Muzzleloading enthusiast builds Leman .54-caliber flintlock rifle
Photos & Report
by Mike Nesbitt
The .54 caliber flintlock rifle I took to the Flathead Valley Muzzleloaders’ Spring doin’s this year was a brand new one, just finished barely in time from a TVM kit. It was so new that there was no time to even sight it in. Even so, this rifle performed like a champ and that makes me very eager to tell you all about it.
This shoot with the Flathead Muzzleloaders is a whole lot of fun and I should say more about it. Their shooting is all on trailwalks at targets from a playing card that you must shoot into two pieces with one shot to hitting a link of a hanging chain. All of the targets are for fun and for me their rendezvous is just too much fun to miss. That certainly includes their smoothbore match where the same rifle targets are shot at with flintlock smoothbores that have no rear sights and no set triggers. A more challenging match, for sure. I’ll be saying more about this shoot but let me begin by telling you about my rifle.
Life for this new rifle began as a kit from Tennessee Valley Muzzleloading. Let me urge you to look at their website (avsia.com/tvm), or to get a copy of their catalog send $5 to them at TVM Inc., #14 County Road 521, Dept. GWK, Corinth, MS 38834. TVM offers several styles of muzzleloading rifles and fowlers plus pistols. All of those guns come with standard features and while I’m going to mention a few non-standard items, some changes can be added to the gun just by asking for them.
Before getting more specific, let me say that the TVM kits are one of the very best for a builder who has never put a custom muzzleloading gun together before. It isn’t just a “screwdriver kit,” there’s still a lot of work to do. At the same time, there’s a lot of work already done.
To begin with, the butt plates come fitted at the length of pull you ask for. Yes, you still need to drill the screw holes through the butt plate and then actually attach it, along with fitting it, width-wise, to the stock. The barrels come breeched and fully inletted into the stock. The lock was also fully inletted and the hole through the stock and the back of the breech plug for the single
lock bolt was already drilled. Likewise, the hole through the lock plate was already drilled and tapped.
With the lock in place, the location for the flash-hole and flash-hole liner is easily identified and the flash-hole liner came already installed. Inletting for the triggers was already done although the inletting into the wood for the trigger plate was not completely finished. TVM lets the builder decide on whether to shorten the trigger plate or to put it in at full length. The decision on whether to shorten the trigger plate or not is often determined by which trigger guard the builder selects for the rifle.
For this rifle the front of the trigger plate was shortened but the plate was left long behind the triggers and anchored to the wood with a wood screw. Deciding on if that should be done or not was easy after looking at an original Leman. The original was followed, giving this copy of a Leman one more “grip” on the days of old. By the way, TVM also generally uses the long trigger plate with the wood screw near the back.
One other step TVM usually does on their kits is to cut the dovetails in the barrel for the front and rear sights. On this kit those cuts weren’t done because I wasn’t sure which sights I wanted to use. What I selected is the rear sight that TVM identifies as their #3 rifle sight and the front sight is the wide silver sight in the copper base from Cash Manufacturing. And the dovetail for the rear sight was cut just one inch further forward on the barrel as a little favor for aging eyes.
While many of the steps critical to the location of parts are already done on the TVM kits, there is still plenty of drill, solder, chisel, scraper, and file work to do on these guns in addition to the sanding and finishing. When you finish a kit from TVM, you can honestly say that you built the gun.
Also, while many of my comments can be taken in general about the TVM kits, here are a couple more things about just the Leman kit. The kit I put together came with brass ramrod pipes, entry pipe, and a brass nose cap. All of these pieces were too long for a good Leman copy and they needed to be shortened. The ramrod pipes were cut down to only one inch long. The entry pipe was also shortened, both on the pipe end and on the tail. And the long nose cap that came with the kit was more appropriate for an earlier Pennsylvania or Lancaster style of rifle.
