. Davy knew how to keep a flintlock firing. I hypothesized he preferred curly maple-stocked, swamped barrel, brass fitted rifles--just the sort he'd used all his life. For the movie company's desire for authenticity, I proposed full stocked Kentucky flintlock rifles, as crafted between 1795 and 1817."

Jacob Dickert

From the 1760s until his death in 1822, Jacob Dickert was known both as a military contractor and respected Lancaster County, Pennsylvania gun maker. As an arms contractor tot the Continental Army and for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, he made and sold rifles to the government, and repaired muskets and other firearms. Dickert also owned a gun barrel boring mill in the 1790s, located a few miles from his gun factory.

On surviving rifles, original Dickert-bored barrels average between 42-and 44-inches long. The hunting and trade rifles crafted by Dickert and his employees evolved a particular style on their "Jacob Dickert" marked barrels. On the slender, straight-gripped curly maple stock, typical Dickert rifles show American rococo style carving with "S" and "C" scrollwork, double "C" scrolls and two spiral volutes. Surviving Dickert flintlocks typically employ an engraved daisy-head patchbox, and brass furniture.

Dickert generally preferred to construct his own locks, but like many gunsmiths of the period he also imported British or German manufactured locks. As the United States expanded westward, be found new markets in the frontier trade for slender, elegant rifles.

Saint Louis emporiums and New Orleans supply houses stocked Dickert rifles to outfit frontier-bound settlers and adventurers. The Crockett party traveled to Texas in 1835, and soon realized small-caliber Tennessee squirrel rifles were not suitable for buffalo, antelope and other critters. Mike believes they equipped themselves enroute with large caliber rifles better suited to the bigger game of the Texas frontier.

"By the time Davy Crockett joined the Alamo's defenders, his dries would have seen hard service in the hot, humid Texas climate, so the brass would be tarnished, the wood dented and the finish worn," Branson concluded.

After winning the contract to provide authentic firearms, Branson handcrafted two absolutely identical Dickert rifles in his Colorado workshop. Movie rifles, aka props, are constructed in pairs so that filming can continue even if one rifle is damaged or needed elsewhere for a publicity event. Mike enlisted the assistance of gun makers Jack Brooks and Bob Lienemann to create another seven flintlock rifles and four pistols for movie actors cast as Colonel Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, William Barret Travis and Captain Juan Sequin.

In the film, Green B. Jamison, another Kentucky frontiersman, will use an iron-mounted Tennessee rifle crafted in Branson's workshop. The story of these other firearms of Texas liberty awaits another day, though.

Dickert Would Approve

"If you want to build an authentic, early 19th century rifle," Jack Brooks observed, "you have to build it with 19th century hand tools." With the exception of electric lights, belt sander and drill, all tools used to craft these Crockett's rifles might have come from the workbenches in Jacob Dickert's gun shop, 180 years earlier.

For the Dickert rifle pair, Branson chose two 42-inch long, .54-caliber swamped barrels with a l:56-inch twist, manufactured by Colerain Barrels. Manufacturing a swamped barrel involves tapering it inward towards the center point and flaring the muzzle and breech ends outward for balance. In their six grooves, Colerain barrels feature round bottom rifling that holds less fowling; square bottomed grooves reportedly retain more fowling. The 42-inch long barrel allows for more complete combustion of the black powder, and allows for a longer sight plane, which contributes to better accuracy. The relatively slow 1:56-inch twist effectively stabilizes .54-caliber round balls--a conical projectile would require a faster twist rifling for best stability.

Other components were chosen with equal care. Branson selected a lock dating from about 1810. L&R Locks supplied these "rifle pattern No. 4" locks; Dunlap Woodcraft delivered the tiger striped, curly maple full-length stocks. Using hand chisels and sharp scrapers, Branson carefully smoked the metal and removed tiny slivers of wood to mold the octagonal barrel, lock and sideplate, and trigger guard into each stock.

Mike shaped, filed and polished the buttplate and triggerguard from rough brass castings before fitting them to the stock. He sawed and filed the furniture, including the uniquely Dickert style daisy head patchbox, from brass sheet stock, and engraved it in the traditional pattern. The patchbox lock, release button and spring were filed from steel or brass as required.

The patchbox lid closes with a soft click, securing a cleaning jag, two patches, two spare flints and a pool of melted grease in the front corner (used to lubricate patches). The spare flints in the patchbox, and the one in the cock show the dark colors typical of the best flints available, those mined for hundreds of years at Brandon, England.

Davy would have hunted his rifles with the rear trigger set and the hammer pulled to half cock, which was the typical frontier carry. "Going off half cocked," a condition where the rifle fires unexpectedly when the hammer is half cocked, could result if the notch in the tumbler was not filed deep enough. To fire his rifle, Davy would pull the hammer to full cock and then squeeze the front trigger.

Branson shaped his set triggers from rough castings, filing each piece to a precise fit. He set the triggers to trip after a crisp six-ounce pull.

Old world finish

The barrels' subtle blue-grey colors result from charcoal bluing. Mike filled the bores full of charcoal so no oxidation would scar the rifling, before evenly heating the barrels for 35 minutes over a bed of burned-down coals. To increase carbon penetration on the hot barrel surfaces, Mike rubbed each flat with a maple hardwood stick with a Vee cut to match the barrel's shape. As the barrels cooled, he coated them with Minwax, melting the wax into the pores of the metal, and followed up with a light application of gun oil.

