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How an 18th Century Gun Barrel Was

Herman Karl
October 2016

A large brick forge is needed to forge a barrel in order to heat the barrel to welding
temperature. The barrel is forge welded, which is welding at the molecular level. The
separate pieces fuse and form one solid piece. Unlike arc welding forge welding does not
produce a seam between the joined metal parts. Many firings (putting the metal piece
into the fire to get it to proper temperature) are necessary to forge weld. Once out of the
fire the piece begins to cool rapidly below forging temperature. Usually it is possible to
weld only about one-half to one inch of metal from each firing. Unless otherwise noted
the barrel forging photos were taken by Herman Karl at the 2013 barrel forging workshop
taught by Nathan Allen at Conner Prairie Interactive Historical Park, Indiana. For an
excellent exposition on forging rifle barrels visit the Toad Hall Rifleshop website Steve Bookout is a master barrel maker.

This is a cross-section through a barrel that has been welded and bored. The green dotted
line traces the weld. The only sign of the weld is the small notch in the green oval. The
notch will be removed by more boring. Once the bore is clean and smooth its diameter
will be not further enlarged. Boring is a labor-intensive job and theres no need for extra
work, which is time and money.

The skelp a piece of wrought iron from which the barrel is forged. A skelp for a rifle
barrel would be 48 long.

Cupping the skelp -- the skelp is hammered over a semi-circular form in the swedge
block as above. Photo on Steve Bookouts Toad Hall Rifleshop website taken at the 2010 barrel forging seminar

In the photo above a short pistol length barrel is further along in the cupping process and
getting close to a cylindrical shape. When the skelp has been forged into a cylinder it is
then forge welded along the seam. The mandrel is inserted but only light, quick blows of
the hammer are used during the welding.

The part of the barrel sparking on the right is just above forging temperature. The reddish
orange part on the left is well below welding temperature. Know when the barrel is at the
right in the forge is an art that requires much practice. Usually less than an inch can be
welded before the barrel is too cool to weld. Photo on Steve Bookouts Toad Hall
Rifleshop website http://toadhallrifleshop.com

The skelp is heated in the forge and first formed around a mandrel to fold it into a
cylinder. This is a two-person job. The mandrel is inserted only a few inches into the
skelp as it is formed along its length. Photo on Steve Bookouts Toad Hall Rifleshop
website taken at the 2010 barrel forging seminar

This is a close-up of the barrel after it has been shaped into a cylinder. Within the green
rectangle the barrel is completely forge welded and the seam is not visible. Within the red
rectangle the seam becomes progressively more visible from left to right. This portion of
the barrel has not yet been welded.

This is a view down the barrel before it has been bored.

This is the barrel being bored a very labor-intensive operation. One person turns
the boring reamer and another slowly advances the barrel into the reaming. The
reamer is well lubricated and has to be withdrawn frequently to clear it of chips.
The reamer breaks frequently as it binds on in the barrel and it is repaired to
continue the operation.

This is the reamer entering the barrel.

Progressively larger diameter reamers are used to bore out the barrel to finished
diameter. The reamers at the top are rough reamers. There have a spiral cutting
edge. The reamer at the bottom is used for the final finishing of the bore.

The diameter of the finishing reamer is increased by shimming with pieces of


If the barrel is for a smoothbore musket, boring is the final step. If it is for rifle, spiral
grooves need to be cut in it. Above is a rifling machine. The large wooden cylinder has
spirals cut into it. Clamps on the table in front of the cylinder hold the barrel. Grooves
are cut in the barrel with a steel bit attached to rod pulled through the bore. The rod is
attached to the cylinder and as the cylinder is pulled backward the cutting bit follows the
spiral grooves cut in the wooden cylinder. One groove is cut at a time. It takes multiple
passes to cut the groove. The initial groove is very shallow. The cutting bits are raised
with pieces of paper for each subsequent pass until the groove is cut to the correct depth.
Generally seven grooves are cut. The raised portions of the bore left after the grooves are
cut are called the lands.

Another rifling machine; Photo on Steve Bookouts Toad Hall Rifleshop website;

Manning the rifler; Photo on Steve Bookouts Toad Hall Rifleshop website;

These are the cutters imbedded in the rifling rod.

Barrel on right is rough and scaly from the forging process; a finished
barrel is on the left.

Machined (not hand forged) barrel illustrating rifled bore