Rifling revolutionized!

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

  • Outside the box
  • Rosenthal award
  • Rifling
  • How it works
  • Outside rifling?
  • Accuracy
  • Range increased by orders of magnitude!
  • Trouble brews
  • What is to come?
  • Rumors are flying!
  • Summary

Outside the box

I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “Think outside the box.” Many organizations don’t really want their people to do that. The organization just wants their employees to enlarge the box a little, but to continue to respect the time-honored principals that got the organization to where it is today.

Rosenthal award

But there are exceptions. In engineering there is an annual Sol Rosenthal Award for the creative idea that best advances its technology that year. Unlike many awards, there is only one caveat to this one. A prototype of the idea must be implemented, so it can be compared to an existing reality that can be measured. read more


Nelson Lewis combination gun: Part 4

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Nelson Lewis combination gun
Nelson Lewis combination gun is both a rifle and a shotgun.

It’s been a while since I last wrote about this gun. Blog reader Kevin asked if I was going to write anything more and I answered yes, but what I did not tell him or any of you was that in October of last year I blew up the gun.

Blew it up?
That’s not entirely accurate. What happened is the nipple that accepts the percussion cap was blown out of the barrel and right past my face. When it went, it sheared off the hammer lug that connects the exposed hammer to the sear. I never found the nipple, but the hammer was lying on the shooting bench next to the gun. When my shooting buddy, Otho, asked me if I was okay (he was standing behind me, having a premonition that something bad was about to occur), I answered, “NO” for the first time in my life. Usually, guys will say everything is okay right after they’ve sliced off their thumbs with a circular saw, but this event was so startling that I wasn’t really sure what my condition was. “No” just popped out.

What happened?
Okay, get ready to criticize and tell me what I did wrong because I haven’t got a clue. Do you remember me telling you that airgunner Mike Reams can make swages to make conical bullets of almost any caliber? I learned that at the 2012 Roanoke airgun show. And do you remember that I wanted him to make a set for the Nelson Lewis gun? Well, what I did this day on the range was called a “proof of concept” test. I loaded a conical bullet in the rifle — partly to confirm the diameter requirements for Mike and partly just to see if the gain twist rifling really would stabilize a conical. But the only conical bullet I had was a 250-grain lead bullet for my 38-55 Ballard, which coincidently has almost the identical size bore as the Nelson Lewis rifle.

I’d been shooting a patched .375-caliber swaged round ball in the rifle up to this point. That ball weighed 80 grains. So, 250 grains would be heavier — about 3 times heavier. What I did was load a proof load into my 160-year-old gun and shoot it. Nothing wrong there, right?

When the gun fired, it recoiled more than usual (no kidding!), but that wasn’t what I noticed. I noticed a jet of fire about a foot long coming out of the nipple hole that had been so recently vacated. Then there was the verbal exchange between me and Otho, and then he cautiously walked around to my front and looked at my head — mostly to see if it was all there.

I’d been wearing shooting glasses, which I always do whenever I shoot a black powder arm (and after this event, when I shoot anything else, too), so my eyes were fine; but above my right eye was a large patch of black powder that embedded itself in my skin. I looked like the “murdering coward Tom Chaney” from the movie True Grit, who coincidentally had a black powder Henry rifle blow up on him. The powder had to be picked out of the skin with tweezers over the next few weeks and there is still some of it in there today, more than 4 months later. But I was okay.

My Nelson Lewis gun, on the other hand, was broken. And, as far as I know, Nelson Lewis doesn’t work on his guns anymore, having been deceased for the past 135 years or so. What was I going to do?

