American Single Shot Rifle Association
Shiloh Sharps: The Inside Story, Pt. 1
By Mori Shultz
While driving through Montana to attend the 2003 shoot in Broadus and then the Quigley Shoot the following week, I stopped off at Big Timber to visit the Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company.
Before leaving my home in northern California, I had called the Shiloh plant and asked them if I could stop in and look over their operation in order to gather information for an article. They said that they would be happy to show me around. I arrived at their front door on a Friday, went into their showroom and introduced myself. The showroom itself was worth the trip as one entire wall was covered with various models of 1874 Sharps rifles as well as several percussion Sharps Model 1863 rifles.
The friendly personnel in the office remembered that I had requested a tour, but the person whom I had arranged it with was not there at that time. So one of the owners of Shiloh, Robert Bryan, came out and said that he would take me through the plant. When we entered the manufacturing area, I noticed how quiet it was and Bob explained that as they generally work four ten hour days and since this was Friday, no actual production work was going on. There were several men on the floor however, and I was told that these were supervisors and that they were setting up things for the next week.
The Bryan family purchased Shiloh from its founder, Wolfgang Droege, in April of 1991. (When the Bryans took over, they started serial numbering their rifles with a “B” in front of the serial number. Last year in April, they had manufactured 10,000 Shiloh rifles and then started with number 001, followed by a “B” at the end of the numbers.) But the story of today’s Shiloh Sharps rifles actually starts next door to this facility, at the Boulder River Foundry.
All Shiloh receivers, as well as other components, are cast in the Boulder River Foundry. The foundry is part of the Shiloh firm, but operates as a separate entity. It also does outside work for other companies as well. Boulder River Foundry is set up to cast in any quantity, from one piece, to thousands. The foundry itself is a very modern facility, utilizing the finest equipment and materials to create finished castings in 4140 steel that need very little finish work. The detail is so good that even the checkering on the actions side hammer does not need to be “touched up”.
In a separate room in the foundry, a worker was making wax components using an injection mold where warm wax is forced, under pressure, into a metal mold. When the mold is taken apart, the wax part is set aside. Later, whole batches of them will be connected onto a “tree” and a pouring cup attached to the top of the tree. The molds have to be made to a size that compensates for both the amount of wax shrinkage and the shrinkage of the steel when it is cast, yielding a finished casting of the correct dimensions.
This allowance is extremely important. And a failure to calculate it properly will result in undersize parts. More than a few aftermarket gun parts companies have had this problem in the past. But NOT Boulder River Foundry. They do it right.
After the parts are treed up and the pouring cup attached, the waxes are then dipped into a tank that is full of ceramic shell in a liquid form. The batch of ceramic shell is constantly stirred by rotors to prevent it from setting up. After dipping and draining excess slurry off of the waxes, they are given a coating with a very fine zircon sand and then hung up to dry. The process of dipping and coating with the sand is repeated at least six times, building the ceramic shell coating into a very strong unit. When the batch of ceramic shells have dried completely, they are then placed into a huge steam autoclave, which is brought up to temperature. Almost instantly the wax is melted and runs out of the ceramic shell, leaving a clean ceramic shell that is then ready to be cast into. The void that was once the wax part will be filled with molten steel. After the casting is done, the ceramic shell is removed from the component, leaving the metal casting. And that only needs to have the attaching gates cut off before going into the production part of the plant. Ceramic shell casting in firearms was pioneered by Sturm Ruger in their Pine Tree Casting facility, and the end result is some of the strongest firearms in the world.
In the foundry area, and induction furnace is used to melt the steel for pouring. Electric coils surround the crucible and the steel melts very fast. However, an induction furnace requires a lot of electricity to run it, so at Shiloh, they have installed a Kohler generator that puts out 375,000 watts and is powered by a 490 horsepower Detroit Diesel engine. With their own source of power, Shiloh is not subject to the vagaries of the commercial power system and has a constant and reliable source of electricity for their foundry operation. By having their own foundry, Shiloh also has complete control over the quality of their castings and the delivery time. This could be one of the reasons that Shiloh has gone from a 5 year wait for a custom built rifle, to around 11 months at this time! Frankly, I always wanted a new Shiloh Sharps but, at my age, the 5 year wait seemed a little much.
There’s a lot more to the Shiloh Sharps story. In the January-February issue of SSRJournal, Mori Shultz takes us inside the Shiloh plant for a look at how these famous rifles are assembled and finished. – Ed.