Sam Whitley, PM
Frontier Lodge No. 28

In Part 5 of our series on conservation I described the process of building an acrylic display case to display the rifle. In the sixth and last segment of the Ragains Rifle Conservation series, we’ll cover the last, critically important part of the process: documentation.

After all the work you’ve done to conserve your artifacts, you probably just want to sit back and admire your work. But now is the time to fully document what you have done before some of the details escape you. Assemble your notes, put them in an appropriate order, and write down what you did. The documentation should include:

  • The name of the individual(s) that did the conservation.
  • A full description of the artifact conserved including as much of its history as available.
  • A listing (chronological is good) of every step of the conservation
  • process, including where you got the information you used to conserve the artifact.
  • Photos of important steps or facets of the conservation, especially those that show “hidden” work or details.
  • When the conservation was done
  • List of any parts replaced or altered, with photos.
  • Observations made by conservators during their work.
  • A copy of the conservation efforts deposited with the Lodge Secretary to note in the minutes
  • Notes on any thing needing repair that was not actually done to conserve the artifact. These notes may indicate things that need to be done at a later time.

Interesting observations about the Ragains rifle

Its under-rib is soldered to the barrel. Under-ribs are normally either soldered or screwed to gun barrels, so this is not unusual.  The two front thimbles do not match, indicating they were installed at different times. The front thimble is engraved with a single ‘wedding band’ at each end, while the mid thimble is plain and unengraved. Given the degree of engraving on the rest of the rifle, an engraved thimble would not be out of place and might imply that this is the “original” remaining thimble. But before we jump to conclusions, a couple of additional observations are in order. The mortise in the under-rib for the front thimble is almost 1/8” longer than it should be for the size thimble present. This suggests that the front thimble is a replacement for a lost thimble (if a front thimble had come unsoldered, it would be likely to fall off and be lost without realizing it, while if the middle thimble had come unsoldered, the ramrod would trap it between the pewter nose cap and the front thimble and probably allow for its recovery and reattachment by a gunsmith or tinsmith. Supporting this second supposition about a “parts bin” thimble, I offer this argument: every gunsmith kept a parts box of salvaged gun parts for repairs and replacements. If a gun (for example, the “Masonic rifle”) had come in missing a front thimble, the smith would have scrounged through his parts box before he made a thimble from scratch. Light engraving on the part wouldn’t have made him reject it. But the final argument to support the theory that the front thimble is a “parts bin” replacement is that a fellow gunsmith and I concur it’s what we’d do in similar circumstances.

The thimbles are spaced unevenly. These are commonly spaced so that the distance between each thimble is identical. That means the distance between the nose cap and the mid thimble would be the same as the distance from the mid thimble to the front thimble. For this rifle, the mid thimble is one inch nearer the pewter nose cap than it should be.

The bottom flat of the barrel shows evidence that the under-rib has been shortened by one inch. This would have allowed the barrel to be set back one inch, avoided the work of altering the poured nose cap (a job to be avoided), and would exactly account for the spacing anomaly with the front and mid thimbles.

The front of the drum’s attachment hole is currently located almost exactly one inch in front of the breech. This suggests as a possible explanation for the “missing inch” that the drum blew out some time after the gun was bought, probably destroying the threads in the barrel in the process. In order to repair the defect, a long-ago gunsmith cut the barrel off just in front of the damaged hole, re-threaded the breech for the breech plug and drilled and tapped a new drum hole. This would account for the missing inch in all respects. It would also account for the missing and relocated attachment lugs on the under flat of the barrel. Shortening the barrel an inch at the breech would not have necessitated moving the rear sight. So this is the scenario I support.

During the course of restoration, I made four attempts to glue the rifle pieces together to complete the restoration and prepare the rifle for display. Three of these repairs were made with period-correct (and completely reversible) hide glue. Three times the stock was repaired, and three times it failed. It is fortunate that no additional harm was done to the stock pieces during these failures. However, I was faced with the fact that the very small amount of gluing surface available on the shattered wrist parts was likely to fail again, even in a display. This situation clearly called for another solution.

The first consideration is to complete any restoration with a completely reversible plan. Thus if technology advances allow a better repair in future years, these can be done without damaging the project. I tried three times to use this approach and three times, the repair failed because the strength of the repair materials could not support the weight of the two sections of the rifle. This left two main options for a successful repair.

Cut a scarf joint in both the fore end, forward of the break, and in the butt stock behind the wrist break and lay in a piece of wood with appropriate scarfs at each end to bridge the gap. Glue the new wood in place and let the glue set up. The barrel and lock are then re-inlet. The trigger plate and trigger guard are next inlet in similar fashion. This is the type repair a gun smith would have made 100 years ago. This preserves the myriad inlays and makes the gun usable once again. It would also provide the opportunity to make the lock plate fit correctly. Unfortunately, this approach destroys much of the gun’s original character. It also suffers from being the more time-consuming of the options.

Resort to more drastic measures. In this case, cut a mortise in the sound wood both forward of and behind the shattered portions of the stock and glue into this mortise a floating tenon to bridge the break. If done properly, and with the right materials, this mortise and tenon can be completely hidden by the trigger plate and trigger guard so that the repair is invisible unless the gun is disassembled.

For preparing the rifle for display, option 2 was the option of choice. I cut a mortise in the sound wood surrounding the break large enough to hold a piece of 6mm thick steel tenon. I then very carefully created a cradle to hold the two pieces of stock in proper alignment and placed the tenon in its mortise to assure the fit was proper.

I added catalyzed epoxy to the forward end of the mortise in several very small pours to secure the floating tenon to the fore stock. The cradle was next tilted to place the rear portion of the mortise in a horizontal configuration and the stepwise process of adding epoxy to the other end of the mortise repeated. After several additional days cure, the lock, trigger plate, trigger guard, and hammer were re-installed. Through careful location of the mortise, the floating tenon is completely invisible from “the outside looking in.” Plate 1 shows the rifle, tenon installed, at the point of break.


 1 The rifle repaired

Plate 1. The rifle, repaired, showing area of break and hammer in final position. The floating tenon is in place and parts have been re-installed.

The third stock repair failure was the result of applied torque. When I finished the third glue-up and believed the stock repair was completely sound, I had installed the hammer on the lock in its proper location. As I set the lock in place on the rifle, I had to rotate the hammer slightly counter clockwise to set the hammer nose on the nipple. I installed the lock bolt and believed everything was finished. I came back several days later to find the stock had again parted. This was due to the very small amount of torque the lock spring put on the hammer. This torque was the sole identifiable cause of the fourth fracture failure.

In view of the cause of the third “failure,” I decided to completely remove torque from the final product. So after installing the steel tenon, as I re-assembled the lock, trigger plate, and trigger guard, I installed the hammer 90° counter-clockwise from its proper position so that the lock spring is fully released and does not exert any torque on the stock. The hammer appears to be at full cock but the tumbler is in fact, at the full release (hammer down) position.

I believe that the strength of the steel tenon, though excessive to needs, will allow the rifle to be safely transported and displayed without further damage.   I am not at all convinced that this would have been the case had I used instead a ¼-inch thick piece of oak as a tenon. I still consider the rifle “as fragile as eggs” considering that the break is still a very weak point of the stock, but it is certainly stronger than it has been at any time subsequent to the initial shattering of the stock. I do not consider the rifle safe to fire in its present condition, given the stock break and repairs. It is fortunate that further use is not in the planned future of this rifle.

Part 7 of the conservation series describes the inlays of the Ragains rifle in detail.