Otho to the rescue
Now you need to know something about my buddy, Otho. He’s a retired Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanic who has worked on turbine engines and airframes since Vietnam. One of his skills (he has skills — and people like me need to know other people with skills) is welding. And I don’t mean trailer-hitch welding, either. I mean the ability to — well, let me tell you what he once did. His father stored a Gen-1 Colt Single Action Army revolver improperly, and it rusted badly. Rusted as in deep pits all over one side of the gun. So, over the course of a year, Otho spot-welded each and every pit, then worked it down with a file until it was flush with the rest of the metal. When it was perfect, and by perfect I mean perfect, he had the gun re-case-hardened so that today it looks new. All the factory lettering was preserved so you cannot tell that any work was ever done. Or at least I cannot tell, and I know Gen-1 Colt SAAs.

Nelson Lewis combination gun Otho welded gun
Both these Colt revolvers were stored together and rusted equally. Otho welded every rust pit and refinished the Single Action Army on top. This is a master at work!

So, Otho looked at the sheared hammer lug on the Nelson Lewis gun and says he thinks he can fix it. He thinks he can weld the hammer lug back up and file it to fit the hammer. This news sounds wonderful, coming as it does on the heels of the gun’s destruction. Let me show you what is involved.

Nelson Lewis combination gun nipple out
The nipple is gone. All the threads are, too.

Nelson Lewis combination gun hammer sheared off
The hammer was sheared off at the lock plate. The other end of that square lug is the rifle’s sear.

Nelson Lewis combination gun hammer front
The hammer was sheared off the lock as neatly as if it had been properly removed.

Nelson Lewis combination gun hammer back
The flip side of the hammer shows the lug that was sheared.

Nelson Lewis combination gun lock interior
See the part with the leg sticking out? That’s the sear. It also has the lug that the hammer used to be connected to — or at least it is supposed to. read more


Nelson Lewis combination gun: Part 3

by B.B. Pelletier

Announcement: Dave Cole is this week’s winner of Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week on their airgun facebook page. He’ll receive a $50 Pyramyd Air gift card. Congratulations!

Dave Cole is this week’s winner of Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week contest on their airgun facebook page.

Part 1
Part 2


Nelson Lewis combination gun, made in Troy, NY, around 1850-1870. Rifle is .38 caliber; shotgun is 14 gauge.

Today, I’ll show you the results of the last two outings with this unusual combination gun. Lessons have been learned.

Before we get to today’s test report, I’d like to share a little more background on the gun’s maker, Nelson Lewis of Troy, New York.

The big match
As readers of the internet, you’re all aware that sometimes tempers flare and conversations become heated on the web. Would it surprise you to learn that this is nothing new? One hundred sixty-eight years ago there was a famous confrontation in the internet of that day — the newspaper — between Nelson Lewis and another noted gun maker, Morgan James of Utica, New York. Nelson Lewis had heard rumors that one or more of his fellow gun makers (presumably Morgan James, from the events that followed) had said he had not made the rifle he had used to beat a Mr. Williamson in a rifle match the September before. This was in the Feb. 18, 1854, edition of Spirit of the Times/A Chronicle of the Turf, Field Sports, Aquatics, Agriculture and the Stage, published in New York City. Lewis challenged whoever was spreading these rumors to put up or shut up.

Morgan James accepted the challenge, and the two men began a public correspondence in the newspaper that was not unlike what we see on the chat forums today.

Morgan James was also a famous rifle maker and a contemporary of Nelson Lewis. Like Lewis, he made long-range target rifles that were used by snipers in the Civil War. Many of James’ long-range guns were so heavy they could only be shot from a bench rest that was included as part of their equipment. He was justifiably proud of the rifles he made, as well as his own marksmanship (as was Nelson Lewis); so when he read what Lewis accused him of, he attacked with a letter of his own to the editor of the cited publication.

To make a long story short, the two men exchanged challenges in the paper, and they finally agreed to shoot five each of their rifles against each other with each maker and one or more of his friends doing the shooting. One-hundred dollars was put up for each rifle in the contest, so each maker had five hundred dollars at stake.

