My name is Gordon Baker and my shootin friends call me by my SAS handle, Will Hangfire.
I grew up around firearms and have been around them all of my life.
Do I call myself a shooter? Well, I shoot so I must be. Am I a good shot? It depends on your standard of what a good shooter is. No, I don’t fancy myself as being in the same league as many of the fine dedicated marksmen who make up the target sports but I have enjoyed shooting, collecting, and working on firearms most of my life. Plus, I have had a few moments of glory along the way.
Guns and shooting happen to be a good fit with my chosen profession as a tool & die maker. Since firearms are made up of precision machined parts it is only natural that I should feel right at home working on them. Although I would never compare myself with the dedicated, highly trained gunsmith, my machining and toolmaking background do give me a unique perspective when it comes to working on guns.
some of the firearms I have built over the years include Muzzle Loading Kentucky Long Rifles, Custom Hunting Rifles, and Custom 1911’s. I have also done quite a bit of restoration work on antique firearms.
In the Beginning
My interest in firearms began when I was about 4 year’s old living on a small farm in North Central Pennsylvania.
My dad was a full-time tool & die maker so we didn’t do much farming. We did raise chinchilla rabbits and had some goats to provide milk because I was allergic to bovine milk.
We planted a large garden every year and the deer made a habit of visiting it almost every evening. My dad was an avid hunter so he would use the occasion as an opportunity to supplement our food supply.
Mom would step out the back door with the old 5 cell flashlight and spot for deer while dad stood by with his Winchester 94′ 32 Special. I recall being frightened from the boom but I was fascinated that every time it happened we had venison for dinner the next day.
I admired dad’s 94′ and he would always allow me to handle it after showing me how to check to see if it was loaded.
There was something intoxicating about the aroma of Hoppe’s #9 and I just had to watch and ask questions while my dad cleaned his rifles. Although Hoppe’s is no longer my preferred bore cleaner it still brings back those fond memories.
Watch Out Squirrels!
When I turned 6 mom and dad bought a Crossman .22 cal. Pump air rifle for my birthday and dad taught me how to shoot it. That old air rifle required about 10 pumps to bring up enough pressure to give it enough velocity for my satisfaction.
It wasn’t long before my attention turned to the growing squirrel population that occupied the track of woods behind our home. Hunting those squirrels honed my rifle skills to the point that I could knock one out of a Popular or Oak tree on a pretty regular basis with one shot. Even with 10 pumps the Crossman didn’t have enough knock-down power at a range beyond 30 or 40 feet. I recall having to occasionally fire 2 or three rounds to bring it down while running from tree to tree pumping and reloading.
That was a lot of work; pumping up the Crossman while running after the squirrel and reloading. But one thing it did teach me is to make every shot count!
When I turned 10 mom and dad bought me a J.C. Higgins Mod. 103 single shot .22 rifle which I was only allowed to use under dad’s strict supervision. He would take me squirrel hunting occasionally and he would teach me the finer points of marksmanship.
One year I received a chemistry set for Christmas and I would experiment with making fun things such as gunpowder. Back then you could walk in to any drugstore and purchase Sulfur and Potassium Nitrate without any type of prescription or license.
I constructed a pistol made from some 3/8” pipe. I found an old cigarette lighter and salvaged the sparkler wheel and flint magazine out of it. I drilled a hole through the breech plug for the sparkler wheel/magazine assembly and a flash hole just ahead of it. I soldered a U shaped piece of copper around the hole to hold some powder. I carved out a pistol stock to hold the piece of pipe and firing assembly.
I figured out how to craft some lead balls just the right size by rolling a piece between two steel plates until it was round. I would trim off a bit of lead until I got just the right fit for the bore of the steel pipe. Then I weighed it on dad’s precision photography scales so I would know exactly how much to use next time.
I guessed at the amount of powder to pore down the bore which was extremely dangerous and I hope nobody reading this tries this. I pushed the ball down on top of the powder charge and poked some newspaper wadding on top of that so it wouldn’t fall out and headed for the woods.
I realized that what I was doing was dangerous and that my parents would stop me if they knew what I was doing, but never the less I had to try out my invention.
I charged the pan with black powder and stood in front of a large Popular tree about 8 feet away. I spun the sparkler wheel and whooom – there was a flash and cloud of smoke. It fired the first try and when the smoke cleared, to my astonishment there was a hole in the tree. I was quite pleased with myself but I think that was the only time I fired that thing. I at least had enough sense to quit while I was ahead.
My interest in firearms got put aside for a few years as other things captured my attention such as cars and girls.
