Have you ever wanted to build your own custom muzzleloader? Now you can…and it’s easier than you think!
by the ShootingDaily staff
Whether you like to hunt with a muzzleloading rifle or simply appreciate the art that goes into handcrafting every load you send downrange, you no doubt enjoy the slower-paced, lower-cost challenge that comes from shooting this iconic American firearm. There is a certain charm in hunting and target shooting with the same style long guns our ancestors used over a century ago. Sure, we appreciate the benefits of modern firearms technology in the field and on the bench, but for maximum fun and gratification, nothing beats dropping big-game with powder and ball shot from a 19th century style rifle. Now imagine the thrill of harvesting a big-game animal with a muzzleloader you built yourself. You can do it, and do it easier than you think thanks to the folks at Traditions Firearms.
You may know Traditions Firearms for their top-end inline muzzleloading rifles—from the entry level Buckstalker to the technologically advanced Vortek StrikerFire—but the company also has deep roots in the traditional side of the muzzleloading arena, offering a variety of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Hawken-style long arms in both sidelock percussion and flintlock ignitions. The cool thing is, Traditions Firearms has several of these style rifles as build-your-own kits.
My first muzzleloader was a .50 caliber Hawken percussion rifle made by Traditions Firearms that I bought in 1996. I love it and still hunt with it every year. I’m a romantic sort when it comes to hunting. I enjoy hunting with traditional recurve bows and longbows, and have made several of them over the years. This year, I decided it was time that I fill the last void in my traditional hunting arsenal with a rifle I have always wanted—a sleek, long-barrel Kentucky percussion muzzleloader. Furthermore, I wanted to make good on my dream of building one myself. Perusing through the Traditions Firearms website, I found exactly what I was looking for—a .50 caliber percussion Kentucky rifle kit.
Like all of Tradition Firearms’ do-it-yourself kits, the Kentucky rifle I selected comes with every component you need to assemble a fully functional firearm. Lest you think that all there is to the process is to screw the pieces together and you’re done, think again. You have to get it all to work and complete the final finishing.
I don’t say that to scare you off. On the contrary, the “unfinished” work Traditions Firearms leaves to you is a bonus because it allows you to engage with the process of building a muzzleloader and understanding how the rifles work.
For example, the stock and forearm pieces are pre-shaped and inletted. The wood is raw and final sanding and finishing is required. Nevertheless, every metal part must be pre-fitted into the wood and additional chiseling and sanding may be necessary in order for the parts to not only fit in the stock, but also to ensure that all the parts work properly with each other.
Fitment starts with the sidelock. My sidelock would not fit into its inlet, so I had to shave some wood to get it to seat snugly into place. Tweaking the inletting so that the components fit is not difficult if you have the proper tools, it just is a slow and deliberate process that can’t be rushed. As with most fine woodworking projects, you take a little off, test fit, and then take a little more off until everything fits just right. You can always take wood off—you can’t put it back on.
You don’t need a lot of tools for the inletting adjustments. For my stock, I used, to varying degrees, a utility knife blade, a 3/8-inch wood chisel, and my Dremel tool with a metal cutter. Although a Dremel tool is not necessary, it can help speed up the wood removal process in certain areas. You just have to be careful not to let it get away from you.
Once I had the sidelock plate snug in place, the next step was to fit the barrel to the stock. The barrel sat almost perfectly in its inletting, but it was too far forward—the bolster did not sit concentric to its cutout in the sidelock plate. In addition, when I installed the nipple onto the bolster and allowed the hammer to drop forward, the nipple hit the hammer shroud instead of hitting the center of the hammer face. That would never do. The only remedy was to move the barrel back about 1/16 to 3/32 of an inch. This required taking off some wood where the barrel breech plug contacted the stock, and lengthening the tang groove. Again, a bit of chiseling and Dremel work got everything aligned just right.
Once you have the stock, barrel, and trigger assembly pre-fitted, the forestock fitment is relatively simple. In fact, the only major woodwork my forearm required was some sanding across both top edges so that it would better blend with the butt joint of the stock. I also had to slightly deepen the two stock joining pin holes so that the stock and forestock butt joint fit flat against the stock joining plate.
The buttplate brass came pre-installed on the stock, and required only some aggressive sanding of the stock to blend the wood to the metal. The final wood adjustment came with the trigger guard fitment. I had to remove about 1/8 of an inch of wood from the forward trigger guard inlet in order to make it fit snug.
