Trade rifle wiping stick

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rich pierce

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8D29C1D4-D418-41EC-A3F5-3FFC2FD168DC.jpeg Discussing wiping sticks supplied with trade rifles (in addition to, and different from, the ramrod).
Orders for trade rifles often specified that a blanket case, tow worm, built mold, and wiping rod be supplied with each rifle. I’m finishing a Deringer trade rifle and getting the accessories together. Here’s the wiping rod made of a 1/2” hickory rod with a rolled sheet steel, brazed-up tip. I made this tip “not tapered” as descriptions of original ones indicate they were near bore diameter and sometimes carried in the bore. Not sure if many original wiping sticks (not talking ramrod carried in the thimbles) survived, so this is my interpretation.






 

plmeek

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That's nice, Rich.

I'm just speculating, but I would associate a wiping stick with a handle with a little higher quality gun or rifle than something made for the fur trade. I've seen such for high end English upland game guns and with cased pistols. Just my bias.

As far as the non-tapered tip, if the rod or wiping stick isn't tapered, I wouldn't expect the tip to be tapered either.

It doesn't appear that the shooters back then were concerned about wear on the inside of the bore since most of their worms, scrapers, and other tools were made of iron like the barrel. May be one reason freshening of the barrel was so common and/or frequent.
 

Runewolf1973

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Does anyone know if these spare wiping sticks that were carried in the bore used in smoothbore trade guns, or were they a rifle thing? I was thinking of making one for my smoothbore.
 

tenngun

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As far as I have seen trade fusils came with a worm, and that the simple spring one. Molds seem to have been available, and turn screws.
I would bet it was a no. Selling sticks in the woods is up there with coals to Newcastle
 

plmeek

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Does anyone know if these spare wiping sticks that were carried in the bore used in smoothbore trade guns, or were they a rifle thing? I was thinking of making one for my smoothbore.
This question has been covered in some other threads. The answer is Yes. Spare wiping sticks were carried with both rifles and smoothbore trade guns. Here is a picture that Notchy Bob posted in the thread on "Mountain Man rifles".


Here is a painting that Karl Bodmer made in 1833 of an Assiniboin Indian in the vicinity of Fort Union. Note the Indian is clearly carrying a Northwest trade gun that has a ramrod in its thimbles. He is also holding an extra wiping stick that appears to have some material or tow wrapped around what is likely a tow worm.



...I would bet it was a no. Selling sticks in the woods is up there with coals to Newcastle
This may be true east of the Mississippi River, but not so in the Rocky Mountains. Hard wood trees are not native in the Rocky Mountain region. Below is an image from Wikipedia showing the natural range (in green) of the hickory tree. It only reached the extreme eastern portion of today's Kansas and Nebraska.


There are several first person accounts of caravans stopping at the last area that hard woods grew on the trails to the mountains and cutting wood for wagon repairs and replacement ramrods.

In 1841, Rufus B. Sage, who hired on with Lancaster Lupton, the owner of Fort Lupton on the South Platte River, wanted to go West and write a book about his experiences. While traveling with Lupton, Sage kept a journal of the trip West. Eleven days out of the Independence/Westport area, they came to the Big Vermilion, a tributary to the Kansas River.

Sage said:
Pursuing a westerly course, nearly parallel with the Kansas, for three successive days, we passed the 14th [of September] encamped at Big Vermilion, for the purpose of procuring a quantity of hickory for gun-sticks and bow-timber. Hickory is unknown to the Rocky Mountains, and this being the last place on the route affording it, each of our company took care to provided himself with an extra gun-stick. Small pieces, suitable for bows, find market among the mountain Indians, ranging at the price of a robe each, while gun-sticks command on dollar apiece, from the hunters and trappers.
At a "dollar apiece" one can see how valuable an extra ramrod or wiping stick was to a trapper or Indian.

Council Grove on the Santa Fe Trail was another place that travelers stopped to collect hard wood as it was the last place on the Santa Fe Trail that trees such as oak and hickory grew. Santa Fe caravans would cut logs suitable to repair broken wagon axles and other wagon parts and strap them under their wagons. Hickory would have been gathered for hatchet and axe haft repairs as well as replacement ramrods.
 

tenngun

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Your on the right track there for sure. We think in terms of hickory for wiping sticks and ramrods. And as pointed out they were sold, at a good premium, where it didn’t grow.
Howsomever for a wiping stick willow, dogwood, osage orange, juniper ect could be pressed in to service.
Hickory resist lateral pressure well. Something you can easily do if not careful loading.
On the other hand wiping a bore won’t use much in the way of the lateral pressure.
I THINK most ‘wiping sticks’ carried on the frontier were spare ramrods. So an extra hickory rod makes sense, but I don’t know how that would reflect to a fusil buyer, especially a native, buying a gun.
 

Notchy Bob

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I'm enjoying this thread. Lots of good information!