When I graduated from high school I served a 4 year apprenticeship to become a tool and die maker like my dad.
The Allure of Muzzle Loading!
Eventually I moved to Ohio and entered into holy matrimony. We rented a house on a 50 acre farm. I didn’t own any firearms at that time but having all that acreage available rekindled my interest in shooting.
I had never owned a handgun before and only ever shot my dad’s a couple times. I couldn’t afford regular ammunition but I ran across a used Navy Arms .44 Cal. cap and ball Colt Army clone that I purchased against my wife’s wishes. I loaded it up and used Crisco to fill the chambers in front of the balls to prevent the flash from igniting an adjacent cylinder. I couldn’t hit squat with that revolver but I liked the concept of muzzle loading and the economy it offered.
I purchased a new Thompson Center .45 Cal. Hawken flintlock Rife which I discovered was quite accurate and reliable once you got use to holding it still for 15 minutes (exaggeration) for it to finally go off.
While at a local range I met some fella who had a Kentucky muzzle-loading rifle he was shooting. He was an amazing shot and I really admired his rifle that he had built. He told me about an organization he belonged to that everybody used muzzle loaders and would get together at different places for an old fashioned rendezvous. That sounded really interesting to me because I grew up watching Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.
After I learned that he built the rifle himself I decided I would give it a try. I bought a nice looking piece of tiger stripe curly maple; a .45 cal. diamond lapped Douglas barrel, a lock and other hardware.
As I recall I had purchased a full-size plan drawing with some limited instructions. I sawed the curly maple to the design profile first and then began inlaying the barrel. In case you are not familiar with Kentucky Rifle design the barrels are generally 42 inches long and octagon. I didn’t have any wood working equipment and very few tools so I carved out the barrel channel using a Case pocket knife and some wood chisels.
It is an ever so slow process whereby you smoke the bottom side of the barrel by passing it over a candle flame until a coating of black soot builds up. Then, you place it on top of the stock leaving the soot on where the barrel touches the wood. Then you carefully remove the wood wherever there is soot, repeating the process over and over and over until you have carved a half octagon channel almost the full 42” length.
I followed the advise of a highly-respected gunsmith who built competition muzzle-loading rifles exclusively. He showed me how to decrease the lock time of the rifle by cutting a half round channel in the breach plug.
Actually, it turned out pretty darn good considering it was my first attempt at building any kind of rifle. I couldn’t wait to try it out.
Using the recommended powder charge of 3f black powder I fired a round from about 25 yards putting a .450 dia. hole about 2 inches high and center. Several more shots created a respectable group considering I was learning how to shoot this new firearm. Wow, was I ever pleased!
Most of my life I have enjoyed exceptionally good eyesight and looking down a 42 inch barrel I could see a sight picture almost like looking through a 4x scope. With a little practice and adjusting my load I could keep my shots inside a 2” circle at 100 yards – no kidding!
After finally convincing my wife it would be fun we attended a Rendezvous where I expected to impress some people with my marksmanship and new creation. Everyone there was dressed in period clothing while I was wearing a tee shirt and blue jeans so I immediately felt out of place. We were warmly welcomed and made some new friends rather quickly. Some of the families there had authentic-looking tepees set up where they camped and we were invited for dinner where it was cooked on an open fire inside the tepee.
The Rendezvous consisted of a series of shooting competitions that were quite different than you would encounter on a normal firing range. Each one was reminiscent of shooting matches held in the days of the Mountain Men of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.
I recall one completion where a steel 10 inch fry pan was hung from a makeshift tripod and set about 75 yards away. The contestants had to fire offhand and whoever missed would be eliminated. I was nervous and missed my first shot. These guys would typically shoot two or three series before anyone would miss and be eliminated until finally there would be only one remaining.
Another competition was held at night where they would set up a two by four board nailed to a stump. They would place 6 lit candles on it and from about 25 yards away the contestants would fire at the candles. The object was to extinguish the flame with the turbulence from the bullet (ball) without touching the candle. Out of six shots each whoever extinguished the most candles was the winner.
That was incredibly amazing to watch – the powder flash and the muzzle blast lit up the range and believe it or not there were guys there who would hit 3 or four candles out of 6 shots. I don’t recall if I ever actually did extinguish a candle – maybe a couple.
A Lucky Shot
Another competition I recall was one that took place on a small pond. A trolley was erected (kind of like an old clothes line) and strung across the pond. A floating target could be pulled along the water from one side to the other. The target was a wooden float with a plywood profile of a duck.