That nose cap could have been shortened since the Leman rifles used a nose cap only one inch long. However, the two-piece nose caps, with the end piece soldered to the “wrap around” part of the cap, do not give the best representation of a Leman, at least as far as I’ve seen in my travels. What was used on my rifle instead was one of the cast Leman nose caps as available from Track of the Wolf. The heavier cast brass nose cap has the rounded end more like the originals, rather than have the very squared-off end as found on the two-piece nose caps. Also, the cast nose cap has a taper along the bottom that flows into the lines of the stock better than the straighter nose caps. If a Leman kit is in your future, you might enjoy looking at those parts before building the gun.
TVM has standard barrel lengths of 36 or 42 inches but I chose a 34-inch barrel from Rice Rifle Barrels Inc. (1034 Old Fort Rd., Fairview, NC 28730; phone: 828-628-3627; online: ricebarrels.com). I’ve been using Rice barrels for more than a few years now and they are my favorites. Getting a Rice barrel on a TVM kit will add just a couple of bucks to the price of the gun. And when you want a Rice barrel of a specific length, the barrel is made to that length instead of being cut down from a longer barrel.
The kit from TVM basically gives you a Leman Trade Rifle, representing one that was to be traded with the Indians for furs during the Western fur trade era. I added some extras to make it a Leman Sporting Rifle, such as one used by a free trapper during the later part of the rendezvous years. Those extras were the flat-topped checkering at the wrist, referred to as “checking” in the early days, plus the small silver inlay on the bottom of the stock at the end of the checkering. The checkering and silver inlays were Leman trademarks and his sporting rifles usually had them.
Another common Leman feature was to stock the gun in plain maple, then add artificial grain or striping. The way the stripes on my rifle were added was to “paint” them on with a small brush using Lincoln’s dark brown leather dye. The stripes were added after a single coat of maple stain had dried on the stock. After the stripes were dried, five coats of Tru-Oil completed the stock finishing.
Brass tacks were added, in rows on both sides of the forearm, to give my rifle some personal identification. Usually brass tacks might suggest Indian ownership or at least Indian influence. Not everyone appreciates the brass tacks in the gunstocks but I like it on this one. To me those tacks just indicate another touch of the Western frontier. I hope to add a few more tacks to the buttstock after game is taken.
It was on a Monday when the barrel and other parts were put back into the finished stock and then the rifle was carried outside of the shop and fired just once for a test firing. That was done using an old cedar stump to catch the bullet; the neck of a discarded oil bottle was my target. The distance was just a few feet but that was much like taking a shot at a spruce grouse with a rifle and the bird’s neck would be the aiming point. With the shot, the neck of the oil bottle was hit solidly.
Please forgive me for telling you more about the rifle than the shoot. With that single test fire shot under my belt with this rifle, my trail let to Montana to camp with the Flathead Muzzleloaders. There I teamed up with some old partners, Dan Bourne and John Heston, where the three of us shot the rifle trail together. All of my shots with this new .54 used a .525-inch ball wrapped in a .020-inch lubricated patch from Bridgers Best. That combination was rammed down over 60 grains of Goex FFg blackpowder. This load was not varied or changed; it was used for all targets both short and long range. Considering that my rifle had not been sighted in, I was surprised and delighted at how well things went.
The first target was the playing card, sitting sideways at about 15 yards. My shot was a clean miss. Then other various novelty targets, including eggs hanging from strings, were encountered. When we got to the end of the trail I had missed only three shots. That shooting, along with my scores from the pistol trail and the ’hawk & knife trail, put me in 9th place out of a total of over 70 shooters. To say the least, I am very pleased with my new rifle.
Now, of course, this rifle still needs to be sighted in. That will be done for the fine-tuning which still might be required. Sight adjustments will be made with a file and those adjustments will be permanent. I certainly expect to do a lot of shooting with this rifle made from the TVM kit and that includes some hunting, so please don’t be too surprised if I tell you about it again.
On the home page: We see flame from Mike Nesbitt’s TVM kit-built Leman .54’s muzzle just as the ball got rolling.
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