05 January 2011

Crossing over to the Dark Side

When did you cross over to the Dark Side?

Those of us who are truly afflicted with underhammeritis can usually recall that time when we were first infected, or, as my good mate, Terry, from down under in the Land of Oz would put it, “Crossing over to the Dark Side.” He’s not too far off the mark with that statement, either.

When first introduced in the latter part of the 18th Century, the very few underhammers made were most certainly viewed with suspicion. Most people of that day, including even some of the more enlightened minds, were very superstitious, believing that evil spirits lurked most everywhere and were able to easily take possession of most anyone or anything.

So stunted was their thinking that anyone who knew more or thought just a bit deeper than the rest of the village was likely to be burned or stoned as a witch or a sorcerer. Hence, anything which deviated from the norm was considered to be the work of the devil and best left alone.

The underhammer design was no exception. It was likely branded as being inspired by some evil force. After all, its very design of being “upside down” in its form and function would lead any God-fearing or logical thinking person to assume that only a possessed or afflicted mind would create such a deviant thing. It would be like us driving on the left side of the road! How weird and evil is that? (Sorry, Terry, but it is what it is.) So, the underhammer lay dormant until the invention of Reverend Forsyth’s percussion cap. It was then that the underhammer’s day had finally arrived.

It is generally accepted that the first underhammers were flintlocks of Germanic origin.

My own introduction to the dark side took place in the late 1970’s. I had been muzzleloading for quite a few years prior to that, but I only shot “traditional” rifles, like my .50 calibre TC Hawken. Traditional – yeah, right. At least, that’s what I was told when I bought it.

It was a rather warm late-August Sunday, as I recall, and I was headed for my very first rendezvous and was very eager to learn what all the hub-bub was about. Because of a lighter-than-usual weekend Honey-Do list, I had some time to make the trek up into the San Gabriel River canyon north of Los Angeles to experience this wondrous pageant and re-enactment of mountainman days gone by. However, it was already late in the day as I pulled into the parking area and people were beginning to pack up and head out. It seemed I might be too late and I hoped there was still time to see what this modern-day gala affair was all about.

As I got out of my trusty old Ford pickup, I was met by the pungent aroma of black powder smoke wafting through the air, very much akin to the smell of buffalo farts, and my ears were greeted by the familiar barking of rifles which were still shooting all manner of frontier marksmanship matches. Wow! I thought it was waaaayyy cool.

The moment seemed to promise a most wonderful experience in store for me, so I headed for the registration table where I discovered the following truth printed on the back of a well-worn t-shirt being sported by a gal at the table who looked equally well-worn. The message on her t-shirt read:

“It takes balls of lead to be a muzzleloader.”

Sometimes the Universe provides enlightenment in the most peculiar ways!

She explained that it was too late to register for any of the matches, but I could wander along the vendor’s row and watch the remainder of the matches being fired.

It was an amazing scene that lay out before me, like H.G. Wells  had set the calendar on the time machine back to 1820. Holy Bullets! There was all manner of old-timey gear from rifles, obviously, to period clothing of buckskin or calico, tee-pees and canvas tents and period stuff or all manner was available. One guy and his wife were even selling authentic cooperage. I hadn’t a clue prior to this that there were so many people who were as crazy about muzzleloading as I considered (and friends, neighbors and relatives agreed) that I was. Those folks were really into it beyond my wildest imaginings. While I shot blackpowder, too, those folks ate it, smoked it, and lived the lifestyle (or tried to) of fur trappers and traders of yore.

Like a kid at at his first carnival, I was stunned by the wonder and magnitude of it all.

Of all the shooting events that were taking place all around the camp and up into every other little canyon branching off the big ditch, the one that really caught my full attention was Shooting the Axe. Now that, to me, was far more exciting than poking holes into paper at any distance. To my way of thinking this was the quintessential test of the marksman’s skill.

For those of you who may not know of this match, it is fairly simple in that one blade of a double-bit axe is set into the middle of the end of large log so that the other blade is facing the shooter. On either side of the protruding axe blade is placed a clay bird as used in trap or skeet shooting. The idea is to shoot offhand so precisely so as to split the ball on the axe blade and break both clay birds.

If it sounds difficult it’s only because it is.