When I first saw the setup it was explained to me that the object of the competition was to shoot the duck while it was being pulled from right to left holding the rifle offhand. I thought to myself “this should be a piece of cake!” Wrong!
After I already signed up for the competition the rest of the rules were explained to me. The range master explained that the shooter must shoot from the offhand position while standing up in a canoe while it is being rowed by someone else in a parallel course with the target. Turns out the actual target was a paper hole reinforcer stuck on the silhouette to represent the eye of the duck and the closest shot to the eye was the winner. Yea, right!
I opted to go last. The first two shooters placed shots in the head area within an inch from the eye and the next 4 or 5 hit the silhouette which in itself is pretty good shooting from a distance of about 25 feet…while moving.
I had never even been in a canoe before let alone fired a flintlock rifle while standing up in one but I was willing to give it a shot. At least if I missed no one would think too lowly of me given the circumstances. While observing the other shooters it occurred to me that the best time to squeeze off my shot would be between the paddle strokes of the rower.
When it came my turn I climbed in to the canoe being careful not to fall overboard with my rifle. When the range master asked “is shooter ready” I reluctantly mumbled “yes” and the rower began rowing and the target puller began pulling.
Now that pond wasn’t that big so I didn’t have time to lolly gag around so after a couple paddle strokes I slowly stood up with my knees shaking and brought Old Betsy to bear. I was tracking the target the best I could. And when I detected the rower was between strokes I squeezed the trigger while attempting to hold the sights on the duck’s eye until the rifle fired.
My shot felt good and I saw the target jump so I knew I had a hit. That was such a relief but before the canoe came to rest on the opposite side of the pond someone spoke out saying “center hit on the eye!” Sure enough, as hard as it was to believe, I drilled one dead center on that poor wooden duck’s eye. It was a very lucky shot! I could probably try that shot 100 more times and never even hit the eye again.
That competition earned me a little bit of credibility among the shooters and gave me enough confidence and encouragement to practice and attend more Rendezvous. With some experience and much-appreciated mentoring I eventually improved to the point where I felt comfortable competing with those fine shooters..
Of all the different types of shooting I have been involved with and all the different shooters I have encountered, those people at those Rendezvous’ are among the best shooters I have ever witnessed.
A Duck Too Far
One day I invited a buddy from work to go squirrel hunting with me on the farm. Jerry brought along a .22 rifle with a scope and I selected my .45 cal. Kentucky Rifle which was the only rifle I owned at the time.
Jerry didn’t know what to think of my choice of firearm but we set off to do our hunting. After walking around the entire wooded area of the farm we never spotted a squirrel.
With a center-fire rifle you simply remove the magazine and extract the cartridge from the chamber when you are finished hunting. It’s not so simple with a muzzle loader! You basically have two options: The first option is to attach a ball puller to the ram rod and screw it in to the ball and pull the tight-fitting patched ball the full length of the 42″ rifled barrel. The second option is to fire the rifle.
I chose the latter so when Jerry and I had come to the edge of the 3 acre pond adjacent to the house I spotted a teal duck swimming on the opposite end of the pond. I told Jerry “watch this” as I drew a bead on the little teal swimming from right to left. I was aiming at the head when I touched the light crisp trigger of the flintlock. Fire and smoke billowed and feathers flew.
That was the 2nd duck I shot in the eye with my flintlock rifle although this time I wasn’t in a canoe.
Jerry couldn’t believe his eyes and I couldn’t either, as I stood there acting like it happened all the time. By the end of that week Jerry had everyone at the shop convinced I was Davy Crockett reincarnated. Again, the shot was total luck but I probably forgot to tell anybody.
My wife and I moved to PA not far from where my dad grew up and I took a job as a tool & die maker at a manufacturing plant near town.
One of my coworkers brought in a Remington 788 chambered in 22-250 along with some reloading equipment and wanted to sell it. In those days and in that area of the country it was as common to see someone bring a rifle in to a place of work as it is today to see someone bring in a smartphone. Nobody cared or thought a thing about it. Many companies, including the one I was working at, gave you the day off the first day of deer hunting season.
I had never owned a centerfire rifle before and I didn’t know much about the 22-250 cartridge. I really wanted a good rifle for shooting wood chucks (aka ground hogs) and the 22-250 seemed to fit the bill. This rifle had a nice 10x fixed power Weaver scope mounted on it and the price was manageable so I went ahead and bought it and the reloading equipment.
