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Latrobe man brings revolutionary firearms back to life

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 7:40 p.m.

LATROBE-- Phil Cravener sticks to his guns--as long as they come with a flintlock and a ramrod.

More at home in the 18th century than the 21st, this fan of muzzle-loading rifles has crafted and shooting his own reproduction weapons for 40 years.

Now 65, the Latrobe man's boyhood imagination was fired by Hollywood films depicting the stout-hearted frontiersmen of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales."

"Those movies impressed me" and led to an interest in military history--particularly that of the flintlock era, "from the late 1600s to almost halfway through the 19th century."

More than just a flash in the pan, flintlock guns--in which a struck flint sparked black powder, setting off the weapon's main charge--were "one of the longest in use of all the (firearm) ignition systems."

From the 200 years of the flintlock's dominance, Cravener zeroes in on the French and Indian War and the early Revolutionary War.

"I think people in western Pennsylvania have focused on that because we have so much local history from that period"--including Ligonier, which grew from a British fort, and Bushy Run battlefield northwest of Greensburg, scene of a key colonial victory in an Indian uprising known as Pontiac's War.

After earning a degree in mineral economics and enjoying a fling with hot rods in the early 1960s Cravener was drawn back to the subject which had first fascinated him.

He recalled, "Someone invited me to a black powder shoot," muzzle-loader marksmanship events held by the now-defunct Loyalhanning Long Rifles of Latrobe and the still-active Old Westmoreland Rifles (OWR).

Aiming at paper targets with lead balls, Cravener "won a jar of apple butter and some crackers, and I thought, 'This is fun; I'm going to do this again.' "

Also referred to as "buckskinning," for members who went the extra step and outfitted themselves in deer hide duds, the OWR activities once included period battle reenactments.

Cravener previously was commander and adjutant of the OWR group and for many years has served as its treasurer.

In recent years, he noted, the focus has returned to various shooting competitions. In addition to still-popular paper target matches, the group hosts primitive or "mountain man" trail shoots: "You go through the woods and shoot at a steel gong."

Rather than the mountain man-look, Cravener has assembled a retro wardrobe reflecting the more civilized side of colonial American life.

"I have more 18th century clothes than modern clothes," he admitted.

He has the proper attire for a 1700s tradesman, including a rounded fabric cap, and, for depicting an officer with the Regiment of Foote, a fancy red and blue jacket bristling with buttons.

But the first item Cravener obtained for his 18th century hobby was a reproduction of a period rifle.

Cravener credits the late Bob Kern, who operated a gun shop near Fort Ligonier, with "convincing me I could put a gun together."

With lock, stock and barrel-- and tips--obtained from the older man, Cravener constructed a half-stock plains rifle styled after those used during the heyday of America's fur trade.

He later "traded it back for another gun and some swords," launching him on an ongoing mission to collect, restore and recreate guns that once were the state-of-the-art in personal security.

When he crafts reproductions of vintage firearms for himself or others, Cravener noted historical accuracy is of major importance. But there is still room for his personal interpretation of finer details.

He explained a reproduction of a specific type of gun--whether a rifle or a less-advanced smoothbore musket--begins with the appropriate metal barrel and the raw ingredient for the stock: either a featureless block of maple or walnut or a roughly-formed version from a kit that "gives you a correctly shaped gun, but no artwork."

Cravener provides the artistic detailing, carving it directly into the wooden stock or inlaying silver and brass ornamentation. The detail work gives each gun an individual character while revealing the historical "school" of gun making that inspired it.

Cravener has made several rifles based on the Lancaster school--which featured rococo carvings of floral and scroll patterns, an adaptation of French furniture design.

"Most gunsmiths used that sort of design in central and eastern Pennsylvania," he noted.

While sticking with decorative motifs common to the period of a gun, Cravener decides how they will interplay on each wooden stock: "I work out all the details on paper first."

It's often painstaking work. Cravener currently is decorating a custom rifle butt that will feature a floral inlay of silver with adjoining brass scrollwork that appears to flow out of it.

Adding to the visual appeal will be intricate "wire work"--actually a flattened silver tape used to trace thin, shining spirals along the wooden gun stock.

