Thoughts of aKentucky Gunmaker
Featuring – HershelC. House
By Dr. Wm. E.Greenlee
As an introduction to the antique gunsmithing of Hershel C.House from Woodbury, Kentucky, it can be said that there seems to be abackwoods streak in his personality and value system that is reflected in hisiron mounted Appalachian guns and his primitive life style. It is hard to putlabels on how his guns are obviously unique, but there is a mystique to thefeel, lines, and shoot-ability of each one. No two works of art are the same.Hershel is able to capture the total perspective of each school or style aswell as being able to put himself in the shoes of each historical rifle smith.He has developed this unusual skill and sixth sense through judicious research,study, and examination of collections. Artistic talent is genetically one ofhis gifts that separate his end product from those produced with onlymechanical aptitude. In interviewing Hershel, he feels strongly about hispurpose in creating a rifle in that he prefers for a customer to use the gunrather than retire it as a wall hanger. The number of Hershel House signed gunsthat can be seen in rough use at Friendship is evidence of their utility andalso is gratifying to the objective of keeping the spirit of black powdershooting alive.
In observing his process of gunsmithing, it was noted thathe avoids the use of most shop power tools. It is a common misconception ofthose who wish to build their first guns that these are necessary. His shop isnothing more than an old smokehouse out back with only the bare necessitiessuch as many hand tools, hand held power drill, etc. A converted shed houseshis blacksmith shop where he beats out some of the finest iron furniture usedon most of his Virginia, Carolina and Tennessee guns. Using the forge to weldand harden lock parts is all done the old-time way.
Hershel emphasized that a beginner in the black powderfraternity can realistically build his own flintlock rifle by thorough readingof credible publications, securing a set of accurate blueprints, and investingin a good quality pictorial book of museum rifles and pistols. Without thisfoundation even the most talented individual will produce a gun whose lines arewrong and whose furniture is inappropriately mixed. It should be pointed outthat there are two schools of thought on the above opinion. Some believe thatone should be creative and make his own style; however, Hershel’s philosophyreflects his love and in-depth knowledge of the history and developmentsequence of the flintlock era. Obviously, no one is totally correct in thecontroversy but a person can only respect the congruent behavior and endproduct of a Hershel house gun. They are truly a work of art and a love of labor.
A second recommendation is to purchase some basic hand toolsin hardware stores such as rasps, files, assorted chisels, power hand drill andbits, decent screw drivers, sand paper, carbon paper for inletting, and anExacto knife. They apply a lot of elbow grease. Hershel stated that all hismajor mistakes he had made in his gun work were due to the use of power tools.The reason for this is that a person moves too fast without looking ahead andwhen the error happens it is too late which results in desperation and possiblyscrapping the project. Again, putting oneself in the shoes of sixteenth centurygunsmiths and using their simplistic techniques as close as possible temperedwith some common sense will usually end in a product that will look hand madeand avoid the plastic look of machined precision. The Southern mountain rifleor poor boy Kentucky style is probably a less frustrating gun to attempt atfirst. The average common man more that likely did not carry or could afford afancy rifle such as the presentation pieces seen in many collections.
The question of whether to use a semi precarved stock orstart with a blank is answered by determining if the beginner has the knowledgeand patience to handle the task of working a nondescript piece of wood fromscratch. It is suggested that the choice of a somewhat formed stock with thebarrel channel and ramrod areas cut can reduce the chance of error andfrustration. Choice of high quality in lock, barrel, and triggers are a mustsince most people want a shooter as well as a gun that looks reasonably well.Cutting corners on quality of parts and workmanship will lead to regreteventually. Finally, a person should not be afraid to have more experiencedamateur gunsmiths to critique his work as he goes along at different points.Errors can then be headed off and small mistakes can be corrected. The mostcommon mistakes on the first gun are to work too fast and late and not tospread out the project so there is time for inspection and incubation ofthought.
Black powder buffs are always welcome to visit Hersel’sbackyard operation and will enjoy having a cup of “river bank” coffee whilediscussing the finer points of antique gunsmithing.