LOVE IN THE TIME OF CREEDMOOR

And a complete absence of common sense
Right side vertical view

In the time of Creedmoor: Barreled action by Dan Pedersen, stocked by Robert Szweda with walnut from Bill Dowtin. Sam Welch engraved the period scroll and Doug Turnbull rust blued the barrel and case hardened the action. The rifle may have no earthly use, but it sure is pretty.

Lucian Cary is almost forgotten today – an elegant writer from the heyday of magazines in the 1930s whose work graced the old Saturday Evening Post. Cary was among the last of the generation of writers (Robert Ruark was maybe the last) who appeared routinely in both mainstream magazines and the outdoor press.

In the 1930s, shooting was still acceptable in Manhattan, and Cary’s pet subjects were Harry M. Pope, the single-shot target rifle, and the arcane art of cut-rifling a barrel. This may not seem a likely subject for a series of short stories to lay before the non-shooting public, but Lucian Cary was such a good writer he made it work. The fictional barrel maker was J.M. Pyne, closely modeled on Cary’s friend Pope, and he made regular appearances in the fiction pages of the Post.

Of course, at the time, there were still many alive whose memories lingered on the grand days when long-range rifle matches were a staple of the sports pages. Huge crowds turned out at ranges named Creedmoor and Walnut Hill to watch the proceedings, and the names of great riflemen like Farrow and Hudson were as familiar as Ruth and DiMaggio.

But times change. Shooting and literary tastes change. The great ranges became housing developments and the general-interest magazines drowned in a sea of television. Lucian Cary died, an alcoholic, in a seedy hotel on the lower east side.

One man did not forget Cary, Creedmoor, Pope, or the fine rifles at the center of it all. John T. Amber was the legendary editor who made Gun Digest such a great publication through the 1960s and ‘70s. Amber admired all rifles, but he loved old single-shots best of all (he called his Illinois farm “Creedmoor”) and in 1964 he began reprinting Cary’s stories in the pages of Gun Digest. The best one of all, The Madman of Gaylord’s Corner, appeared in 1967, and it was right there and then, 42 long and unbelievable years ago, that your correspondent fell under the spell of the long-range single-shot rifle.

As with many youthful passions, this one went unrequited for many years. (And my passion for Kim Novak, alas, never was requited.) Through a succession of lesser involvements (the FN-FAL in the army, a .300 Weatherby when I was briefly bewitched by velocity) my interest in finely made, precise instruments of deliberate accuracy, delivered one studied shot at a time, lay dormant.

Then, one day in 2003, I walked into my favorite gunshop and they handed me an old cartridge for my collection. It was a rimmed straight case with a paper-patched flat-nosed lead bullet – a .40-70 Straight Sharps loaded with blackpowder and at least a century old.

That cartridge began to play on my imagination and before I knew it I was knee-deep in the history of the single-shot target rifle. The straight .40-70 is not an old buffalo cartridge; it was designed for, and really limited to, the great target rifles of the late 19th century. And soon I was working out a plan to have one made.

Case hardening, authentic to both period and manufacturer, is Doug Turnbull’s forte. The action was case hardened and then polished to an old-coin finish, while the lever was left pristine for contrast.

Case hardening, authentic to both period and manufacturer, is Doug Turnbull’s forte. The action was case hardened and then polished to an old-coin finish, while the lever was left pristine for contrast.

Now let’s be blunt here: This was an insane idea. The cartridge is obsolete. Brass is hard to get and proper bullets even harder. The old great single-shots are a thing of the past. Who would barrel it? And when I got it – if I got it – what on earth would I do with it?

Never mind. Mere detail. I began to plot.

There was really only one choice for an action – a Ruger No. 1. And it was appropriate because the very first custom No. 1 was made for John Amber as a Creedmoor target rifle, and it graced the cover of the 1969 Gun Digest. The symmetry appealed to me. My friends at Brownells are accustomed to the most off-the-wall ideas, and came up with an action.