One thing I would like to add, which is not really pertinent to the western fur trade, is that hickory is a common forest tree throughout most of the southeast. I live in north Florida, and have hickory growing on my property. It is an important mast crop in the woods of Florida, and in the fall, the nuts litter the ground. I have also rambled the woods of southeast Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and can attest to the fact that hickory grows in all of those places. I am much less familiar with the hardwoods of the western states. I suspect hickory may need more moisture than Nature provides in many parts of the far west, so the Wikipedia map may be accurate with regard to the western range of hickory, but the green area on the map should extend a lot farther south.

plmeek's quote from Rufus Sage is a good one to make note of. Sage was a meticulous chronicler. Many other travelers of that period (Ruxton, Garrard, and James Josiah Webb come to mind) mentioned stopping in Kansas to cut wood. Ruxton described La Bonte making a spare wiping stick, and he later made this comment:

Ruxton.png

However, we know the plains Indians made arrow shafts of locally sourced woods, and a ramrod is not that much bigger than an arrowshaft, which would have typically been made from a sapling with minimal knots. I think the rod shown in the photograph with that trade gun in plmeek's post is likely from a sapling of some sort. While it is generally straight, it does have some minor crooks and bends as you would expect to see in a sapling. Rods made from split or riven wood may take a bend, but in that case we would expect to see a gentle curve over a longer section of the rod.

James Fenimore Cooper documented the use of saplings (in this case of ash) for making ramrods in The Pioneers:

2020-06-15.png


Cooper was born in 1789, and The Pioneers was published in 1823, well within the flintlock era. Cooper was a well-educated man of letters, but he was also a keen sportsman who was familiar with firearms. The character of Natty Bumppo was inspired by an old hunter named Shipman, with whom Cooper was acquainted. I am willing to accept this passage about the ramrod as documentation.

I have heard that tipi poles made of tall, slender saplings are preferred over tipi poles split out of larger logs, because the concentric growth rings in the saplings provide better resistance to lateral stress (a concept mentioned by tenngun in post #6) around the entire circumference of the pole. Rods or poles made from split wood, on the other hand, tend to be relatively stronger and stiffer in the direction parallel to the growth rings, and more flexible and less strong perpendicular to the direction of the growth rings. Next time you pick up a shovel with a wooden handle, look at the end of it and note the orientation of the growth rings in the wood, which are aligned to provide maximum strength in the direction of maximum stress. I'm sure the same reasoning could be applied to smaller rods... a rod with concentric growth rings and free of knots would be stronger than a rod of the same size and type of wood split from a log. So, an inferior wood might work as a ramrod or wiping stick if made from a sapling rather than a split piece, and, I suppose, smaller saplings might be the only wood available in some parts of the west or the far north.

My take on all of this is that the old plainsmen, including the natives, recognized the value of a spare wiping stick and took pains to provide themselves with two rods. Hickory may have been the preferred wood, but it was hard to get and thus quite valuable in the west, and a hardwood sapling of a different species might have made a serviceable substitute if needed.

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 

Runewolf1973

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Maybe they could have hardened a ramrod by heat treating it over a fire the way they would harden the end of a wood spear point.
 

rich pierce

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In my view, if western folk were willing to pay well for hickory rammers or wiping sticks, they may well have found hickory superior to what was available locally. Otherwise, why pay?

Of course other woods can be used. But many woods suitable for arrows are not suitable for ramrods.
 

Einsiedler

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In a pinch, I have found that a piece of native river cane will also work. But not suitable for long term loading. But it will get you thru a hunt. Better used as a wiping/cleaning stick that for loading. Unfortunately, it’s just not all over the country.
 

Capnball

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Does anyone know if these spare wiping sticks that were carried in the bore used in smoothbore trade guns, or were they a rifle thing? I was thinking of making one for my smoothbore.
I remember seeing a smoothbore percussion gun at an antique gun show in PA about 20 yrs ago that had some unusual brackets on the side of the gun. Like small coat hooks. The guns rod was in place already under the barrel. At first I thought them to be some kind of crude sling attachment and I asked the guy who owned the gun about them. He told me the gun was indeed a trade gun and he suspected the hooks were for a "swab" and he explained its purpose to me and further explained good ram rods were difficult to find out west. I actually have not heard of this subject since then. (to be fair, I haven't researched it either) Funny how you hang around long enough and you'll get answers to old questions you didn't even know you had.
 

Kansas Jake

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Trees were few and far between on the great plains when one was headed to the mountains. Granted the rivers had willows and other trees, but in our area many of those would have been cotton wood. Not exactly the best for a ramrod or wiping stick. Red cedars which are a plague to grass lands were introduced much later.
 

plmeek

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...I live in north Florida, and have hickory growing on my property. It is an important mast crop in the woods of Florida, and in the fall, the nuts litter the ground. I have also rambled the woods of southeast Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and can attest to the fact that hickory grows in all of those places. I am much less familiar with the hardwoods of the western states. I suspect hickory may need more moisture than Nature provides in many parts of the far west, so the Wikipedia map may be accurate with regard to the western range of hickory, but the green area on the map should extend a lot farther south.
That is correct in general. Wikipedia says that "as many as twelve [species of hickory] are native to the United States." I chose the species, Carya ovata or shagbark hickory, that looked like it had the western most range for the map I posted above and matched with the 19th century journal reports.

