12 March 2007

Underhammer History - briefly

While few modern shooters are aware of the underhammer system, those few who are familiar with it seem to know little or nothing about its origins. Contrary to popular belief, it did not begin with Hopkins & Allen. In fact, the original Hopkins & Allen company never made underhammer arms. But I’m getting ahead of the story…

As strange as it may seem, the underhammer principle has 18th century Germanic roots and was developed to improve flintlock ignition! At first thought that may seem rather ridiculous as anyone who has ever studied or fired a flintlock knows that the priming powder would simply fall out of a pan and frizzen mounted on the bottom of a rifle. And it is just that fact that resulted in instantaneous ignition in the new mechanism. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense…

At the moment that a bottom-mounted frizzen is opened by the upward swinging flint cock, the priming powder falls freely and becomes dispersed into a sort of little cloud in the immediate proximity of the meeting of flint and frizzen – and it is just at that exact moment that it is showered with sparks from the flint. The resulting upward flash is just fractions of an inch from the flashhole and ignition is virtually instantaneous – at least in comparison to the traditional method. Unfortunately, anything that deviated from the norm at that time in history was usually considered with suspicion as being inspired by the devil and best left alone. However, once percussion caps made the scene all that seemed to change.

"Traditional" sidelocks are rather complex mechanisms and require considerable skill in design and building. In fact, most locks were trade items imported from Europe as few American gunsmiths had the skill or machinery to manufacture gun locks. This set the stage for the development of the percussion underhammer system.

Some muzzleloaders look down their noses at underhammers because they believe that they just aren't "traditional." But the fact is that they were borne and bred here in America, while the sidelock was a European development that came over on the boat. It is the underhammer that is the true, original, American percussion system, and from that perspective I believe it is accurate to say that it most certainly is "traditional."

In the early 1820s Reverend Forsyth's percussion cap made its debut on this side of the pond and underhammer development  in the newly formed united States of America began with the issuing of the very first firearms patent for a production gun to Fordyce Ruggles on November 24, 1826. Due to a fire some patent files were destroyed. However there is good evidence and it is believed and accepted that the patent was for his underhammer pistol design which became the basis of so many copy cat designs of the following two decades. Unfortunately it was the copycats who gained greater fame than did Ruggles. But it all began with Fordyce Ruggles - the father of the American underhammer. Fordyce and his brother, Adin, set up shop in Hardwick, Massachusetts in December of 1825 and the rest, as they say, is history.

With few moving parts, Ruggle's simple underhammer mechanism could be made by the frontier gunsmith or local blacksmith and with the addition of a piece of barrel, a serviceable firearm could be made rather quickly and inexpensively.

During that westward expansion there was a plethora of underhammer makers producing both singleshot and even a few repeating underhammer pistols throughout the settled East.

While underhammer pistols seem to have dominated the trade, there were a number of makers of rifles as well. Some displaying great care and skill in workmanship as seen in the example of one of Billinghurst's fine rifles, below. Many of these higher grade arms were very accurate target rifles and some were even used as sniper rifles in the War Between the States.


While many underhammers were simple, both in function and adornment, some designs were mechanically quite unique while others were downright gaudy. The one below displays both characteristics and is from an unknown maker. An interesting feature of this rifle is that the other side also bears decoration that is an exact mirror image of this side - including the patchbox lid!


Meanwhile, European gunsmiths were likewise discovering the virtues of the simple, rugged, and reliable underhammer action and also contributed much to its development.

Interestingly, virtually anyone who was anyone in the arms industry prior to 1860 seemed to have either an open or closet fascination with the simplicity and innate ruggedness of the underhammer mechanism. In fact, Jonathon Browning’s first commercial firearm was an underhammer!

Contrary to what many assume, not all underhammers were simple mechanisms. In fact, some designs, such as the Demeritt, were so complex and/or frail that one has to wonder, "What was he thinking?!"

Now I know that some of you are still waiting to hear about Hopkins & Allen and how they figure into all of this. During the 1950s and ‘60s interest in muzzleloading arms really picked up. Enter George Numrich of Numrich Arms. George had an idea that there would be a market for a simple, inexpensive muzzleloading rifle – and indeed there was. After studying some of the designs of the early underhammer makers, he decided to offer a version which combined features of some of the better aspects of those early designs along with a few twists of his own.

Having acquired the remaining assets of the old Hopkins & Allen manufacturing business - including the name - he graced his new offering with the old name and has confused shooters ever since.