The last major pre-fitment piece was the brass nose cap. This item fits over the end of the forestock and ties both the forestock and the barrel together. The nose cap is a cast piece of brass (not machined), and mine would not fit over the wood or the barrel. In order to make it fit, I had to file down the cast edges and use a large, flat file to reduce the areas where the cap fit over the rifle flats. Once more, this was not a difficult job, just a deliberate one.
The objective of the pre-fitting stage is to make sure the rifle is perfectly assembled and operating as it should BEFORE moving on to the final finish and assembly. If there are any problems you need to address, you want to take care of them now and not after you’ve stained and finished the wood and browned or blued your barrel.
Speaking of the barrel, you’ll get some good experience in metal finishing and dovetail joining with your kit. The barrel comes completely unfinished, or “in the white.” This means it is raw steel with only the dovetail cutouts made for the front and rear sight, and the two barrel tenons. The task of bluing/browning and component installation is on you.
First, a bit about the dovetail joining. The pieces to be joined to the barrel (sights and tenons) are slightly too large to be drifted into the barrel dovetails. Some metal reduction is required. The good news is that this is an easy process. I used a combination of a flat file and emery cloth to reduce (gradually!) the bottom of the dovetail bases. The objective is to sand the fitted part to where it can be pushed by hand into the barrel about a third of the way (or slightly less), and then use a hammer and brass punch to fully seat the part into place.
To be honest, this was the part of the process that had me a little concerned. In the end, I had no reason to be. The only problem I had was that I got in a hurry and took off too much base from my rear sight—so much so that I could almost install it onto the barrel by hand. That is entirely too loose. Dovetail joints like this rely on an interference fit to work properly. That means you need to hammer the components into place the final two-thirds of the way. The important thing is to modify only the components being fitted, NOT THE BARREL. If you file on and mess up the barrel dovetail, there is no fix. Mess up one of the components and simply get a new one. That’s exactly what I did. After sanding too much from the bottom of my rear sight, I called Traditions Firearms’ customer service department and ordered a new one. In fact, you can call the company and order any part from your kit in case you make a mistake as I did. That should provide you with a little more confidence as you take on this project.
The trickiest part of the build is pinning the barrel tenons to the forestock. The tenons are the two flat pieces on the bottom of the barrel. Once you put the barrel and forestock together, you drill a hole perpendicular to the forestock, through the tenon, and out the other side of the forestock. You do this for both tenons. Next, you drive a .118-inch pin through the stock and tenon, effectively securing the stock and barrel together. In order to drill these perpendicular holes, you must take precise measurements. With a tape measure and caliper (nice, but not necessary), I took my measurements, used a hand drill, and centered the holes perfectly.
One note of experience here; the instructions call for using a #32 drill bit in order to make the .188-inch hole for the barrel tenon pins. I looked everywhere and could find no such bit. I ended up drilling with a 5/64-inch bit and used a small, round needle file to enlarge the holes in the forestock and tenons enough to provide an interference fit with the tenon pins. As with the dovetail components, an interference fit means you must drive the parts into place, not put them in place with hand pressure. Hand pressure fitment means the parts are too loose and will not work or may fall out.
Once you have everything together and working properly, the rest of the project comes down to finishing the wood and barrel. This means staining and sealing the wood with a protective coating, and treating the barrel for rust prevention. For this stage, I went with Birchwood-Casey products across the board. Birchwood-Casey offers time-proven products designed specifically for use by gun builders. The instructions are clear, and you can download a helpful brochure that will take you through the final stretch of your project. I went with the Plum Brown barrel treatment instead of conventional bluing for the barrel because it was a more authentic finish for this style rifle. It proved to be quite an experience, but not as difficult as I had imagined. My results weren’t perfect (I could use a third round of Plum Brown application), but the slightly mottled patina I got from two coats gives my gun a weathered, antique look that I really like.
In all, I found this project to be even more rewarding than I first thought it would be. The amount of work required was somewhat greater than I expected, but it gave me a real sense of what it takes to build one of these classic American firearms, and seriously enhanced the satisfaction of making something I can use year-round. A Traditions Firearms muzzleloader kit also makes a great showpiece for your den, and as a gift for the do-it-yourself type (think Father’s Day, birthdays, or Christmas). This is one present that won’t get stuck in a closet.
Now I can’t wait to get to the range and fine-tune my DIY Kentucky long rifle. Better yet, I can’t wait until hunting season rolls around!
If you want to see a quick overview of the build process, check out this video…
article copyright 2016 by HuntDaily.com; promoted by Traditions Firearms