Long Rifles and Round Balls

Long Rifles and Round Balls

If you’re a student of the rifle or a muzzleloading enthusiast this is a time machine you must ride. The journey spans over 200 years covering five generations, but unlike histories that examine most rifles, those you’ll discover here are, perhaps, out of your reach. To quote COL. Townsend Whelen, “The placing of the bullet is everything.” A statement that is equally applicable to the hunter or target shooter. Here you will see what an early gun maker did to help shooters and rifles “place the bullet” and how a modern-day gun builder continues the tradition.  

It starts in Virginia in1802 when Joseph Carper, the son of German immigrants, was born. In 1848 Joseph acquired a large tract of land in what is now West Virginia. Joseph made a trade for the land; one rifle for all you could see form a high point that overlooked the New River Gorge. It’s hard to say exactly how much land this involved, and interesting to argue how a century old transaction of this nature would hold up in court. Of more importance is the fact that Joseph built the rifle traded for this land. Legend has that it was a stunning piece decorated with silver and muscle shell from the New River. On the land, Joseph built a gun shop and a home for his family. Today, the property obtained via this trade makes up a Park that is part of the New River Gorge National River. It is called “Grandview”, the name bestowed upon this scenic mountain expanse by Joseph. This area has been preserved for future generations…the whereabouts or later history of the rifle involved in this trade are unknown.

An original Carper Rifle (top) and a Walker Rifle (bottom)

A rifle worth so much must have been something. Fact is, Carper rifles were frequently banned from many pioneer shooting events and a Carper rifle won top prize at Virginia’s State Fair when a state fair was a genuinely important event.  The excellence of these rifles did not go unnoticed by the Government either. During the Civil War (Or the War of “Northern Aggression” as it is often referred to in the South.) Yankee Cavalry descended upon Grandview. Carper’s brothers were away serving in a Confederate Sharpshooter Battalion leaving only Joseph, his wife, and a small boy on the farm. Northern troops torched the gun shop.  

One story concerning the siege of “Grandview” by Union troops has been passed down through the generations. It seems a soldier was probing a butter churn with his bayonet under the guise of looking for gun-parts. Later, as he rode from the farm, he was licking the blade like a Popsicle. Certainly, a gesture tasteful only to the blue belly.  

Joseph Carper

A stroke took Joseph’s life in 1880 while he was working in his gun shop. His son Samuel, a witness to the Union Army raid, finished the rifle that Joseph was working on and continued to make rifles until 1927. This was well into the age of the smokeless cartridge, the 3000 fps 250 Savage, and the 30.06. Why would a gunmaker continue to make rifles far eclipsed in technology for that many years?  Simple: Demand. Carper rifles were marvelously accurate because the barrels were rifled by hand, but today there are only a handful of Carper rifles in existence. John Walker, a fifth-generation descendant of Joseph, has two of those original rifles and he knows where most of the others are. But more importantly Walker builds traditional styled muzzleloaders the same way his ancestors did. 

Walker grew up in the shadow of his grandfather, an accomplished outdoorsman.  His father was a talented wood worker and these influences in conjunction with the Carper legacy steered John to develop an interest in hunting, firearms, and gun building. His uncle still had some of the gun making tools used by the Carpers and after intense study and dubious research John crafted a barrel-rifling machine that emulated the Carper design. The process by which these barrels are rifled would make modern manufacturers like Douglas and Krieger eye them like a rabid skunk. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Walker has found the golden goose and managed to duplicate the process that made the Carper rifle such a tack driving frontier tool worth a vast expanse of real estate and drew the intervention of the Union Army. But, before the “cat is let out of the bag” or the secret as to why these rifles shoot so well is at large, an explanation of the machine that rifles these barrels and the process involved is in order.

Walker rifling a muzzleloading barrel by hand – the old way.

The main component of the machine is a wooden gear six inches in diameter and 4 feet long. This “fence post” has been reverse rifled. Walker cut narrow grooves into this post by hand that snake around its entire length. These grooves spiral around the pole just like rifling through the barrel. To one end of the gear a handle is attached, and a chuck is fastened to the other. This allows the gear to be pulled through a guide at the end of the base while another guide, fixed between the post and chuck rides the base and keeps the mechanism straight.

