One of the most frequently asked questions I get is “How far do we go to restore this gun?” Of any question a customer can ask, that’s the toughest one to answer. There is no “standard” out there or Bear Scout Guidebook to turn to. The question involves desires of the owner as well as the ethics of the owner and the restoration artisan.
The most fragile part of a long gun and usually the first thing to break in it’s life cycle is the fore end. Literally thousands of long guns have suffered this fate. I commend the original gunsmith who did a nice job whacking off the broken part and installing a nice entry nose cap and ramrod rib. He was responsible for getting it back to useable condition as a halfstock rifle, and it eventually ended up in a collector’s hands instead of a dump.
I’ve had numerous customers bring me their grandfathers’ half-stock rifle and ask me to stretch the stock back to full length. The first determination to be made is whether the rifle ever was full length or not. This can be a challenge, but the dead give-away is file marks on the bottom side of the barrel that don’t show on the top. Every good gun maker of yesteryear finished the exposed bottom of a half stock just like the top and the file marks would never have shown on the finished rifle It gets deeper.
Many times the gunsmith who cut the full-stock down to a half-stock removed the file marks, added a ramrod rib and nose cap. He then blended the barrel in to look right. So we have to dig a little deeper. A true full-stock rifle would have holes or divots under the ramrod rib where the original barrel lugs were. That’s the final trail to follow. In the video “Restoring The American Long Rifle” you’ll see an example of me going that far to prove the rifle was originally a full-stock. The collector who owned the rifle already knew it from the history of the gun, but I wasn’t comfortable with it until I saw the holes under the rib. In the picture below, you can see that there are only the single screw holes that hold the under rib to the barrel. No divots, dovetails or double screw holes, it was made as a half stock.
Antique Rifle Restoration Should Be Kept Original
By now you’re probably asking yourself why I’m beating this half-stock to full-stock thing to death. It’s because it is the most common restoration I do and also puts us in the big ethical dilemma “How far do we go?” The golden rule here is that we never, ever change history. If the rifle was originally a half-stock, it must finish it’s days in a collection as a half-stock. To stretch it back out would alter it’s original architecture and is considered a crime against history.
Removing original patina is considered by most to be taboo. I agree with this to a certain extent. Everyone should know there is a distinct difference between patina and active rust. Many collectors worship patina and don’t know the difference between patina and active rust. Patina is natural discoloration caused by light surface rust, general crud, and old finish. Active rust is an enemy to any gun that should be stopped.
I’m not saying a gun needs to be stripped down to bare metal, but the rust must be stopped and a general appearance of color and wear remaining. This is preservation, plain and simple. Most modern gunsmiths live by the same creed, whereby they won’t “grind down” the sharp corners before they re-blue a modern gun.
Finish on the wood is another bone of contention. I’ve had many collectors bring a rifle in for a wood repair and they tell me “Don’t disturb the original finish”. That, in itself, is laughable. How can I replace that broken sliver of wood and not disturb the finish? A lot of collectors out there don’t realize that many of these antique rifles have little or no finish on them at all. They might be dark in color but they are dry rotting right before our very eyes. An easy test to do here is to wet your finger and dab it on the stock. If the wetness soaks right into the wood, the wood needs to be coated with something to preserve it. Linseed oil is the most common finish to use and it will save that stock for future generations to enjoy. I can find dozens of examples of what should never be done in a restoration project, but the bottom line here is that we should never alter the original architecture of the gun. A long rifle should only be restored to the point that it looks like it was generally well cared for. Yes, there will be scratches and dings, but that is history.
by Dan Breitenstein