Original article pictures not included here
Ever since I have been interested in single shot rifles (which seems like all my adult life) I have wanted a Remington Hepburn. Over the years I have run into a variegated assortment here and there but most, even the grungiest have been overpriced for my rather austere gun budget. In a few cases I have just missed some real bargains. This is the curse of the gun crank. A few years ago there was an outfit in Texas or Oklahoma that was producing complete Hepburn action cIones (and complete rifles) but these were fairly expensive for me also. Word was they were nicely made, though I never did see one. I haven't seen their ads recently in SSE so I'm not sure they are still in business. Then in an issue of SSE sometime last year I read a terse review written by Col. Boyd of a Hepburn action kit that was available from Upper Missouri Trading Co. in Nebraska. I, of course, had to check this out!
I sent for their brochure. They offer the kits in two configurations. The first kit contains all the as-cast parts plus two sets of screws and tempered springs and was priced at $250 at the time of my purchase. The second kit is partially finished with all critical screw holes drilled and tapped (and aligned). The barrel shank hole is bored and threaded; this is incredibly important. If you have to buy a drill and tap to bore the barrel shank hole you can be in for a shock regarding the prices for machine tools. This is not something that can be easily done with a hand drill! The receiver and bottom tang holes are drilled, aligned, and tapped. The breechblock face is ground and the firing pin hole is drilled (very important). This kit cost $450 and is the one I bought. The reason I bought the more expensive kit is that prior experience has taught me that raw castings are not easy to work with without the proper jigs and fixtures to align this and that and to drill this or that hole. Holes that are drilled on an angle or compound angles are a special problem. On the Hepburn the firing pin hole is a case in point. It is on an angle. If you can drill this hole and get that angle just right so that the primer is in line with it when the block is in battery you have accomplished a near miracle! This is just one of the reasons I opted for the more expensive kit. Upper Missouri Trading has all the jigs and fixtures to repeatedly and easily align and drill the holes and to correctly tap the ones that come threaded.
I have seen a few casting kits In the last few years and I have to say that the castings in the Upper Missouri kit I received were of excellent quality. They were generally smooth, of correct shape. and completely free of voids. As it turned out the final shaping and finishing were definitely aided by the casting quality.
I started this shop project in December 2001. The kit I bought came with fairly detailed instructions which are very helpful when approaching the modification of something that cost $450. Also there is a tool list attached and a drawing of the action showing the size screws used for each part. The instructions start with a disclaimer that the action was designed for black powder and that is the only powder to use in loads for this action. It also cautions that when removing metal remove as little as is necessary as it is easy to remove metal but hard to put it back! Sage advice! The kit comes with two sets of screws which is a great idea, One set to be used when putting the kit together and fitting the various parts. The other set is to be used for the finished action. This is a very nice feature.
The Hepburn is a very simple action with few parts so in this way lends itself to be completed from a kit. When I do a project in my shop I keep a log of the time to do this task or that plus I add any insights I might have gleaned from the experience especially if a mistake were made. I am using my Hepburn project log and Upper Missouri's instruction sheet to write this article. In doing this project I was fortunate in that a close friend had an original action on hand that he graciously loaned me so that I could compare various shapes, measurements, and functions of the kit against an original. A lot of work on the fitting of the action parts is done using files so it is to ones advantage to have a good set of files on hand to do the work. I have purchased several that I use for various purposes and I have inherited many more that I don't believe are available or at least not readily available like finishing files that file steel with a resulting finish that looks like it was polished. One thing that I have found in purchasing files is that the only good ones come from the United States. Offshore, cheap files are almost worthless.
The first step on the finishing instructions is to fit the bottom tang/trigger guard to the receiver by removing small amounts of metal from it by stroking it over a large file laid flat on the bench. This is a good technique to use for anything of small size that requires its sides to be square. The instructions do mention possibly re-tapping the holes with a 12-28 tap. I didn't need to do this but I do have a few of that size tap on hand. This was an easy step and didn't take too long.
Next was to fit the trigger to the lower tang by squaring up the trigger slot in the tang and "reaming" the hole in the trigger itself with a #22 drill. Easy, and the trigger pivot pin fits nicely in the hole. I also cleaned up the trigger at this point so that it didn't look Iike it was cast. I eventually did this with all the action parts.
The next task was to fit the hammer to the action by squaring up the slot in the action and "reaming" the hole in the hammer with a #3 drill. Duck soup! I cleaned up the hammer and made it free of that cast look. Using a checkering file I checkered the hammer spur. It would be hard to duplicate the factory hammer spur as the checkered part was stamped and the impression in the casting was not sharp. The cocking and rebound notch will wait until later to fit.
