23 April 2007

So, you want to build an underhammer...

As an underhammer designer and builder, I am disappointed at how little creativity is being expressed among the present builders of underhammer rifles. While it is generally true that there is nothing new under the sun - that all has been tried before - there exists nonetheless, vast areas of artistic expression that have not yet been explored within the realm of the humble underhammer rifle.

I believe that this stems from a certain disdain and prejudice that some shooters have toward underhammer rifles in general. Some view the inherent simplicity of the action as somehow lacking in the sophistication that more complex mechanisms display. There seems to be some idea of nobleness in the evolution of those complex lock mechanisms designed to do nothing more than ignite gunpowder. Many marvel at the intricacies of traditional sidelock designs and look to them as representing the highest form of the gunmaking art.

Because the underhammer was relatively simple and cheap to make, it was reasoned that it somehow didn’t deserve the attention to embellishment that more refined firearms displayed. After all, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, so why would you waste your time trying? Right?

As a firearms designer I have to disagree. I don't believe that there is "nobleness" in any mechanism based upon its complexity. Anyone can complicate the hell out of any design. In my opinion the greatest challenge is to refine something to its simplest form – to its fewest number of parts while still accomplishing the task at hand. Fewer moving parts is far more impressive to the reasoning mind than a complex design. That’s where the underhammer designs - most of them anyway - really shine. Simple, rugged, and generally quite conducive to accuracy when coupled with a good barrel. To my way of thinking , it is the underhammer that may have a claim of nobleness due to the value of its utter simplicity.

So, with such desirable features in its favor, I have to wonder why many underhammer makers insist on competing in the “Who Can Make The Ugliest Underhammer Rifle?” contest. Doesn’t the underhammer deserve greater consideration? I’ve seen the work of some otherwise talented riflesmiths who will lavish hour upon hour on a Golden Age rifle or a Hawken or Vincent copy, but will really drop the ball by making a less than beautiful underhammer rifle. I say it is time to take a fresh look at the underhammer concept and create beautiful rifles.

I once had a discussion with a muzzleloading gentleman who marveled that I would dare charge over $1500 for an underhammer rifle. He insisted that there just isn’t anything there for which to charge that much money. He said that he built and sold underhammers for no more than $350 - $400 (at that time). I told him that the difference is that he built Volkswagens while I built Bentleys. He just didn’t see the lowly underhammer as being worth the effort and expenditure for quality materials. To this day he is still trying to build a cheaper underhammer!

This is not intended as a put down of anyone’s work -that's not the purpose of this discussion. I am simply throwing down the glove in challenging other makers to give the underhammer thoughtful consideration and elevate it to its rightful place among other great firearm designs.

To borrow a line from the movie, Field of Dreams, "If you build it (a truly beautiful high quality underhammer rifle) they will come (to buy it!)." That’s been my experience. I’ve included some photos of one of my higher end pieces with the hope that it will inspire others to reach a little further than the ordinary. Click on the images for a closer look.

This rifle incorporates hammer, trigger, and triggerguard from my earlier Zephyr design, but fitted to a bronze receiver (tough stuff!). The deep-relief Germanic style engraving was perfectly executed by Dale Woody (www.gunfancy.com) according to the customer's order. The stock and forearm are perfectly matched for grain and color and were crafted from 100+year old exhibition-grade Turkish walnut. The rough, un-carved wood blank alone had a retail price of $3000. So you can see that some people are willing to spend serious money to create one-of-a-kind underhammer rifles.

By the way, one of the reasons that this particular piece of wood was so pricey is because the other side of the buttstock is virtually a mirror image of this side. Rare when that happens. I like to think that whoever cut the blank knew exactly what he was doing.

Come on in – the water’s fine!

Since first posting, there have been several inquiries regarding the beautiful brass scope that I fitted to that rifle. The scope is one of six made to special order by Randy Oates of RKO Instruments. Randy normally makes his ultra-high quality scopes from tempered steel tubes and claims that he will not make any more brass-tubed scopes.

Contact me if you're in the market for such a scope and I'll track down his latest phone number for you.


Anonymous said...

My god....it's beautiful!

