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In order to get an original 1860s-70s Alonzo Selden rifle ready to return to the Adirondack Mountains to go on a bear hunt, some modifications and shooting test were necessary to confirm that the old gun was functional and physically sound. At something like twice my own age of 72, the old gun had already passed through several hands. This history that I know is that a New York airman based at Davis Monthan AFB had traded the gun to “Arizona Al,” who owned a pawn shop/gun store in nearby Tucson.
I don’t know what new gun the young airman got, but he likely purchased a lesser gun that the rifle that he traded in. Al was an avid muzzleloader target shooter and shot that gun at matches for a decade or more by the time I purchased it from him. At that time he was about the same age as I am now and could no longer see well enough to shoot iron sights. He was willing to pass the gun along to someone else who could make use of it. I did, and I shot the old rifle well enough to garner a bucket-full of shooting metals at matches in Arizona and Georgia.
Even by the time I received the gun, it had previously been outfitted with two types of adjustable sights. This was obvious from the plugged holes in the barrel. Even before that, someone had installed set triggers and a trigger guard from a rifle that may have been built in the 1700s. This was an old repair and Selden may have even done it himself, but it was quite unlike the trigger guards that he put on his own guns. He designed the gun around a 3/4-inch Remington .45-caliber barrel that was 32 inches long. When he built the gun he used a slim walnut stock and fitted it with a pored German silver nose cap and silver thimbles, However, he used brass for the butt plate and patch box.
By the time this gun was made, hunters in New York were using picket bullets, so this gun had rather shallow-wide rifling designed to shoot elongate bullets, although it would still shoot round ball very well. This was repeatedly demonstrated at all of the matches that Al and I won with the rifle.
Time had not been kind to the old gun. It had apparently been left loaded for some time during its history and the rear of the barrel was pitted for 2-inches where the powder charge had been in contact with the bore. The stock was also cracked near the fore end cap, but the metal cap had retained all of the wood. In addition, the tang was soldered to the barrel which ultimately resulted in it being snapped off during cleaning.
Before I ever started shooting the gun, I epoxy-glued the sprung stock and glass-bedded the barrel to strengthen the entire gun, installed a new tang and restored the false breech to functionality. These alterations plus welding and refitting the lock’s sear made the gun strong enough to use. However, these accumulated modifications put the gun into the category of “a shooter,” meaning that much of its collector’s value had been diminished with each change of the original rifle. Although true in spirit to its original intention as a hunting rifle, it was no longer a collector-grade gun. To give this hunting gun added durability, I also fitted it out with a beryllium-copper nipple and a fiberglass ramrod. These are as near as can be had to being indestructible components to replace parts of the percussion rifle’s original design that were most likely to fail.
Although I cleaned it annually, the gun sat in my closet for something like 20 years without being used. It and I were not getting any younger and if it was going to go to hunt in New York we had best be about doing it. In the meantime I came into the acquaintance of Kaido Ojamaa who happened to live in the state and also made some 240 and 255 grain bullets for percussion revolvers that I thought might work in the gun. I thought that a load of 85 grains of FFg black powder and the 255-grain bullet might be just the ticket for bear. The first shot demonstrated otherwise.
I had forgotten, but was quickly reminded, that this particular gun was stocked very short for my arm length. When I fired the charge the gun slammed black, and I gouged my face with my fingernails under the force of recoil. The bullet was stabilized, but struck the target a foot below the point of aim of the iron sights and about 10-inches to the right. The bullet was hard cast and very difficult to load. Cutting back to 70 grains of FFg and the 240-grain bullet, this was still a stout load and blew the hammer back to the full-cock position, but the recoil was stiff, although manageable. However, it still shot low and right, although not quite to the degree of the previous shot.
Remembering the load that I had used at the target range, I loaded 85 grains of GOEX FFg and a patched .451 round ball under which I placed a lubricated Wonder Wad. This load hit very nearly the exact center of the 50 yard target and would have scored an “X.” A confirming load hit nearby. Clearly this was the load that this rifle liked. It is not a puny load and is stepping out at about 2100 fps. and giving some 1400 ft./lbs. of energy at the muzzle. At 50 yard is still providing the 500 ft./lbs. of muzzle energy recommended for deer and black bear.
In short if the beastie is within 50 yards and I place my shot well, this should result in a dead bear. We will see.
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