Fantasy Rifle?

Christian Oerter Letter
18th-C Apprenticeships
Curly Wood
Fantasy Rifle?
Scratch Built???
Iron & Steel
Muzzle Blasts
Hunting Stories
What's a Virginia Rifle?
Why Straight Rifling

Are you building or carrying a "fantasy rifle?" Would your friends tell you if you were?

A brief look at defining a term used in several different ways and a bit of personal opinion on one kind of increasingly common fantasy rifle.


To my knowledge it was Alan Gutchess who first introduced the term "fantasy rifle," in about 1988 while he was working as an apprentice in the Colonial Williamsburg Gunsmith Shop, to describe a modern made longrifle that was so different from any known originals that it was in fact the builder’s “fantasy.” Alan actually adapted the term from a catalog from Atlanta Cutlery that had a section named Fantasy Knives for blades carried in movies like Konan the Barbarian, etc. At the time he, and soon all of us in the shop, were using the term mostly to refer to what builders and parts/kit dealers were calling “transitional rifles”—the elusive missing link between the Jaeger and the longrifle. The term caught on quickly and several other folks have claimed authorship.

Over the last two decades the term fantasy rifle has expanded to have several different meanings. This article offers some thoughts on those additional meanings:

 I. One type that discussed a good bit recently on Internet message boards, especially those about reenacting and trekking, would be a Pre-Revolutionary style Lancaster or Christian Spring rifle with iron mounts filed up and engraved like the many brass examples. The early use of iron mounts in those regions is simply not documentable at this time but that has not stopped dealers from offering them or builders from using them. Undoubtedly they have a lot of appeal but none are known to survive and none show up in writings of the period.

 II. Another type of fantasy rifle would be the grand presentation-grade rifles where a longrifle form is decorated with the amount, style and quality of art found on a fine European arm. Several of these were included in the Three Centuries of Tradition show at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2003 and are in the catalog of that exhibit. The masterful work of the top builders like John Bivins, Jud Brennan, and Wallace Gusler come to mind. (These men also make extremely fine examples of rifles made “in a workman like manner” that could be carried back in time to colonial America and fit right in.) When it was featured on the cover of Muzzle Blasts magazine, Wallace described his elaborately wire inlayed fantasy rifle as “male jewelry.” He saw no need to drill a touch hole because he knew it would never be fired by the customer he made it for.

III. A third kind of fantasy rifle is one where the components of the rifle are jarringly out of time. The most common example of this an 18th-century style rifle with a parallel sided barrel or German silver mounts or inlays. Less obvious out of time details are found when Federal Period motifs are used on a rifle purported to be from the third quarter of the 18th century.

IV. I also believe that a Revolutionary War style or even Golden Age rifle with the fit and finish of an 1860 English sporting rifle or a 1910 Purdy shotgun is yet another kind of fantasy rifle. I confess that I have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to build this kind of fantasy rifle. Many of you readers have as well.

Some builders will say that their customers expect this level of workmanship, others do it because of the desire to show that they can to work as good or better than the best from the past or the best of their peers. Ron Ehlert paraphrased a popular country music song by Toby Keith when he proposed printing a tee shirt for the NMLRA Gunsmithing Seminar with, “Gunbuilding, as good as it ever was!”

It is sometimes difficult to know where to stop; when to let good enough alone and move on. One area where this has attracted attention in recent years is in the relief carving—especially the “backgrounding” (finishing of the background). Some gunsmiths have been able to educate their customers and find acceptance for work that is much more period correct than what was being sold thirty years ago. Others have, in my opinion, let the pendulum swing too far and have, in the tradition of blacksmith who deliberately leave in hammer marks, turned out carving that is courser than that found on even the least refined period work.

Realizing that the level of fit and finish that is appropriate on a fine golden age rifle should be much higher that what you would find on an “average” Rev War period rifle, I try not to overwork any part of the rifle, inside or out.

I just don’t see the need or documentation for polishing the file marks out of the bottom three flats of the barrel, inletting a lock so the slots in the sear and bridle screws show in the bottom of the inlet (a detail faked on some high grade 19th-century English work by striking a slotted polished punch in the bottom of the inlet), or putting stain and/or finish in a patchbox cavity!

Some who have heard me state these opinions, or read this web page, have interpreted them to mean that I am encouraging "sloppy work." That is not my belief or intent. In the 18th century there was an appreciation of a product made in a "workman like manner." Perhaps this is most evident in furniture making where the various surfaces were finished as needed or expected and no more. A grand table from the period will be carefully scraped and varnished to a near mirror surface on the top but left with plane marks and unfinished on the bottom. The relief carving at eye level on a highboy will be better detailed and finished than that at the top or along the skirt.

Rifles were the same way on a smaller scale. Barrel channels were rarely cut to match the flats of the barrel except at the very breech and muzzle ends--the rest was simply planed round. Drill bit and chisel marks were accepted, and "normal," in a patchbox cavity. Lock plates fit snuggly around the edges but the inletting of the internals was usually very hastily done with almost no contact between wood and metal.

Bottom line is I don’t agree with those who advise a new builder to make rifles where everything as "perfect" as possible. Make the work as authentic as possible instead. It is actually somewhat harder to do authentic work because it requires a broad understanding of what the "workman like" standards were for rifles of different periods, regions, and even individual makers.