Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Ryckman Family Rifle by Eric Kettenburg

This rifle has descended through a family group located in Ohio at the time of the 1820 Federal Census, and by1840 located further southwest in Missouri.  The current owner and family members are residents of Utah, and have been residents there since the early 20th century, so it would appear that this rifle has moved steadily west since the time it was built.  Allegedly, the original owner - Jost Ryckman - was farming property in the “Sourlands” of Hunterdon County, NJ following the Revolution, so a Pennsylvania origin would not be out of the question as Hunterdon Co. is on the Delaware River between NJ and PA and proximate to Easton.  Stylistically, however, there is nothing that points to a specific origin or maker.

This is a very stout piece, quite robust through the wrist and butt, and manufacture in the 1750s or 1760s would not be implausible.  The stocking appears to follow the general style of a step-wrist rifle and the design/termination of the lower butt molding tends to reinforce this observation, but the use of a fowler-style guard has mandated the modification of the ‘step’ into a slight fish-belly.  The majority of the brass furnishings evince secondary usage as a “parts gun:”  the buttplate has been cut down from a piece originally made with a longer comb return, and there are a few extremely faint lines of original engraving visible that were not removed in the reshaping; the triggerguard is of a rare style (only three extant, to my knowledge) believed to have been a commercial trade product of German or low countries origin; the sideplate is definitely shaped from a slightly larger and longer piece which at one point utilized a secondary retention screw, now plugged with a pewter or lead slug.

There are no markings on the lock or barrel indicating origin.  The lock plate is of thick brass and makes use of a detached pan, stylistically (what is left of it) probably dating to the mid 18th century.  The barrel is currently 36 1/2” in length, but has been cut by approximately 3/4” at the breech (when converted to percussion) and moved rearward in the stock, while I believe there has also been approximately 1/2” or more trimmed from the muzzle, given the closeness of the front sight to the end of the barrel.  There remains a fairly substantial muzzle flare, nevertheless, so I suspect not much more than this amount was removed.  As befits such an early rifle, the large bore is approximately .60 caliber rifled with a coned or funneled muzzle.  The rear sight has been moved forward and the original dovetail filled with a piece of stamp-decorated brass.  The nose cap is a simple thin sheet brass wrap, but given the shortening of the barrel and the somewhat abrupt reshaping around the forward portion of the forestock, it is surely not original and it’s now impossible to say what type of nose cap may have originally been present.

Originally, this rifle carried a wooden box.  Much of the original mortise remains, running clear to the inside of the buttplate and well forward of the present brass box lid.  It was cut with straight side walls and a rounded, gouge-cut floor as well as a rounded, gouge-cut sloping forward termination.  At some point during this rifle’s lifetime, the stock was “slabbed off” to create a large flat plateau, and the present heavy cast-brass box was installed.  The brass box is in two pieces - a large surround and a captured lid - both with integral cast tabs which act to hold a pivot pin.  This box clearly once had an attached release mechanism that was riveted/screwed to the rear of the surround as well as a lid kick spring also riveted or screwed to the surround, with a catch riveted through the lid and a push rod through the heel of the buttplate.  This was all removed at some point, however, and the present crude catch and spring installed which are much more obtrusive (into the mortise) and much more simplistic.  Perhaps this was some manner of “frontier repair?”  All that remains of the original release mechanism are the plugged mounting holes.  The box itself is incredibly sturdy, but it’s installation and heavy flattening of the stock has reduced the overall width of the butt.  Originally, I would estimate the buttplate as being a full 2” to 2 1/8” in width, but it is now slightly less than 2” due to the very obvious material removal on the lock side.

The stocking is fairly plain although there are simple carved moldings around the lock panels and breech.  This design seems quite reminiscent, in fact, of German martial rifles of the mid-18th century and perhaps the gun stocker had some degree of experience in stocking-up such work.  I can only assume that the brass tack decoration was added at some point in the 19th century as the rifle moved west.  Also, it appears that there was a diamond-shaped wrist escutcheon present at one point but it has since been lost or removed; it is not possible to determine whether or not this escutcheon was original to the rifle, but it appears to have been slightly off-center on the wrist so perhaps it was a later addition.  Likewise, the crude punch/dot decoration on the box and sideplate seem more likely to be later owner additions.

The forearm experienced heavy wear and there is a very crude but sturdy copper sheet overlay added to cover a large crack or hole into the ramrod channel.  Careful examination through the entry pipe leads me to believe there is a hole present, but I can not say with 100% certainty.  There is a small crack extending out from the rear of the overlay for perhaps 1/4” to 3/8”, so this would tend to verify what I think I am seeing and the reason for the protective wear plate.  There is also a very interesting copper wire-wrap repair at the forward post of the trigger guard.  It is definitely wrapped, pinned and soldered, so it would seem there may have been a crack or break at the forward guard post in need of repair.  The ramrod is likely an old replacement and appears to have been made at the same time as the guard repair, for the muzzle portion of the rod is reinforced with an identical copper wire wrap.  Finally, there is at least one complete break through the forearm that was glued a very long time ago.  Viewed in entirety, this rifle displays an exceptionally long campaign of use, modification and repair, yet has managed to span the intervening years intact and presents us with a lost novel waiting for an eager voice to tell its tale.

Copy and photos by Eric Kettenburg. 


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