Building flintlock rifles is a natural extension of Mark Marraccini’s interest in the outdoors and making things.
“I spent all my time outdoors growing up,” says Mark, a 55-year-old spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
“In the ’60s, there wasn’t something to do around every corner. There were no computers or video games. There were open fields and sections of woods then, but now they are just developments and subdivisions.”
Mark grew up in Broadview Manor and spent summers fishing at the Game Farm and swimming at Juniper Hill. He formerly worked for The State Journal as a reporter and photographer.
He’s also had an interest in building and upholstering furniture. Since 1978, building Kentucky long rifles has combined those two hobbies.
It takes about 300 hours to complete a rifle, and he’s built 14, including two flintlock pistols, since 1978. It took gunsmiths in the 18th century even longer because they had to forge the barrel, lock and trigger by hand – Mark orders his pre-made.
The process begins with a piece of wood in the rough shape of stock that Mark cuts and sands. Curly maple is the most popular wood, which alone can cost several hundred dollars.
He drills a tube for the ramrod and cuts a groove for the barrel. The lock and trigger go in next.
Mark puts on a personal touch with carvings, etchings and other additions. He sometimes adds metal trim that he decorates with etchings.
Occasionally, he’s surprised by how the carving ends.
“I don’t really have an idea of what I’m going to do until I start cutting,” Mark said.
Other additions can include a “patch box” – a small compartment carved into the stock.
The final step is to use acid to stain the wood, and the “curl” of the wood gives it a unique appearance.
The softer part of the wood stains a lighter color and the harder parts are darker.
He gives away or trades many of his rifles to friends, although he’s kept several for hunting. His favorite targets include deer and squirrels, which are hard to hit.
“Most of the shots are at close range. You don’t want to hit a squirrel with a 50-caliber ball – it doesn’t leave much. You try to hit right under the squirrel – it’s called ‘barking’ them. You can take a squirrel with the concussion. It’s a lot harder, but it’s lots of fun to try.”
Mark also carves other accessories for his rifles, such as powder horns and measuring scoops. The scoop is made from a hollowed-out deer antler that holds exactly 70 grains of black powder.
He pours the powder from the horn into the scoop and from the scoop down the barrel. Then he cuts a small piece of cloth lubricated with grease and wraps it around the bullet.
The cloth creates a seal between the bullet and the barrel and the grease lets it slide smoothly.
He pushes the bullet down the barrel using the ramrod and then primes the gun with coarse black powder in the exterior flash pan. Mark pulls the hammer back, aims at his target and pulls the trigger.
The hammer moves forward, striking the “frizzen” which creates a spark. The coarse powder in the pan burns rapidly and causes the fine powder in the barrel to ignite, which pushes the bullet down the barrel.
A demonstration at Mark’s home in Anderson County produces a bright flash of smoke, and the shot echoes off the hills.
Grooves inside the barrel give the bullet spin and help it to remain accurate up to 300 yards. Smoothbore muskets – without grooves – are only accurate up to 50 yards.
Mark enjoys hunting deer but said he prefers flintlock rifles to modern compound bows or rifles.
“The experience of hunting and the chase with something like this is a lot more fulfilling.”
The process of building a rifle requires patience but is also fun, Mark says.
“You can see what you accomplish instantly. If you are content to remove one grain of sawdust at a time you can do one of these.”
One of his favorite projects was building a rifle with his friend and local obstetrician Dr. John Cheshire in 1992. They both shared an interest in flintlock rifles and had discussed the idea of working together for a while.
The project didn’t take form until Cheshire was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. The two men sat side-by-side at two benches and worked over several months. They finished their rifles before Cheshire died in 1993.
Mark actually wrote a story for this publication about Cheshire’s interest in building flintlock rifles. In being interviewed by The State Journal for this piece, Mark said it was strange to be on the other side of the camera after doing dozens of similar stories.
“It feels really weird.”