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Arsenal Artisans

Building, restoring firearms
revives forgotten craft

Gun makers young and old share their passion
for creating, selling, displaying these period pieces

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

January 2010 Kentucky Edition Cover

January 2010
Kentucky Edition Cover

(January 2010) – Patrick Thevenow has an unusual hobby in which most 19-year-olds aren’t interested. Building antique firearms, such as an 18th century muzzleloader, can keep him fascinated for hours at a time
“I first got interested in muzzleloaders at age 16,” said the Madison, Ind., resident. Wanting his own rifle, he bought a percussion piece but had originally set his sights on a flintlock rifle.
It took Thevenow one year to build a flintlock, but it was well worth the time and effort, he said. He now has a custom-built, a one-of-a-kind gun that represents many things in his life.
Because it was a custom piece, it took a lot of time putting it together, he said. He embellished the gun with some hand carving and a bit of engraving on the brass pieces. On building his first gun, “I jumped into it blindly,” he said.
The gun is fully functional and he uses it to target shoot and when hunting this past fall. “A lot of pride goes into making a gun,” he said.
For now, gun building is a hobby for Thevenow. Although it’s not the norm, there are several younger gun builders around who are interested in this once highly sought after profession.
There are younger individuals interested in this old-time craft, but they do not live locally, said Terri Trowbridge, Director of Publications for the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA). “Unless kids are around someone else that does it, there’s not a lot of opportunity to apprentice with someone who builds guns,” she said.
Building a gun requires precision, patience and discipline – qualities that have made people like Paris, Ky., gun maker Frank House and Jamestown, Ky., gun maker Mel Hankla, nationally known figures. Once people see the appeal of the craft, “I think there will be more and more interest in gun making. Interest in old time crafts (butter churning, weaving, etc.) are on the rise,” Trowbridge said, because kids are “not learning these old time skills anymore.”

Patrick Thevenow

Photo by Don Ward

Patrick Thevenow of Madison, Ind.,
works on a gun during Lanier Days, a
re-enactment event held last June on
the lawn of the Lanier Mansion.

That is one reason the NMLRA sponsors the annual Lore of the Laughery event – to draw more attention to a past historical era with live demonstrations and re-enactments. There is a resurgence in the appeal of the 18th century lifestyle with events such as Lore of the Laughery, the Fair at New Boston, Mississinewa, and the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, she said.
Gun making would appeal to a younger crowd if they could get exposure to it, Trowbridge went on to say. Gun making, in a sense, is a labor of love for the builder. Many people do not realize a “custom gun builder takes a piece of wood and makes a gun out of it,” she said.
A student at Butler University, near Indianapolis, Thevenow is one member of a younger generation who has been well aware of this for some time. His uncle, Charles Henry, introduced him to muzzleloaders. “I’ve always been interested in history,” he said, and the two just went hand in hand.

Antique Firearm Shows
and Trade Fairs

• 14th Annual Contemporary Longrifle Association Show & Meeting, Aug. 20-21, 2010, Lexington, Ky. Visit: www.LongRifle.ws.

• Revolutionary War & Civil War Trade Fair, Feb. 26-27, 2010, Eagle Lake Convention Center, Lawrenceburg, Ky. Visit: www.SaltRiverLongRifles.org.

The personal aspect of the historical time period was another factor that compelled Thevenow to focus on reproducing guns from the 1770s to 1780s era. He is aware of an ancestor that fought in the Revolutionary War and was in the colonies before there was a United States of America. His sixth great grandfather was present at the Siege of Boonesborough in 1778.
Thevenow said it is the “history of it all” that ties him to the guns. The hobby may seem overwhelming at first, he said, but once involved he advises anyone to “go for it.”
Thevenow, who turns 20 in January, said he has a small library of books on the craft of gun making. “I like the art of them.” Period guns are “not like typical rifles, they are more of an art form; not just steel and plastic.”
To learn first-hand what he couldn’t gather from reading in books, Thevenow took a Traditional Arts & Arms Making Workshop in October 2009 at Conner Prairie Interactive Historical Park in Fishers, Ind. Demonstrators and instructors from all over the country participate in this workshop, said Conner Prairie interpreter and veteran gun maker, John Weston.

John Weston

John Weston, an interpreter and veteran gun maker, teaches gun making classes at Conner Prairie Interactive Historical Park in Fishers, Ind.

Although “the curriculum changes a little every year, classes are offered based on skills for 18th and 19th century trades and crafts,” said Weston. He has been employed at Conner Prairie for 27 years.
Weston “had an interest all my life in guns.” His curiosity began at an early age when his grandfather took him hunting and target shooting.
He learned a lot from retired Conner Prairie instructor John Schippers, who now resides in Noblesville, Ind. Weston, 55, said that in constructing his first three or four rifles, “I found I was pretty good at it. It’s important to have a good mentor.”
Men and women of all ages come to Conner Prairie to learn gun making, he said. Most are made completely from scratch or from high-end kits. Classes are given on how to make powder horns, hunting pouches, leather working, tinsmithing, knives and tomahawks, just to name a few 18th century accoutrements.
Thevenow learned a lot from such hands-on workshops and reading constantly about the craft of gun making. He also goes to Friendship, Ind., twice a year for their annual shoots to find gun parts and just to meet people who are knowledgeable about antique firearms.
Jay Kell is a Salem, Ind., living history re-enactor who has watched his father build guns for the last 40 years with antique hand tools. This past summer was the first time he had attempted to make one on his own from scratch.
He crafted a “parts gun,” so called because during the 1760s-1780s, colonial gunsmiths had trouble importing gun parts from England. They made their own parts or used whatever parts were available to them. Kell’s is a higher end restocked trade gun.
“Building a gun on your own with whatever skill level and tools you have gives you a clear look that not every gun was perfect, but they were perfect to the builder,” said Kell, 40. “Whether you hand-stitch a piece of clothing, hand-dye some fabric, or scrape a gun stock or powder horn, it gives you a great sense of accomplishment, and a glimpse of what those early builders had to do, not chose to do.”

John Weston

Photo courtesy of Conner Prairie

John Weston works in his gun
making shop at Conner Prairie. He
said he had a lifelong interest in
guns but had a good mentor in
learning to make them.

Jack Haugh of Milan, Ind., has seen his share of antique and reproduction firearms over the years. At age 79, Haugh guessed he has made “thousands” of guns. He focuses on guns of the 18th century to the 21st century.
Raised in Ohio, Haugh’s passion for gun making began when he just wanted to make a gun for himself. “The only way I could afford one was to make it myself,” he said. By doing so, he learned the right and wrong way to construct a gun.
Like Thevenow, Haugh has relied on books and his own interest to guide him through the process of crafting a gun from scratch. “I always loved history. I like the 18th century the very best.”
Haugh believes very few younger individuals are interested in gun making because the interest has to “come from the home. If kids are not taught the values of history at home, they’re not going to love it.”
And this love translates into his life-long fascination for antique firearms. He once had a contract with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to build 100 guns. He credits the Contemporary Longrifle Association with “doing more for gun making than anybody.”
“There’s always a gun maker out there,” said Haugh. And after 55 years in the business, he should know.

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