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MID-19TH CENTURY INDIAN USED PLAINS RIFLE – STRONG EVIDENCE OF PRIMITIVE NATIVE GUNSMITHING USING A HEAVY PLAINS RIFLE BARREL & G. GOULCHER PERCUSSION LOCK– WONDERFUL APPEARANCE – AN EXCELLENT HISTORIC AND EVOCATIVE FRONTIER RIFLE:  This unique example of Native American gunsmithing has survived as a true treasure of the Western Frontier.  Featuring a hand hewn stock, a very heavy plains rifle barrel, a George Goulcher percussion lock, and double set triggers, this rifle represents the sort of salvage-based gunsmithing which was very common among the Indians - a skill at which they were quite adept as evidenced by any number of surviving examples in private and public collections.   

Despite the inaccurate impressions presented by Hollywood and modern literature, the historical record of the American Frontier confirms that the majority of long guns carried by the Indians were single shot muzzleloaders.  Army records include an inventory conducted in 1879 of the firearms surrendered or seized from the hostile Indians and stored at the Quartermaster Depot at Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory.  Of the total 410 guns inventoried, 69% - 284 – were long guns, and of that 284, 56% were single shot muzzleloaders.  Many of the guns collected from the Indians on the frontier were eventually sent to, and held in a collection at the Rock Island Arsenal.  An excellent sampling of that collection can be found in Dorsey’s Guns of the Western Indian Wars (highly recommended) and the style and condition of this rifle is remarkably similar to the examples of Indian owned single shot rifles shown in that sampling.  Save for documented provenance, there is little room for doubt that this plains-style rifle was owned and carried by an Indian on the frontier.  

As stated, this rifle was created from mismatched components, work that was done in a frontier setting far from a well equipped shop staffed by a master gunsmith.  This considerable, very apparent effort resulted in a substantial, fully functional firearm that obviously continued to provide dependable service to the Indian that carried it.  The only reason that this “ugly duckling” survives today is that up to the point that it was captured, surrendered, or traded into the path that brought it to the modern collector’s market, it continued to be valued by the Indian who owned it.  To view this rifle in the context of all the fully functional, factory or gunsmith shop made firearms that were readily available to European Americans on the Western Frontier, it is obvious that this rifle was created and carried by a man living outside of that firearms market – a man who had few, if any, choices, and to whom a rifle of even this questionable pedigree meant the difference between surviving or perishing in an unforgiving environment.   While the source of the parts and the circumstances of how and where they came together has been lost to history, I am quite satisfied that a native gunsmith gathered up these useable parts from guns damaged beyond repair in order to fashion this rifle.  

Weighing over 16 pounds, and measuring 47” in overall length, this rifle follows the general lines of the classic 19th Century heavy barreled guns that were carried out on the Western Frontier by the men pursuing the fur trade. 

Dominating the overall profile, the rifle is mounted with a .50 caliber, 30” long, octagon barrel that measures 1 ¼” flat to flat.  The bulk of the rifle’s total weight of 16 pounds is represented by this barrel.  The bore features what appears to be early hand cut button rifling which presents very well at the muzzle.  The rifling is still well defined, and the while the condition of the bore is commensurate with the exterior surfaces of the barrel, the bore has not deteriorated.  The exterior of the barrel has a rich even brown naturally aged patina.  The barrel retains the original under rib and its original single ramrod ferrule.  In addition, there is a shoulder sling loop riveted to the under rib just above the forward end of the stock.  The shape of the loop is reminiscent of those shoulder sling loops found on 18TH and early 19TH Century military muskets, and whether this piece was salvaged from one of those muskets; it was original to the barrel when in its original stock; or it was fashioned by the maker of this rifle as an affectation he thought was a good idea, there is no question that a rifle of this size and heft would be easier to carry over long distances with the aid of a heavy leather sling.  

The cone in the bolster breech plug appears to be original to the rifle and has not been peened out of shape by repeated dry firing.  The front and rear sights appear to be original to the barrel as it was recovered from its original rifle.  The simple blade front sight and the buckhorn rear sight are both full form and are secure in their original mortises.  

The massive barrel is well seated in the hand carved stock, substantial in its own right and certainly up to the task of supporting the barrel’s weight and heft.  Hewn from a sizeable timber – perhaps a large framing plank salvaged from a cabin or a wagon – the stock is made in one piece and the grain is remarkably clear of knots, indicative that the maker knew what to look for when selecting the wood.  The stock was carved to shape with a large bladed knife, evidenced by the remaining large flat facets on the surface of the wood.  No attempt was made to smooth out these facets, nor give the wood surface any sort of finish.  While shaped in the general profile of the plains rifle stocks produced by skilled gunsmiths and the proportions are in keeping with the size of the barrel, the carving was limited to rendering a functional stock and when that point was reached, the maker moved on.  The inletting of the barrel channel, the lock mortise and the slot for the double set triggers are all remarkably well executed, resulting in snug fits which in turn adequately support the components.  The buttstock area is shaped quite nicely, as is the wrist, and the rifle mounts to the shoulder very naturally – again, indicative that the maker knew what he was about. 