I then went to our very own modern Harry M. Pope, Dan Pedersen of Classic Barrel & Gun Works in Prescott, Arizona, and outlined the plan. Dan agreed to barrel the rifle (he had recently fallen under the spell of long-range big-bore shooting, and so was susceptible to madness) and we settled on a 34-inch heavy octagonal barrel. Bill Dowtin supplied a walnut blank with the appropriate “period” look, and Robert Szweda prepared to stock it in classic Creedmoor style. Brownells came through, again, with a ladder tang sight and globe front sight with a spirit level.

The ladder tang sight, suitable only for target rifles – true long-range target rifles – came from Brownell’s, and was adapted to the Ruger by Dan Pedersen. There is virtually nothing off-the-shelf about this rifle – just as it was in the time of Creedmoor.

The ladder tang sight, suitable only for target rifles – true long-range target rifles – came from Brownell’s, and was adapted to the Ruger by Dan Pedersen. There is virtually nothing off-the-shelf about this rifle – just as it was in the time of Creedmoor.

The answers to “Why? and “For what?” remained unresolved, but the “what,” “who,” and “how” were settled. “When?” remained an open question for the next four years.

As with most such plans, this one was barely formed in my mind before it reeled out of control.

The first hitch was the ladder tang sight, de rigueur on such a rifle but, alas, the No. 1 has a safety on the tang, and the tang is not long enough to support the sight base. No problem. Since a single-shot target rifle needs a safety like a fish needs a bicycle, Dan removed it, lengthened the tang, and we were away.

We then sent the frame to Sam Welch, an engraver who specializes in scroll, for some embellishment appropriate to the 1890s. By this time, any semblance of good sense was completely out the window, and we wound it up – four years after the idea was hatched – by sending the rifle to Doug Turnbull. Doug case hardened the action and rust-blued the barrel.

Sam Welch’s scroll engraving is perfectly suited to a long-range target rifle from the 1890s.

Sam Welch’s scroll engraving is perfectly suited to a long-range target rifle from the 1890s.

In the interim, I had tackled the ammunition question by obtaining some Bertram .40-70 Straight Sharps brass. Since the re-emergence of competitive long-range blackpowder rifle shooting, Bertram in Australia has started making virgin brass. Thank heaven. The alternative is to form it from .30-40 Krag (which is slightly short) or using .405 Winchester (which is almost identical to the .40-70, but no easier to find). As for bullets, well, in the garage I now have a lead furnace and an impressive collection of old bullet moulds, most purchased on eBay, in every diameter from .401 to .415.

Because of the .40-70’s use in such competition, we now have dies available from Redding and RCBS, with expanding plugs in different sizes to accommodate the varying bore diameters, so at least I was saved from having to order custom dies, pay several hundred dollars, and wait two years.

Throughout it all, whenever doubts timidly raised their heads, I would look again at my tattered 1967 Gun Digest, and the illustrations of the massive target rifle that accompanied Lucian Cary’s story of the Madman, and smile. And then I would ask myself, yet again, “But what am I going to do with it?”

The short answer, of course, is “shoot it.” And I have. Not very much, not in competition, and not even enough to learn what it is really capable of, except to know that with the basic components now assembled it will hold its own easily out to 300 yards with that ladder tang sight – enough that I don’t feel I’m wasting lead.

The challenge is no longer merely getting it to shoot. Now we want to see just what it can do out at those fabled Creedmoor distances of 500 and 600 yards.

Although this exercise will win no awards for common sense, it certainly was educational. Rarely today, when ordering a rifle, is one asked “what bore diameter do you want -- .406, .408, 410?” and have to research it to find out. (For the record, I chose .408.)

In 1900, such questions were routine, and it was the answers those men came up with, and the results they produced thereby, that laid the foundation for much of what we now know about target rifles. For that matter, much of this knowledge, indirectly, flowed into this rifle through the hands of Danny Pedersen, who not only made the barrel himself but did all the action work. Danny learned it from Fred Wells, who learned it from...well, you get the picture.

And now, with this rifle leaning against my bookshelf, I can delve into those old Gun Digests and turn to the tales of J.M. Pyne, and look up every so often and smile at the sight of a real Creedmoor-style rifle.

Wonder what Kim Novak is doing on Saturday night?

This article appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal in November, 2008.

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