I have tried to build my business by being someone who loves taking on unique projects. In that vein, I had a client call me up a last year and told me he was interested in having me convert a Sharps replica for him. He had apparently gotten hold of a biography of one of the last buffalo hunters living in the late 1950’s and was interested in a rifle that, while not an exact replica, would stay faithful to the original in terms of finish and, most especially, caliber. This was somewhat challenging as the caliber he wanted to convert the rifle to was the obscure .40-90 Sharps Bottleneck (SBN).
The conversion proceeded easier than expected once I did my research. I secured a candidate replica Sharps for the project. I was then able to get the original .38-55 barrel re-bored to .40 caliber by Dave Clements. Pacific Tool & Gauge made me a reamer and I used my usual refinishers to complete the rust-bluing on the barrel and breech block. The hiccup came when my client called me half-way through the conversion to let me know he wanted the barrel stamped “Caliber 40 2 – 5/8 BN” like the original would have been. On top of that, he wanted the fraction to be oriented vertically, with one number on top of the other, rather than using the forward slash method more common now. That required a special order stamp – not cheap!
I ordered a “5/8” stamp like my customer requested and I already had a set of 1/4” stamps in my shop but using such stamps free hand usually ends up looking terrible. I know there are stamping guides out there available for purchase but none of them looked like they would work very well on the octagon barrel I had to stamp. I couldn’t find one that was long enough for all of the characters at once, either. I decided to make one.
I came up with a design and started gathering the components. I got some 1 1/2” angle iron, a section of 1/8 x 3/4” flat stock (aluminum and steel), several ¼-20 hex-head nuts and bolts and some pieces of 1/8” and 1/4” square stock. Being a somewhat impatient person when embarking on a fresh project, I did not feel like having to order any of the materials I needed. Everything here I got from my local hardware store.
First, I cut the angle iron into two, 4” long pieces. Then I clamped the pieces together and put them in the mill so I could cut a shallow groove down the center. This groove gives a flat surface that can rest on the barrel you are using and be sure it’s straight. I then took the pieces to my disc sander and sanded the imperfections out of what would become the inside of the guide.
I drilled four holes in the vertical section of the angle iron that would accept the bolts that would hold the two pieces together as well as the spacers that fit in between them. For the spacers, I cut four pieces of 1/8 x 3/4” aluminum flat stock a little shorter than the angle iron. I couldn’t find 1/4” thick flat stock at the hardware store so I was forced to stack two 1/8” pieces together in order to give enough clearance between the angles for the stamps. I drilled holes through them that matched up with the holes in the angle iron and bolted it together with four 1 1/8” long ¼ – 20 bolts.
If I’ve explained it well enough (fingers crossed), you know that now I had two pieces of angle iron bolted together with enough flat stock between them to allow space for the stamps. Now it was time to figure out how to hold it to the barrel.
One of the major complaints I read about when researching stamping guides available commercially was the fact that they would not keep their position on the barrel no matter how tight they were secured. Several reviewers ascribed this to the fact that those guides were held on by u-bolts that went over the barrel and were held to the guide with nuts.
Because I was doing an octagon barrel, I knew that a u-bolt would definitely slip if I tried it. I decided to go with the most simple method I could think of – two pieces of flat stock that would go on the underside of the barrel and be attached to the guide with screws.
I drilled four holes (notice the theme?) on the sections of the guide that would be flat. I measured the center to center distance of those holes and cut a piece of 1/8 x 3/4” steel flat stock about 1” longer than what I measured. I marked and center punched each end of the flat stock in the center, 1/2” in from each edge. I then drilled and tapped all the holes ¼ – 20 for the bolts. I put the flat stock against the flat on the barrel opposite of the one I wanted to stamp and bolted the guide to it. It fit great!
In order to space the stamps correctly, I cut lengths of 1/8” and 1/4” square stock a little shorter than the stamps I was using. You don’t want to have to try to space the stamps by hand, believe me. When stamping, you stamp the first character with the stamp against the spacer in the guide. Then you place one 1/8” piece against the spacer and stamp again, then you place a 1/4” piece and stamp, then a 1/4” and an 1/8” piece – I think you get the idea. The major point is to use 1/8” of space in between characters and 1/4” of space in between words.
Voila! Now I had a guide that I could secure to an octagon barrel, I had all of the stamps and I was ready to make a perfect line of characters! I practiced on a take-off barrel I had laying around and I was satisfied with the results. I was ready to stamp my client’s barrel! Wrong…
OK, here’s where this becomes more about admitting mistakes than about making a tool. The stamping guide worked great but I learned that it takes a little practice and good stamps to get perfect results.
When I was stamping the word “Caliber” on the gun, I looked and saw that the “L” stamp was misaligned. I discovered that the cheap stamps I was using did not have characters oriented in the exact center of the stamp. While stamping, I was not paying attention to which edge of the stamp the letter was the correct one to keep the line straight. This combined with the fact that the stamps were not exactly square made for a bit of a fudge on my part. Fortunately, I noticed my mistake and the rest of the stamp looks great. I’ve included a picture of it so you can all have proof that I’m not perfect.
I called the customer and let him know what happened. That is the first thing you should do when you make a mistake; own up to it! If you don’t get anything else out of this article please, get that. It will go a long way toward building your reputation. The second thing you do is see how you can fix it.
I got really lucky on this one because, in researching the project we found some pictures of old Sharps and other contemporary rifles that had off center stamps, over-stamps, etc. Of course, I was ready to file the letters off, re-stamp them and refinish the barrel but my client ended up thinking it added some character to the gun and requested that I leave it alone. Last I heard he was banging away with his paper-patch bullets in between cold spells up in Minnesota.
I have since learned how to use the stamping guide to good effect. When I build modern rifles I usually etch the caliber into the barrel but I turn to my trusty, shop-made stamp guide whenever I need to mark a special period piece. It is an indispensable tool and made even more so because I built it myself!
Ryan Hoover is the owner/operator of RH Custom Guns in Fredericksburg, TX. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his website, www.rhcustomguns.com