Next was the breechblock fitting. This is a critical part and requires much care and patience to fit properly. I urge the utmost caution in fitting this part. I suggest that first you determine if the receiver mortise is square and if so merely clean it up with smooth files and sand paper. If it is not square you should attempt to square it up using files and remove as little metal as possible and constantly check all dimensions. When this is done then do the block, which can be done on a mill or carefully by hand with the ubiquitous files at hand. I did not follow this process and had to buy another block and refit it. The one I bought was not like the original one that came with the kit. I bought a blank one that did not have the firing pin hole in it. Luckily I got it right. If not I would have had to buy another one or had some serious welding done on it.
I worked on fitting the side lever and lever/block actuator next. Part of the lever that is not seen is a square that fits into a square hole in the actuator lever that cams down the breech block. Minor cleanup here had the parts fitting snugly. I cleaned up the casting look of the side lever and checkered it with 20LPI checkering. The fitting of this critical part went very easily.
The next part to fit was the extractor, which required some filing and Dremel tool grinding but otherwise went in fairly easily. I then fooled with the sear and rebounding notch. I messed up the sear notch such that I had to buy another hammer and refit it. Got it right the second time. There is a drawing of the hammer with the correct measurements for the sear and rebounding notch in the instructions that came with the action kit. I guess I didn't study them as carefully as I should have.
At this point I had a functioning action. Time to fit the barrel. I selected an octagonal Green Mountain barrel in .45 caliber. These barrels are not tapered (at this time Green Mountain did not have tapered barrels; they do now) and do not look right on a Hepburn style rifle so I turned the barrel with a taper to make it in "half' round configuration. The contouring done I threaded, fit and chambered the barrel in my favorite cartridge - the 45-70. I then fitted the extractor to the barrel. I tested the barrel/action assembly to see if it would fire a primed case and of course it did.
The next step was to clean up all action parts to eliminate the "cast" look. I case hardened all the parts using Kasenit which I have found in the past to do an excellent job for imparting a case hardened finish durable enough to endure repeated mechanical operations. It does not generate any color other than gray to the part but it sure puts on a hard finish. To do this I use two propane torches with the part suspended in both flames. When the part is bright orange I roll it around in the Kasenit mix until it is thoroughly coated. It is then placed back under the flames until bright orange again when it is rolled around in the Kasenit again and returned to the flame. This time when the bright orange color is attained it is dunked rapidly into cold water. After these operations a file will slide right off the metal.
Before getting into the laborious task of stocking the rifle, to be sure the barreled action did not require any more work I test fired it at my local shooting range using a jig I made for just this purpose. The jig is made of a 30" piece of 8" x 8" lumber with two 2" x 4" "clamps" to clamp down the barrel. The wooden clamps are tightened over the barrel using lag screws. The whole thing is tied to a bench at the range and the trigger actuated with a string. Since there is a "black powder only" caution for this action, and the receiver itself was not yet case hardened, I used mild black powder pressure level smokeless loads. As expected this test passed with no problems.
Stock time was now here! A study of the Remington book photographs revealed a common pattern for some Creedmore style stocks that were similar for both the Hepburn and the Rolling Block rifles, the only difference being a rounded pistol grip on the Hepburn. Also the higher grade rifles in both cases sported a horn lip on the forend. I was fortunate in having had a D grade rolling block Creedmore rifle in hand a year or so ago that a friend allowed me to keep for a few days to photograph. This rifle had the horn tip on the forend. While I had it I traced the stock, photographed it, and took all kinds of measurements for my files. This became the pattern I used for this Hepburn project with the pistol grip modified in the Hepburn style. John King of King Machine in Kila, Montana makes reproduction butt plates for these vintage arms. He makes them out of a material that is very similar to what they were originally made out of - no shiny black plastic here. I got one of the appropriate butt plates from John to use in this project. A really nice touch.
I had a piece of English walnut on hand that I decided to use for this project. Although it takes a relatively long time and quite a bit of grunge work there is not much to describe here. I fitted and shaped the butt stock. I fitted and shaped the forearm using a piece of ebony rather than the horn as found on the originals. The overall stock came out pretty nice. I checkered the stock partially according to a pattern that I had found on the internet on an original Hepburn, Checkering that rounded pistol gave me a lot of grief!! I had to do this part twice, once in error then a refinish and then again with a different approach. This time I got it right but I will never do it that way again!