Cravener explained, "I stab the design in with tiny chisel-shaped gouges."

But, such fine detailing may not hold up to the passing years. He noted, as the gun's wood expands and contracts with seasonal changes in temperature, the thin metal tape can loosen and begin to push its way out of the wood.

In the worst case, he said, "It may catch on your coat and get torn completely out." Once that happens, "It's very difficult to replace."

Cravener also fits the butts of most of his guns with patch boxes--slender decorated panels of brass or wood which could be opened to reveal a cavity where extra ammunition, cloth wadding patches and related accessories were stored.

He explained the compartment gave the pioneer riflemen a fighting chance "if you have to grab a gun and run five miles to get away from the Indians, and you couldn't get to your hunting bag in time."

Cravener also has worked on models of the famous Brown Bess smooth-bore musket, which was used by the British in the French and Indian War and in the Revolutionary War, in a more refined version.

He recently was completing work on a French-styled "fusil," a lighter version of the musket, which is to be awarded as a prize at OWR's annual Rendezvous gathering this weekend at the Latrobe Sportsmen Club.

He has recreated other fusils for French reenactors at the Bushy Run Battlefield.

Turning to an earlier period, he also has constructed a reproduction of a hefty 1580s wheel-lock pistol. Featuring a circular lock piece, its stock catches the eye with alternating bands of wood and decorative bone inlays--meant to simulate ivory.

Cravener noted the decision to use a smooth-bore weapon versus a rifle was a trade-off in technology for 18th century muzzle-loaders.

He explained, the Brown Bess, with a smooth bore that offered no obstructions to the ramrod, could be loaded with as many as four shots per minute by a well-drilled redcoat.

The standard for an early rifle was only one shot per minute. Said Cravener, "It took longer to load, but it could reach out and touch a man-size figure with some accuracy beyond 100 yards."

A musket's effective range extended to only about half that distance.

Cravener acknowledged he does make a few concessions to modern advances in techniques and materials.

He chooses gun barrels fashioned from superior low-carbon steel, rather than the less-reliable wrought iron commonly used in the flintlock era. He explained the iron versions can develop tiny cracks while being formed.

As with many other flintlock enthusiasts, Cravener casts his own lead balls.

"Most people involved in this hobby make some or all of their own things," he noted.

For added authenticity, some even heat their bullet molds over fires they create using a piece of flint. "There are guys who can start a fire quicker than you can flick your lighter," he said.

But, he is content to use a small gas burner in his basement workshop--where his 90-year-old father, Merle, often comes by to assist.

For his collection of genuine antique guns, many of which he has restored, Cravener has concentrated primarily on pieces from Great Britain, France and Germany.

He noted, "I can get a European gun with high art carving on it for a fraction of the price of a plainer American gun" of the same vintage.

He explained, because American guns have an added historical and sentimental appeal on this side of the Atlantic, well-heeled U.S. collectors "will bid American guns up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially if the gun has a particular importance"--such as an association with a prominent owner or with a major battle.

That prices out of the market collectors such as Cravener, who have taken up the hobby "for homemade fun" rather than a commercial investment.

Since he has mastered the skills of period gunsmithing, Cravener has found a way to add to his collection at a relatively reasonable cost.

He often buys and fixes up old guns which are being unloaded as parts or in "wrecked" condition by dealers who are unable to restore the firearms themselves and sell them at a profit.

Cravener often must repair or replace the lock and forestock on such well-used guns.

He noted locks on older rifles frequently were altered in the mid-1800s--allowing their continued use with the more modern percussion ignition system, which uses a percussion cap instead of black powder to fire the gun.

He pointed out a gun's forestock tended to be "very slim and fragile" compared to the butt, and often broke off or was deliberately cut off to modify the gun.

Cravener noted his work on his antique arsenal stops short of restoring the weapons to working order.

"They're perfectly restored style-wise," he said. But, "They're intended to be showpieces, not to be shot."

"It's an ethical point for collectors," he said, explaining antique guns are allowed to remain inoperable so their historic value will not be marred through damage that could occur if someone were to attempt to discharge them.