There were a few of the good old boys regaled in handsome custom-beaded buckskins and toting gorgeous custom-made cap and flint rifles who shot this match and managed to split the ball – occasionally. However, just like a scene out of an old Western movie, an unknown kid – I say kid, because he must have been about 18 years old or so – stepped up to the line. He wasn’t wearing buckskins but, instead wore bib overalls, a plaid shirt and tattered straw hat reminding me more of Lil’ Abner rather than Kit Carson. In retrospect, perhaps he was representing the Appalachian mountain men. Whatever, that boy could shoot! Not only did he split the ball, he did it a second time, then a third time! The silent glances of the good old boys at each other with questioning in their eyes while the kid did his thing seemed to echo in unison, “Who the hell IS that kid???” As you might imagine, he walked away with the prize.

Aside from his fine shooting ability, another thing about this lad caught my attention – his rifle. He had the funkiest looking rifle I had ever seen. It looked more like a long crowbar with a buttstock attached than any muzzleloading rifle I was familiar with up to that time.

Numrich Arms' "Hopkins & Allen" was the introduction to underhammers rifles for tens of thousands
of target shooters and hunters. Seen here is the Heritage, their top-of-the-line model.

My curiosity was intrigued by his strange rifle, so I asked him if I could take a look at it and then I followed up with, “What is it?” He explained that it was a Hopkins and Allen underhammer. He seemed pleased that I was taking interest in his odd rifle. Upon closer examination I was very impressed with the ultra-simplicity of its design. Only two moving parts, the hammer and the trigger, and the triggerguard acts as the mainspring. How ingenious is that?! I could see this as the basis of a really great big-game hunting rifle.

His was the heavy-barreled target model which did not utilize a forearm or loading rod at all - just a big, fat octagon barrel of .45 calibre with a simple straight-grip stock and a genuine plastic buttplate. There were no frills, just a real simple shooting machine, and let me tell you, that rifle - and that kid - could shoot.

As a side note, I asked the young man if he had any other muzzleloading rifles, and he said he didn't. In fact, the only other rifle he had was a Marlin bolt-action .22. However, he said that he liked and shot his underhammer more than his .22 Marlin. Which gives credence to that old saying to beware of the man with one gun because he probably knows how to shoot it!

The following week I called around to several gunshops in the area until I found a Hopkins and Allen underhammer, but, it was in kit form. I was really looking for a finished rifle, but being a stock maker and certainly a gun tinkerer, I reasoned that I could manage it.

That began a life-long obsession with underhammer arms. As I studied the action of each new and used H&A that I acquired after that first one, the improvements that were possible nagged at me until I finally came to the conclusion that I either had to build my improved underhammer rifles or visit a psyche ward for a frontal lobotomy to get those pesky ideas out of my head once and for all.

Pacific Rifle Company's Zephyr is an advanced design, high-performance rifle.
Clicking on the photos will enlarge them for detailed viewing.
Clicking the Back button will return you to the text.

In 1996 I founded Pacific Rifle Company and the now-famous Zephyr finally took form. In retrospect I guess I should have opted for the lobotomy. It would have been cheaper in the long run. I was pleased to learn, contrary to the naysayers, that there really is a market for a custom, high quality, big-bore, underhammer hunting rifle.

A recent addition to the RJ Renner line-up is this French-styled stalking rifle.

Because of various factors in my life at the time, I sold Pacific Rifle Company in 2006, however, I reserved the right to offer, make and sell a similar, but much higher-end, underhammer than the Zephyr, that is, the Faeton. I’ve also added some variations of my Faeton design, including the Carabine de Chasse, a French-flavored stalking rifle and the New Century Rifle, which features a concealed underhammer action within (dare I say) a “more traditional” one-piece stock.

The New Century Rifle is a radical departure from the Faeton concept.

You can learn more information about my work at: www.rjrenner.blogspot.com

What’s your story?

Now you know about my walk on the Dark Side, but we would like to hear some of the experiences of you readers. How is it that you learned about underhammers, and what was that defining moment for you where instead of your underhammer passion being a glimpse into Dante’s Inferno with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth because, “Eee gad, it has no lockplate!, the clouds parted and angels sang sweetly the Ode to an Underhammer as peace, purpose, and tranquility filled your life?


You mean to say that it didn't happen that way for you, too?