After shaping and contouring the classic Lancaster County pattern stocks with a fine cut mill file, Branson carved the stocks in the same raised pattern Jacob Dickert perfected almost 200 years earlier. He sanded the tiger striped wood with 220, 320 and 400 grades of wet/dry silicon carbide paper. Changing frequently to fresh paper, Mike moved to a finer grade abrasive only when the visible file and sanding marks disappeared under his sanding pads. De-whiskering involved a carefully wielded hot air gun over wood moistened with a wet sponge. The final surface reflects a careful application of four ought steel wool, and no steel fibers embedded themselves in the hard, dense maple.

Old time gun makers stained their stocks with aqua fortis, a combination of nitric acid diluted with distilled water and iron filings. "Today's gun makers have better choices," Branson reported, "So I stained the Dickert rifles with Feiblings leather dye, an aniline die in a non-grain-raising alcohol base."

Since boiled linseed oil is probably the worst possible finish for a well-used hunting rifle, Branson carefully sanded, carved and then finished the stocks with a 50/50 mix of tung oil and urethane. After each of seven coats dried, Mike robbed the Finish into the wood, before applying a final coat of carnuba wax to the stock and to the hickory ramrod.

All the brass furniture including the buttplate, sideplate, ramrod thimbles, trigger guard, and patchbox were hand polished bright.

Forging The Effects of Time

Aging two new rifles called for advanced application of the alchemist's art to the flawlessly inletted and finished pieces, as well as ordinary dents, wear and scrapes. Although many original flintlock rifles show extensive pitting, probably from inadequate cleaning, Mike couldn't bring himself to inflict this abuse on the rifles he'd just finished.

Responding to steel wool in his hands, deeply blued barrel and lock surfaces abraded to a mottled thin grey in obvious wear spots, just as Crockett's rifle might have rubbed against saddle leather, straps and roughly woven garments. Wood surfaces dimpled and dented under hard impact with metal, wood and Yucca thorns. Black powder fowling and egg yokes made the engraved and bright patchbox, buttplate and other furniture take a swirled, tarnished, and blackened appearance.

When they went into shipping boxes marked for the filming location on a ranch outside Dripping Springs, Texas, both Dickert rifles sported a well-tested and hard-used surface finish. Inside, of course, both rifles were brand new, and showed only the effects of test firing and sight regulation in Mike's test range.

As prop guns, the Alamo's armorer needed the authentic appearance of firing without compromising the safety of the actors, film crew and stagehands. On the movie set, the FFFFg black-powder priming load will ignite a 50-grain combustible paper cartridge sans bullet--safely providing the photogenic and realistic sparks in the pan, muzzle flash, and clouds of smoke for the cameras.

Both Dickerts are fully functional rifles, though, just as Davy Crockett might have purchased in 1835. Mike Branson fired both rifles with 90-grains of FFg black powder under a patched 220-grain round ball to regulate the sights, and both proved highly accurate. This load produced muzzle velocities approaching 1,685 feet per second and 1,385 foot pounds of muzzle energy.

Rifles and muskets in battle

Before the actual fighting at the Alamo, prepared cartridges were stockpiled to speed loading. An after battle inventory of the Alamo's contents by the Mexican Army includes over 800 rifles or muskets--about tour or five firearms for each of the Alamo's 187 defenders. The inventory also tallied 14,600 paper cartridges, probably intended for the Alamo defenders' smoothbore muskets.

Typically, these cartridges consisted of 60-grains of powder and a 220 grain round lead ball wrapped in a paper roll. Linen thread would close off both ends of the roll and hold the load secure until the need came to recharge the firearm.

The shooter would tear away one end of the paper with his teeth, pour some powder in the firing pan. dump the rest into the barrel, followed by the lead bullet and then push the paper into the barrel. After the load was rammed, the paper served as wadding and kept the ball from rolling out of the barrel, With everything just right, a relined musket shooter could fire three or possibly four shots in two minutes.

Testing the newly crafted Dickert rifles under perfect conditions, Branson fired two shots in one minute using cloth patched balls, but mentioned the third and fourth bullets took a long time to ram home once powder fouling dirtied the bore, even with round groove rifling.

When Mike test fired Dickert rifle No. 1 on a cold November afternoon to check regulation of the blade front sight and Vee rear sight, four shots touched each other on the target. The sighting distance was 15 yards. The fifth ball hit about an inch away, as Mike called a shooter error. Back in 1835, Davy Crockett might have occasionally missed, too, we decided.

When The Alamo plays in movie theaters, through. I expect actor Billy Bob Thornton will never miss with his rifle, especially if the scriptwriters tell their typically good story. Branson wouldn't be unhappy if Billy Bob never missed.

Beginning in 1973, Mike Branson built traditional pattern flintlock and caplock muzzleloaders for seven years, before taking a two-decade break to pursue a passion for teaching American history. Over 20 years, hundreds of students shared Mike's deep knowledge and stories about the energies of alert and their firearms as the United States met the challenges of a wild and untamed frontier. Finally, passion for the art of the muzzleloader led him back to the workbench, where his files, chisels, hammers, gravers and bits transform wood and metal into classic firearms of America's earlier times. For more information about Mike Branson's classic muzzleloaders, telephone him at [719] 330-5147.
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Author:Ball, Bill
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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