This 47-1/2-inch long, 45-caliber maple stocked percussion conversion "smooth rifle" was made by Bedford County gunsmith Joseph Mills. Smooth rifles are dual-purpose smoothbores 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 gunsmakers who built flintlock rifles that have survived to study. (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. 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 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 "JM" are also engraved on the lock. An oval silver inlay on the cheek piece is also engraved with the initials "JM" -- 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 was pinned after being set back 1-1/2 inches during rebreaching, and the keyways were filled in. The single trigger and the fowler-type octagon-to-round barrel configuration makes believe this firearm was originally unrifled, rather than being converted to a smoothbore after the rifling wore out.
The 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.
The following image highlights the excellent curl in the maple wood that was used to make the stock. The buttstock exhibits the low comb and generally straight lower surface that are typical to rifles of the Bedford School.
The following image shows the overall length of the rifle 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. I wish I knew more about why barrels were shortened. In my imagination, one possible reason is to remove a ramrod-worn muzzle to restore accuracy, and another possible reason is to remove an eroded breach to facilitate percussion conversion. I would appreciate hearing from others with more knowledge on this barrel-shortening topic.
The following image shows the converted lock mounted in the lock panel of the stock. I wonder whether this rifle was made in Pennsylvania or Ohio. One potential indicator is how poorly the rat tail is aligned with the lock panel of the stock. Joseph Mills eventually mastered getting the rat tail to aesthetically align with the lock panel. 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 misaligned with 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 elliptic silver cheek piece inlay is highlighted in the next photo. The fact that it is engraved with Joseph Mills' initials is very 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 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.
The next image shows the well-engraved name of the maker on the upper barrel flat.
The next photo shows the classic Bedford-style patch box, with its Q-shaped finial and five piercings.
The next image shows the pointed tang. I'm no expert, but the pointed tang seems common in the western Pennsylvania region.
The following image shows the converted rat-tail lock with the typical Bedford County vertical "slash" molding filed across the tail. 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 a John Armstrong lock that survived in flintlock configuration.
Joseph Mills left Bedford County in 1823, which may have been before the unique style of Bedford County percussion hammer was developed. Nevertheless, Joseph Mills made percussion rifles in Ohio that had Bedford style hammers. I wonder who built this Bedford-style hammer, and converted this lock from flintlock to percussion. 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 gunsmith I know of who curled the tip of the spur was Valentine Feltus 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 concave front and convex rear of the spur. In my simple mind, the distinctive S-shape of the Bedford percussion hammer appears to be inspired by the S-shape of a gooseneck flintlock cock.
The next photo is a closeup of the percussion conversion hammer.
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 were not present. 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 shows the toe plate and highlights an interesting detail: a decoration formed by stamping the wood. These are present in other areas of the stock as well.
The next picture is included to show the engraving on the 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 next photo is included to show the screw at the front of the trigger guard. The rear of the trigger guard is only pinned.
The next photo is included to highlight the brass front sight.
The following photo shows the nose cap, the end of the forearm and the muzzle 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 nose cap is sheet metal, rather than cast, and leaves the end grain of the stock exposed to the weather. This crude work would have been done when the barrel when shortened, long after Joseph Mills originally made the gun, and is prima facie evidence that the barrel and stock were shortened. 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 following image is included because the lighting brings out the engraving on the hammer and retaining screw.
The following image is included to highlight what I call a "flash shroud" on the rear of the hammer nose. The front of the nose is more open. 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 don't know enough to be able to say if this feature was used outside of Bedford County. I can, however, say that it was not universally used by all Bedford County gunsmiths.
The next photo shows how well the .32 S&W cartridge case works as a ramrod tip.
The next photo shows the rear sight and the "wedding ring" transition between the octagon and round portions of the barrel.
The next photo is included to highlight the relief carving behind the cheek piece. Notice how an arch in the carving duplicates an arch on the patchbox. If you look closely, you will also see a cross-hatch stamping below the cheekpiece.
The next two photos highlight the entry pipe. In the top photo, notice how the incised carving flows into the longitudinal molding along the forearm.
The next photo was included to show the engraving on the patch box finial.
The next photo is included to better-show the incised carving on the forearm that flows into the longitudinal molding.
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 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 cross-hatch stamping under the cheekpiece.
The next image is included to highlight the patch box door engraving. This engraving design is very similar to the engraving on the Mills rifle 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.
The next image is shown to highlight the carving on the right-hand side of the wrist. The hole for the rear trigger guard retaining pin can also be seen. 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 next image highlights the ramrod pipe.
The next photo is included to show the top of the butt plate.
The next image shows the relief carved "wing" in front of the lock panel. This carving is worn from using the rifle. 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 Difibaugh rifle (Plate 66) and the William Border rifle (Plate 68).
The silver decoration at the finial of the lock panel (shown in the next photo) is retained by tiny silver nails. This same decoration 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 the 1850 Daniel Border rifle on page 59 and 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 of Calvin Hetrick's book "The Bedford County rifle and Its Makers".
The next two photos show that the barrel was set back and rebreached. 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 first photo below, the location of the keyway relative to the nose cap is clear evidence that the barrel and forestock have been shortened.
The next photo also shows the barrel has been set back. The blanked off 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.
Joseph Mills is ranked as one of the best 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, the stylistic details he incorporated on his rifles were replicated 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 rifles, and biographical information on the gun makers who created them.
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