Introduction to the Joseph Mills smooth rifle
The percussion conversion "smooth rifle" featured on this page was made by the accomplished Bedford County gunsmith Joseph Mills (1790-1876). This antique maple stocked firearm is 47-1/2-inches long and has a 45-caliber unrifled bore. Smooth rifles are dual-purpose muzzleloaders with smooth bores that incorporate rifle characteristics, including front and rear rifle-type open sights and thick-walled barrels. More versatile than a rifled gun, they can be used with shot for small game, and are reasonably accurate with round ball at the relatively short distances that large game is typically taken.
Joseph Mills is one of the few Bedford County gunmakers who built flintlock rifles that have survived to study. (Antique rifles with flintlock lock plates also survive that were made by John Amos, James Clark, Jacob Stoudenour, Peter White, and Moses Wright.) Most Bedford County flintlocks were converted to percussion. Quite a few of these percussion conversions have now been "reconverted" back to flintlock ignition. I am opposed to such reconversions, and believe that these custom-made rifles should be preserved in the last authentic configuration they were used — except for necessary repairs and the replacement of lost or broken gun parts.
This full stock 19th century muzzle loading firearm is interesting in several respects. It bears the maker's identification in three locations. The name "Joseph Mills" is engraved in cursive on the top barrel flat. As is typical on Joseph Mills rifles, the initials "J*M" are also engraved on the lock. An oval silver inlay on the cheek piece is also engraved with the initials "J*M" — a place normally reserved for a decorative engraving or the owner's initials. The barrel, which has been shortened front and rear and is now 32-1/2-inches long, is part octagon and part round. This is the only example I have ever seen of an octagon-to-round barrel configuration on a Bedford County-style shoulder arm.
Originally retained to the stock with keys, the barrel of this old gun was pinned after being shortened 1-1/2 inches during rebreeching, and the keyways were filled in. The single trigger and the fowler-type octagon-to-round barrel configuration make me believe this firearm was originally unrifled, rather than being converted to a smoothbore after the rifling wore out.
The Bedford-style hammer spur is interesting in that it is brazed in place, and incorporates a small reverse curve at the tip. The engraved brass patch box has five piercings, and has the Q-shaped finial that is so common on Bedford County rifles. The patchbox used to be silver plated, but now only traces remain. If you look at the toe plate photo, you will see a clean stamping from one of the little crosshatch stamps Joseph Mills used to decorate his rifles.
Detailed pictures of the smooth rifle
The first image below is a little dark because it was taken indoors. It provides an overall view of this antique black powder gun in its now-shortened state. The barrel has been shortened at both ends, and is now only 32-1/2-inches long. Originally it may have been as much as 8 to 12 inches longer. Barrels were sometimes shortened at the breech ("set back") during the process of percussion conversion to remove a corroded portion of the barrel. One reason to shorten the muzzle end of a barrel is to remove a damaged portion of the bore to restore accuracy. Examples of such damage might include ramrod wear, corrosion, ringing, or even a metalurgical inclusion. The reduced length and weight of a shortened barrel would also make the firearm more convenient to carry and use.
This smooth rifle has a rat tail lock plate and a typical Bedford County patchbox. The rear sight is located about halfway between the ramrod entry pipe and the gun lock. This is farther back than the rear sight location of most Bedford County long rifles. Click here for an outdoor photograph that shows most of the right-hand side of this antique firearm.
The next picture shows the rear portion of the firearm from the crescent butt plate to the panel for the gun lock. The picture was taken in outdoor lighting, and highlights the excellent curl in the maple wood that was used to make the stock. The buttstock exhibits the low, straight comb and generally straight lower surface that are typical the Bedford School of rifle making. Using a framing square, I measure a drop of 4.5 inches at the heel.
The next photo highlights the classic Bedford-style patch box, with its Q-shaped finial and five piercings. This is beautiful workmanship.
