I remember Charley Stone from the 1970s.
Charley owned Neshanic Depot Antiques in the rustic little village of Neshanic Station, N.J. “Antiques” was a delicate term for “old guns.”
New Jersey, with its strict gun laws and nearly non-existent gun culture apart from criminal and law enforcement, can be very gun-controversial, hence this subtle encryption.
Charley dealt in mostly antique muzzle-loading guns – buy, sell, trade – which sidesteps many of the old Garden State’s myriad requirements for firearms acquisition, possession and use.
The venue for this enterprise was an 1800s railroad station virtually unchanged from the era of the steam locomotive. Below the old trestle that spanned the South Branch of the Raritan River was a large riverfront meadow. On weekends, the meadow was busy with a huge flea market hosted by Stone.
Weekdays would often see informal muzzleloader shoots using the earthen berm leading up to the trestle as a backstop.
Across the river was the old mill, restored and barn red against a bucolic background. The mill’s dam made for excellent swimming upstream.
As if all this wasn’t enough to make this a desirable hangout, there was a bar across the little street with its Old West-style sidewalk.
In Jersey, there’s always a bar across the street.
It was my custom to spend weekends at Neshanic Station in those days. I was surprised one late fall Saturday, circa 1975, to find my father and his older brother Pete there. My father was probably exploring the possibility of manufacturing flintlock frizzens or percussion cap nipples.
At heart, he was never really far from his manufacturing business.
My dad and Uncle Pete comprised part of a little crowd that surrounded Charley’s workbench. In a wide-brimmed hat, leather vest and Amish beard, Charley cut a classic figure as he worked on a reproduction Hawken muzzleloading percussion rifle.
The problem was that a wooden ramrod of incorrect size had been forced into the barrel and was stuck there. Why the ramrod was inserted without a charge in the gun is anyone’s guess.
After trickling a small amount of black powder into the rifle’s chamber through the hole vacated by the cap nipple, Charley replaced the nipple and went outside. The crowd followed.
Standing in the street, Charley placed a cap on the nipple, held the rifle upright above his head and pulled the trigger. With a muffled report, the ramrod took off skyward.
Always the showman, Charley Stone caught the falling rod without looking up – as if he did this several times a day. Maybe he did. The crowd applauded.
A couple of weeks ago, this event of nearly 50 years ago came vividly to mind when C.S Arms (Upperville, Va.) owner Cliff Sofia handed me a 1940s vintage Marlin 39-A rifle in .22 caliber with a cleaning rod hopelessly stuck in its barrel.
Cliff explained that an “erstwhile” employee had applied 350 pounds of pressure to this cleaning rod which, for reasons still unknown, refused to be withdrawn. Knowing that I enjoy these little challenges – especially at a reduced price – he offered me the rifle at a price below book value.
I readily accepted.
There was only one employee, erstwhile or otherwise, capable of the 350-pound figure; Bret Lawler. Bret is a very big guy. Apparently, though, Bret had been granted a reprieve from his “erstwhile” (former) employee status.
Bret sat at the desk fielding phone calls and FBI background checks. I sat at the desk across from him, waiting for my turn to do the paperwork.
The recoil pad of the Marlin’s stock rested on the old random-width board floor. The handle of the stuck cleaning rod hovered about 6 feet in the air.
The other patrons were finding this scene humorous. Taking humor to a new level, Cliff used 2 Post-It notes glued back to back to construct a tiny flag which he attached near the top of the cleaning rod.
The flag read “Republic of Ted.”
“Who was that senator who just died?” he asked.
“Elijah Cummings.” came the answer from somewhere in the crowded shop.
Cliff lowered the Post-It note flag to half-mast.
“Our workbench isn’t bolted to the floor.” Bret offered as a partial explanation as to why they couldn’t pull the cleaning rod out.
But my workbench is. Well, it’s anchored, anyway, to my tractor repair service truck. Occasionally, I’m called upon to free up a “stuck” tractor engine that has sat exposed in a fencerow for a decade or more.
If the acorns that sprouted in the cylinder bores (think I’m kidding?) haven’t wrapped a taproot around the crankshaft, I can usually break these engines loose. Still, this stuck cleaning rod posed a peculiar challenge.
After briefly considering a modernized version of Charley Stone’s method using a nail driver cartridge, I instead clamped the rod in the big vise and pulled. It became necessary to sacrifice the rod by bending it at a right angle so that it wouldn’t pull through the jaws.
Still, it wouldn’t budge.
A universal principle that applies to breaking a stuck engine loose is that if and when you can establish reciprocal movement – no matter how slight – you’re well on your way to the first full revolution of the crankshaft.
Twisting the rifle to and fro loosened it up somewhat. For the last few inches, I had to use a large adjustable wrench closed around the rod to pry in the space between the barrel and the vise.
This resulted in some cosmetic damage to the barrel (cue the Monday-morning quarterbacks) which cleaned up with a file and a dab of black paint.
With the rod out, there still remained a solid blockage in the barrel.
I drove it out with a length of 3/16 drill rod and a 16-ounce hammer. The gun was filthy with some kind of compacted gray crud. The gun would have to come apart completely for a thorough cleaning.
I undid the large knurled screw which allows the Marlin’s action to come apart in 2 halves, exposing its inner workings.
The Marlin’s mechanism is much more elaborate than that of the recently sold 1902 Remington. Already distracted by the fast approaching deadline for an Antique Power tech article based on a Diesel injector pump, I surely didn’t need to be tackling this pocket watch. Brake cleaner, compressed air and oil is as good as it gets for now.
I guess that Bret was going after that blockage in the barrel when the heavy black paint on the rod (.003, adding .006 to the diameter) broke loose and stacked itself jamming the rod in the barrel.
The object causing the blockage turned out to be the ferrule of a cleaning brush, possibly for a larger bore. The threads didn’t match those of Bret’s cleaning rod and the brush itself was long gone.
At any rate, I’m not about to press this giant for more information. I’m beginning to sense that this may not be his favorite subject.
The rifle now fires and cycles perfectly. As for the cleaning rod, I drilled a small hole in a far corner of one of my barn-board workbenches.
There, a slightly shortened version of the rod stands and the Post-It note flag proudly proclaims the “Republic of Ted.” o