Anyway, please send your stories, no matter how short or how long (not to worry about too long as I know how to use the Delete button) and I will share them with our readers.

If you have photos of your favorite underhammer rifle, so much the better. Please be sure to include them and send all your info to our alternate e-mail: underhammers@gmail.com. I will then publish your story below. So, be sure to check back from time to time to read our readers' stories.

BTW, for any of you who may be concerned about the possibility of the evil origins of the underhammer system which may dis-sway you from further involvement with it, rest assured that it does not have evil origins. Simple logic dictates that something so advanced for its time as the underhammer system probably came to us from aliens. Right?

I'll believe it if you do.

So without further ado, I’ll be signing off from the Dark Side,

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Reader Feedback

Thanks to Ron Brusco for sharing his trip to the Dark Side as he explains, below:

For me, my introduction to the Dark Side happened last summer when I stopped at a garage sale. During the conversation with the homeowner, I mention I hardly ever see guns for sale at a garage sale especially being I live in California, except for the time I found a 'junk' shotgun,

I mentioned that I was into muzzleloaders and that I have a sidelock and an inline rifle. He said he had a blackpowder rifle he was meaning to sell sometime. When he brought it out for me to look at, I was uncertain if this was a real rifle or a decorative wall hanger.

Ron's rifle as he bought it. The grip scroll had been installed backwards!

The barrel was rifled, but, I wasn't certain about it, since the hammer was under the barrel. I faintly recalled seeing a picture of this but I think it was a pistol. Since I am a man of limited means, that is, very frugal -or cheap, we struck a deal (within a few dollars of what he wanted). He also included a box with balls and other miscellaneous items including a little scope.

That night I was still apprehensive as to it being a real muzzleloader. I was even considering shooting it by using a string from a safe distance. The next day I decided to clean it and load it with a light load. My neighbor was with me and we were both impressed with its accuracy. I did some research and not until I used the term underhammer, was I able to find any information on it.

 Ron's Heritage model after reinstalling the grip scroll and the bonus scope.

I have enclosed some pictures. Although we now know it is a Numrich Arms H&A Heritage, there are no marks or any other indication of a manufacturer or maker. The only mark there is five numbers that looks like they were put on with an engraving tool. There aren’t any proof marks or anything to indicate what caliber it is, although it is .45 caliber. In one of my pictures its shows the brass piece behind the trigger, which later I learned by looking at similar pictures, was installed backwards. I then re-installed it properly.

Closeup indicates this one to be in very fine condition!

These first offhand shots indicate the rifle is capable of good accuracy.
Ron reminds me that this target was shot with open sights - not the scope.

I also installed the scope. I didn't want to drill and tap the barrel, so I removed the rear sight and fashioned a brass screw to fit the dovetail. Then I used a piece of aluminum channel to connect the scope and brass screw. It may not be fancy, but it works well.

~Ronald Brusco                                                                      Photos copyright by Ron Brusko

Additional note: Rons' garage sale find is a real prize as this is one of the cleanest Numrich "H&A"s that I have seen in two decades.! It didn't take long for most of them to begin looking pretty rough. A reminder, too, that clicking on any of the photos will enlarge them for a closer view. Clicking the Back arrow on your screen will return you to the text.


Here are some memories of Richard Holmes of his cousin and his first underhammer rifle. As you may recall, we recently featured one of Richard's underhammer rifles further down on this page. You can go back and take a look at his rather unique design and appreciate the work of another Dark Sider.

My brother and I, had a cousin about 15 years younger than us. We were into making and shooting rifles, so we let him shoot one of ours. He liked it so much that he asked his folks if he could buy one. Numrich (underhammer) guns were on the market at the time and he ordered a standard .45 but they sent him a .36 caliber model. 

Not to be outdone, he got a bag of buckshot and we made him a powder flask and he made a bullet pouch. In just a few weeks, with a little coaching, he could ace a turtle about the size of your hand at 60 yards on a log in a one-acre pond on the property.  He became one of the best shots I have ever seen because of that underhammer. He was about 13 years old at the time. 

Last year I got the rifle from him and completely took it apart. The rifle is as new, with just a little bore wear and probably shot 3 thousand rounds. 

Thanks, Richard, for your input.

Here's a short comment from Mini30:

In my case I've admired the simplicity of underhammers I would see in
catalogs over the years, but spent my shooting time with T/Cs and Lymans.

