The Single Shot Rifle Journal

Feature Of The Month

 

The “New” Frank Wesson Number 1

By Charlie Shaeff

Wesson Action 

When most shooters hear the name, “Wesson” they almost automatically think “handgun,” and add “Smith &” or “Dan” to the name. If you say “No, I mean ‘Wesson RIFLES,’” they smugly say, “No, Smith & Wesson didn’t really build those rifles, they just put their names on some imports to expand their market share.” However, during the exciting last quarter of the 19th century, many rifles for the newly emerging metallic cartridge technology were built and tried. Only the most enthusiastic rifle shooters and collectors are likely to recognize the name of one of that time’s makers, Frank Wesson, and even they are likely to draw a mental image of a strange little tip-up rifle that was best known for its odd proprietary cartridges and unusual double trigger guards (one of which actually operated the top latch.) Only the die-hard collectors of obscure facts remember that the Grant , deHaas and Roberts books mention a fairly rare but very interesting rifle known as the Frank Wesson #1. Although it was made in very limited numbers, this same basic action unit was assembled into “Creedmoor” or long-range models as well as midrange models and there are several variations that have been discovered.

The development of the Frank Wesson rifles is mostly lost to history, but it seems fairly likely that Wesson was strongly influenced by the contemporary rifles made by UK builders such as Henry and Fraser. There has even been some speculation that there may have even been a bit of a patent infringement question which may partially account for the low number of these rifles that were built. Regardless of any of the factors above, it is difficult for most of us to even get a clear mental image of the Wesson, but that condition is about to change. Steve Earle of Plympton, Massachusetts is now in production of a modern revival of the Wesson #1 action.

The design of this action may be described as side hammer and lever operated with a truly vertical dropping block. The hammer is powered through a rebounding back action lock reminiscent of a percussion action. The lever is unusual compared to those found on most contemporary American-made actions in that there is a separate trigger guard and lever, and that the lever swings away from and locks to the trigger guard. Those familiar with the modern Ruger #1 will recognize the design concept, but instead of the lever release tab found on the Ruger, there is a rather large, checkered button that is pushed in to disengage the latch of the Wesson. The combination of dropping block and tall side walls make this an extremely strong action, yet with the back action lock, it is surprisingly compact. This action should be suitable for building a rifle for virtually any centerfire rimmed cartridge ever made to be fired from the shoulder.

Earle began with a single example of the original Wesson #1 rifle and as many pictures as he could find of other examples and “reverse engineered” the rifle design. All parts of the rifle were committed to digital programming and several test copies of each part were made using 8620, S-7, A-2, A-10 and O-1 steels as appropriate. Then, over the course of more than two years, these parts were fitted together, dimensions were revised for better fit, and the total receiver with all of its parts was assembled. The receiver shell itself is machined from a solid block of 8620 steel. Ultimately, it was determined that the breech block opening should be EDM wire cut to insure both proper size and tolerances and even more importantly a stress-free set of edges and corners unavailable with a broach cut opening. While the EDM work is “jobbed out,” the remainder of the parts are all crafted on CNC machinery in-house by Earle himself.

Due to the paucity of original examples of the #1 and to the rather wide disparity of their appearance, it was necessary for Steve to make some choices in his reverse engineering process. He noticed, for instance, that the space between the front of the trigger guard and the lever was quite variable as was the shape of the trigger guard itself. Steve made the decision to use what he considered the most symmetrical and esthetically pleasing shapes within the range he saw and standardize on that one form. As previously mentioned, he rounded the corners of the breech block enough to allow the elimination of sharp, stress-inducing corners in the breech block opening. The geometry of the trigger and sear arrangement was found to be nearly perfect, but there were slight changes made to the actual parts in order to facilitate machining. Finally, all screws and pins have been sized and threaded to modern standard specifications, eliminating the need for long-obsolete and difficult to obtain taps and dies. They are all made of 1045 medium carbon steel. Two major changes in the design, although not externally visible readily to the unaided eye, are a Mann-Neidner firing pin to eliminate the possibility of a blow out, and an enlarged loading groove which makes it possible for this action to be chambered to cartridges up through 50-140.

It should be stated here that Earle intends to provide actions only, not complete rifles. There is at least one stock pattern that will be available from Dave Crossno as a side benefit of the Single Shot Classic project, and I have been told by gunsmiths much more knowledgeable than myself that the mounting and finishing of a barrel will be a very straightforward job for anyone accustomed to doing barrel work. When I spoke with Steve recently he was working on his first “production run” of 30 actions, mostly to fill existing orders. He has 30 of the receiver shells completed from the first run and at last report was completing a batch of lower tangs. His strategy is to produce a batch of each part, then assemble complete actions until he runs out of some part, make a batch of that one item and continue. Since everything has been standardized and committed to CNC programming, it is fairly straightforward for him to just start up the appropriate machine and make a run of any needed part. While this will probably never be a truly mass-produced action, it will be a simple matter for each batch of parts to be enlarged as demand requires so that production can be expanded as popularity rises.

While the original 19th century actions were primarily intended for the various long range and Creedmoor-type events, the original action has actually been used at least once to build a bench rest rifle, and its compact size and graceful shape make it a fine candidate for a “short range” or schuetzen rifle as well. The tangs have a gentle pistol-grip sweep, and the unusual lever with locking button makes it possible to adapt a variety of stock designs to this action. The trigger, due to its highly developed internal geometry, and its adjustable to a pull weight will be usable in virtually any shooting discipline. Earle informed me that the original will hold safely down to a weight of between one and two pounds and that the newly made triggers are just as good or better. Suffice it to say, anyone should find the trigger usable for any reasonable application of this action.

Now dear reader, if your interest is sufficiently piqued, you should be asking, “Where may I get one of these actions and how much will it cost?” If you are feeling lucky and have a little time to wait, you might wish to enter next year’s Single Shot Classic drawing. Tickets for that event will become available soon after the first of the year and as with the last rifle, this one will be a tour de force effort by some of our finest craftsmen including engraver Ken Hurst, gunsmith/author Steve Durren, and a host of others. If you would prefer to begin almost immediately building your own rifle, you should contact Steve at
 

Steve Earle
24 Palmer Rd.
Plympton, MA 02367


Or call him at 781 585-6504. The product is a complete action, fitted and assembled and in the white. It is ready for your barrel and wood and can be, as stated previously, chambered for virtually any rimmed rifle cartridge you would want to fire from the shoulder. The price is about $1100 and the quality has inspired everyone who has seen the samples that are out. Take a look at the cover photo and see what I mean

 

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This is Steve Earle, shown with a modern machinist/gunsmith's tools
--a far cry from Harry Pope --though the results may be similar
 

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Page last edited 12/28/2004