The photographs speak for themselves, and it goes without saying that the stock shows wear and evidence of exposure commensurate with the environment in which it was used.  The forearm has a crack running along the bottom, in line with the barrel channel.  This crack is stable, causes no weakness to the stock, does not detract from the rifle, and there would be no reason to attempt to repair it.  To do so would only detract from the overall character of the rifle. 

As is usually the case, the buttstock shows the most wear, however it also incorporates some of the most interesting features of this rifle.  There is evidence of repeated exposures to the elements – perhaps where the rifle was carried in a case with the butt exposed – leaving bands of faded or bleached wood where it was exposed to sunlight, rain, and snow.  There is no indication that a butt plate was ever mounted on the buttstock – a typical Indian characteristic – and the result is that the exposed grain of the stock has experienced quite a bit of wear.  There is a toe plate fashioned from a simple iron strap which was bent around the lower corner of the butt and secured on the bottom flat of the stock and to the end grain, and it provided enough protection to prevent any serious loss of wood.  There are two large splits running with the grain for the length of the butt, but here again, both were secured during the period of use with simple, but very effective repairs.  First, an iron screw is set in what appears to be a hand bored hole in the right side, approximately half way between the wrist and the end of the butt.  The screw is angled down and in towards the center line of the stock so the threads would pull the lower split together.  This repair is solid and it has stood the test of time.  The second, and larger, split running along the center line of the stock was dealt with in a more dramatic method – that of setting what appears to be a hand forged square nail through the butt stock, top to bottom, and peening the lower end of the nail over a small flat piece of iron set against the bottom flat of the butt.  The rose shaped head of the nail is visible on the top flat of the buttstock.  This iron spike was a very effective repair, rendering the buttstock as solid as if the split never occurred – there is absolutely no movement to the wood.      

The wood surface of the stock has a beautiful, naturally aged patina, polished through handling through many years and over many miles, imparting a rich color to the grain.  Other than the features noted above, the stock is solid and not fragile in any way. 

The lock was produced by George Goulcher of New York City.  Goulcher offered a variety of gun parts for gunsmiths throughout the country who either could not produce their own, or for whom using Goulcher’s components made better use of their time.  It is worth noting that all of the inletting on the stock, with the exception of the end of the barrel tang, involves straight line cuts, suggesting the man doing the stock work did not have access to round bladed gouges.  Keeping this in mind, it’s interesting that the normally rounded rear end of the Goulcher lock plate has been cut off square.  The only reason for making this cut would have been to facilitate a straight inletting cut for the lock mortise.  The upper edge of the lock plate was also cut or filed to accept the block of the bolster.  The original Goulcher hammer was replaced with a hand forged hammer, another common feature on guns repaired or assembled on the frontier.  The lock–trigger assembly functions properly with a crisp let off. 

The double set triggers are both present and fully functional, the rear trigger serving to set the front trigger, and the front trigger releasing properly when pulled.  The trigger guard is fashioned from a simple iron strap, shaped by hand in a low bow curve and mounted with two simple wood screws. 

The ramrod, based on the matching patina and size, is certainly original to this rifle.  The rod is of the pattern common to many 18TH and 19TH Century military muskets present in North America and that it was used with this rifle makes perfect sense.

The iron surfaces all have the same aging that is consistent with what you would expect to find on such a rifle.  

For what it is worth, I have seen several of these Indian used rifles that have been assembled from a collection of parts, and in fact, one of the most compelling Indian rifles I have owned is just such a rifle which was assembled in much the same way as this rifle.  Were it not for having to make a choice and limit how much I allow myself to be my own best customer, the rifle offered here would probably never see the light of day. 

This rifle shows all the classic characteristics of one fashioned by an Indian and then subjected to years of hard use It has a great appearance that literally talks to you as you hold it - a veteran of fierce determined and desperate battles, and untold numbers of buffalo kills in the hands of a warrior. 

Guns that have not been sullied or ruined by the addition of modern upholstery tacks, recent leather wrappings and other enhancements, have never been common, and as more collectors recognize their important historic value, Indian guns of this quality are  becoming increasingly difficult to find on the market.  This is an opportunity to obtain an honest Indian gun that has not been ruined with feeble attempts to enhance it.  If you hesitate and miss this one, for many years to come you will regret it as one that got away.  (0710)  $3650



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