The species common to northern Florida is Carya glabra, the pignut hickory. It's range per Wikipedia is shown below.


...Cooper was a well-educated man of letters, but he was also a keen sportsman who was familiar with firearms. The character of Natty Bumppo was inspired by an old hunter named Shipman, with whom Cooper was acquainted. I am willing to accept this passage about the ramrod as documentation.
Your quote from Cooper's The Pioneers may be the source of the myth that one can pick up a "fire-stone" just about anywhere and nap it into an "Indian flint".

Stone suitable for napping into arrow heads and gun flints does not exist everywhere. And the knowledge and skill to nap is not universal. That alone makes me question the passage about ramrods. I don't know the setting for Cooper's The Pioneers . If it were east of the Mississippi, why didn't he have Natty Bumppo referring to Hickory rather than an ash sapling?

I don't know where all this leaves Runewolf1973 because I suspect he lives in Canada and everything we've been discussing concerns the Rocky Mountains during the fur trade. At least, that's the topic of this sub-forum.
 

tenngun

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So we turn to hickory automatically but I’m thinking ash and elm would serve. Elm was favored for cannon mounts as it was so tough. Ash was the favored for lances as like hickory it was so tough.
I think willow would be my first choice if I was cutting something in the woods afterI broke one.
 

Spence10

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Notice that Ruxton considered the wiping stick to be the same as the ramrod.

“Here’s the beauty,” he philosophised, “of having two ‘wiping sticks’ to your rifle; if one breaks whilst ramming down a ball, there’s still hickory left to supply its place.”

Spence
 

Notchy Bob

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Thank you, plmeek, for that clarification. There are indeed many varieties of hickory, and it's good to know which one we are talking about.

Your quote from Cooper's The Pioneers may be the source of the myth that one can pick up a "fire-stone" just about anywhere and nap it into an "Indian flint".

Stone suitable for napping into arrow heads and gun flints does not exist everywhere. And the knowledge and skill to nap is not universal. That alone makes me question the passage about ramrods. I don't know the setting for Cooper's The Pioneers . If it were east of the Mississippi, why didn't he have Natty Bumppo referring to Hickory rather than an ash sapling?
I appreciate these comments. I also cringe when I hear the "any old rock will do" reference to gunflints. Like most of us here, I shoot flintlocks, and I'm aware of the qualities that make a good gunflint. Not just any stone will work, and not just anybody can turn the raw material into a gunflint. I certainly can't. We also know thousands of gunflints were brought in and sold to native customers (the original American flintknappers) and I had always thought "store bought" flints from the traders would have been universal on the frontier. However, the quote from George Bent which was posted recently in another thread on this forum indicated at least some of the southern Cheyenne people made their own flints, and I hope we can agree that Mr. Bent was a reliable source. I believe Rich Pierce, who started this thread, also has the skills needed to select and knap natural stone into gunflints. As you correctly pointed out, "the skill to knap is not universal," but there are a few exceptions. I think the point Natty was trying to make in that quote from The Pioneers was that he was an "old hand" in the woods, and knew where to go to find suitable stone ("...in the mountains..."), and, like Rich, he had the skill to knap it if needed. Like Rich, he was one of the exceptions. You might be right, though. Some people may have misinterpreted the quote.

The setting for The Pioneers was the vicinity of Cooperstown and Lake Otsego in New York state. Note that the alternate title for this book is The Sources of the Susquehanna. Lake Otsego is the source of the Susquehanna River. Here is a map:

2020-06-17.png

Curiously enough, that is very close to the border of the natural range of Carya ovata:

Carya_ovata_range_map_1.png

I didn't realize that until today. Maybe Natty selected an ash sapling for his ramrod instead of hickory because ash was more readily available.

In any case, ash is a tough and resilient wood, and it would probably be a pretty good choice for a ramrod in the absence of hickory. It is the wood of choice for baseball bats and for long-handled tools, such as shovels and pitchforks. It was also used for bows by some native people, although it does have a tendency to "take a set" (or "follow the string") and is therefore not as good a bow wood as some others such as yellow locust or Osage orange. Ash does split rather easily along the annular rings, but we already discussed how the rings would be circumferential in a sapling, which would mitigate or eliminate the risk for splitting. Coincidentally, I resawed some clear, straight-grained ash a couple of months ago into sticks of 9/16" square by 44" long specifically for making tapered ramrods for my 20 gauge smoothbores because I found that you can't get 9/16" hickory dowels. And yes, I checked with Dan Putz. He said I am the only person in his career who has ever requested ramrod blanks in that size.

All of this is interesting to me, and I have learned something today. However, as plmeek said, I don't know where this leaves Runewolf. I have been following his ramrod/wiping stick posts in the "Smoothbore" section of the forum with some interest.

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 

Runewolf1973

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I can't imagine the lack of any particular type of wood posing any real problem for someone using a smoothbore with wads and undersize balls. The ball just drops down the barrel and it takes nothing to push a wad of bark or grass down the barrel. The only issue I can see would be with rifles and tightly patched roundballs. In a smoothbore, one does not really need a hickory rod. Another plus for smoothbores.
 

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