MOUNT PULASKI - Fred Lipp says you've got to look past the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air to find the weapons that gave America's Revolutionary War soldiers the most bang for the buck.
And he should know; he still makes them: smooth bore and rifled flintlock long guns measuring almost 5 feet from end to end and shooting maybe a .54-caliber lead ball with deadly accuracy more than 50 yards (smooth bore) and four times that for rifles whose grooved barrels made the projectiles spin and fly straighter, longer.
The British Redcoats on the receiving end of this spinning and nonspinning hail of lead were supreme at formation marching and precision musket firing but suddenly found themselves 1776 target practice for ragtag bands of rebellious militia using guerrilla tactics.
Popping up from behind their hedgerows and stone walls, men seasoned in nailing deer and fowl to put dinner on the table found it just as easy to erase His Majesty's troops and set about serving themselves a new nation. And the sturdy, reliable and commonplace guns they did it with are alluring creations that manage to spit out annihilation with a surprising degree of style.
Lipp is a retired high school industrial arts teacher living in Mount Pulaski with an artist's appreciation of the long gun's fearful symmetry. He runs his work-worn fingers over the flowing contours of a fiddleback maple stock on a 58-inch-long rifle he crafted in 1990 and looks impressed. "Look at all this," he says, pointing to the tigerlike markings making a war paint of the wood. "All this is God's work, not mine."
Divinity, however, only goes so far when crafting weaponry. From the graceful shape of the stock that makes it sink into the shooter's shoulder with consummate ease to the decorative carvings adorning the wood and the fitting and finish of the gun's intricate and myriad parts, all is the assured work of the hand of Lipp.
Everything is accurate and just as it was when Gen. George Washington barked out orders and men dressed in everything from tailor-made uniforms to buckskin leveled their sights at the enemy. Flintlock means that when the trigger is pulled, the gun is fired by sparks from a piece of flint slammed into a flip-up metal plate called a "frizzen" with gunpowder underneath. This ignites a much bigger charge of powder that's been poured into the barrel (from a cow horn powder flask Lipp also makes) and has had a patch of cloth and the lead ball rammed home on top.
It's pretty cumbersome for beginners, but seasoned hands could accomplish loading and firing with reasonable efficiency. The British, in addition to an obsessive love of formation marching, stuck with what worked and were not quick to adopt new-fangled approaches. Lipp points out that an English officer named Ferguson had come up with what might be called a revolutionary kind of rifle mechanism that did away with ramming everything down the long barrel and accelerated the reloading process dramatically.
Happily for their New World foes, King George III's boys never got their hands on too many of them. "I finally got to shoot one a couple of weeks ago and see it loaded and everything," says Lipp, 64. "Just so much faster and, I got to tell you, the British should have won the war with it."
He learned a love of muzzle-loading guns from his dad and has built more than 10 of them since the bicentennial year of 1976, occasionally undertaking commissions from fellow firearms fans who lack his skills. "I just love the shape of the guns, the whole nostalgia of it all," he says. "Guns like this were considered to be one of America's first art forms."
There's a National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, and dedicated specialists feed the passions of the retro weaponry builders' market with everything from gun barrels to flintlock mechanisms to rough-hewn stocks you can finish in your living room. Lipp, who built, wired and plumbed his own home, doesn't find many of the gunsmith's tasks too taxing, but it still takes him 300 to 500 hours to build a gun and leave it looking like it's 235 years old.
"He's a perfectionist," explains his wife, Patsy, for whom he's built everything from furniture to a little cryptex box, such as the one in the "Da Vinci Code" book and movie with which you have to align the letters just right to make it pop open. The magic open sesame phrase here is "I Love You," and Lipp informs his wife of 45 years that there used to be a tender little message written on paper inside it, too.
"Oh God, I lost his note," she says, staring at the now opened and empty box before smiling back at her romantic gun builder. "He really is very talented," she adds.
Lipp's skill set extends to molding his own projectiles out of molten lead, and he attends muzzle-loading shooting competitions where an eye for accuracy as well as finish has seen him bring home many medals. He dresses up in period costume, too, but admits he doesn't go as far as some of his fellow shooters. True aficionados, in the quest for historical accuracy, will even wear loincloths to imitate the eyebrow-raising fact that some of our Colonial forebears borrowed this fashion tip from American Indians to facilitate comfort and ease of movement.
"They'd wear a long shirt, deerskin leggings and then they would have a loincloth under the long shirt," Lipp says. "Me, I'm not much of a loincloth-type guy."