My final motivation to actually go ahead and get an underhammer was a
Turkey shoot last year in New Mexico; competing in relay after relay
with hunting-load .50 maxis got downright tiring. So I finally
scratched the underhammer itch with a slightly used H&A .36 cal roundball rifle.

OBTW; I've googled, searched, and read blogs, but can't find much
on .36 cal H&A loading info. Also couldn't find anything on takedown and
cleaning. Any Ideas where I might look?

...and here's a fun trip down memory lane with gunsmith, John Taylor:


Someplace along the way I acquired an H&A under hammer rifle. Now this was interesting and something I could build. A small piece of hex brass stock was bored out for a BB and all the rest of the parts were made to make it into an under hammer pistol. The daisy BBs had little flat spots on the side and were not to accurate.

By now I was no longer using match heads for powder, found I could get black powder at the local sporting goods store, they also had the more expensive polished BBs .  The little gun used about 4 grains of 4F ( a 22 short shell used to measure). At 25 yards it would hold a very good group but it was found that the BBs were also going through the 1" boards of the back fence. Good thing no one was living behind me.

This same little pistol got the Sheriff called out when a friend and I were shooting beer cans floating down the river. It was winter time and we were doing our part cleaning up the beach by picking up cans and throwing them in the river then trying to sink them before they got out of range. Might get two shots off before it got to far away.

While we were gathering up a few more "targets" a deputy came walking toward us and asked what we were doing. I said we were shooting cans with a BB gun. He turned on his heals and started walking away in disgust saying that someone had reported that we were shooting a 357 mag. He never asked to see the little gun we were using. I suppose someone could have thought it was a big gun, it sounded more like a 38 special to me.
There's a lot more I could write about but even though it has been 40 years I still think I should keep it to myself. Lets just say it is to protect the innocent (and guilty).

John Taylor, Gunsmith

Thanks, John! 

College days and underhammers 

Way back in the '70's, when I was a G. I. Bill college student without much cash money, I discovered the "dark side" at a gun show.  In a relatively short time I accumulated a set of Numrich's H & A guns, a long rifle  and a carbine length "buggy rifle", as well as a boot pistol, all in .45 cal. 

Had fun with them, "dump huntin" as we used to do back in those days.  Also had, for a while, the longest, heaviest, cannon of a .58 cal.  I eventually traded it off, because it was just too danged heavy to manage in the woods.  Still have the others, and take them out to the range on occasion, where they are an object of some curiosity. 

Never could hit anything much with the pistol, and the long barreled rifle doesn't group round balls too well at 100 yds, but I have the most fun with the little buggy rifle on the 50 yd range. 

My question is, after all these years, I've had it on my mind to dust 'em off and have another go with them after reading this blog, and I was wondering what twist they have in Numrich's barrels, and would a longer bullet work in them?  I'd like to be able to do something at the longer ranges with the rifle. 

Anyway, really have enjoyed reading about my old "Hopkins and Allens".

John Johnson

Thanks, John, for the trip down memory lane.
The seventies seem like a hundred years ago, now, don't they?

Anyone else with a story? Don't be bashful, just send 'em on in. 



Bill Dossett said...

Hi all, I have a hopkins & allen heritage model, serial 50262 in nickel finish. Belonged to my father who has passed, but wanted some info on it. Looks new with miminal wear. Stock is flawless. Not for sale as I am an avid muzzleloader. Just any info I can get on this gun. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I crossed over to the Dark Side one weekend in Gettysburg, PA. A local reenactor's shop had some consigned muzzleloaders that piqued my curiosity, and I almost decided on the double rotating-barrel side lock rifle (I'm still not sure what you call those things).

After six trips back to check them out, my wife said "Oh, just GET ONE already or we'll go home and you'll kick yourself for missing out. Then I won't want to hear your moaning!"

When your wife tells you to buy a gun, you don't hesitate or ask questions. I decided on the H&A--just a simple one, but I wish I would have picked up its sister target rifle that was for sale with it too. Bought it for $115 if I recall correctly, and that was only in 2007.

I REALLY fell in love with it after I shot it--it makes me look so much better than I am! It replaced a picture of my kids over our fireplace mantel.

Travis Lee Moser

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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!