The next photo is included to show the faceted top of the cast brass butt plate.
The next image is included to highlight the patch box lid engraving. This engraving design is very similar to the engraving on the Mills rifle that is shown on page 121 of the 2001 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Fulton, Huntingdon, & Somerset Counties".
The next image is included to show how well the patch box piercings fit the wood of the rifle stock. It also provides a close view of the decorative incised line along the belly of the stock.
The next photo was included to show the engraving on the patch box finial. The piercing of the finial is elliptical.
The next image is included to highlight the double-arch carving on the right-hand side of the wrist. This same wrist carving is included on the Peter White rifle shown in Plate 128 of Calvin Hetrick's book "The Bedford County rifle and Its Makers". The beginning of the incised line along the belly of the stock and the transverse hole for the rear trigger guard retaining pin can also be seen.
The next image shows the silver thumb piece on the top of the wrist and the pointed tang of the breech plug. Pointed tangs are common on black powder rifles that were made in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. The rear tang screw is missing.
The next picture shows the location where the forward end of the trigger plate is threadedly engaged by the front tang screw.
The silver decoration at the finial of the lock panel (shown in the next photo) is retained by tiny silver nails. This same organic inlay shape appears on other rifles by Joseph Mills. For example, see the rifles on page 119 and 124 of the 2001 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Fulton, Huntingdon, & Somerset Counties". This same decoration appears on the John Amos rifles on page 46, 48, and 49 of the 2001 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Fulton, Huntingdon, & Somerset Counties", and on the 1850 Daniel Border rifle on page 59, and on the Tobias Snyder rifle on page 142. A very similar but not identical silver decoration appears at the lock panel finial of the Peter White rifle shown in Plate 129 of Calvin Hetrick's book "The Bedford County rifle and Its Makers".
The following image shows the converted lock mounted in the lock panel mortise of the stock. I wonder whether this antique gun was made in Pennsylvania or Ohio. One potential indicator is how poorly the rat tail is aligned with the trailing end of the lock panel of the gun stock. Joseph Mills eventually mastered getting his rat tails to better-align with their lock panels, which improved aesthetics. His Ohio percussion guns that I am aware of, and most of his flintlocks that I am aware of, are excellent in this important aesthetic alignment detail. There are at least two Joseph Mills rifles, however, with flintlock lock plates where the rat tail is visually misaligned with the trailing end of the lock panel: this rifle and one in the 2001 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Fulton, Huntingdon, & Somerset Counties". Although I am no expert, I interpret the poor rat tail alignment on those two rifles as a possible sign that they were made very early in his career, before he moved to Ohio, and before he realized the importance of alignment from an aesthetic standpoint.
The following image is an enlargement of the converted rat-tail lock. It incorporates the typical Bedford County vertical "slash" molding filed across the tail, partitioning the thicker beveled portion of the lock plate from the thinner unbeveled tail section. The pan, frizzen and frizzen spring have been removed, and the screw holes have been filled in, and the lump for the frizzen spring screw at the lower edge of the lock plate has been filed away. The lock plate engraving around the now-missing flintlock pan is similar to the engraving on the lock of a John Armstrong muzzleloader that survived in flintlock configuration. The nipple is mounted on a drum that incorporates a well-worn vent screw.
Joseph Mills left Bedford County in 1823, which was near the beginning of the percussion era in the United States. That means that he may have already moved from Bedford County before the unique style of the Bedford County percussion hammer was developed. Nevertheless, Joseph Mills made percussion rifles in Ohio that had high spur Bedford style hammers. I wonder who built this Bedford-style hammer, and converted this hand-forged lock from flintlock to percussion ignition. The only thing that makes this question worthwhile to ponder is the reverse curve at the tip of the hammer spur. That feature on a Bedford-style hammer seems very rare, and may help to narrow the conversion gunsmith possibilities, whether it was converted in Pennsylvania or Ohio. The only Bedford County gunsmiths I know of who curled the tip of the spur were David Defibaugh and Valentine Felty Clouse. I know of two in Somerset County — Elias Crissey and Jacob Mier — but the only Mier with this feature that I have seen has a heavily built spur and a hammer nose that looked musket-like. This brings up the question: What are the core characteristics of a Bedford style hammer? To me, the key defining characteristics are the general S-shape below the spur, and the significantly concave front and convex rear of the high spur. In my simple mind, the distinctive S-shape of the Bedford percussion hammer appears to be inspired by the delicate S-shape of a gooseneck flintlock cock.
