Author Topic: Restoration of old guns  (Read 6761 times)

jwh1947

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Restoration of old guns
« on: March 15, 2009, 08:12:13 PM »
Honest restoration is a noble art.  Fakery is not. The difference is straightforward.  If I mend a broken gun or put it back to what was most likely its original shape, I am providing appropriate service.  If I embellish a piece beyond what it originally was, for any reason, I am behaving unethically.

Common examples of forgery and unethical behavior within the gun world include, but are not limited to, adding patch boxes, adding carving, and marrying a signed barrel to a new piece of wood which has been distressed and aged to look old.  Local auction houses in my region abound with such specimens.  So do tourist trap antique shops, especially around national shrines.

Another general note.  Many people are proud of their original flints.  While there are some great guns out there in original flint condition, lots of guns that people pride as originals are actually reconversions from percussion back to flint.  It was part of the history of the rifles that many in the 1850 circa were returned to a gunsmith or blacksmith to be converted to the new percussion system.  In the 20th and 21st centuries, many owners chose to have their collectibles reconverted to flint. 

A good reconversion often enhances value, but a butcher job does not.  The process requires welding shut the threaded hole in the barrel and eventually drilling a new touch hole and disguising the job.  This is the easy part.  The hard part is to rebuild the lock, reapplying all the flint appendages, refitting it, and making it all come out so that it does not resemble a VW grille on a Cadillac.  Some gunsmiths get lucky and find a lock that falls right into the mortise.  This rarely happens.  Incidentally, my teachers can often spot a decent reconversion from across the room and tell you who cast the frizzen and when.  Many are that obvious to a trained eye.

That being said, lets look at a few of the more common types of restoration that you can expect to encounter as well as talk about some bad examples that I've seen in my travels.  This is intended as just a start.  Pitch in, experts.


Area 1--Replaced fore end wood and stretched barrels. It is most common to find an attic condition rifle with about 12-18 inches of fore end wood missing.  This is usually replaced.  Seek a professional, and I don't mean a cabinet maker (no offense to them).  You want to use a piece of similar wood with similar grain and curl.  You need to go back to fresh clean wood and make a clean cut.  A diagonal butt joint is often used because it increases the glue-surface area and is stronger than a 90-degree butt joint.  The joint can be obscured by any artist and sometimes an inlay or a flow of incised carving can help obscure it.  In short, if you can see the joint from the outside, or feel it, it is not good work.  Also, expect to find slivers of wood before and to the rear of the lock where there was burnout.  Lots of good guns have a little work in this area.   None of this stuff, if done correctly, kills a gun.  Quality work enhances a piece.

  Just remember, you need to look for butt joints around the wrist and underneath the lock area, too.  You may be holding one of those pieces of bunko artistry that is an original, raised carved buttstock with everything else, including new aged or old refitted barrel, married to it. If that doesn't bother you, OK.  It would bother me.

Stretched barrels are a bit more controversial.  Back in the days when guns were being converted to percussion, the owners also often had the gunsmith cut off about a foot of barrel, making the rifle easier to tote around.  Some recent owners wanted their longrifle to be long again.  Adding barrel material and making it look real is not an easy job, and clearly, any of this work is merely for show.  The guns are not stretched to be used.  Only a complete fool would try it.  Not all additions are applied to the muzzle end.  Often, the added material is put somewhere in the middle, to intentional deceive people who look down the muzzle to examine the rifling.  I always carry a little marble or a .30 cal ball and roll it down the barrel.  If you hear two thumps as it goes down, put the gun down and walk away.  Skinny bore lights also help.  I personally view stretched barrels as a negative factor.

Area II--Carving.  Note: Most Kentucky rifles were not artistically carved.  The few that were were done in either incised or raised manner, and frequently with a blend of the two.  Incised work is cut directly into the surface of the wood.  Bas relief (raised) carving is achieved by laying out your design and then relieving the background wood so as to make the pattern stand out.

