The Daisy May - A Don Fritz Custom Muzzleloader
Mary and I had hunted with percussion Hawkens' in 1986. Although we did not see any deer, we had fun in camp shooting them to determine who was the better shot. Hint: it wasn't me!
We did not hunt with muzzleloaders again until 2014, when we started hunting with modern CVA centerline rifles. While visiting her dentist in 2015, Mary met the daughter of a man who made customized muzzleloaders the old fashioned way. He started from scratch. No kits and no precut stocks.
That man's name was Don Fritz, a long-time muzzleloader shooter and craftsman of many talents. Don had been quietly making his rifles, both flint lock and percussion, for several years. Because it takes almost a year to complete a single gun, he had no need to advertise, as there was always someone ready to lay claim to one of his finished rifles.
We telephoned him on a Saturday afternoon in 2016 and asked if we could visit him and see some of his rifles. He was very humble and wondered why we wanted to see him, as he just made "old time" rifles. Yeah, right!
When we entered his shop it was like stepping back in time. There were hand tools scattered on a wooden workbench, wood for stocks stacked neatly in one corner and a wall full of antlers.
When he opened his safe and began to extract some of his personal rifles, it was like being in a museum of black powder guns. Some were early renditions of his craft, while others represented the latest refinements of his skill, but all were true to rifle designs of the 1800s and were magnificent.
My bride carefully picked up each rifle and held them for balance and fit. After handling each, she smiled and asked, "Can we take them all?"
Don smiled and remarked that they were his personal guns and not for sale. However, he would build a special one for Mary, if she wanted one. If she wanted one, now that is an understatement.
Mary said that she would be pleased to have one of his guns, but that the .50 calibers were a bit cumbersome and muzzle heavy for her. Don suggested that she might like a .45 caliber rifle. His reasoning was that it would be lighter and faster handling; lighter to carry, yet more than adequate for the deer and feral hogs we normally hunt.
After agreeing to the caliber, it was time to pick out the wood for the stock. Don had several pieces of walnut, maple, birch and one very unusual piece of New Zealand Blackwood stacked in the corner of his shop. The Blackwood caught my eye and I asked Don about it. He smiled and said he had bought that piece at an estate sale. It was the only piece he had seen in his years of making guns and it was a one-of-a-kind.
Its beautiful figure, resembling Tiger Eye gemstone, was truly unique. I asked Don if he would make Mary's rifle with that piece of Blackwood. Don agreed and was clearly pleased that someone recognized the beauty of his NZ Blackwood blank.
Before going any further, a little information on NZ Blackwood is in order. The Janka hardness rating of NZ Blackwood is 1160. Comparing it to European Walnut (1220), Claro Walnut (1130), American Black Walnut (1010), American Cherry (950) and Red maple (950), you can see why it was an excellent choice for a gunstock. If that does not convince you, the Janka hardness for Cocobolo is 1136 and teak is 1000.
Blackwood is definitely one tough piece of wood, about as tough as you can get for a rifle stock. The only drawback is that it was going to be difficult to work with, because of this hardness, but Don was pleased that someone wanted the Blackwood that he had been holding on to for many years.
Don told us he would call every month, so we could come over and view the progress on the gun. He did just that and I must let everyone know, until you have watched a custom gun being made from start to finish, with all of the steps along the way, you do not have a full appreciation of what goes into the final result.
One of the major advantages of ordering a bespoke rifle is it can be built to specifications agreed upon in advance by the buyer and the builder. In this case, the length of pull is 13 inches, the barrel is 33" long, the overall rifle length is 49" and the weight is 6-1/2 pounds. The Daisy May is equipped with a double set trigger that releases at 1/2 pound (8 ounces), after being set.
The pictures that we have included with this article illustrate the beauty and precision fit of wood to metal in this rifle. However, there are a lot of hidden quality features that do not show.
The rail is hard soldered to the barrel, without screws. The thimbles on the rail are also hard soldered, again no screws (which are common on kit guns). There is absolutely no daylight between the ramrod and the rail, NONE. We have no idea as to how Don accomplishes that feat, but he does.
The trigger guard and Bridger Hawken-style butt plate are investment cast from brass and the fit is flawless. The escutcheons are polished brass with iron screws. There were no brass screws in the 1800s. Most kit guns and a lot of replica reproductions use brass screws for appearance, but their use is not historically accurate. The slots on all of the screws are timed with the horizontal axis of the gun.
The rear sight is iron, but the front sight is polished brass. Their fit is so precise and smooth that folks at the range have asked how it was done. We could not answer; like the fit of the ramrod, it is one of Don's secrets.
The wedges fit tightly in the escutcheons, providing a secure union of the barrel to the stock. The escutcheons are inlaid so precisely that you can drag a fingernail over them and not hang up where the wood and brass meet.
The nose cap on the fore end is hand cast pewter designed by Don and integral with his daisy inlays. How he accomplishes that is a story all by itself.
The stock is fitted with a barrel from the Oregon Mountain Barrel Company with a 1:24 inch twist. It will shoot saboted bullets as well as conicals.
If you are getting the idea this gun was really made the old-fashioned way, you are correct. The only power tools that Don uses in forming the stock is a band saw to cut out the shape and a router for the barrel channel. From that point on, he uses only rasps, files, chisels and sandpaper to get the final shape. We won't even venture a guess as to how he gets the inletting of the barrel so precise.
After the stock is shaped and smoothed to his specifications, he applies more than 30 coats of Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil, by hand, to fill all of the pores. The result is a sheen and finish that will endure the test of time and stand up to just about anything that Mother Nature can throw at it.
As a final touch, Don engraved the barrel with Mary's name and the year it was completed (2017) and he named the gun, "Daisy May," after the pewter flower inlays around the nose cap. We got a real bargain at $3,500.
In Mary's words:
"Not only was this gun custom made the old fashioned way, but it was made especially for me. The front sight is a whale, the daisies are inlaid with perfection and the stock is hand rubbed. Don puts himself into each of his creations with skill, art and love. He is a true artisan and craftsman"
If you are interested in getting an authentic muzzleloader that is true to history and that will become a family heirloom (as well as a fine shooter), you can e-mail Don Fritz at: firstname.lastname@example.org
However, be patient and be prepared to wait a year for your gun. It will be worth the wait.
Copyright 2017 by Jim and Mary Clary and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.