The next photo is a closeup of the percussion conversion hammer that shows the recurved tip of the spur.
The red arrow in the following photo points to the overtravel stop notch on the percussion conversion hammer. The notch would hit the top of the lock plate and stop rotation of the hammer if the nipple was absent, or the lock was removed from the gun. I estimate there is about 0.030" clearance between the notch and the top of the lock plate when the nose of the hammer rests on the nipple.
The following image is included because the lighting brings out the engraving on the hammer and retaining screw and does a good job of showing the cursive lock inscription "J*M". It also shows where the lock plate bevel ends, and the flat top begins that interacts with the stop shoulder on the back side of the percussion hammer. Originally, of course, the flat top was designed to interact with the stop shoulder on the back side of a flintlock hammer/cock.
The following image is included to highlight what I call a "flash shroud" on the rear of the recessed hammer nose. The front side of the recessed nose is more open. In other words, the rear of the nose has more overlap of the nipple, compared to the front of the nose. The arrangement is seemingly intended to direct flash away from the shooter. This "flash shroud" arrangement is found on the percussion locks of a select few Bedford County gunsmiths. I do not know enough to be able to say if this feature was used by longrifle gunsmiths outside of Bedford County. I can, however, say that it was not universally used by all Bedford County gunsmiths.
The next photo shows the back side of the hammer, and the brazed joint that retains the hammer spur. It appears to be dovetailed in this image, but it may just be a repaired break. It is difficult to tell if this is a repair or a hammer construction technique. Either way, it seems unlikely that Joseph Mills was involved.
The next photo is included to show the screw on the forward portion of the trigger guard. The rear of the trigger guard is only pinned. The forward portion of the trigger guard increases in width along its length. Note the decorative incised lines along the underside of the left and right panels of the stock. Also notice the decorative shapes that were cast into the underside of the trigger guard.
The next image shows the worn relief carved "wing" in front of the lock panel. Later, various Bedford County percussion era gunsmiths incorporated this "wing" motif on their rifles. For example, in Kauffman's 1960 book "The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle" see the William Defibaugh rifle (Plate 66) and the William Border rifle (Plate 68).
The next photo shows the barrel has been set back. The blanked off brass escutcheon for the rear barrel key has a shape that was used as a stock decoration on other rifles by Joseph Mills. For example, see the Joseph Mills rifle on page 121 of the 2001 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Fulton, Huntingdon, & Somerset Counties". The same decorative shape was used by other Bedford County gunsmiths. For example, see the William Border percussion rifle in Plate 68 of in Kauffman's 1960 book "The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle". For another example, see the Jacob Stoudenour flintlock rifle shown by plate 131 of Calvin Hetrick's book "The Bedford County rifle and Its Makers", and the William Border rifle shown by Plate 134 of the same book. Also see the William Border rifles on pages 60, 61, and 62 of the book "Gunsmiths of Bedford, Fulton, Huntingdon, & Somerset Counties", and the William Defibaugh rifle on page 73.
The next photo provides and oblique view of the dovetailed back sight and the "wedding ring" transition between the octagon and round portions of the barrel.
The next photo shows a barrel key escutcheon and a right-hand view of the entry pipe
The next two photos highlight the attractive formed brass entry pipe at the transition between the grooved and drilled portions of the fore-end. In the top photo, notice how the incised loop carving flows into the longitudinal molding along the forearm.
