Wolfe Publishing Group

    J.H. Durkee

    Gunsmith of Lebanon, New Hampshire

    .40 caliber, half-stock Durkee target rifle, National Rifle Club Match, Cody, Wyoming, June 2012.
    .40 caliber, half-stock Durkee target rifle, National Rifle Club Match, Cody, Wyoming, June 2012.

    The Gunsmith

    John Henry Durkee, of Lebanon, New Hampshire, was born on May 7, 1821, and died on October 17, 1857. American Firearms Makers by A.M. Carey lists Durkee as a maker of percussion sporting and heavy target rifles. He’s also listed as a farmer. He was married to Martha Ann Lombard, together they had at least two children, one of which was William. The gunsmith W.W. Wetmore served as an apprentice to Durkee. The location of his untimely death was Waltham, Massachusetts. One very interesting thing about this gunsmith; I happen to have the detailed account behind his tragic death from a shooting range accident.

    The Rifles

    J.H. Durkee .40 Caliber Half-Stock Target Rifle

    The rifle below is a .40 caliber muzzle loader built by J. H. Durkee circa 1850. I have two of his target rifles; the .40 caliber rifle below still has the original false muzzle, tang adjustable-barrel mounted rear sight and globe front sight. Durkee ordered the barrel for this rifle from Hitchcock & Muzzy, who were the “Brownells” of the day. The H&M mark is just below the wood line on the lock side. In 2012, I was able to compete with it in Cody, Wyoming at the NRC (National Rifle Club) match. The barrel has six lands and grooves with a 52-inch twist. I designed a hybrid picket bullet at 1.5 calibers in length, (168-grain, pure lead from the Steve Brooks mould) which shoots very well. The accuracy load is a 168-grain picket-style “hybrid” bullet, cast of pure lead, 90 grains of Swiss 1½ Fg, a .005 lube patch with two wet and two dry patches for barrel preparation. With this load, I shot a 11⁄8-inch group at 200 yards.

    Muzzle and tools for the Durkee .40 picket rifle. Notice the deep rifling at the muzzle.
    Muzzle and tools for the Durkee .40 picket rifle. Notice the deep rifling at the muzzle.

    J.H. Durkee .478 Cal. Slug Gun Heavy Target Rifle

    Heavy bench rest muzzle loading target rifle competition started and was concentrated in the Northeastern part of the United States. Something which is less known, was this competition remains a purely American sport. Most rifles ranged in weight from 15 to 25 pounds.

    Below is the Durkee slug gun in my possession, which I acquired from the late Richard Hicks. The rifle weighs 21.5 pounds. Upon receipt from Richard, it was configured with an under-hammer receiver/stock with soft and unreliable parts. I discussed this with Rich and told him I didn’t think some of the parts were original. He told me most of these old slug guns have been reworked and/or restocked over the years. Due to their weight and if they were used during the Civil War, I could see how damage could easily occur when being loaded in and out of the back of wagons. As you can see, I had Wyoming Armory install the barrel on an Allen percussion action and restock the rifle in order to make it reliable and competitive. Using two strips of paper, cross patch, 522 gr. two-piece bullet, and 95 grains of Swiss 1½ Fg black powder, the rifle has shown very good accuracy. The excellent bore, false muzzle, and tools no doubt help insure its accuracy. Did you think long heavy composite bullets and fast twist rifles were new inventions?

    This was the first rifle that provided me with the opportunity to cast and swage a two-piece bullet. The bullet nose is of 20:1 or harder material and the base is of pure lead. The soft base, of course, provides the gas seal and the harder nose prevents tipping.

    The restocked Durkee rifle with tools.
    The restocked Durkee rifle with tools.
    Before you beat me up for replacing the older under hammer system and stock, Rich said he did not believe it to be the original receiver/stock as there was no implement or trace on the breech and tang to support a rear iron sight such as a lolly-pop or scope elevator. However, I guess it is possible it could have started life as a barrel mounted “scope only” rifle. Note the scope adjustment gauge engraved on the top flat of the muzzle, which definitely looks original to the barrel. With the help from Rich Hicks, I was able to put together some of the rifles’ provenance. To long time slug gun shooters, I’m sure you will recognize some of these names; J.H. Durkee, Unknown, Lloyd Resor, John Baldinger and Richard Hicks.

