The Single Shot Rifle Journal
Feature Of The Month
Recreating The Famous "Frogmoor" Ballard
By R. Dale McGee
As always, click on the picture to see it full size.
Approximately three years ago, I was at the local range shooting with a couple of friends. One of them was Chuck Oder. Chuck is an advanced hobbyist/machinist who has a true liking for “brown on brown” original single-shots.
Brown on brown is a term that is used to describe a 100-year-old (or more) rifle that has lost most of its finish and has assumed a brown patina (no pits). Because of the lack of original finish and generally bad barrels, they can sometimes be had at a reasonable price. Chuck then re-habs them by repairing any wood damage (always trying to maintain the original look – which typically is slightly whipped) and relining the barrel. At this point, Chuck had just finished a standard Ballard in .22 rimfire. After he satisfied himself that all was working well, he offered to let me shoot it.
In spite of my long standing interest in single shots, I had never owned a Ballard. I shot the single trigger rifle and mentioned to Chuck that I really liked the feel of the rifle. He mentioned that a Ballard seems to have an almost “mystical” feel that leads to better shooting. Chuck does not limit his work to Ballards but is pretty much non brand specific, so the comments were quite genuine (not something that a single brand type would imagine… but his real feelings on the subject). Now, I do not want to hear from all of you “brand specific” types out there. This is not a slam! It is just that sometimes, we single-shot enthusiasts can get a little carried away (of course, this does not apply to me. I would never get carried away).
At any rate, after that little range session with Chuck’s Ballard, I started looking at Ballards a little closer. Shortly afterward, I was on my way to Salt Lake City, Utah, to visit with my daughter and son-in-law. Since I was “so close” my wife and I decided to spend a couple of days in Cody, Wyoming at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. We only had to drive clear across the state of Wyoming from south to north (by way of the Snowy Range out of Laramie, which is gorgeous country). For the unenlightened, Cody Wyoming is also the home of Ballard Rifle Company, the firm that has recreated the Marlin Ballard Rifle. I say “recreated” because the new Ballard is identical to the originals. The difference is that the receiver is now carved out of a solid block of steel by CNC machinery. Some of the originals had cast receivers and some were forged steel. The new Ballards are truly wonderful! I seriously doubt that the originals were made as well – again, no need to write me, Ballard fans, I am firm in my opinion.
For what it is worth, the Buffalo Bill Museum is a prime destination spot. It is worth making a special trip to Cody from anywhere in the United States or Canada. We spent two days there looking at the Firearms Museum, the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Plains Indian Museum and the Art Museum. You could easily spend a week there.
Ballard Rifle was also on my intinerary. I walked into the Ballard Rifle Company (113 W. Yellowstone, Cody, WY 82414, phone is 307-587-4914. E-Mail is www.ballardrifles.com) in the late afternoon and introduced myself. I mentioned that I was a friend of Randy Cochran and wanted to see Steve Garbe. Steve is not only a National Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette Champion several times over, but the President of Ballard Rifle. Ron Long is the Production Manager and one of the finest gunsmiths, mould makers and sight producers this country has yet produced. He heard that there was a feller there that was actually admitting he was a friend of Randy Cochran’s. So Ron had to see what that feller looked like.
Ron and I talked until Steve joined us. I kept the two of them way past work time (we got onto the subject of BPCR silhouette and single shots in general). Ron Long is also a former National Champion. In fact, Steve and Ron teamed up with Ron spotting and Steve shooting for a new record at Raton, New Mexico, at the NRA Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette Match just a short time before. Later in the match, Steve spotted for Ron and Ron ended up nearly winning, also. I cannot imagine a better team. And make no mistake, BPCR Silhouette is a team sport. At any rate, I left Ballard Rifle determined that I was going to own a Ballard. I hadn’t quite figured out how, but I was going to do it.
About a year and a half went by and the desire was only stronger. Then I heard that Ballard was running a special price on their barreled actions. I thought, “It is now or never!” I called up late last spring, and checked the price. It was good and I formally ordered the barreled action in August of last year. Part of the delay was trying to determine the exact configuration of the barreled action. Did I want a straight grip or pistol grip? Did I want a full octagon, half octagon, or round barrel? How long a barrel and what weight barrel? What caliber did I want? Did I want a single trigger or a double set trigger? These are all serious questions to properly answer for that once-in-a-lifetime rifle.
