Sam Whitley, PM
Frontier Lodge No. 28
In Part 1 of our series on conservation of artifacts, I talked about the importance of conserving Masonic treasures for future generations. Now let’s apply those ideas to actually conserving a Masonic relic. Part 2 of the series will concern itself with the conservation of an antique percussion longrifle.
Just after I finished writing Part 1 of this series, I received an antique percussion long rifle designated to be placed on display at the Grand Lodge of Texas museum in Waco. The rifle is important to Masonry because it has over 30 Masonic symbols inlayed in its stock. The rifle was made in 1858 for Brother David Abraham Ragains, who must have shelled out a hefty sum for the profusely inlaid rifle. As Bro. Ragains was living in Illinois at the time, it is likely that he purchased the rifle from an Illinois gun maker. The top flat of the gun barrel is engraved with the year of manufacture (1858) and the maker’s name.
Today, 150 years later, the rifle is in only poor to fair shape. Its stock has been broken cleanly in two at the wrist. For the past 2 years it has been stored in the trunk of a car, and the rifle has suffered for this treatment. The rifle is a half-stock long rifle of the late percussion era. Many rifles of this period were profusely inlaid. But few are inlaid with the symbols of Masonry as this one is.
The most serious problem with the condition of this rifle is its stock. The stock is made of curly maple and is broken completely in two. This break destabilized the whole gun. An early attempt at “repair” used vinyl electrician’s tape to hold the two pieces of stock to together [Plate 1]. The resulting “repair” left the fore stock and butt stock articulated (bent) sideways at the point of the break and free to move significantly. This condition is very detrimental to the survival of the gun, since every movement of the stock pieces damages the wood further.
Plate 1. Left Side of Wrist with Tape
Plate 1 shows the portion of the wrist where the break is. Just under the goat inlay, you can see one of the several breaks in the stock. Also visible is some of the hardened adhesive from the electrician’s tape on the stock. The photo does not make it clear that the trigger guard is attached to the rifle by a cross pin through the wrist. The tape conceals this pin in the photo. The tape was actually reducing the amount of movement that the buttstock is subject to.
Conservation of the rifle involves so many separate activities that I will divide the conservation into segments and treat these segments one at a time. The focus of this (first) segment will be conservation of the gun barrel.
While most lodges won’t have a rifle to conserve, many will have some metallic object that needs conservation and thus will have a similar problem. Because I am the primary conservator, the report will be written in first person. Let’s begin.
The first order of business was removing the barrel from the stock. To do this, I first removed the ramrod (wiping rod) from its storage place under the barrel. I then carefully removed the black electrician’s vinyl tape from the wrist of the gun. This exposed the break and the fact that only tang bolt, the rear pin of the trigger guard, and the trigger plate screw held the butt stock to the fore stock. In effect, the brass trigger guard and the trigger plate were keeping the stock from separating completely. That is not the purpose of these pieces of rifle furniture.
The attachments were likely to further damage the stock while working on the gun, so after carefully removing the electrical tape, I removed the tang bolt, trigger plate screw, and trigger guard pin. The fore stock and butt stock then separated cleanly and completely and two loose pieces of stock fell out of the wrist area (these two pieces were contained by the electricians tape}.
Since I had previously determined the rifle was loaded, the most critical job was to remove the gun barrel and then remove the charge from the gun. But first, I had to remove the barrel from the stock.
The gun barrel
To remove the barrel, I removed the trigger guard from the fore stock by removing its forward screw. This left only the back action lock and the barrel attached to the fore stock. I removed the lock by unscrewing the lock bolt and drove the barrel pin out of the stock using a 1/16” diameter pin punch inserted from the right side of the stock. (This must be done right to left because many of these pins were significantly tapered and thus driving them out from the “large end” will damage either the retaining pin or the stock. As I removed each piece from the rifle, I placed it in a separate Ziploc® snack bag and labeled it for reference.
On removing the pin and dismounting the barrel from the fore stock, I found that the barrel originally had redundant mounting methods. It was originally held together by a barrel pin that passed through the stock and was accessed through a 2mm diameter hole in the “Charter” inlay and was also secured by an iron hook [Plate 2] attached to the bottom flat of the barrel that engaged a flat
Plate 2. Barrel attachment hook
bar in the barrel channel. The underlug that the pin originally passed through has since been removed from the barrel flat at some time in the past. This meant that the pin was a secondary attachment. When the tang screw was inserted properly, the barrel could not move forward even with the pin removed, and also effectively held the fore stock in slight compression to the butt stock.