When I took it out to shoot off a bench rest I was pleasantly surprised to be able to print a moa group or better at 100 yards with factory ammo. The ammunition was very expensive for my budget so I studied up on reloading and began experimenting with reloads until I had developed a load that would print almost ½ moa. I understood how accurate that was but I didn’t quite appreciate the fact I was archiving that kind of accuracy from a budget production hunting rifle.
In a short time wood chucks almost became extinct around those parts. I would drive around the back roads in my old Volkswagen Van watching for chucks and when I spotted one I would stop and shoot from the berm or sometimes from inside the van. The longest shot I recall was about 300 yards shooting up a 15 degree hill.
That Remington 788 had such a fast lock time, especially for someone who is use to a flintlock.
Easy Shot Missed
A fella I worked with was a part-time gunsmith as well as a tool maker and he used to invite me up to his place to shoot. He had a nice 100 yard range set up with a very sturdy bench. Herman was a pretty good shot and a good part-time gunsmith. I learned a lot about firearms from Herman.
One day a farmer invited Herman and me to come up to shoot some wood chucks that were causing him problems. Herman carried along his custom .257 Roberts he had built from an old Mauser action and I took along my trusty Rem. 788. When we arrived at the farm we went up in the front yard where there was a swing set. There was a huge field to the rear of the farm house that ran flat for about 150 yards and then began increasing in grade for about another 500 yards or so.
The farmer pointed out a chuck that was about 60 yards away and said there’s one for you to start with. I took a standing rest off of the swing set post and touched off a shot. To my embarrassment the chuck just stood there on his hind legs looking at us! I fired another shot and the same results. The farmer said “ya missed again!” Herman said “no he didn’t, his bullet never got that far.”
I had been shooting a hand load that clocked just under 4000 fps according to Hermans homemade chronograph. When those tiny 55 grain Sphere HPBT projectiles would strike a blade of grass they would just explode, never reaching the target.
About that time a big old crow landed in the top of a huge maple tree along the side of the pasture about 320 yards out. I dropped in another round and took my rest off the swing set. The crow exploded in a clump of feathers dropping to the ground as the farmer’s jaw dropped. That was one of my best long distance rifle shots I have ever made with a hunting rifle. It sure made a believer of the farmer.
Herman knocked off two or three chucks with his .257 Roberts before we called it a day.
One of the things I love about that part of the country is just about every little town has its own rod and gun club. Some are pretty small with only a rickety bench to shoot from and a creek bank for a backstop. While others have a clubhouse and and a covered shooting range with nicely built benches.
Many weekends out of the year you could find a rod and gun club conducting a “turkey shoot.” These were typically intended to be fun family events that featured corn roasts and other popular cook out food items. The turkey shoot event usually amounted to each shooter dropping a dollar in the pot. The contest typically involved shooting at a paper target, usually at 100 yards from a bench rest position. The closest to the bull’s eye was the winner of the pot and the overall winner would usually get a frozen turkey or a ham. (They never called them ham shoots!)
In those years I had exceptionally good eye sight and with the help of a 10x scope and an accurate rifle I found myself the winner of the pot more often than not.
I looked forward to every turkey shoot because I enjoyed the opportunity to shoot and I usually came home with my pockets full of dollar bills. It got to the point where I was a familiar face at those shoots and some of the shooters would complain when I showed up. Most of the complaining was good-natured but some of it was serious.
Most of the fellas probably only ever fired their hunting rifles a few times per year. And quite often they were never properly zeroed in. It was common for me to shoot 50 or more rounds per week at game and at targets so I had a distinct advantage. Not to mention I was using hand-loaded ammo.
To prevent any protests I showed up to a very popular and largely attended turkey shoot with my trusty old .45 cal. flintlock rifle. The guys looked at me like I was nuts when I told them I intended to shoot that in the competition. I don’t recall that anyone complained about my choice of firearms because they figured I didn’t stand a chance. To be honest, I figured I had a reasonable chance of winning a pot or two.
The first pot I drew the short straw to go last. There was some very good shots made at 100 yards with several in the 10 ring as I recall. When it was my turn to shoot I didn’t really think I had much of a chance but I figured I would give it my best shot.
When I sat down at the bench and primed the flash pan of my rifle I could feel every eye fixed on me. I doubt that most of the fellas had ever seen a muzzle loader fired before. We were shooting at standard pistol targets with the 7, 8, 9, and 10 rings black against a white background. I had my rifle sighted in for 100 yards with the sight picture holding at the bottom of the black.
I took my time and touched off the round. It felt like a good shot. When the smoke finally cleared someone chuckled saying “he missed the whole target!” I thought to myself “I don’t think so.”