When people apply new raised carving to an old piece, they need to remove a slight bit of background wood around the design.  Often there will be about 1/64 of an inch of butt plate brass protruding above the wood on the side where the dirty work has been done.  Sly dealers will give you that Cheshire Cat grin, anticipate your question, and tell you that bad fit is due to "wood shrinkage."  What you need to ask that man (or woman) is why the material only shrank on that one side and not the bottom (should be more) or other side.  You may wonder to yourself why the counterfeiter didn't take the time to clean up that fit, but that opens another can of worms, so I've been told. 

Another thing I detest.  That's epoxy or polymer fillers used internally or externally for restoration work.  The best men in the business, for instance, Allen Martin and Mark Wheland, wouldn't allow a can of plastic near their shops.  I wouldn't recommend anyone who does, any more than I would recommend a builder who uses wood screws where original guns have a nut and bolt.  I've seen people pay money for work like this, too.  The joke is that some of the people who do things like this are well known builders.

If I can help one new collector avoid some of the mistakes I, and others, have made, then this is worth the time.  You are ready to sink money into guns, when, and only when, you trust your own experience enough to take the plunge.  Then, after you feel certain, invite someone whom you respect to offer a second opinion.  It's amazing what you can miss and what another pair of trained eyes can point out. 

Happy collecting and exercise caution.  A deadly notion is "I gotta have it now!"  Hey, there's no shortage of this stuff out there.  It pays to be selective.   Remember, today's junk is tomorrow's junk.  Junk is junk.  Be selective.  Condition is king, and if you don't believe me now, you'll become a believer when you go to sell your collection.  JWHeckert 


jwh1947

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #1 on: March 16, 2009, 02:44:27 AM »
Darn, this site is great for fast turn-around of info.  A gentleman sent an e-mail inquiring about the possibility of me reconverting his "old Pa. rifle" back to flint.  He sent me three pics and wants no publicity.  I saw before me what looks like one of the better Christian Becks that I've seen lately.  The conversion was so well done that I recommended that the gun be left the way it is.  Folks, that's part of the history of this beautiful gun.  Whoever did the job knew what he was doing.  It conversion work represents history upon history.  Why put a 21st century refit on a job done in the 19th century?  I don't see it adding one bit of romance to this solid piece of Americana.  Now, if the gun was all banged up and needed other work, I'd say go for  the alteration.  J.W. Heckert

Offline Curt J

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #2 on: March 16, 2009, 03:02:10 AM »
I might add that I have seen several "re-converted" rifles that I feel certain were never flintlock in the first place.  Collectors forty or fifty years ago often wanted a flintlock so much that they didn't hesitate to do this. A couple of years ago I passed on buying an otherwise great fullstock rifle by a Southern Illinois maker. The man who owned it refused to belive that it had not originally been flint, but I'm very sure it was originally percussion, dating from the 1840's.

Offline WElliott

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #3 on: March 16, 2009, 04:15:51 AM »
 Excellent post, Wayne.  I appreciate anything that will help younger or newer collectors from some of the bad experiences those of us who have been around the block a time or two have had along the way. This a great forum for sharing such information and advice.  And I thank you for making it clear that some restoration is a matter of opinion while other "restoration" is out and out fakery and should be strongly discouraged. Thanks!
Wayne Elliott
Wayne Elliott

Offline JTR

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #4 on: March 16, 2009, 04:42:04 AM »
Good info here!
Restoration is always one of those topics that seems to have no absolute true and fast answers.
In my dreams I always collect only prime and pristine examples, but unfortunately my bank account refuses to agree with my dreams. Sadly, there's very few high quality guns out there that haven't had varying degrees of repair at some point, so that leaves the majority of us collecting having to settle for what we can afford.  
If you're going to collect, then you need to decide what is acceptable, and what isn't.
I fully agree that non-original additions distroy an otherwise good gun, and should never be condoned.

Having dabbled with restoration for a number of years, I tend to opt for a better quality gun that needs work, if it's something I can fix. For a guy un-inclined or not able to do the work, a lesser gun for the same money, but in excellent condition, would financially likely be the better way to go as top quality restoration work isn't inexpensive.
Generally speaking, unless you have an unlimited budget, you're going to have to settle for guns with restoration. And if you desire even some of the very best, money be !@*%&@, it'll still have some restoration.
So what to accept, and what not to accept?

