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    Master Craftsman — Winter 2013 | Out Here Magazine

    Chuck Edwards brings history to life with black powder long rifles

    Chuck Edwards
    Chuck Edwards brings history to life with black powder long rifles.
    Out Here

    By Carol Davis

    Photography by Mark Mosrie

    When Chuck Edwards runs his hands over the rifle that hangs above the workbench in his unique workshop, he’s familiar with every angle in the stock, the feel of the weld in the trigger lock, and the details in the beautiful engraving.

    He knows this gun thoroughly because he built it by hand.

    Edwards, of Bloomfield, Mo., is among a handful of elite American craftsmen who make historic long rifles, the kind of black powder weapons used by the early colonists and by western mountain men who hunted and trapped into the 1800s.

    He’s crafted some 150 of these historically-accurate long guns for customers that appreciate them not only for being the exceptionally beautiful works of art that they are, but as flawless, precise, well-tuned firearms.

    GETTING STARTED

    Edwards’ deep interest in history reaches back into his childhood, with a fascination for the frontiersmen whom practically every little boy once emulated.

    “I was raised up in the 1960s and early 70s and … we grew up with Walt Disney, watching Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett,” he says.

    That apparently planted the seed, and Edwards’ interest in frontiersmen and that time period grew throughout the years. He found himself particularly drawn to Rendezvous historical re-enactments — Rendezvous was the annual large gathering of western mountain men in the 1800s, where they sold their furs and stocked up on supplies.

    “I started going to Rendezvous … and decided I needed to have a rifle,” he recalls. “I couldn’t afford one, but then I found out you can actually make one of these.”

    He built that first gun on his kitchen table. “It was like a semi-kit,” Edwards recalls. “It’s what they called a Tennessee Poor Boy; it was basically a lock, stock, and barrel.”

    He pauses. “It turned out okay.”

    rifle
    Edwards' gunsmithing skills will transform a plain block of wood into a precise, well-tuned, historically accurate long rifle.

    But then he saw a custom-built rifle, with its carefully-shaped stock and butt, hand-forged trigger guard, and ornate engraving. Edwards was hooked. He, too, wanted to craft this historically accurate thing of beauty.

    Figuring he would have to teach himself, Edwards started researching historic long guns and seeking them out to hold and observe so he could be as accurate as possible when he started to build them. “I was getting to see and feel what and how everything was supposed to be,” he says.

    He invested in what might be called the bibles of historic gunsmithing — Rifles of Colonial America, Volumes 1 and 2 — observed the work of other gun makers and craftsmen, watched instructional online videos, and spent countless hours honing his growing skills.

    Along the way, Edwards’ skill was recognized by Muzzleloader magazine, a publication dedicated to traditional black powder shooting, and the ensuing orders allowed him to leave a career in homebuilding and make long rifles full time. That lasted nine years, until the recession a few years back required Edwards to work as an emergency medical technician full time.

    He now builds guns part time, though he’s still as much in demand as ever. Each gun takes about two months to build, but if you place an order today, plan on waiting about two years. That’s how in demand Edwards is.

    His customers, though, don’t mind; they know it will be worth the wait.

    CHOOSING A STYLE

    Edwards shaping the gunstock
    Edwards uses a rasp to shape the gunstock, a task that usually takes about a half day and gives him a good workout.

    Edwards has crafted some 150 of these historically-accurate firearms in the last 10 years for customers who hunt with them, use them for living history events, or simply collect them.

    When a customer asks Edwards to build a gun, the choices are many. Different areas of colonial America had their own school, or influences and style, of workmanship.

    “These schools migrated from Pennsylvania to Virginia to the Carolinas and to Kentucky and each of them had their own take on everything they built,” such as style and shape of the gun stock, carvings, engravings, and brass patchboxes, which is a recess in the stock of a muzzle-loading rifle for carrying patches, grease, and flints. Some patch boxes are highly ornate.

    Long rifle aficionados will recognize some schools, such as Lehigh Valley, Bucks County style, and varying Virginia schools.

    “There’s early and late Virginia rifles,” Edwards explains. “An early Virginia rifle will be a long, slender rifle with a wide butt plate and a big lock that was built primarily in the 1770s. He may say, “I want a late Virginian,’ which is a whole different time period and style of rifle.”

    Each customer must obtain his/her own barrel and lock. Some provide the specific wood they want for the stock, while most prefer to let Edwards choose it. He’ll most likely use well-seasoned curly maple — the most common wood of early gunsmiths, with its pronounced stripes and grain that produce an unusual and beautiful finish.

    LOCK, STOCK, AND BARREL

    calipers
    Edwards uses calipers to take precise measurements in carving the stock.

    After taking measurements, Edwards “inlets” — or cuts a groove for — the barrel. He then drills into the stock — using a 4-foot drill bit — for the ramrod channel. The ramrod is the long cylindrical device used to push the bullet up the barrel against the gunpowder.