The next photo is included to better-show the incised carving on the forearm that flows into the longitudinal molding.
The next image highlights the ramrod pipe and the attractive molding along the forearm. Flanked by raised bands, the central portion of the pipe is faceted.
The next two photos show that the barrel was set back and re-breeched. The original key holes were plugged, and the barrel was then pinned to the stock. The amount of setback was 1-1/2-inches. In the second photo below, the proximity of the keyway relative to the nose cap is prima facie evidence that the barrel and stock were shortened.
The next photo is included to highlight the blade-type brass front sight.
The following photo shows the grooved nose cap and the muzzle end of the barrel. This is a .45 caliber smoothbore barrel that is about 0.91-inches in diameter at the muzzle. As time went on, bore sizes trended smaller. The end of the sheet metal nose cap is missing, leaving the end grain of the forestock exposed to the weather. As you can see here, the current ramrod tip is a spent .32 Smith and Wesson cartridge case that was made by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. This suggests that (as one would expect) the rifle remained in use after the advent of the .32 Smith & Wesson revolver.
The next photo shows how well the .32 S&W cartridge case works as a ramrod tip.
The following image shows the engraved toe plate and highlights an interesting detail: a decoration formed by stamping the wood. These stamped decorations are present on other areas of the stock as well.
The following picture shows the left-hand rear portion of the Mills smooth rifle, from the crescent butt plate to the breech of the barrel. In a previous photo, the asymmetric silver inlay on the right-hand side of the wrist was shown. That asymmetric inlay design is repeated in mirror image here on the left-hand side of the wrist.
The next photograph shows the entire left-hand side of the butt stock of this antique muzzle loading gun, with the camera focused on the cheekpiece inlay.
The elliptic silver cheek piece inlay is highlighted in the next photo. The fact that it is engraved with Joseph Mills' initials seems unusual. On other rifles attributed to Joseph Mills, the inlay bears a decorative motif such as an eagle, or (apparently) the initials of the first owner of the rifle. This suggests that Joseph Mills may have built this rifle for his own use.
The next photo shows the entire left-hand side of the butt stock, with the camera focused on the relief carving.
The next photo is included to highlight the aesthetically pleasing relief carving behind the cheek piece. If you look closely, you will also see a cross-hatch stamping below the cheekpiece.
The next image highlights the relief carving forward of the cheek piece. This forward end of this carving is somewhat worn from use of the rifle. If you look closely, you will also spot another (worn) cross-hatch stamping under the cheekpiece.
The next image shows the lock bolt plate and the lock bolt panel of the stock. The lock and lock bolt panels on many rifles of the Bedford School have this pointed front end and tapering "streamlined" rear end. Like the lock plate, the lock bolt plate also has a rat tail. The front lock bolt is missing.
The next picture is included to show the engraving on the unbeveled (i.e., flat) lock bolt plate. The little hole below the lock bolt plate is for a trigger guard retaining pin. The front of the trigger guard is both pinned and screwed in place. The bow of the cast brass trigger guard is appropriately sized for use with a single trigger.
The next image shows the nicely engraved name of the gun maker on the upper barrel flat. The inscription reads "Joseph * Mills".
Joseph Mills is ranked as one of the best old-time gunmakers in Bedford County, Pennsylvania and Coshocton County, Ohio. After moving to Ohio, he continued to make some Bedford style rifles. The thing that makes Joseph Mills so interesting to me is he is one of the earliest Bedford County gunsmiths whose rifles have survived. Whether or not he was the originator of the Bedford school, the stylistic details he incorporated on his rifles were employed by many other gunsmiths across the county for the remainder of the 19th century. I find him far more interesting than Peter White, who seems to have only temporarily adopted the Bedford style during the period he was living in the county.
Click here for an index to other Bedford County rifle pictures, and biographical information about the riflesmiths who created them.
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