For me, and I think most guys, lock reconversion's are a fact of life, if as Curt points out, that the gun was originally a flint. The iffy ones here are guns from the late flint period that could have originally been either flint or percussion. Research into the maker can be of some help in determining which would be correct, but with some guns it's practically impossible to be positive. The flint hammer notch in the wood can be an indicator, but that's an easy 'fix' for the unscrupulous. An original flint that was converted to percussion during its time of use can have the wood and metal burned away from the percussion cap, so this condition is of little help in determining the original configuration.

Forearm restoration has been done to many a fine gun, and some not so fine. Given that many were cut down during their useful life, the only choice is to leave it a half stock, or replace the wood. On some, the addition will stand out like a sore thumb, on others, it's unnoticeable.

Barrel additions. Lot's of guns had the barrel shortened, and the stock cut back, when converted to percussion. Some were shortened from the muzzle, some from the breech, and some from both ends. Adding the barrel length back on is not a minor undertaking, and is expensive when done correctly. Some will accept this addition, and some not.
And this is where the topic can become a bit knotty.
Say you have a fine carved big name maker 1790s rifle. But, its been converted to percussion, the barrel shortened by say 8 inches and the stock cut back to half stock. It doesn't make sense to convert it back to flint and leave it short barreled and half stocked. To me, the only reasonable thing to do is to fix the entire gun, or simply to leave it a short barreled, half stock percussion.
Some will opt to put it back as original, and some will prefer to leave it as is.
And that's the question lots of collectors have difficulty agreeing upon.
Given the nature of Kentucky rifle collecting, this 1790s rifle will be worth more as a fully restored rifle, if a top notch job is done.
To others, it's history has been corrupted, and it should never have been touched.

And that's the sticky wicket.    

John

 
John Robbins

jwh1947

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #5 on: March 16, 2009, 05:34:10 AM »
I guess I've already tipped my poker hand.  I would rather have one good carved gun with a signature of a grand master, restoration-free and solid, than a wall full of rebuilt butt stocks with stretched barrels and suspicious issues.  But that's just me and today there are more days behind me than ahead of me.  Rebuilding guns is fun, and so is selling them after being fairly represented and priced.   

One esteemed dealer from New England is on record as saying, "Wouldn't you rather have a corner of a Rembrandt over a full Grandma Moses?"  Actually, I'd rather have a good single malt Scotch and a German beer over either one.  Somewhere in mid life I think most of us realize that you can't own them all.  Then you sell one or two, and you know what?  It doesn't hurt a bit.  Later you end up with just a couple good ones, and each really means something to you. 

As for the ones left when I check out???  I think I'll donate them to Jimmy Swaggert Ministry, Inc.

Offline JTR

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #6 on: March 16, 2009, 07:32:41 AM »
Good point, but then I don't know anyone that would spend money collecting rebuilt butt stocks.
Actually that might be a pretty difficult collection to get together, as after many years of collecting I've only seen a handful that were anywhere even close to believable.
John
John Robbins

Offline Majorjoel

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #7 on: March 16, 2009, 01:53:46 PM »
Very interesting subject and I thank you knowledgeable fellows for your opinions on this gray ground of restoration. In my neck of the woods (northern lower Michigan), the original PA\KY rifle is a very rare bird. It has been my greatest fortune (met at a gunshow) to have been befriended and mentored by a longtime collector\gunbuilder from the south who retired and lived nearby. I do not know what this old timer saw in this  greenhorn want a be but he took me under his wing and shared his lifetime of knowledge and his vast collection. I have seen rifles picked out at local gunshows, pieces that to my uneducated eye looked like junk, were bought and brought back to historic significance. I learned what to look for and what to leave alone. The importance of study between the books, the hands on examination of originals as well as the many hours of conversation and interaction (I would pick his brain to no end) with much time spent on the work bench has slowly sunk into my hide. In retrospect, after my good friends recent passing, I think I have found the true gold in all of this. It is not about the Kentucky rifle or it's mystery. It is all about the importance of  true friendship. My buddy picked me out of all the junkers at the gunshow. He honed off most of my rough edges and "restored" me to some historical significance. I can only hope to someday return that favor. 
« Last Edit: March 16, 2009, 01:55:53 PM by Captjoel »
Joel Hall