The range master walked down to the target and stood there a moment or two. He shook his head and turned around while saying “you ain’t gonna to believe this!” He removed the target and returned to the firing line holding the target in front of him. There was a .45 dia. hole smack dab in the center of that target. The shooters couldn’t believe their eyes and I could hardly believe it either.
I won that pot and got a lot of compliments on my shooting and the rifle I had built. I decided to quit while I was ahead. The range master proposed to have everyone witness and date the target and display it on the wall of the club house.
It was a very lucky shot I made that day but it didn’t hurt my reputation around that part of the country any.
I still have that old .45 cal. Kentucky Flintlock Rifle!
Cowboy Action Shooting – coming soon
Long Range Precision Shooting – coming soon
The Rifleman of Potter County
My wonderful dad was born in the year of 1911, the same year John Moses Browning’s M1911 was adopted by the US Army as their official issue sidearm.
One of 8 children, he graduated from high school at a time when you couldn’t buy a job. The Great Depression had set in and people had to be resourceful just to survive. In those years all the virgin timber had been logged around Potter County, PA and there were no deer.
In addition to raising a hog now and then and some cows, dad would help supplement the food supply with rabbit. The family didn’t own a shotgun so dad did his rabbit hunting with an old Stephen’s No. 26 .22 rifle.
He learned to hit them on the run and seldom ever missed.
One day while walking home from school my dad spotted a deer up in the Alders. Her ran home to tell his dad what he had seen expecting to be praised for the good news. Instead, he was scolded for being a liar. His dad reminded him that there were no deer in Potter County and despite my dad’s instance he wasn’t believed.
A couple months later his dad cam home with an 1899 .30-40 Krag he obtained from his brother. He handed the gun to my dad along with a hand full of cartridges and instructed my dad to go up into the Alders and kill that deer. He cautioned my dad that if any cartridges were missing he had better have a deer to show for it.
My granddad was a lumber jack for a number of years until he became the foreman of a pipeline crew for the local gas company. He was a big guy and took a dim view of lame excuses and wouldn’t tolerate any back talk.
As my granddad told the story Ken (my dad) set out hunting with the old Krag. Finally, after some time 3 shots rang out in rapid succession. About a half hour later my dad drove up to the house with the deer laid across the hood of the car. Upon examination the buck had 3 holes in him and each one was in the heart area. When my granddad asked my dad why he wasted two shots my dad explained that the deer was still running.
My dad was a lefty and what most people would consider ambidextrous. He could write with either hand and could shoot a rifle or handgun with either hand. He could shoot at a deer while it was running from left to right and switch to the left shoulder and keep on firing without missing a beat.
An Automatic Rifle?
After my dad and his siblings grew up, my grandparents used to rent out rooms to hunters during hunting season. Some of the hunters showed up every year and I think they enjoyed my grandma’s home-cooked meals as much as the hunting. My granddad was retired by then and would sit around the living room discussing politics and which was best, a Ford or a Chevy.
One afternoon while in the middle of a conversation 5 shots rang out in rapid succession. There was a pause and then another 3 round volley. The visiting hunter remarked that someone was hunting with an automatic rifle and that someone should call the game warden. My granddad replied that the shots he heard were from his Kenny. The hunter quipped that nobody could hit a deer shooting like that. Granddad replied “I wouldn’t bet on it!”
Sure enough, dad showed up with a beautiful 13 point buck. The hunter asked my dad why he shot so many times. Dad explained that the deer was jumping, making its way from left to right through some young pine growth on a side hill. Dad said each time the deer jumped he would let him have it until he reached the woods. He said the deer backtracked across the young pine while he was busy reloading and when he finished he pumped two more rounds into him and a final shot at the deer’s bung as it disappeared into the woods.
Dad said he had to follow the blood trail about 25 yards before finding the dead deer. As the deer was being dressed out 8 bullet holes were found in the heart area. The last shot struck the rectum and traveled all the way to the heart.
That was a big trophy buck. I don’t recall how much it weighed but dad had it mounted and it stayed in the family until about 10 years ago.
My dad finally bought a Winchester Model 94′ 32 Special that he successfully harvested dozens of deer with.
One Shot, One Deer!
The last hunting tip my dad went on he was 93 years of age. He stayed with my cousin who has a small farm in NY State where they only allow deer hunting with shotguns. Dad borrowed my cousin’t shotgun and dad killed two deer within two days, both with one shot each.
My dad was the amazing rifle shot I have ever known. When it counted he hit what he was aiming at and brought home the game, even if it was all shot up most of the time. Dad made it to just short of 98 years old. I miss my dad!