Craftsman builds vintage weaponry

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Traditional craftsmen are becoming rare in today’s modernsociety of mass production, but even more rare are those with theknowledge and skills to produce items best termed as unique.

In today’s age of automatic weaponry, many private gun ownerswould see little demand for ancient firearms that fired one roundevery minute to repeaters that can empty a chamber of 15 rounds inthe same timeframe.

Nostalgia and hunting, however, keep demand high for handmade,custom built flintlocks, said Steve MvintagecKee, a Brookhavennative who builds working replicas of the antique rifles.

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“I don’t like to build guns to hang on the wall,” he said. “Iprefer to build guns that people will use.”

Most of the guns he’s made since he started handcrafting theweapons in the late ’80s are still in use by friends as huntingrifles or competition match guns.

Flintlocks, also known as muzzleloaders, are loaded by pouringpowder and shot down the barrel and tamping it down with aramrod.

Popularly known as “Kentucky rifles,” flintlocks were carried bysuch notable figures as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett (who namedhis “Betsy” according to legend).

The rifles were in American service from the Revolutionary Warthrough the beginnings of the Civil War, but achieved even morelongevity as the primary firearm used by mountain men and buffalohunters. The West’s early explorers and trappers preferred thesimplicity of black powder weapons to cartridges because flint andblack powder could always be found, but once out of cartridges themore modern rifles were useless.

McKee builds his flintlocks practically from scratch using acopy of the original plans used by S. Hawkens in his St. Louisplant in the mid 1800s or a design of his own imagination.

The barrels, flintlocks and other metal pieces are purchasedfrom catalog in rough form, but must be smoothed, molded andengraved to fit the piece, he said. The stock on the 4-foot-longrifle runs its entire length and must be “discovered” within apiece of wood.

“A lot of it is handmade, but some of it is rough sand castparts. You have to do a lot of shaping,” McKee said. “It’s atime-consuming process. I try to generally build a couple of guns ayear.”

His wife Sally agreed.

“When he starts on one, I won’t see him for hours and hours,”she said.

McKee said he can build a plain flintlock in about two to threemonths if all the parts are available. Fancy weapons, with lots ofscrollwork and engraving, can take five to six months or more.

McKee’s fascination with firearms developed as a young boy inBrookhaven in the 1950s and 1960s. He graduated from BrookhavenHigh School in 1962.

It wasn’t until he moved to Atlanta nearly 40 years ago that hisinterests in firearms and history began to merge.

He was working for the railroad in Georgia, and becoming an avidstudent of history, when a friend brought a muzzleloader over forhim to see. McKee had built several modern rifles at the time, butbecame fascinated with the deceptive simplicity and beauty offlintlocks.

He built his first muzzleloader in 1988.

“I thought it was a wonderful gun, but as I got to seeing othersI realized I had a lot to learn,” McKee said.

Since then, McKee said he has built 32 muzzleloading rifles fromstart to finish and restored several others. He has also made aflintlock pistol on a friend’s request.

“This is a hobby for me. Most of the guns I’ve built have beenfor friends or people who I knew would use them,” he said. “I wantto know they’re being used and not just hanging on a wall. I’venever had more than two guns that I’ve been working on at one time.Then it becomes too much like a job.”

McKee said that although he does not do it for the money, hewould consider building a flintlock for someone who would use it.However, it is not an inexpensive option to a store-bought blackpowder rifle. An average custom-built muzzleloader would sell forno less than $1,500 and some, built by nationally recognizedcraftsmen, have been known to cost $10,000 to $12,000.

“It all depends on how much work goes into the rifle and howmuch the rough parts cost,” he said. “I don’t build guns that lookbrand new. I like the guns that look old, but well taken careof.”