By Nicole Trifone
To reproduce and repair 18th-century firearms, a gunsmith requires the steadfast endurance of a blacksmith, the exacting precision of a machinist, the careful hand of a woodworker, the creativity of an engraver — as well as the ability to practice skills of each trade.
Colonial Williamsburg is the only place in the world where 18th-century rifles are replicated using Colonial-era tools. The shop’s three gunsmiths must master the tricks of the various trades that constitute gunsmithing.
Like their Colonial counterparts did, Richard Sullivan, Eric von Aschwege and Darrin McDonal are making guns from scratch. Starting with bars of iron, planks of wood and scraps of brass, the gunsmiths are forging, molding, carving and engraving the same sporting guns — lock, stock and barrel — that would have been used in the era of the American Revolution.
“You get to do it all. I realized at an early age that gunsmiths had to be practically a master at many different trades,” said McDonal, the shop’s newest apprentice. “Then after all that work, you end up with something so beautiful. These guns are works of art, not just daily tools.”
Knowing how to build an entire gun makes gunsmiths uniquely qualified to fix it. Repairing, remolding or reconstructing any piece of a gun’s parts, as well as applying blacksmithing and foundry skills to other projects, kept gunsmiths busy in the 18th century.
“An American shop was hugely inefficient for any kind of mass production,” said Sullivan, a journeyman gunsmith who started full time in the shop in 2003. “America had a very small, very rural economy with a very serious shortage of skilled labor. In general, Colonial gunsmiths had to learn to do it all.”
This jack-of-all-trades approach differed from England’s gun-manufacturing process, which thrived on a division of labor. A single gun made in England was the result of the labor of dozens of people practicing dozens of trades, each specializing in the manufacturing of a different part. The only person to touch all the gun’s components would have been the person referred to as a gunmaker, who assembled the dozens of pieces.
The Colonies imported guns in large quantities from Great Britain, France, Spain and Holland — relying on the latter three after the Revolutionary War broke out — because of the far more time- and cost-efficient manufacturing system overseas. A shortage of skilled laborers prevented the Americans from creating a similar assembly system, but America’s distinctive frontier terrain called for a rifle with a long barrel, allowing the shooter to more easily load the gun with two hands.
“The rifle is one of the first American products recognized for its quality in Europe,” Sullivan said. “There’s nothing more iconically American than a long rifle.”
Guests who visit the gunsmith shop, located near the Capitol and open Thursdays through Mondays, can find the gunsmiths in the middle of building a custom-made sporting gun — one of a few per year they produce for buyers on a waiting list that currently includes more than 70 people. They could be shaping a new barrel at the forge, filing each of the lock’s nearly 20 pieces, pouring brass into a sand mold for the mount that stabilizes the gun or carving a plank of wood into a carefully proportioned and decorated stock to rest against the shoulder.
Though the process seems intricate and specialized today, 18th-century firearms were considered ordinary products made with ordinary tools and sold at ordinary prices. An American-made rifle sold for about £4 — or the equivalent of a plain suit of clothes — at that time. But today, there’s nothing at all ordinary about using centuries-old techniques to make guns. To produce firearms, Colonial Williamsburg’s shop uses 18th-century tools exclusively. Guns made in the shop currently sell for about $20,000, on average.
All of the shop’s current gunsmiths developed a love for the trade long before they imagined demonstrating the work in an 18th-century setting. Though they grew up in different eras and in different parts of the country, Sullivan, von Aschwege and McDonal shared a fascination for hunting or its tools from an early age.
Sullivan saw a clear connection between his love for hunting in rural Ohio, where he grew up, and his insatiable interest in American history. Von Aschwege, inspired by the 6-foot musket described in his fourth-grade summer reading assignment The Fighting Ground, sought out firearms displays in museums near his Massachusetts hometown. Curious about primitive hunting tools, a 6-year-old McDonal took the initiative to construct a homemade bow and arrow; though impressed with his ingenuity, his parents dutifully scolded him.
The three taught themselves as teenagers to make guns. Sullivan and von Aschwege began with gunmaking kits; McDonal followed a diagram he bought from a muzzleloader shop in his Illinois hometown. Gradually, each tried his hand at making guns using commercially available parts, and each eventually launched his own business producing and selling guns.
Their attention turned to 18th-century firearms and techniques simply out of curiosity. They wanted to know about the evolution of guns — how they were manufactured, who used them and for what purpose. “Are any of these 18th-century firearms necessary in someone’s life today? No ... but it’s about understanding them and their use,” said von Aschwege, an apprentice gunsmith with the shop since 2016.
Like the other Historic Area trades, the gunsmith shop provides insight into the material culture of the Colonial era. Wallace Gusler, now retired, opened the gunsmith shop in 1963 with the idea of preserving and re-creating the techniques and tools of the trade. That mission continues more than 50 years later through the work of Sullivan, von Aschwege and McDonal, as well as two volunteers, Steve Roberts and Jamie Berryhill, who assist with both guest education and gunsmithing.
“Some people are here because they’re interested in learning about Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the politics of the area,” McDonal said. “But there are just as many people who have a fascination with the material culture of the 18th century. Shops like this, they’re all about everyday people.”
Master Gunsmith Richard Sullivan (left) and Steve Roberts (right), a volunteer, forge a barrel as Eric von Aschwege, an apprentice gunsmith, looks on. (Darnell Vennie/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
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