September 23, 2010
In the last issue, I reported seeing a Charles Boswell double rifle chambered for the .32-40 cartridge and wondered what kind of mind would not only conceive such a thing but spend serious money to have it made. It made no sense. And then I looked in the mirror.
I now have a rifle that is every bit as much a folly, in its own way, as that Boswell .32-40. And by that I mean folly in its historic sense, not in the modern meaning of mere foolishness.
A "folly" is an architectural creation that serves no purpose except decoration and to fulfill some idle desire of the (usually wealthy) man who created it. In that sense, the Boswell is a folly; it serves no useful purpose except to amuse the man who ordered it. And so is my rifle.
About four years ago I fell under the spell of the old single-shot target rifles, particularly the long-range wonders that caused jaws to drop at Creedmoor a century ago. These were magnificent creations by Rigby and Gibbs in England and by Sharps and Peabody in America. They were beautiful guns with long barrels, ladder tang sights, and fired big heavy lead bullets from straight rimmed cartridges.
I had to have one. And, since I couldn't afford a pristine original, I would have one made. The rifle was based on a Ruger No. 1 action, and from Brownells I picked up a tang sight and spirit-level front sight. If everything went smoothly in such a project, it could probably be completed in six months, but nothing ever goes smoothly. Months became years as the principals involved figured out what needed to be done and then tried to fit it into their schedules.
One immediate problem was figuring how to put a ladder tang sight on a modern action with a short tang and a safety catch. Barrel maker Danny Pedersen, who built the gun's 34-inch octagonal barrel, removed the safety (unnecessary on a target rifle) and lengthened the tang to accommodate the sight base.
For reasons that defy explanation, we decided to make this a .40-70 Straight Sharps, which set up dimension problems with the chamber, bore, brass, bullets, loading dies and expansion plugs. But that is in keeping with a classic folly. Chambering it for the .45-70 would have been practical and sensible, and we couldn't have that.
Sam Welch engraved some minimal but tasteful scroll typical of the 1890s on the receiver. Then the assembled barreled action went to stockmaker Robert Szweda, who stocked it with a blank of central Asian walnut. Choosing a blank was a delicate matter, and we pored over old photographs of Creedmoor rifles before deciding on a darkly handsome piece with firm, black grain.
Finally, the rifle was sent to Doug Turnbull, who rust blued the barrel, case hardened the lever and frame, and then polished the frame to an antique coin finish. It was finished almost four years after I conceived the idea.
As of this writing, I have fired 20 rounds through the rifle. The Bertram brass fits nicely; there are no pressure signs or indications of any dimensional problems. The bullets all hit the target in a compact cluster at 50 yards, where it is printing the group about seven inches high with the rear sight at its lowest setting.
The rifle presents a set of challenges that may already have been solved by the long-range blackpowder crowd but are new to me. However, I have assembled an impressive array of .40 caliber lead bullets and a fine collection of bullet molds. Somewhere in there lies a bullet it should really like.
Since I have no particular goal in mind for this rifle except to see what it can do, I expect it to provide diversion well into my elder years. That and look pretty as it leans nonchalantly against my bookshelf. A classic folly.