A steel rod is attached to the chuck. On the end of this rod a length of hickory, similar to a short ramrod, is secured. A portion of this hickory shaft is split lengthwise and steel cutting blades are pinned above this spit. Walker crafts his own cutting blades to dimensions taken from artifacts found on the grounds of the original Carper gun shop. A barrel is clamped to the base in front of the chuck and the rod is inserted through the barrel leaving the cutter protruding from the end of the barrel opposite the chuck. Then, the cutter can be pulled through the barrel and then pushed back, cutting one groove at a time. As needed, shims are inserted into the split in the hickory to deepen the groove made by the cutter.  The entire process is an event that is invisible to the builder requiring a talented “touch”. Walker says it takes about eight hours to rifle a barrel. When I asked how he knew each groove was deep enough he replied, “I stop when it feels right.”  

The cutter that creates the rifling grooves inside the barrel.

Original Carper rifles were usually less than 40 caliber and relied on what would be, by today’s standards, a very tight twist for round balls. Contrary to the opinion of many, a tight twist will shoot round balls accurately but the velocity range that will stabilize a round ball narrows as the twist tightens. Above anything, Walker wanted exceptional round ball accuracy but he also wanted a rifle that offered a larger bore diameter than original Carpers, and one that would shoot heavy cast bullets with hunting accuracy. Walker settled on .45 caliber and a 1 in 51-inch twist.

Now, lets step away for a moment into the reality of today. A top quality manufactured muzzleloading rifle barrel can be had for a couple hundred bucks.  Green Mountain and Douglas make barrels for muzzleloaders that are considered by many to be first rate. So what, you may ask, other than nostalgia, is the point of making your own?  

Fresh off the hand-rifling machine; notice how narrow the grooves in the barrel are.

First of all, Walker competes regularly with his rifles and the Alvin C. York Memorial Shoot Every held in Pall Mall, TN is one of his favorites. It’s like the muzzleloading Olympics. Hundreds of shooters flock there every year to prove their rifles are the most accurate muzzleloaders on the planet. Most of these guns are heavy “chunk” guns, designed to be shot over a log. Some weigh 20 pounds or more! Open sights and round balls are all that is permitted. Looking to win, Walker tried barrels from Green Mountain, Douglas, and Getz, but with a patched round ball he found that none of these offered accuracy as consistent as his or original Carper rifles. This discovery convinced Walker that the reputation the Carper Rifle had obtained was well earned. The secret lay in the geometry of the rifling and the slow tedious process, that in effect laps the bore as it cuts the groves.

With one of his hunting rifles, wearing a barrel of his design, Walker attended this shoot in 1998 and placed “in the beef” or top 40. No trophies are awarded at this shoot; various portions of beef are distributed to the top 40 shooters, which is a respectable and much more useful prize than any medal, plaque or plastic figurine.  

Walker, loading between shots, at the Alvin C. York Match.

To understand why the Carper technique is so effective at shooting patched round balls you first must understand what is wrong with the design of modern muzzleloading barrels. Modern muzzleloading barrels very much resemble barrels for jacketed or cast bullets in modern cartridge guns. They consist of wide grooves and narrow lands. This works perfectly for jacketed bullets that are sized to the “groove to groove” dimension. The wide groove offers a large bearing surface, and the narrow land gets the bullet spinning with minimal distortion. A patched round ball needs the same treatment but this type barrel cannot provide it.

The bearing surface for a patched round ball is not found in the groove but is the area between the land and the ball separated by patch. The weave of the patch grabs the ball as it slightly swells during bullet exit applying pressure to that bearing surface. A ball does not expand down into the entire depth of the groove like a cast or conical bullet does. A wide groove needs too much patch and the ball cuts the patch at the outside corners of the lands.  This need for patch means balls end up being well under bore size to allow for thick patches in hopes of preventing the “pinch cut” at the corner of the land and the burn through the wide groove will produce.