Frankly, I am not a person to put a fancy rifle in a safe and only take it out to show it to somebody. I am first and foremost a shooter! So, the caliber that I finally settled on was .22 rimfire. I reasoned that I wanted to shoot this rifle a lot. I have access to an indoor range so can shoot rimfire year ‘round. In my carefully considered opinion, the .22 rimfire can be called the “King of Cartridges”. Please understand that I believe the epitome of Schuetzen shooting is offhand centerfire at 200 yards. However, there is not a thing wrong with a .22 Schuetzen at 50 feet, 50 yards or 100 yards.
The spring before I ordered my barreled action, I had made a detour while on my way home from visiting my son and family in Fayetteville, NC (my son is stationed at Ft. Bragg). I had arranged to spend a couple of days in Kitty Hawk and, while there, to meet with famed engraver, Ken Hurst. Ken has since moved from the Outer Banks of North Carolina and now lives in Robersonville (P.O. Box 5, Robersonville, NC 27871). His phone is 252-795-6670. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Since I had decided that this particular rifle was to be a special rifle, I wanted it to be engraved. I also wanted to meet my engraver in person. Previously, Ken and I had “met” on the internet and had become cyber friends.
In person, we had a delightful time with Ken and his wife and I saw a good bit of Ken’s work. Ken is a premier artist. Immediately, I knew that this was the man. We made arrangements for him to eventually engrave my rifle. I say eventually, as I had to get the barreled action, have the stock work finished and then ship the action frame and butt plate to Ken. Since artists typically are backed up, it is a really a good idea to engage them in advance. That way, you do not have to wait a year or two for your firearm to be engraved.
But it isn’t enough to select your engraver. You need to decide how much coverage you want and can afford. You will also need to decide just what you want on the rifle. Ken’s animals are spectacular and that would have been a good choice. However, since this is a .22 it somehow didn’t seem appropriate to have him do a buffalo on the rifle. Further, I couldn’t visualize squirrels and rabbits on a target rifle. Then some time later, Charlie Shaeff mentioned the possibility of having the “Frogmoor” scene done on a project rifle.
It seems that around the turn of the 20th century or just before, someone had commissioned a Ballard with a “cartoon” of Frogs in the act of shooting. [the original “Frogmoor” and its fascinating story can be found on page 366 of John Dutcher’s book, Ballard: The Great American Single Shot Rifle. – Ed.] Around the same time there was also a large Martini action with the same scene. Ken actually had pictures of the original Ballard action. I found them hilarious! This was really distinctive engraving. I was sold.
However, Charlie Shaeff had thought this idea up (of doing a modern version of the Frogmoor). And it was quite natural for Charlie to think of Frogs as his nickname is ‘Green Frog” (during his sports car racing days, Charlie drove a British Racing Green Bug Eyed Sprite). Charlie is also a good friend of mine, and I didn’t want to rain on his parade. So, I wrote Charlie and asked for permission to borrow his idea. He very kindly stated that he would be honored if I would take his idea and run with it. And run, I did!
Ken and I were able to easily work out some minor changes in the engraving. He suggested we ought to change the rifle that the frog was shooting to a Ballard. I thought that was an excellent idea. We also changed some of the rest of the scenic decorations for the best. I wanted the butt plate to be engraved. It is the large Ballard hooked butt plate (also from Ballard Rifle) and has lots of area for engraving. When Ken and I discussed the engraving, I did not give specific instructions. Rather, I made certain suggestions, listened to Ken’s response, and then let him have free rein. I just had to give him the general idea of what I wanted (and was able to pay for) and let him go.
By the way, you will be pleasantly surprised at how reasonable it is to deal with Ken Hurst. Since he works only direct, you will get a job for only a third to a half of what it would cost if were you dealing through a manufacturer such as Colt or Winchester (Ken was a master engraver for both). Plus, you get to deal direct and can have just about anything that your heart desires. For example, Ken’s gold work is wonderful.
I now had the stage set and was waiting on delivery of the barreled action from Ballard. Since Ballard was able to offer any barrel configuration that I desired, I chose half-octagon for esthetic reasons. I picked a barrel length of 28 inches (you can get any length within reason). But I was very particular to specify a complete match chamber. The accuracy of a .22 depends in large measure on a match chamber. Since this would be a match rifle, it must shoot, and shoot well. After careful consideration, I decided on the standard 16” twist. I wanted a match-quality barrel for obvious reasons so I asked for a Badger barrel. I also wanted double-set triggers. They were available at extra cost and in my view were desirable in a offhand match rifle. I wanted the action to be shipped in the white with the barrel blued. It was necessary to have the rifle action in the white so that Ken could engrave it without having to anneal it. Always think ahead as much as possible. Ballard was very cooperative and none of the decisions that I made were a problem for them.
After the action was engraved I would have to have some kind of finish put on the action frame and butt plate. The normal course would have been to color case both. The problem with that is color case kind of camouflages engraving. And I wanted the Frogmoor scene to be readily visible. Regular nickel plating is not all that durable and can peel.
