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Man crafts old-fashioned muzzle-loading pistol entirely out of wood

John McCoy
It took more than 200 hours' worth of filing, whittling and sanding for Arlie Hubbard of South Charleston to finish a working wooden replica of an antique caplock pistol. All of the gun's parts, right down to the screws and springs, are made of walnut or oak.

The old-fashioned muzzle-loading pistol Arlie Hubbard made is accurate in every detail except one.

It can't be fired.

There's a good reason why it can't. Guns made of wood explode when they're fired, and Hubbard's replica caplock handgun is made entirely of wood.

That's right. The barrel, which would ordinarily be made from steel, is wood. The trigger is wood. Even the screws and springs are wood.

Hubbard's creation is no static model, though. Thumb the hammer a bit and the gun clicks into half-cock. Pull back a bit more and it snaps into full-cock. Squeeze the trigger and the hammer drops smartly onto the nipple.

"It's an exact working replica of a caplock pistol," said Hubbard, a retired Columbia Gas lobbyist. "I took a real pistol and duplicated it, right down to the inner mechanism, without using a single piece of metal."

To say Hubbard likes doing things with his hands is like saying an ocean liner is a little bigger than a bar of soap.

Most of the basement level of his South Charleston home is devoted to Hubbard's many hobbies. The garage holds several pieces of woodworking equipment, a jig for wrapping the guides onto fishing rods, the hardware for making fly rods from split bamboo, and machines for reloading shotgun shells. The den holds a large radio-controlled airplane and Hubbard's fly-tying bench.

Hanging on the den wall are two ornate, fully functional flintlock rifles. Hubbard built them, too, plus a pair of flintlock pistols and a caplock pistol.

"When I made those real pistols, I started wondering if it would be possible to make one out of wood," he said. "The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced I could do it."

He took a block of walnut and band-sawed it into the basic shape of the pistol's grip and forend.

"That wasn't difficult," he said. "The important thing was keeping both sides of the blank flat and parallel."

Then came the tricky part - duplicating a real caplock pistol's working mechanism, or "lock."

"I took a real lock, disassembled it and copied all the parts," Hubbard explained. "First, I rough-sawed the parts from pieces of oak about 3/32 of an inch thick. Then, keeping the metal lock pieces on hand for comparison, I filed and sanded and drilled the wooden pieces so they exactly matched the metal ones."

The prototype lock consisted of 11 pieces - the side plate, the cock, the bridle, the main spring, the tumbler, the sear spring, the sear and the four screws that held everything together.

Of all the components, Hubbard said the mechanism's springs were the most difficult to duplicate. The prototype metal springs were bent at acute angles. Hubbard knew he couldn't bend thin, flat slivers of oak that sharply without breaking them, so he fabricated small oaken triangles that acted as gussets that kept the springs' leaves spread at just the proper angle.

"It took a long time to figure that one out," Hubbard said.

The screw-threaded pins were no picnic, either.

"I made the pins of walnut. I started with a 1/4-inch walnut dowel that I chucked up into a small lathe and turned the head to the size I needed. Then I turned the shank to the size I wanted, threaded them with an ordinary metal die, soaked the thread area with Super Glue to make the wood fibers hard, and then cut the threads a second time," Hubbard said.

Compared to the work on the lock, the rest of the project seemed relatively easy. Using a jointer, Hubbard fashioned the gun's octagonal barrel, whittled a pair of sights and dovetailed them into the barrel. The pistol's ornate trigger guard and curlicue trigger proved a bit fussy to carve, but came together relatively quickly as well.

After roughly 200 hours of close, meticulous work, Hubbard finally assembled the pistol, cocked it and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell with a satisfying snap.

The response from Hubbard's shooting buddies was predictably gratifying.

"Yeah, they kind of oohed and aahed about it when I showed it to them," Hubbard recalled. "I've since had three or four offers to buy it. I simply tell them it's not for sale."

Nor is he interested in making another.

"It's pretty safe to say that this will be one of a kind," he said with a grin.

Earlier this year, though, Hubbard decided to give the pistol a home of its own. He built a wooden-hinged, felt-lined poplar case for it, and completed the kit by fashioning a working powder flask from balsa wood and a few poplar balls for the case's ammunition compartment.

"I made those by taking half-inch cubes of poplar and rolling them around on a belt sander until they were pretty much round," he said.

Hubbard said he's most proud of the amount of old-fashioned hand-tool work that went into the project.

"I used some power tools - a band saw, a jointer, a drill press and a belt sander - but most of the work was done with hand tools. A lot of whittling, filing and sanding went into making all those little parts. It was a lot of work and it took a lot of patience, but it was also a lot of fun."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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