The Carper method is the exact opposite. To start with, grooves are narrow allowing only a smidgen of patch to enter the groove when the ball is loaded, just enough to relay the spin of the rifling to the ball. A narrow groove does not allow as much burn through and does not require such a thick patch to fill the gap.   The wide lands mean that the bearing surface is greater and more of the patch’s weave is impressed into the ball. This all means that a ball closer to the size of the land-to-land diameter or bearing surface can be used, because a thinner patch can be used. If round balls swelled to fill the bore like conical bullets do, none of this would matter. Round balls need the patch, and the patch needs the wide bearing surface to protect it.

So, just as with modern bullets in modern barrels, what you have is maximum bearing and minimal distortion. Not with the bullet, but the patch! The patch is the key and that is what a round ball gun must be made to harmonize with. Of course the smoothness of the bore helps maintain patch integrity during loading and shooting. Walker says that this rifling technique leaves accuracy “…up to the shooter; you are only limited by your ability.” Walker rifles have won more West Virginia State Metallic Muzzleloading matches than any other rifle. Some of them Walker was shooting.

This is what a round ball patch should look like after it has been fired in a muzzleloader. Notice there is no burn through at all.

It is also interesting that Walker’s rifles shoot cast bullets, like the Hornady Great Plains, just as well as most modern in-line muzzleloaders shoot aerodynamically designed sabot projectiles. Walker claims “luck” but by trail and error he managed to stumble on a rifling configuration and twist-rate that offers better than acceptable hunting accuracy with heavy cast bullets. Funny thing, 200 years of technological advancements and the old way works just as good as the new.

Walker and Melvin Forbes of New Ultra Light Arms, another WV gun maker, share a mutual respect though their muzzleloading rifles are completely different in every area except performance. For 2004 New Ultra Light Arms introduced the Model 209, a less than five-pound in-line muzzleloader. Melvin commented to me that the rifling technique Walker uses is purely traditional and most importantly produces a smooth barrel. According to Melvin, “He doesn’t cut the metal out of those barrels, he worries it out.”

Just how good do Walker’s rifles shoot? Check out this target.

Walker does not build guns to sale or for the purpose of making money to feed his family. He builds them because he wants to. He has only sold a couple over the years, with most given to friends and family. Walker is the only gun maker I know that picks his customer as opposed to the customer picking him. “Every rifle that leaves here is like one of my kids. I want it to be used like a rifle should be used, not left hanging on a mantle.”

Walker’s talent is not limited to rifling barrels, he has become an all-around accomplished rifle builder and has been designated a Master Artist by the State of West Virginia. He prides himself is his ability to accurately copy the original Southern Mountain style of iron furnished rifles.

Walker at work in his shop, CIRCA 2012

A few “Pennsylvania” or dressed up rifles have left his shop, but he prefers the “poor-boy” design or those that emulate the cap or flintlocks originally made in the Southern Allegany Mountains.  He forges the iron furniture like trigger guards, butt plates, and cap boxes, for all his rifles. Walker does little engraving on the metal work, relying mostly on an acid etching technique also used by the Carpers.  

If you enjoy a challenge, call Walker up and try to pry him into building you a rifle.  Good luck! On the other hand, he will be glad to talk with you and share what he has learned building rifles and studying many originals. If you’re lucky enough to become the recipient of a Carper or Walker rifle, by gift, trade, luck, or money, you take what you get and feel damned fortunate to have it. It will carry with it, not only the legacy of a family of gun makers, but also a historical link to the past and a way of rifling barrels that is almost lost. 

There is one more thing:  You can be sure the rifle will “place the bullet” better than you can.

Walker with an exceptional and mature West Virginia whitetail taken with one of his rifles.

NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared in NRA’s Shooting Illustrated magazine more than 10 years ago. Since then, Walker moved to Kodiak, Alaska to run the Baptist Mission. While there, in addition to fundamentally transforming that organization into a thriving organization that offers many programs for children and adults to connect with nature. He has also started making knives – the old way – that are sold to help raise money for the Mission. These knives are called Alaskan Awfuls and represent the same quality of construction as the many rifles Walker has made. Word has it that Walker is having his old rifling machine shipped to Kodiak. This can only mean one thing; once again the Carper/Walker rifle will be made.

Several Alaskan Awful knives crafted by Johnny Walker and Company at the Kodiak Baptist Mission.

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