If you were a man arriving in the colonial capitol of Williamsburg in the mid 18thc and had £4 in your purse, you had a number of options on where best to spend it. You could buy an entire suit of clothes—frock coat, waistcoat, and breeches; two wheels for your ox cart; or a flintlock rifle. None of these items came pre-stocked and all would require time to make; for this was, after all, a world made by hand.
In Colonial Williamsburg today, the gunsmith shop rings with the same sounds that emanated from shops like it some 250 years prior. George Suiter, Master of the Gunsmith Shop, journeyman Richard Sullivan, and apprentice Eric von Aschwege employ the time-honored traditions of hand-forging and crafting each firearm, using the raw materials of the day. Each one of these craftsmen came to Williamsburg with a love and professional knowledge of firearms making, both old and new.
George began as a hobbyist in high school, working part-time after school and on weekends in a gun shop, where he learned to make simple repairs and refinishing. In college, a friend attended a gunsmithing school in Trinidad, CO and encouraged George to come west to participate in the program.
Upon graduation, George was employed by Douglas Barrel in West Virginia, a company that made rifles and muzzleloader barrels using modern technology. All the while, George was building flintlock guns as a hobby and, through a collectors’ organization, met several like-minded folks associated with the gunsmith shop in Colonial Williamsburg. He applied for a job and, after a two-year wait, was employed as an apprentice in 1977. He is the shop’s third master and has the longest tenure.
Like many young men, his interest in flintlocks began with television programs like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, a theme that both Richard and Eric echo. When George’s father preferred he own a cartridge gun rather than the antique-inspired muzzleloader George coveted, he decided to make his own. Taking his savings to buy the parts to make one, at age fifteen, George became a budding gunsmith.
All three craftsmen admit to spending their spare time making guns as adjuncts to their occupations. It’s a labor of love for all three. A former Florida high school teacher, Richard has been a journeyman in the shop since 2009, after spending several summers working in a gun shop. Eric joined the apprenticeship program less than four months ago. He will serve an apprenticeship for four to seven years, and has begun his apprenticeship by hand-forging and crafting the tools he will need to practice gunsmithing; a task as exacting and authentic as gunsmithing itself.
Without existing documentation as to which gunsmiths may have been practicing their trade in Colonial Williamsburg in the 1700s, the current shop is the best estimate of what a typical gunsmith shop would have looked like during the period. The shop has recently relocated to Francis Street in front of the Capitol building. As is the case today, the gunsmith would have been an essential stop for folks visiting Williamsburg.
In the 18thc, much of the town’s population was farmers and folks living outside the town limits. Firearms were a necessity for protection, hunting, and militia duty. Almost everyone, including women and children, learned to shoot. Rifles, fowling pieces, and pistols were part of everyday life living on the fringe of civilization.
When parts became worn or broken, 18thc firearms did not have interchangeable parts that could be swapped out with another. Manufactured by hand, each spring, screw, lock, barrel, stock, and bullet mold was specific to that one weapon. The entire piece had to be taken to a gunsmith for repair or replacement, keeping gunsmiths busy and in high demand.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, the smoothbore fowling piece was the firearm of choice among farmers for its versatility. Factory-built in England, imported fowling pieces cost much less than colonial-made rifles. While the smoothbore musket was still the fastest to load, it had an effective range of less than 100 yards. The rifle had an effective range of 300 yards, making it infinitely desirable for the backcountry.
“Frontiersmen and farmers who relied on big game and long-range accuracy desired a rifle,” George explains. “Many frontiersmen made their living selling deerskins and needed an accurate gun at long range. Since the market for rifles was relatively small, they weren’t being imported from England, so you had to come to a shop like this one to have one made.”
From a flat bar of iron, the gun barrel was hand-forged, bored, and rifled. Rifling refers to the spiral grooves cut into the bore. Upon firing, the grooves gave the round lead bullet a spiraling motion, increasing the stability of the trajectory and its accuracy.
Fitted with a hand-carved stock and hand-forged components, this rifle was distinctly American; an amalgam of styles that developed all along the great wagon road that traversed the Great Appalachian Valley, from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and down into Georgia. Lightweight, graceful, and lethally accurate, the rifle — also referred to as the longrifle, or rifle gun, gained popularity in the backwoods.
When the Revolutionary War began, large numbers of weaponry and gunpowder were shipped into the colonies from France, so there was no need for large-scale armament manufacturing. With limited manpower and lack of a manufacturing base, Americans relied on imported weapons to support the war effort. Meanwhile American gunsmiths continued to supply the local populace as they had in the past.
Not everyone in the colonies was allowed to own guns however. Under English law, slaves, convict servants, and non-Anglican whites were barred from owning guns. Freed slaves could own a single gun. Anyone with the potential to be an enemy of the Crown and the Anglican Church was barred from gun ownership.
In the gunsmith shop today, their customer base is more diverse. Every gun hand-crafted is one-of-a-kind in both design and components. “You can come in and tell me what you want, and I’m going to measure your arms and neck and fit the gun to you,” George explains, “and then you tell me how you want it decorated. How many silver inlays for instance, and how much carving to put on the stock or barrel. Each gun requires on average four hundred man-hours to produce, and typically costs $15,000 to $20,000.” Their waiting list currently has sixty-plus names.
Their typical customer is a history lover, a gun lover, and has an appreciation for old tools and old technology. “Many are approaching retirement and have the financial resources to buy one. Instead of buying a boat or a sports car, they order a gun,” George laughs. “We do strictly 18thc flintlocks,” Richard adds, “Civil War muskets? Too new for us!”
With the exception of rough-sawn boards purchased to make the stocks, every component is manufactured from raw materials. Brass is gathered from a variety of sources, melted down, and cast into necessary components in the adjacent forge. The iron is wrought iron—the hardest material to locate due to limited availability.
“We buy it whenever we can,” says George. ”They haven’t made wrought iron in this country for fifty years. The last we bought was a ton of old iron that had been a bridge. Over the years we’ve managed to put a good deal of it away for our use and the blacksmith shop. Bar iron, a stick of wood, and scrap brass is all we need and we can make it all.”
The ring of iron being pounded into a barrel channel assaults the ears as George in-lets a rifle barrel into a gun stock blank. Coating the barrel with candle soot and oil, he taps the barrel into a barrel channel. Once removed, the spots that show as black will be removed with a chisel to achieve a perfectly tight fit. All of the gun-specific tools are handmade by the shop as well.
With saws, chisels, and spoke shaves, a large block of rough-sawn wood, typically curly maple, is transformed into the gun’s stock. Once the wood is shaped, hand-drawn relief carvings decorate the wood and the metal is engraved. It’s a labor intensive process with stunning results.
But why is the barrel so long? “For ease of loading”, Eric explains, as he demonstrates. Standing on end, the gun barrel sits at shoulder height. Held in the crook of one arm, it frees two hands for loading. A patch box in the stock holds linen patches and bear grease. A greased patch is wrapped around a bullet and rammed down the barrel.
The term “flintlock” refers to the ignition system, which relies on a piece of flint placed into a hammer-like cock. The cock falls when the trigger is pulled, the flint creating a spark as it strikes a piece of steel. The sparks fall into a gunpowder charge in an external pan. The powder ignites the main charge by passing through a small hole in the barrel, sending the bullet rifling down the barrel in a single-shot discharge.
With a healthy backlog of work, the shop’s foremost intent is the preservation of the 18thc gunsmith’s art, a skill rapidly disappearing from the American landscape. Each gun also ensures the survival of gunsmith history and the skills that were once an essential part of our colonial past.