When a Virginia Colonist peered through the sight of his rifle, chances are he was cradling a weapon crafted by a colonial gunsmith. The colony supported many of these multitalented tradesmen, who applied the skills of blacksmith, engraver, founder and woodworker to the crafting of fine Virginia long rifles. Although other types of firearms were used in the colonies, they were less expensive to import than to manufacture here. But beginning in the mid-18th century, Virginia-made long rifles were in demand and became the very symbol of the frontiersman.
So complex and challenging is the task of building these weapons that only a very few gunsmiths today can create a long rifle in the authentic way. The work begins at the forge, where white-hot iron is hammered and shaped in hundreds of heatings to make a barrel. After it is hand-filed it is “rifled” with seven spiraling grooves that are cut with the giant corkscrewlike rifling machine. Forging, boring and rifling the barrel take six days. And that’s just the beginning.
The complex tasks of fashioning a flintlock, inletting it and the barrel into a maple stock, casting and engraving the patchbox and completing the piece with its myriad of small parts and decorative details take hundreds of hours. It’s no wonder a colonial apprentice to the trade began his training at age 12 or 14 and wasn’t finished until he was 21.
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