Morgan James and his shooters won all five matches and Lewis paid him the money (I believe); but in the end, Lewis was a sore looser. He wrote a final letter to the editor, citing the fact that Morgan James’ rifles were all heavier than his (15-18 pounds against 10-13 pounds) and of a larger caliber (.43 to .48 caliber compared to .36 to .38 caliber), plus James and his partner shot from a machine rest — but their rifles weren’t clamped down, while Lewis and his shooters all shot from common shooting benches. And Morgan James had some sort of elaborate wind gauge on the range that was operated by a separate man who reported the wind to each shooter, so he didn’t have to look at the flags. Lewis and his shooters used the common range flags that had always been used, and each shooter watched the one flag for himself.

From his report, Nelson Lewis seems to have been at a disadvantage, but why he didn’t pin down the details of the contest beforehand with so much money at stake (approximately $13,500 in 2012 purchasing power) is a mystery. He certainly should have. He claimed he thought the match was to be with hunting rifles that could reasonably be carried afield, but the small calibers he chose are a real puzzle! Morgan James did nothing wrong except to try his best to win.

So things haven’t changed, even though a century and a half has passed. Shooters still get hot under the collar and makers will do anything to defend their reputations. This is why I enjoy reading real history — because it shows that people don’t change, even though their technology does.

Enough history. Let’s go to the range.


This time, the gun was ready for the range. The loading and cleaning procedures have been worked out.

Patch problem solved
The second time I took the Nelson Lewis gun to the range, I’d solved the patch problem. Instead of the too-thick patch material I had been using the first time out, I discovered that handkerchief linen from Ireland was both the correct thickness and also was tough enough to do the job in this rifle. I cut my patches by placing a nickel over the material and cutting around it. That gives me a patch of just the right size. And when the ball is seated, I can press it into the bore with my thumb — exactly as the old masters reported a century ago.


The thinner patches fit the balls perfectly, so they can be pressed into the muzzle with the thumb as the masters of old recommend. read more


Nelson Lewis combination gun: Part 2

by B.B. Pelletier

Announcement: Adam Crowsonis this week’s winner of Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week on their facebook page. He’ll receive a $50 Pyramyd Air gift card. Congratulations!

Adam Crowson is Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week.

Part 1


This Nelson Lewis combination gun was made in the mid-19th century. It’s .38 caliber and 14 gauge.

A lot of readers have been waiting patiently for today’s report. Although we’re airgunners, we’re shooters first, and many of us appreciate the similarities between pneumatic guns and those that use black powder. Today’s subject gun was made about 150 years ago by a maker of some fame who made sniper rifles for use during the American Civil War. I’ve lived with this gun for several months now and have held it, admired it, considered it and wondered about it. And on Tuesday of last week, I took it to the range for its first outing.

On every TV show where old guns are shown, you’re advised to seek the services of a gunsmith before firing any old gun. They’re supposed to check the gun for safety. Last week, I discovered that I was the one performing that service on this piece.

While Mac was still visiting me several weeks ago, we pulled both locks out of the stock and examined them closely. They differ from each other only because one is for the right side and the other is for the left; but, in essence, they’re the same lock. The inletting in the stock is so precise that the left lock has to be “buttoned” into position to get it back in! It fits into an undercut section of the stock and cannot be inserted straight into its slot. A bolt passes through the left lock, through the stock and into the right lock. When tightened, it pulls both locks together in a fit so tight that a razor blade cannot be inserted between the stock and either of the two lockplates.


The locks are not complex, but they are made right and tight, which makes all the difference in the world. This is the right-hand shotgun lock.

The locks are back-action (meaning the hammer spring is located behind the tumbler, so the majority of the lock extends backward — rather than forward — from the hammer) and are remarkably simple in construction. Some file marks are still evident from the time each piece was fashioned by Lewis, who made all his own locks, triggers and barrels. For a short time, I was concerned about the gun having been “gunsmithed” because the rifle lock (operated by the rear trigger) fires with about 2 lbs. of pull and is glass-crisp. It feels too light for the gun, considering the hammer requires about 12 lbs. of effort to cock! But close examination under a 10x jeweler’s loupe shows no evidence of any work other than Lewis’ original job.