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful rifle! I have one of your early Zephyrs in .62 caliber and it is my favorite rifle. I was sorry to hear that you have sold the company but it appears that you are still making rifles. Are your new rifles like your old Zephyr design like the one in the photo or do you have something new?

What's the story?
More photos please!

Best wishes,
John Stonebird

Anonymous said...

Just had another question.
Are you planning to offer the 8-bore African style rifle in your new model of underhammer? I wanted to get one but your barrel supplier had died or something and you couldn't get 8-bore barrels. Has that changed?

Still would like to see more pictures, especially your new model.

Thanks again,

Anonymous said...

"I told him that the difference is that he built Volkswagens while I built Bentleys."

You build a beautiful rifle.
I would love to have one, But I couldn't see taking that Bentley hunting

Anonymous said...

Marvelous piece of work! I was inerested in the Numrich Arms models, 'Offhand','Buggy', and 'Hertitage' back in the early '60s when I was a kid primarily because I'm a lefty. I finally got a kit a few years ago, built the rifle, and am happy with it. Because it was relatively inexpensive I see it as a learning piece, a place to experiment.
San Diego

Anonymous said...

As a bored 13 year old kid living out in the country I was not yet
interested in girls but still captivated by knives and guns and climbing trees. We didn't have money to buy "extras", but the local library was free and there were plenty of old cars in the woods if you knew where to
look. So my best friend and I went to the library and checked out books on knife making, blacksmithing, and metallurgy.

We then made our own forge from a truck brake drum and my mothers old hair dryer, and we began making knives from the leaf and coil springs of old cars . Our
days were spent pounding out knives on chunks of railroad track and quenching them in old crankcase oil I'd save from when my dad changed the oil in the car. Eighteen years later I'm still making and selling knives as a hobby, but now I have a shop and "proper" tools.

My spirit of "Do it yourself" carried over into other areas of my life.
I became interested in computers and tried Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh. While both were good operating systems I became frustrated by the restrictions placed by Microsoft and Apple. "It's my computer damn-it. I can do with it as I want!" So this time, in stead of the library, I turned to the internet and learned about the Linux kernel, Open Source software, and computer

Once I had enough knowledge I built my computer and made my own operating system for it, the way I wanted it to be. It is my belief that this is the type of attitude that forged America and that governments fear.

One day I was loaned a book titled "The Last of the Mountain Men".

It amazed me that this man chose a black powder flintlock rifle for his means of survival when he could have had his choice of any modern center-fire rifle. This brought to fruition my desire to build a rifle, the way I wanted it.

The single-shot firearm has always interested me, but I wasn't sure of that blackpowder thing. You know, all that measuring, lubing, and stuffing. I decided to buy a rifle and see if it was fun to shoot before spending all that time in building one. There was an 870 Remington shotgun in the closet that I never used, so I took it down to the local pawn shop and traded it for a new flintlock and $100 cash. Not bad I thought, "A new rifle and an extra hundred bucks in my pocket." That summer was spent learning how to load, shoot, and tune a flintlock. In the fall, on the first day of muzzle loading season, I
stepped out on my back porch and shot a doe. It was my first deer kill ever and I was hooked.

Armed with the confidence of my past success, I went on the search for a rifle to build. Scouring the internet, I started visiting the shooters forum (http://shootersforum.com/forumdisplay.htm?f=26) to glean any advice that I could. In one post a member mentioned underhammers. "Underhammers? What's an underhammer?" I wondered. Off to Google I went.
It was in this search that I came upon your blog and I learned what an underhammer was. I was impressed by its sleek lines and simplicity. It soon became obvious to me that there weren't too many kits available any more for the underhammer rifle.

A very nice gentleman at the shooters forum who had built several underhammers stepped forward and offered his help. He would do anything for me such as build the rifle, assemble a kit for me to finish, or just offer advice. A rough kit for an
underhammer action was located and barrel specs were laid out. At the
end of November all parts will be purchased and the underhammer rifle project will begin!

(Dan said he would keep us posted with pics and story of his progress.)

I hope that I haven't bored you with my long explanation. It would be good to see more information on underhammer building. It appears to be a dieing breed and I want to keep it alive.

Dan Van Wormer

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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!