Many of Cravener's restoration chores--for instance, replacing the mainspring in an old rifle's lock mechanism--require precision and "a lot of patience."

The same can be said for a related 18th century craft he has added to his repertoire.

Working from scratch, Cravener fashions powder horns and inscribes them with his own versions of period scrimshaw designs.

When Cravener initially tried his untrained hand at the traditional art form, he was unimpressed with the results.

"I was just decorating horns as best I could," he said.

Then, about 15 years ago, "I met a fellow willing to tell me everything he knew:" Roland Cadle of Altoona, who is also a minister.

"I watched him for three years, and finally I figured out how to do it," Cravener said of the scrimshaw technique.

For a high-quality piece, he noted, preparation of the raw cow's horn is just as important as the design later applied to it.

Cravener explained most cow's horns are flattened into an oval shape where they join the animal's head.

Heating in a vat of lard at 300 degrees Fahrenheit causes the large end of the horn to reform in a perfect circle, which Cravener then fits with a wooden butt plug.

He noted, "If the temperature is too far under 300 degrees, the horn won't lose its memory. If it's too hot, it will become brittle and split."

He crafts a tiny wooden stopper for the smaller tip of the horn, which may be decoratively sculpted.

Cravener noted he is still working to perfect his scrimshaw technique--meticulously incising small lines into the horn's surface with slender metal hand tools.

"If I live to be 110, I will not be able to be as good at scrimshaw as I would like," he said.

Although such a tool wouldn't have been available to 18th century artisans, Cravener prefers a tungsten-carbide blade. "It holds its point longer," he noted.

A friend fitted the blade in a dowel rod. He covered the outside with a rubber car hose to keep the tool from abrading his fingers.

According to Cravener, the most difficult aspect in scrimshaw is gaining enough control of the tool to overcome the natural grain in the horn.

"It's hard on your hands because your tool wants to follow the grain," he said. "You have to be stiffened up from you fingers to your chest to make it work.

"After an hour and a half, my hands are really cramped up and it becomes painful."

Cravener noted it may take him six months to complete a powder horn with a "high art" design. One he has recently finished depicts a map of Pennsyl-vania's mid-18th century British military outposts, from Fort Duquesne to Ft. Littleton east of Bedford.

On the obverse face of the horn is a cameo portrait of Gen. John Forbes, the British officer in charge of the final, successful expedition to capture Ft. Duquesne from the French.

His next design he is working on incorporates the crest of England's royal family.

"It takes 30 to 40 little scratched lines just to make the curved part of the letter 'D,' " on a horn, Cravener noted.

Even though he uses a magnifying visor, eye strain also comes into play.

With scrim-shaw work, OWR activities and projects for other gun enthusiasts vying for his time, Cravener noted, "Sometimes it takes me 10 years to put a gun together for my own collection."

He is determined to finish building a reproduction of a German jaeger hunting rifle, a project he began about eight years ago before being sidetracked.

He's planning to add his own modifications to gunstock artwork shown in a photo of the original mid-1700s rifle.

"I'm hoping to finish it sometime in the next 10 years," he said optimistically.

But that will have to wait at least until after this weekend's OWR Rendezvous. In addition to the behind-the-scenes work for the event, Cravener has been brushing up on his overhand technique for the tomahawk throw.

"Some of the guys are so good," he said. "I have to practice once in a while."

Membership in OWR currently stands at about 60, but Cravener noted interest in the group has fluctuated--usually getting a boost when Hollywood rolls out the increasingly rare film depicting 1700s warfare or hunting.

The last such feature, released in 2000, was Mel Gibson's Revolutionary War epic, The Patriot.

"Every time they make a movie about the 18th century, there are a lot more interested people who show up to see what we're doing," Cravener said.

If any new recruits need help getting the firepower they need to compete, they might turn to Cravener or one of his fellow flintlock specialists.

If, like Cravener, they're do-it-yourselfers, they can always invest in their own flintlock rifle kit.

Cravener noted a kit for a basic, unadorned model can be had for an attainable $600 to $800.

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