The rifle lock is on the left side of the gun, and the hammer on that side was a bit loose when I got it, so one of my gun buddies and I shimmed the square shaft on which the hammer rides with 0.0015″ shim stock. That took up all the play. Now there isn’t a hint of movement.

I removed both nipples and was pleased to see what good condition they were in. Both have tiny flash holes at their bottoms, exactly like they’re supposed to. Often, these holes will be enlarged from the hot gasses and cause greater pressure to flow back through the nipple and against the bottom of the hammer. They seem to be plated with platinum, which was a common touch on the finer guns of this period. The plating allows them to resist the erosive gasses of the gunpowder many times longer than plain steel. These are either original to the gun or are period replacements, and I would think at least the rifle nipple has to be a replacement.


Here you see the bottom of the rifle barrel nipple. It’s clearly in great condition despite its age. Notice that the breech plugs have been shaped into water drains, or “snails,” as they’re termed. They direct any water away from the nipples and also protect the barrel and lockplate from the erosive hot gasses that occur at firing. Much of the original nickel plating has been lost to these gasses. read more


Nelson Lewis combination gun: Part 1

by B.B. Pelletier

Announcement: Chris Moreno is this week’s winner of Pyramyd Air’s Big Shot of the Week on their facebook page. He’ll receive a $50 Pyramyd Air gift card. Congratulations!

BSOTW winner Chris Moreno is shown with his first PCP.


This Nelson Lewis combination gun was made in the mid-19th century.

A little more than two years ago, I traveled to Maryland to see Mac and to help him drive back to Texas for the Malvern, Arkansas, airgun show. We visited a friend of ours who was loaning me some vintage photos to scan for articles. While there, we were admitted into his gun room, or as Mac and I refer to it — the Holy of Holies! This guy has collected odd and unusual guns all his life and, just like the Pawn Stars TV show, you never know what you’re going to find. It was there that I found the airgun pogostick repeater that Vince is attempting to make operational.

But there was another gun in his collection that intrigued me, even though I didn’t act on it right away. It was a combination gun made by Nelson Lewis, a well-known gun maker from Troy New York, who made muzzleloading guns from some time in the 1840s until at least the 1880s.


The gun came in its original oak case.

Lewis was a very prolific maker, and his guns still abound today. They’re of fine workmanship but not the absolute top tier. As far as accuracy goes, an N. Lewis gun can hold its own at 40 rods (220 yards) with all but the very finest rifles; and as far as I’m concerned, there are only three in the top rung — Schalk, Warner and Pope. Nelson Lewis belongs on the next rung down with makers like Billinghurst, Perry, Brockway and others of equal fame. His guns are never finished as fine as those of Billinghurst, but they’re equal in accuracy. They were among the first rifles selected for sniper duty in the American Civil War and made confirmed kills at ranges beyond 1,000 yards — surveyed distance.

The other kind of gun Lewis was noted for was the combination gun — with a rifle barrel on one side and a shotgun barrel on the other. That’s the gun I saw in Maryland. What intrigued me wasn’t the quality of the arm, though it’s very fine, but the condition. This gun is still in its original box after 150+ years and is in NRA Antique fine condition. The patchbox contained two round patches of thin linen material, and Lewis was known for sending a sample of the proper patching material with his guns. I can’t prove these patches are original to the gun, but they’re appropriate to it.

When it was new a gun like this cost between $50 and 60, with engraving extra if you wanted it. For that you got the gun in a wooden case, a powder measure and a bullet swage. Lewis made this gun without the use of power tools. He had a local machinist make the parts requiring a lathe, and he made the barrels, locks and triggers. His son stocked the gun in finefigured walnut.


Look at the fine joining of the shotgun and rifle barrels.

Also packed with the gun are the original dies for swaging lead picket bullets for the rifle barrel. And there were two bullets in the box along with everything else.


