Hand-making guns in the old tradition

May 06, 2001 11:00 pm
Dick Micka of Baker City displays the fruits of his talents while he works away at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Dick Micka of Baker City displays the fruits of his talents while he works away at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Dick Micka had to be the happiest deer hunter who didnt get his deer.

Even now, months later, he smiles when he remembers the hunt.

He remembers the woods up in the Wenaha country, and the snow, and the intoxicating aura of anticipation as he wondered whether there was a whitetail sheltering in a nearby fir thicket.

Most satisfying, though, is Mickas memory of how fine it felt to heft his own Pennsylvania flint-lock rifle.

The one whose stock he carved from a slab of Oregon quilt maple.

Whose 44-inch-long octagonal barrel he snugged into place.

Whose brass side plate he wrought and polished with his own hands.

No, Micka didnt fill his tag that December day.

But he fulfilled the dream that had beckoned him since he was a child: to stalk wild game in a wild place, brandishing a weapon of his own making.

Compared with that, the matter of whether he brought home venison was truly trivial.

I had such a ball just walking around carrying this gun in the woods, Micka said, his hand resting on the rifles polished stock as he demonstrated the art of gunsmithing at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.

He visits the center about once a week, setting up a table in the lobby where he can work and talk with visitors.

I guess Im a natural born teacher, said Micka, whos retired from that profession. His wife, Amy, teaches third grade at South Baker Elementary, and Dick occasionally dresses as a mountain man for living history performances in the schools fourth-grade classrooms.

Micka, 63, grew up in Malin, a small town near Klamath Falls founded in the first decade of the 20th century by immigrants from Czechoslovakia. His father, Albin, arrived in 1906, a year after the first settlers.

But despite his European ancestry, Dick Micka, even as a boy, was entranced by the uniquely American icons of cowboy and Indian.

I remember when I was a little kid I wanted to be an Indian, Micka said. I didnt know then that you had to be born an Indian. As someone of Czech descent I couldnt very well be one.

But he could read Zane Greys novels, and he could daydream about mountain men and their muzzleloading rifles.

Micka bought his first black powder gun, a pistol, while he was living in Salem in the early 1960s.

He didnt keep it for long, though, trading it for a .45 caliber plains percussion cap rifle.

But the gun Micka wanted more than any other was a Pennsylvania long rifle.

This type of weapon sometimes called a Kentucky rifle, from a song written during the War of 1812 to celebrate the exploits of soldiers from that state is distinguished by an unusually long barrel (usually 38 to 48 inches) and a stock decorated with hand-carved features.

Although thousands were made during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Micka said Pennsylvania rifles always were hand-crafted, not the homogenous products of a factory.

In fact, gunsmiths in each county tended to fashion their own designs; as a result there were subtypes such as the Lancaster, named for the Pennsylvania county that today is better known for its large Amish population.

Micka wanted a Pennsylvania rifle but he couldnt afford one.

So in 1965 he built his own.

Micka incorporated several of his favorite features into the .45 caliber rifle.

Its maple stock extends almost to the tip of the barrel, as opposed to the plains rifle, which has a stock extending about halfway down the barrel.

Mickas rifle also has a cast-off stock.

That means the butt is curved slightly so that it doesnt line up perfectly with the barrel.

Although it would seem that if a gunsmith wanted his rifle to shoot straight then he would build it straight, Micka said that apparent logic doesnt always apply in weaponry.

The cast-off stock actually can improve a rifles accuracy because it allows the shooter to sight on the target without awkwardly craning his head, he said.

After he finished the rifle, Micka halted his hobby for a while.

For about 20 years, actually.

During that period he moved to Baker City.

When Micka retired from teaching about five years ago, he found that his newfound free time awakened his interest in gunsmithing.

He immersed himself not only in the mechanics of the trade but in its history, in particular the link between the Pennsylvania rifle and the jaeger rifles crafted for centuries in the shops of German (and Czech) gunsmiths.

Micka also learned from his mother, Ludmila, that one of his uncles, who never emigrated from Czechoslovakia, was a gun-maker.

Jaeger rifles are quite different from the Pennsylvania type that Micka has admired for so long.

Jaegers, which were made for hunting stags and wild boars, have shorter barrels with larger bores often .64 to .70 caliber, he said.

Though the jaeger rifles are sturdy and accurate, their shorter barrels (often just 30 inches) created a problem for Americans living in the wilderness, Micka said.

Because black powder burns relatively slowly, in a rifle with a short barrel only half the powder charge may burn before the bullet leaves the barrel, he said.

Mountain men, who might buy provisions only once a year, couldnt afford to waste powder.

So American gunsmiths built rifles with longer barrels long enough that most of the powder was burned before the bullet was on its way.

American rifles tended to fire smaller bullets, too, which required less powder, Micka said.

Gunsmiths in the United States did retain some of their European counterparts methods, though, including hard-carving the stocks to ensure each rifle was unique.

Although Micka has dabbled in carving for years, he speaks modestly about his talents.

I dont really have a background in anything except working with my hands, he said.

Micka carved more than a dozen wood panels for the doors of the Presbyterian church in Baker City.

Right now he is concentrating on perfecting the wire inlay technique.

That involves carving patterns in a rifles stock and inlaying the pattern with wire. Micka built many of his tools with his own hands, including a set of brass-handled chisels whose working ends he crafted from old nails.

He seems proud of his ability to work metal and wood with the simplest of implements.

You can make an awful lot of gun parts with just a hacksaw and a file, Micka said.

During his visit to the Interpretive Center last week Micka used his hacksaw (it belonged to his father) to transform a bar of mild steel into a barrel lug a thin rod that will hold the barrel of the Czech heritage rifle hes building to its stock.

The rifle, which is about half finished, will incorporate several features honoring Mickas Czech ancestry as well as his mother and father.

He plans to decorate the stock with a carved (or possibly wire-inlaid) columbine, his mothers favorite wildflower.

Micka also will inset into the stock a cuff link that belonged to his father, as well as a bronze medallion, one side of which commemorates the 75th anniversary of Malins founding, the other the fraternal organization of Czech immigrants of which his father was a member.

Although his affinity clearly is for antique firearms, Micka also owns and shoots modern guns.

The thing is, Micka is so accustomed to muzzleloaders that he often forgets his newer guns are a bit more capable.

Ill take one shot and forget Ive got more than one, he said. Modern rifles dont do me a lot of good some times.

But the rhythm required to use single-shot guns suits Micka. He revels in the routine of packing powder and plunging rod into barrel; he finds the process melds perfectly with his hunting credo of always striving to make a clean kill with one shot.

His deliberate nature carries over into the making of guns as well as the firing.

Since he resumed his hobby several years ago, Micka has hoped to make a modest business of it.

So far, though, the only offer hes had was from a man who wanted him to build two rifles in three months.

For Micka, who invested at least twice as much time in his Pennsylvania rifle alone, the deadline was, simply, impossible.

Hes busy enough as it is.

Micka said he devotes much of his day to building wooden arrows, which he sells.

When he has a spare hour or two theres the jaeger rifle to work on, as well as a .45 caliber pistol hes putting together.

And then hed like to build a .54 caliber rifle for elk hunting. Of course it will have silver inlays and . . .

I just kind of do it, Micka says without winking, in my spare time.

Editors note: Micka next appearance at the Interpretive Center is scheduled for Thursday morning. More information about special events at the center is available by calling 523-1843.