    Durkee rifle’s scope adjustment scale and bullet mould.
    Durkee rifle’s scope adjustment scale and bullet mould.
    The bullet mould above may appear primitive compared to today’s bullet moulds, but after swaging the two pieces in the blind swage above, you’d be surprised at the precise result. In the top left of the photo it shows the scope adjustment scale engraved into the top flat.

    J. H. Durkee Lebanon, N.H. Barrel Stamp
    J. H. Durkee Lebanon, N.H. Barrel Stamp
    One interesting difference between the .40 half-stock and the slug gun barrels is the rifling in the latter is much less prominent, barely .004 inches deep and you can see the individual scratches from the cutter. For optimum accuracy, most of these rifles require a very tight-fitting bullet/cross-patch combination totally opposite of the typical loose-fitting Minie ball system of the day. The accuracy load in this rifle: 522-grain, two-piece bullet, cross paper patch with bear or whale oil, 95 grains of Swiss 1½ Fg powder, CCI cap, two wet, two dry patches for barrel preparation. My son Brett took third place with this load at the Cody, Wyoming, NRC match on June 4, 2009.

    The Tragedy

    Rifle target shooting in the nineteenth century was arguably the most popular spectator sport in the United States and quite possibly internationally, at least in the West. You may recall seeing illustrations in Harpers Weekly where spectators are lined up along the rifle range in order to view the target shooting. Yes, I mean in front and to the side of the direct firing of the rifles. I was able to dig up the following story about the untimely death of Mr. J. H. Durkee. I would suspect that at least one, if not more of his rifles competed that day.
    Notice the caliber of writing in the following article and the respect given to all parties involved. As far as reporting goes, I would question anyone who says we’ve evolved and progressed over the last two centuries.

    A Melancholy Occurrence – Mr. J. H. Durkee of this town, met his death at Waltham Mass., on Wednesday of last week, under circumstances peculiarly melancholy. Mr. Durkee was a very successful manufacturer of rifles in this town, and was in attendance at the annual gathering of the “Association of U.S. Rifle Shooters” when the accident happened which terminated his life. We gather from the Boston Herald the following particulars of the tragic affair:

    “The firing taking place for third prize, and the last open, Mr. McCloy of Maine, was in the act of raising his rifle, when Mr. Durkee, a gunsmith of Lebanon N.H., passed across the field directly in front of the target, to speak to Mr. Elbridge Gerry of Stoneham, who was on the opposite side. He had scarcely reached a direct line between Mr. McCloy and the target when Mr. McCloy’s rifle was discharged and the ball striking Mr. Durkee just above the hipbone, on his right side, passed through his body. He fell instantaneously. He was immediately taken and conveyed into the hotel. Medical attention was procured, and although the medical gentlemen are strong in the hope that the wounded man’s life may be saved, yet it is the most general opinion from the character of the wound, that he may linger but will not survive through the week.

    He remained entirely conscious up to 8’oclock last evening, and exonerates Mr. McCloy from all blame in the matter. The distress of the latter gentleman being the innocent cause of so melancholy termination of the day’s sport, may be imagined, but cannot be described. “

    “Mr. Durkee lingered until last Saturday when he expired. His remains were brought to this town last Monday for internment. He leaves a wife and two children.”

    I have not had any luck in finding any information on the “Association of U.S. Rifle Shooters.” I suspect that this organization also used string measure scoring and was the predecessor of the National Rifle Club. It’s also possible that the name was made up by the reporter, so we may never know. The NRC was formed in June, 1858, in Framingham, Massachusetts, and was the predominant bench target rifle organization after the Civil War, where names like Billinghurst, Brockway, and H.V. Perry were amongst the top riflemen. The only other pre-American Civil War heavy target rifle club mentioned by Ned Roberts was the Troy Rifle Club who also shot at ranges beyond the standard 40 rods or 220 yards.

    One of my biggest learnings though the research and collecting of these rifles is the advanced state this discipline had attained before the Civil War. Based on the highly detailed load techniques, equipment used, and prizes (including gold) on the line, this was a very serious and advanced level of competition.

    1. Lebanon Historical Society, The Granite State Whig (Weekly paper for the Lebanon area.)
    2. Julie Couture, Library Assistant, Lebanon Public Library.
    3. Richard Hicks, Akron, Ohio.
    4. New Hampshire Gunsmiths, by James Biser Whisker.
    5. Steve Garbe, Cody, Wyoming.
    6. The Muzzle Loading Cap Lock Rifle, by Ned Roberts.

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