With the barrel removed from the stock, it was time to set about removing the charge so we can deal with a truly “unloaded” gun.
It is very common to find old firearms loaded. In the case of cartridge guns, unloading is usually a fairly simple process. Not so with muzzle loaders. The barrel of these guns is a tube closed at one end. The powder is placed at the closed end by pouring it down the muzzle. A projectile (usually a spherical lead ball) is then wrapped in a cloth patch and pushed down bore to rest on the powder. The usual and preferred method of unloading a muzzle loading arm is to fire it.
Firing the gun is of course, very unwise in this case. We know nothing about the condition or integrity of the barrel, and if it is in poor condition, the barrel might explode and make the gun irreparable. Attempting to fire the charge in an antique gun is the very definition of stupidity. That leaves two other routes to unloading the barrel. The first is to “pull” the ball out the muzzle with a ball puller and the second is to remove the drum and/or the breech plug and wash the powder behind the ball out the breech end of the barrel.
Author’s note: Please bear in mind that at least one intrepid soul who tried and initially failed to remove the breech plug from the barrel of a long-forgotten gun shot a large lead ball through the side of his garage when the gunpowder loaded so many years before ignited as he heated the breech plug to loosen it. He was very lucky. In his case, the breech plug and barrel held and did not explode. And nobody was in the line of fire when the gun discharged..
I did not want to duplicate his experience.
Pulling the ball forward out the muzzle of a loaded gun is a high-risk activity and I will not do it. But a gun barrel without propellant behind the ball is simply a plugged barrel and the lead ball can be safely “pulled” using a ball puller (wood screw) in a cleaning rod or pushed out the muzzle with a ramrod.
First, I placed the barrel in a padded vise with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. I then removed the nipple with a nipple wrench. The nipple was completely plugged with rust and perhaps firing residue as well. I then removed he drum. The gun barrel was completely filled with rust and powder near the breech. I flushed rust and gunpowder out of the barrel through the drum seat with a disposable plastic syringe until no more came out. I then used a wooden dowel to drive the ball down the bore and out the muzzle. After removing the ball, the gun barrel was unobstructed enough to see through.
With the bore emptied, I cleaned the rust and residue from the barrel with nylon brush and shotgun bore mop and soapy water, followed by an acetone rinse, then left it to dry. I used soapy water for the cleaning because it dissolves the potassium nitrate (saltpeter) that is a major component of gunpowder. Dissolving the saltpeter rendered the other two ingredients of powder (sulfur and charcoal) harmless, and the soapy water helped wash out the loose rust and other solids. This left the bore damp, and subject to rust. I added acetone to the barrel, as it will not hurt iron (the barrel is soft iron) and since it mixes with water it helps remove water from the bore. The acetone then evaporates easily, leaving a clean, dry bore.
After flushing the barrel with acetone and allowing it to dry for about an hour, I heated the barrel lightly with a propane torch until it was hot to the touch (to dry it). I then applied Renaissance Wax to the bore with a shotgun bore cleaning mop and heated the barrel again until the wax just melted. I then set the barrel aside to cool.
There were spots of light surface rust on the barrel, as if from a light sprinkling of rain. To remove the majority of this rust and stop further corrosion, I oiled the outer barrel flats with a light machine oil and used a small piece of sheet brass sharpened to a chisel point to lightly scale and remove most of the light surface rust. Sheet brass was used because it is considerably softer than the iron barrel. Before this effort the rust spots were very visible and were easy to feel. After the treatment described, the rust spots were barely visible and could no longer be felt.
Renaissance Wax was applied to the barrel. I cleaned the inside of the drum and nipple using dental tools, and cleaned the threads of both with nylon and brass brushes. I then heated the drum and nipple in a 200°F oven with paste wax for 20 minutes, and allowed them to cool. This left all surfaces of the drum and nipple coated with wax. I reinstalled the drum and the nipple. The barrel treatment was complete at this time, and Renaissance Wax was applied to the barrel as a protective coating.
Join us next for Part 3 of the series as we continue to explore conservation of the Ragains rifle. Part 3 will describe stock repair.