The swaging dies are also handmade by Lewis.


Picket bullet was the first elongated bullet that was popular. It lasted from about 1840 to 1880.

The box isn’t a presentation type box. It’s entirely functional, as though Mr. Lewis had shipped the gun yesterday and this is how it arrived. It’s designed to hold the gun when it’s broken down by removing one cross key and lifting the barreled action out of the stock. It has a patent breech with hooks that allow quick disassembly, so the gun can be transported safely to the hunting grounds.


Drift out the one key, and the barreled action can be lifted out of the patent breech. Each barrel has a separate hook that locks into the breechplate.

The ramrod appears to be original to the gun, which is quite rare for two reasons. First, this gun was probably made in the 1860s or ’70s. For anything wooden as thin as a hickory ramrod to have survived that long is remarkable. Second — a muzzleloading ramrod undergoes the most strenuous life you can imagine. Modern muzzleloaders almost always have fiberglass ramrods for this reason. Because this ramrod has lasted this long, we can surmise that this gun has been particularly well cared for.

The rifle barrel is .39 caliber and just under 28 inches long. We know that the six-grove rifling is cut with a gain twist because Nelson Lewis refused to cut any other kind of rifling. Because the picket bullet is a conical, it’s heavier than a round ball, making the rifle appropriate for deer and even black bear hunting.

The shotgun barrel is 14 gauge and is probably without a choke, as they were not popular when this gun was made. Also, a blackpowder shotgun will throw a tighter pattern just by the nature of how it functions. What we have is a cylinder bore that’s probably good out to 30-35 yards, depending on the game and shot size.

Sights
The gun has two different rear sights. On the tang is a lollipop peep sight that elevates by turning the disk on its threaded post. Halfway up the barrel is a sporting-type rear sight that can be used for a faster hunting situation. Sporting was the 19th century term for hunting.

The front sight has to be seen to be believed! The thin post is steel filed into the shape of a tiny post and bead. It’s thin but strong, because the post is an I-beam with thickness front to rear. The sight is protected by a small steel globe.


Sporting (hunting) sight is adjustable for elevation. It is a semi-buckhorn.


Folding lollipop rear target sight adjusts for elevation by turning on its stem. Windage adjusts by loosening the screw and sliding the peephole sideways. read more


A day at the range

by B.B. Pelletier

This isn’t Part 2 to yesterday’s report, but it could be. Today, I got out to the range for the first time since February. And, man, did I need it! I took a bunch of guns that I’d never shot before and tried them all out.

1862 Peabody
This rifle was patented in 1862 as a breechloader for the U.S., but it was never ordered. However, three states did buy it for their militias, including Connecticut, which later returned all their rifles to the maker to be converted to .45/70. That is the caliber mine is, so I quickly cooked up 20 rounds of my Trapdoor Springfield load, knowing that the stronger Peabody falling block action would have no trouble with it.


Like a Sharps rifle only different, the Peabody isn’t as well-known as some of the other big bore single-shots. This one is a .45/70 made in about 1868.


The Peabody was the forerunner of the Martini falling block action. The difference is the Peabody has an exposed hammer that must be manually cocked. The rifling is Alexander Henry-type, and the bore on this rifle is perfect!


A good friend of mine takes a shot at the 50-yard bull.


Compared to a .45 ACP (bottom), the .45/70 rifle cartridge is huge and imposing.

I spent no effort making accurate rounds. These were just for function firing, and the bullets varied in weight by as much as five grains. Still, I shot a very decent first group with the rifle. Good enough that I’m now interested in seeing what it can be made to do. Anytime you get bullets landing near each other with a big bore rifle on the first go-round, you’re doing something right. I suspect this rifle can shoot into less than a minute of angle when everything is perfect.

While this is no screamer, it does indicate that the Peabody wants to shoot. Better sights, a refined powder load and finding the correct seating depth will all serve to tighten the group considerably. read more