For many years Numrich Arms was the only (visible) maker offering an underhammer rifle – and, yes, a pistol, too – and because so little was known of underhammers outside of collectors circles it was generally assumed that Hopkins & Allen, or Numrich Arms, invented them.

Despite the unintentional confusion generated by his application of the old H&A moniker to his own underhammer design, George made a tremendous contribution to the muzzleloading revival by providing a reasonably-priced, reasonably accurate, muzzleloading rifle which served to introduce tens of thousands of shooters to our sport.

His clever lockwork design was also one of the very few that incorporated a half-cock notch for safely carrying the piece afield. By and large, most underhammer designs of the past did not incorporate a safety notch in the hammer. Boy, would today's attorneys have a field day with that one, or what?

So now you have the story – or at least another page of it. The rest, as they say, is history. No pun intended.

For more underhammer history and trivia that is sure to make you the life of any party, you may wish to track down Herschel C. Logan's great book, THE PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE UNDERHAMMER GUN. It has been out of print for decades, but a good book locator may be able to track down a copy.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the bit of history. I own a Pacific Rifle Zephyr as well as a couple of H&A underhammers. I've heard various versions of the H&A history none of which were verifiable. One person selling an H&A even claimed that they could be traced back to Ethan Allen.

I'm looking forward to more on your blog. It would be interesting to know who a typical underhammer owner may have been in the 1800's. I understand that there were some areas of New England where the underhammer was fairly common. How about out west?

John Taylor said...

Thanks for the info. As a long time owner/builder of under hammers myself I never knew the story behind the H&A. Many years ago I made an under hammer BB gun pistol with a brass barrel. Had to use the high price polished BBs at the time because Daisy's would not shoot strait. With 4 grains of 4F it would put a BB through a 1" board at 25 yards.

Fred Ford said...

Sir,
That is one fine looking rifle!
The bronze, engraved receiver really set it apart,
Your choice of wood compliments it well.
I do hope you have some other pictures to show us.
There are a few other underhammer rifles of note in " The Caplock Rifle" by Ned Roberts.
Many years ago I brought twenty ( 20) UH rifles from Numrich Arms in West Hurley N.Y.
It is really too bad they are no longer supplying this fine rifle.
Best Regards
Fred Ford

Anonymous said...

I need a trigger guard/hammer spring for a h&a rifle. gunparts/numrich does not have one. do you or anyone know where i can obtain one? respond to mjnbd@basicisp.net

R.J. Renner said...

You might try www.underhammers.com
as they are/were offering actions and complete rifles based on the H&A. Perhaps they sell part, too.

Good luck,

R J Renner

Woodbutcher said...

Mr. Renner
Your thoughts fly in the face of so many things I've read, Thank you! Roundballs, buckhorn sights, rifling, Oh yes, and shot in a rifled barrel. Such heresy! BRAVO!!!
Thank you again. Larry

Anonymous said...

It is useful to try everything in practise anyway and I like that here it's always possible to find something new. :)

dheckathorne said...

Just stumbled on to your site I had to hunt small game once for food, the situation didn't last a real long time.I had an H&A .36 underhammer,and a .34 cal mould I found bluejean patches did the trick after all hunting rabbits at night one could get pretty close. I was concerving powder too so 10 to 15 gr fffg was enough. I would walk along the streets and pick up wheel weights for lead. Normally wheel weights are to hard but with the bluejean patch it didn't matter cause it wasn't real tight any way.

Please Support our Sponsors

This site is provided to you free of charge by our sponsors. If you find value in our efforts, please take a moment to visit their sites listed below and consider their products and services before buying somewhere else.

If you are interested in advertising your muzzleloading services or products on The Underhammer Society blog site, please call 775-453-9355 for more information.

Thank you for your interest and support.

The Underhammer Society
.

The Gun Works

Rice Barrel Company

Black Widow Bullets

Faeton - The Thinking Man's Rifle

Faeton - The Thinking Man's Rifle
Click the image for more information about RJ Renner rifles

Thanks for visiting!

Copyright 2007 - 2016 by R.J.Renner .

About Me

Roger Renner


Hi. I've been a student, admirer, and designer/builder of underhammer guns for over 30 years. In that span I've built over 200 semi-custom underhammers exploring the possibilities from the ordinary to the exotic. In 1996 I founded Pacific Rifle Company to explore the market's interest in a high-quality underhammer rifle. Thankfully, that interest was, and still is, there. I sold PRC in 2006 but continue to craft high-end underhammers as I am truly afflicted with underhammeritis - which can be contagious!