Ken Hurst was a big help here – he suggested Metalife by the folks at Mahovsky’s Metalife RD#1 149A Eureka Road, Grand Valley, PA 16420. He stated that the appearance of the action would be quite similar to a stainless finish. Ken polished the action with 800 grit and the plating did not distort a single molecule of the engraving. Metalife’s finish is only a micron thick. However, it has a hardness level of 70 on the Brinell “C”scale, and will withstand about 300 hours of salt spray. It cannot be separated from the base metal after application. It will not chip or peel. And since the Ballard action is carved from a solid block of 8620 steel, it is an excellent material for rifle frames. However, one of 8620’s characteristics is that it tends to gall if it is not case hardened or plated. Metalife ends this problem completely because it is not only hard, it is slick. It does not tend to show wear at all.
In short, Metalife is about the perfect finish for a fine firearm if your preference is for a bright finish. But I do not mean bright in the terms of bumper chrome. Since the rifle has been Metalife finished, I have had four people that I consider arms experts to ask me what finish I was going to put on the action and buttplate. They thought they were looking at an action and butt plate “in the white”! And that is exactly the effect that I’d hoped for when I agreed with Ken to use Metalife.
My choice of a stock maker was easy. Bernie Harrell, (1690 Ryan Road, Springboro, OH 45066 Phone is 937-748-1738) is a close friend of mine and has done several VERY nice rifles. We shoot together on Friday nights and it would be easy for us to communicate. This is important. The stock maker can only satisfy you if he knows exactly what you desire. Bernie has a good supply of dry American Walnut that is over ten years old. After some deliberation, I picked a wood blank that was more than thick enough for a cheek piece stock. Bernie got a very large piece of corrugated cardboard and we laid the barreled action and buttplate on it. With me directing, and Bernie drawing, we came up with the layout of the stock style that I wanted. Bernie is also an artist, and that was helpful in creating the design.
Please don’t get the wrong idea. The final stock design was not all that much different than a Ballard #6, or perhaps a #10. But, it is subtly different and made to fit me correctly in the offhand position with a scope. I have been accused of “having no neck” and these differences were important to me. The big advantage of having a stock custom made, in addition to being able to choose your own wood, is to have it made exactly to your own tastes. After the stock was inletted to the action and while it was still in the rough, we took it to the range. We had mounted a scope on the rifle. I would point it, Bernie would rasp, I would point, Bernie would rasp, I would point and Bernie would rasp. Then, after the important areas of shape were decided and executed, Bernie finished the wood up to final sanding.
I wanted to have a little bit of “hands on” in the completion of my rifle. I cannot engrave and I am no stock maker. However, I do a pretty good finish job on wood and I like to do it. My technique is time consuming and takes a bit of effort. However, I like the end result, and that is what matters.
As always, it was necessary to “whisker” the wood – I did it three times. This piece of walnut was quite dark and I decided to not use a stain. I applied three sealer coats. After many, many coats of Tru-Oil, all cut back to the wood, I had my “in the wood” finish. Before the final coats were applied, I gave the stock back to Bernie for checkering. Here again, I told Bernie what I generally wanted. He made the final decision on the exact pattern. Here again, communication is the key. Make sure before you turn your craftsman loose that he knows exactly what you want. Then stand back and let him do it. Bernie “outdid” himself. The work was exemplary. The shadow line cheek piece was perfectly proportioned and the checkering was beautiful. Bernie’s work was first rate in every respect. Good show, Bernie.
I got my rifle wood back from Bernie and started the final finishing while waiting on the engraving. I was just about finished when the action, buttplate and palm rest fittings arrived from Metalife. Ken Hurst suggested that I have all the metal items plated to have a cohesive appearance (there the artist in Ken shows it’s head again). I took the barreled action, buttplate and palm rest metal to Bernie’s and we assembled the rifle. It was a proud moment. The people that I worked with made this a true labor of love.
I will shoot the rifle for a couple of months before I put the last two or three coats of finish on the wood. I want every bit of shrinkage in the finish to occur before I apply the final couple of coats. That way I will have an extremely smooth final finish. I believe that those who have seen the Frogmoor, in its “almost” finished state are in agreement that it is one pretty rifle. I even let a couple of people shoot it.
I am now getting older. My best offhand skills are behind me. But to tell you the truth, shooting the 100 shot Hudson offhand match at the ASSRA’s special “.22 Only Match” was extremely enjoyable. My score was not spectacular but I pledge that I will raise that 100 points by next year.
I feel that confident in my Ballard Frogmoor