As I have done in the past with mixed success I was now ready to color case the receiver using my wood stove, What I do here is dissolve some Kingsford Charcoal in water. I spray the receiver with WD40, place it in the piece of 4" pipe that I use for this purpose and then pack the charcoal (now a paste) around the action. It is immediately placed in the wood stove and left to bake for five or more hours. When ready I take it out of the stove, still glowing, rush out on my deck where there is a 30 gal plastic garbage can waiting filled with ice cold water. I open the cap of the pipe and dump the contents into the water. There is a wire mesh screen about 3/4's the way down in the can that catches the part. This is when I mentally cross my fingers in hopes that the color will be there, In this case it came out as if it were done by a professional. I was very pleased! This method certainly puts a tough skin on the metal as I found out when I discovered that I had forgotten to drill and tap the upper tang for a tang sight. I had to grind the surface metal away on the bottom of the upper tang to drill the holes and then had a grand time trying to drill thru the skin on the tang top surface and then trying to tap them, I got through it though, A good lesson was learned with this experience.
I put the whole thing together and admired the result. The next thing was a trip to the range. I usually break-in a new barrel by shooting 20 jacketed bullets through it and cleaning it thoroughly after each shot. So I loaded up 20 rounds of my favorite reduced load 23 grs of 5744 (this, of course, broke the black powder only demonstration of the seller, however, this is a low pressure black powder level load) behind a 400 Remington jacketed soft point and repaired to the range. The rifle shot pleasingly well even on a break-in, A short time later I was discussing the rifle with a friend at work and when he asked what cartridge I had chambered it in I told him 45-70, His response was "boring!!!", He asked how many 45-70s did I have. I told him I didn't know right off the bat. He said why not re-chamber it in something like say 45-100. This got me thinking about it and I decided to get a reamer and rechamber the rifle. I got a reamer from Midway and some brass from Huntington Die (HDS). I used my 45-70 dies to make ammo. It was easy to rechamber the rifle. When I fired the first few rounds I examined the fired cases and they did not look right. A few more shots confirmed that there was something wrong. The cases were ever so slightly bulged on one side. Later a chamber cast and subsequent measurement showed that my 45-70 reamer and the new 45-100 reamer were not exactly the same, I decided to set the barrel back and rechamber it. The only problem here was that if I did that the forearm would not fit the action properly. I decided to go ahead with it anyway I can always make a new forearm. I cut off the threaded portion of the barrel, refitted it to the action and chambered if for the 45, 2.6 (100) cartridge, This time of course everything was correct. I shot it a little and then kind of put it away.
This past winter (2002 to 03) I decided to rebarrel the Hepburn with a 45 cal gain twist barrel from a local barrel maker Les Bauska in Kalispell, Montana. Bauska's assistant Steve Williams shaped the barrel to my specs in a 1/2 octagon configuration. Steve did a great job on this, I fitted the barrel to the action and chambered it in that boring old cartridge - the ubiquitous 45-70. I did not have to refit the forearm as octagonal Remingtons are only inletted on three flats and the flats on the new barrel were about the same width as the Green Mountain barrel. The forearm still does not mate up to the action as it should and will eventually have to be replaced. When all was together I scrubbed the bore until all patches were clean, I then loaded up 20 of my standard 45- 70 smokeless loads as mentioned above and repaired to the range. This time I decided to shoot for accuracy as well as break in the barrel. I shot two 10-round groups. The first ten rounds went into less than two inches at 100 yards-not too bad at all. The second group blew my mind - 9 shots went into a measured 1-1/8 inches one big hole! There was one uncalled flyer near the main group. This is outstanding accuracy - especially with a peep sight and old eyes. Subsequent shooting has shown the accuracy with cast bullets to be equally as good, This weekend past I used what I call my "plinking" 45-70 load which is the 23 grs of 6744 behind a 405 gr RCBS gascheck bullet. This bullet has been known (by me) to produce excellent accuracy in smokeless loads in my 45-70s. I shot 16 rounds at 200 yds 13 of the 15 went into one ragged hole of 2.3 inches! These were unweighed bullets made from range scrap that I use for casual offhand gong shooting. I can only imagine what weighed and selected bullets will do in this barrel. Further tests will ensue this summer and maybe this rifle will be my choice for long range matches such as the Quigley next year.
So now I finally have a Hepburn albeit not a real one but close enough to make me very happy indeed !