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #8 on: March 16, 2009, 05:12:19 PM »
Over the now 60 years of shooting and restoring muzzle loading weapons I have one golden rule on restorating that is if in doubt leave it alone.Has for reconverting percussion back to flint to me is part of the history of the gun and should not be done.I can average  at least 3 gun s coming in for restorating per month with the drum and nipple conversion if the owner wants it converting back to flint it is handed back to him to take elsewhere .I have found over the years that a large majority of people that require  this done is for personal gain These conversion never look the same and some cases devalues the gun.
So I say [SAVE THE DRUM AND NIPPLE IT IS PART OF OUR GUN HERITAGE}
Feltwad

Robin Hewitt

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #9 on: March 17, 2009, 03:12:42 AM »
I have 2 or 3 conversions and one of them I would like to revert to flint. Purely because whoever converted it did a lousy job, the hammer looks naff and the spring is so weak it won't even light a cap. I know it used to be flint because the remains of the pan is still cut in the lock plate, he didn't use a drum and bolster it, he rebreeched it.

jwh1947

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #10 on: March 17, 2009, 08:05:25 PM »
Where to learn the art and trade?  If you can attach yourself to a master gunsmith just like the 18th century apprentices did, that's your best bet.  If you like loosely structured classes, look into the gunsmithing program at Jacobsburg Historical Society.  This is the actual site of the old Henry gun factory.  Very close to Easton and the NJ border.  An easy 100 miles from Harrisburg.

The classes are run by gunsmiths.  Rich Hujsa, Joe Correll and Rocky Shreck coordinate the instruction.  These boys have done a lot of good work and know what they are talking about.  They will focus on new builds, but the knowledge is readily adaptable to repair work.  They demonstrate everything and students' questions and needs help guide the direction of the classes, just the way education at this level should be.

The program consists of weekly evening classes at the society's gunshop.  There is a basic program usually held in the fall, and an advanced program offered the following spring.  Here you can compact a lot of learning into a short time span.  I did this and have never regretted it. 

They say Connor Prairie  is a top-notch program, too, but I cannot speak from experience.  I can simply tell you that some of my colleagues seem to have learned a lot there and no one has ever complained about the instruction. 

So, yes there are places to go to learn.  You may be surprised to know that most gunsmiths are a sharing and open group of artists.  They encourage young'ins and sometimes take too much time out of their workday to lend a helping hand.  But, then again, taking on a student is a big responsibility and it takes time and patience to teach correctly.  Incidentally, you are going to search far and wide to find a group of guys more humble, non-self-serving, and considerate than our best gunsmiths. 

jwh1947

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #11 on: March 19, 2009, 07:00:36 AM »
I admittedly have a big mouth.  But there are a few places that I have learned to keep it shut.  When the issue is heavy restoration on an acquaintance's gun, though the devil be on my shoulder prompting me to start talking, I either remain silent or change the subject.  When I pick up another's gun, possibly yours, and see a glaring indication of major restoration, it is not my responsibility and it would be impolite for me, or anyone else, to start highlighting the issues with the piece. 

Now, if you specifically ask what I think, I will honestly tell you.  If that requires pointing out certain tell-tale indicators of creative benchwork, I will share.  But if you don't ask, I'm not talking.

Reason: Self-preservation.  People don't always shoot the messenger, but they tend to always associate the informer with the bad situation.  Become the big-mouth unannounced detective of repair work and you will make quite a few enemies for each single friend.  There is absolutely no enjoyment in telling a person that the real value of their piece may be no more than 35% of what they paid simply because most of it is not real. 

Keep in mind that we live in a day when you can build, say, a 1957 Chevy from the frame up.  If I am not mistaken, you can even buy a repro. frame.  Also, I've seen many a fake Luger, some beautifully done works of art, replete w/ brush tool marks, correct bluing and strawing, sharp edges and no apparent restoration.   And yes, it's true. At least one guy has a set of the original German stamps and dies.  Fact: there are more WWII German medals and insignia, pound for pound, that are outright fakes, than there are originals.  The same could also probably be said for WWII U.S. silver pilot's wings.  Point is, it is not just Kentucky rifles.  Anywhere where a shady buck can be made is fertile territory for a con man.   Gold bars that don't assay; common stocks that get sold by brokerage houses simply because the houses have big positions in them, and on and on. The reason Kentuckies are relatively bad is that the more attractive pieces are commanding big dollars.  When somebody gets whacked these days, it is often for the value of a year or two of college tuition.  We ain't talking chump change. 