    This drilling action requires the highest of precision or it will ruin a very expensive piece of wood.

    He’ll then methodically secure the lock to the weapon, use his blacksmith skills to fashion a trigger, trigger plate, trigger guard, and butt plate — the metal plate on the butt end of a gunstock — and attach everything.

    “When I get the trigger pull and butt plate established, that’s when I start whittling on it,” he says.

    “That butt plate establishes what the gun is going to look like,” Edwards says. “The style of the butt plate will tell you how long, how beefy, how thin, the stock needs to be. About 90 percent of the gun is determined right there.”

    Edwards uses a chisel and rasp to remove wood and shape it to the correct size. “My favorite tool is the horseshoe rasp because it removes the wood pretty quickly,” he says.

    He’ll take the barrel out, adjust the stock, put the barrel back in and rasp it down more and repeat that as many times as he feels is necessary.

    A LESSON LEARNED

    Chuck Edwards’ mistakes taught him more about gunsmithing than anything, he says. Read how his biggest mistake turned into his best lesson by clicking here.

    When it’s finally right, Edwards will smooth the wood like they did two centuries ago. “I use a wood scraper. Back 200 years ago, there was no sandpaper, so you scraped,” he says. “You can get a pretty good finish with it.”

    But the rifles that come out of his workshop are not perfect, and he prefers it that way.

    “Back then, even in some of the most ornate guns you could see chisel spots,” Edwards says. “They didn’t go back and spend hours sanding it down. We, on the other hand, overwork some of the rifles; we have the mindframe that it’s got to be perfect.”

    Indeed, he makes it a point to not send out a perfect rifle.

    “I try not to clean it up totally. Some of the old masters were working guns to death, and they look like they were built in a factory by a machine,” he says. “It loses that ambiance, that romance. So I leave nicks and dings in it, and sometimes I put nicks and dings in it.”

    ADDING FLOURISHES

    engravings
    With the gentle tap of his hammer against a chisel, and no pattern in sight, Edwards engraves intricate details, delicate swirls, and perfect lettering for each of the guns he makes.

    Using only a hammer and chisel, Edwards’ engraving and carving belie the rudimentary tools and rustic atmosphere of his workshop. Delicate swirls, intricate details, and images of beauty emerge in wood and metal with the gentle tap, tap, tap of his hammer against a chisel.

    “Back then, they did this by hand file and candlelight,” he says. “I don’t know how they did what they did. Some of the best engraving I’ve ever seen was done 200 years ago, and I look at it and think, ‘How in the world did they do that?’”

    He learned freehand engraving from the late Ron Ehlert, a Tennessean known for his beautiful and ornate engraving style. “He was probably one of the best engravers in the United States,” Edwards says.

    Now, Edwards is happy to do what Ehlert did for him. “I teach people for free because I was taught for free,” he says.

    He’ll add anything a client requests — and something that they don’t necessarily ask for. “I put a Bible citation on every rifle,” Edwards says. “I believe that this talent I have been given is a gift from God and I try to use it by giving thanks to Him.”

    FINAL TOUCHES

    Once the stock looks like he wants, Edwards begins the finishing work. He stains the wood only with nitrate of iron because that’s what was used by colonial gunmakers in the 18th and 19th centuries. And he finishes with up to eight coats of hand-rubbed oil to achieve a finish just like the colonials had.

    He ages all the metal parts by applying bluing and other chemicals, and sets them outside for a day or two to rust, which leaves small pits in the metal. If the gun has brass, he’ll use those chemicals to dull it down.

    “You want it as dull as possible, because that makes the engraving pop out,” he explains.

    After the metal work is done and the stock is finished, he’ll take a day or two to reassemble the rifle and make a ramrod.

    The final step is to test fire the rifle to see that it operates correctly. “I shoot everything that comes out of here,” he says.

    trigger guard
    Edwards blacksmiths his own metal parts, such as this back side of a trigger guard.

    TEACHERS AND INFLUENCERS

    When one of his guns goes out the door, Edwards inwardly shares the sense of accomplishment with those who have taught and encouraged him along the way.

    There’s the late Ron Ehlert, who showed him how to add elegance to his rifles with ornate engraving. Author Ted Franklin Belue and artist David Wright, specialists in frontier history, helped others to recognize his talent.

    “If not for David and Ted, wouldn’t be where I am right now,” Edwards says.

    And then there’s Hershel House, of Kentucky, whose name is known by anyone who ever even considered becoming a gunsmith. “Hershel, well, he’s an artist in his own right,” Edwards says. “He’s probably influenced me more than anybody.”

    Although Edwards undoubtedly has benefited from his teachers and supporters, each of his guns carries the unmistakable stamp of his own artistry, aesthetic, and craftsmanship.

    These exceptional works of art, these flawless, precise, well-tuned firearms are pieces of living history that, as he has written, “yearn to be carried.”

    Carol Davis, Out Here editor, wants to learn engraving.

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