KEMPTON – Calling a hand-crafted muzzleloader rifle that has been built by a master gunsmith like Mark Wheland a "reproduction" is clearly an inaccurate description.
Every rifle built by Wheland at his central Pennsylvania shop in Williamsburg and others like him is as much as of an original as were those build by the gunmakers of the 1700s. What sets the two apart is that one is contemporary, the other is an antique.
"I remember the first time I ever saw an antique muzzleloader and the effect it had on me," Wheland said. "At the time, I never thought about building them, but I was fascinated with that rifle."
Eventually, the fascination Wheland felt turned into an obsession that led to him to becoming one of the finest builders of historically correct Pennsylvania longrifles in the country. His creations are so much in demand that clients are willing to wait as long as two years for him to fill an order for a rifle like those carried by the likes of the fictitious Natty Bumppo created by James Fenimore Cooper or the bigger-than-life inspiration for that character – Daniel Boone.
Now a fulltime gunsmith, Wheland began building muzzle loading rifles as a hobby in 1992 that became more time consuming as his workmanship improved and his rifles became more in demand. Although he was still working at his fulltime job, he made the decision in '92 to apprentice with master gunmaker Allen Martin and develop his craft.
Each year, over the last weekend in July, Wheland displays examples of his workmanship and discusses the art of creating Pennsylvania longrifles during the Gunmakers Fair at Dixon's Muzzleloader Shop between Kempton and the Kutztown/Krumsville exit of Interstate 78. He has won numerous awards, including "Best of Show" in 2005, at the event, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary, Friday, July 27-Sunday, July 29, with seminars presented daily.
"Certainly, there is no need for anyone to have a rifle that has the exact appearance of those that were used during the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War and the 1800s," Wheland said. "I think everyone understands that, but at the same time, there is a special satisfaction that only comes when using a rifle that gives the feeling of carrying a piece of history.
"There are times when I would like to keep a finished rifle for myself, but my biggest joy is the satisfaction of seeing someone else enjoy something I created. If someone else wasn't going to be enjoying a rifle I was building, it wouldn't be as rewarding or fulfilling.
"Depending on the time it takes to get the parts once they're ordered, the turnaround time to finish a rifle – depending on the style – is just about two years. As a rule, I build between 12-20 rifles in a year."
Whetland focus on rifles that were built in Pennsylvania between the years of 1750-1820, a time period that is referred to as the "Golden Age" of muzzle loading. His stocks are fashioned from blanks of curly maple, which are scraped and burnished – not sanded – before being finished by hand rubbing coats of oil and varnish.
While using Getz barrels and Chambers locks correct to the period of each rifle, Whetland uses sand-cast butt plates and trigger guards. Patchboxes and other parts are made by hand.
"I find something unique in the styles of the rifles from all schools of the period," Whetland said. "Certainly, Lehigh Valley, Berks County and Lancaster County rifles all have special qualities, but my favorites are those from the Wommelsdorf area built by (John) Bonewitz and (Leonard) Reedy."
Although rifles from the Wommelsdorf school can be traced to the late 1760's, Bonewitz built his rifles between 1779-1809 and Reedy built his between 1800-1837. Both featured their own unique style, but both decorated their rifles with raised relief carving and engraved brass patch boxes.
"There is no typical client when it comes to those who want a custom rifle that is historically accurate," Whetland said. "Interestingly, there are some who collect rifles made by contemporary builders because they can't find antiques.
"Most of the people who order a rifle though are either competitive shooters or hunters, Of course, some of these people crossover, so the only thing they really have in common is their appreciation of these rifles."
For information on Pennsylvania rifles, visit Mark Wheland at the Gunmakers Fair, Friday-Sunday, July 27-29, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, at Dixon Muzzleloader Shop, 9952 Kunkel's Mill Road, Kempton; call (814) 832-2785 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For Gunmakers Fair information and seminar schedules, access on the Web at www.dixonmuzzleloading.com or call the shop at (610) 756-6271.