This site is doing its job of presenting some things for everybody's consideration and I applaud the moderators  and organizers for their accomplishments.  JWHeckert

Offline JTR

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #12 on: March 19, 2009, 09:58:57 PM »
Obviously, like many purchases in life, it pays to shop with a reputable dealer.
Iíve dealt extensively with one west coast dealer that Iíve found to be absolutely honest, period!
He points out everything that might be wrong with the gun and prices them accordingly. And Iím sure heís not the only honest guy.
All the dealers are out there to make money, itís what they do for a living, so donít expect a super deal from one.
If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Thatís not to say that once in a while you wonít find great deal if you keep your eyes open, but you had better have done your homework beforehand.
John

John Robbins

Robin Hewitt

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #13 on: March 20, 2009, 03:49:52 AM »
Not good when someone rains on your parade.

I had someone come up uninvited and tell me my gun had been sleeved, said he could see the join, told me it was probably Rex Holbrook that did it and Peter Asquith must have known when he sold me the gun.

Didn't sound at all likely. Mr Asquith had just had the hard word from the doc and was selling up, he'd sold his sleeved Rigby to Gordon, who was there shooting it, and PA had made it very clear that it was sleeved. Gordon had got in early and had his chance at the one I got, think he was starting to wonder if he'd chosen right because some crack shot tried my rifle and put two consecutive holes 1.5" apart at 100 yards. (He only took the second shot because I'd said, "Do that again") :o

Victorian deer rifles are not exactly cheap and nobody likes to think they've been sold a pup, but I didn't argue. We weren't exactly having a conversation either, I was simply getting an impromptu lecture on how I'd been duped.

I went home and browned the muzzle to get a better look revealing a tape wound core under a fancy damascene outer. When you think about it, damascus doesn't take kindly to being rifled so winding a tape around the mandrel first made good sense. You can tell it's a tape because it only has one, spiral weld line. Barrel is stamped H&S, probably Hollis and Sheath, .451 with a slight choke. I wasn't duped at all, I got an absolute bargain.


Offline Majorjoel

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #14 on: March 20, 2009, 12:26:00 PM »
I have found that there are always a few "experts" that will cut down (bad mouth) a rifle and then want to buy it cheap. This tactic has never been well received by me and has had a tendancy to shorten my fuse. I don't mind being educated by knowledgeable criticism, but when the expert turns around with a low-ball offer his credibility goes in the toilet.
Joel Hall

jwh1947

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Re: Restoration of old guns
« Reply #15 on: March 21, 2009, 01:55:44 AM »
Woah, Captjoel, you hit the old nail on the head.  And in this general part of the country, we have roving cartels of bandits who work like a wolf pack.  Wham, bam, zing...coming from both sides...they got your pants down and work completed before you even know what hit you. 

One guy will come up and asks a price, then really slams the gun.  Then #2 comes up and says, "Yeah, #1 told me about this piece,  too bad this and that are not right." 

About 1/2 hour later, after you've had time to absorb all this sorry news, #3 comes up and, as a gesture of friendship, offers you 1/2 your asking price, just to help you out. 

Warning: when certain people start panning your piece, you might as well raise the price, because it is good and the cartel wants it.  They often don't speak for themselves, but for a snitch buyer.   Don't fall prey to the weasel packs.  It's the oldest play in the book.   They also occasionally conduct a phone smear of your piece.  And it also works the other way; they never badmouth a piece of another cartel member, no matter how abysmal it is. 

Just a thought.  If all of us would simply refuse to buy heavily rebuilt guns for, say, 3 years, wouldn't prices of the junk automatically come down to nearer what it is worth?  If the ladies all got together and stopped furnishing sex to the warlike boys, the boys would soon stop making war, at least temporarily.  JWHeckert