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House of Muskets — no flash in the pan

Tucked away in a little corner of Pagosa Springs, less than a block from U.S. 160 but accessible to the entire world, is a shop that offers products, service and support for black powder gun enthusiasts.

Black powder is a newer version of gunpowder, which was originally a mixture of sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate, was known for leaving a thick, heavy and corrosive film when exploded. Modern black powder does not cause the mess that the traditional gunpowder is known for, but a black powder firearm has many moving parts that need regular maintenance, cleaning and replacement.

With a beginning in 1968 in Riverton, Wyo., the House of Muskets moved to Pagosa Springs in 1973 and the current manufacturing facility located off of North Pagosa Blvd. was constructed in 1975. The founder of the company, Don Miner, built black powder guns and had no luck finding the bullet molds he needed for his creations. Miner made connections with people in the black powder industry and became a distributor for the hard-to-find parts he manufactured himself on a purchased engine lathe.

J.P. Rappenecker was an unemployed computer programmer and a lifelong firearm hobbyist when he came to the area in 2002 to help his then-girlfriend finish construction of a house.

The hairdresser of J.P.’s girlfriend had a boyfriend who was looking to sell his business, but it would take the right person to make it work. In addition to his background with firearms, J.P. had also worked in a machine shop as a welder, and knowledge of machinery and manufacturing was imperative for the new undertaking. He spent the summer of 2002 analyzing the financial records of the business, then worked for Miner for the rest of the year for free to get to know the details. By January of 2003, J.P. was the new owner of the House of Muskets.

“You’re never looking for stuff like this in life,” J.P. recalls, “I was unemployed at the time and the opportunity just came up.”

In the last seven years, J.P. has seen a lot of changes, the main one being the price of materials.

“Brass is our main raw material,” he explains, and the price of brass has gone up 500 percent in less than six years. In addition, he has seen a change in how black powder gun owners purchase parts. In the past, enthusiasts would travel to weekend historical events and fairs where they would sell or purchase parts. With the price of gas increasing, he is seeing less and less people traveling to these events, and more and more people making purchases online.

Each round in a muzzle loader rifle has to be measured and packed before each shot, then re-measured and packed before the next shot. Parts of the firearm wear out, and many pieces are not manufactured anymore. To complicate matters, there are many different types of black powder guns of different calibers, and all with specific parts and pieces. Judging by the number of shipments leaving the House of Muskets, there are a good number of people who are using black powder firearms and in need of the parts to maintain them. Many of the owners are hunters; the muzzleloader season is in September from the second Saturday through the third Sunday. Interestingly, muzzleloader firearms require no federal license and no background check.

J.P. stays busy fulfilling orders for his many clients, from individuals to large companies. He puts a mailing label on a 51-pound box of 250 custom-made ramrods that will be shipped to a major firearms company that has a standing order for the parts. Another label goes on a box containing a muzzleloader rifle that was sold through an online gun broker to an individual in Texas. In addition to parts, the House of Muskets also obtains muzzleloaders directly from the manufacturer or importer and sells them to dealers and collectors around the world.

The Pagosa machine shop smells a bit like a greasy automotive shop because oil is used to lubricate the machines as they cut through metal and the odor hangs heavy in the air. Thin scraps of metal in pools of oil sit in pans below nearly every machine in the shop. One room where a large round barrel of red, bead-like material is being vibrated, is especially noisy. J.P. reaches into the material and scoops out a handful of the aggregate, which is polishing the brass parts that are visible once the small beads fall through his fingers. In another room, large machines with digital readouts are automatically turning out the custom parts needed to fill the many orders. The milling action can be seen through small, oil-spattered windows on each machine.

Moving through the shop is Rick Bellows, a machinist with almost 40 years of experience. Bellows came to Pagosa Springs from Denver 16 years ago to work at the House of Muskets after the company he worked for closed and moved to Kentucky. An avid fisherman, Bellows was glad to find a job in a well-stocked fishing town. After consulting with J.P. and finding out that a customer called to order several custom fiberglass ramrods that are not in stock, he heads to a rack of long rods of different sizes and materials. He will cut the right rods to a specific length and have another employee assemble the custom tips to complete the order by the end of the day. The part-time shipping clerk, Janice Martinez, will finish the order by completing the assembly of the ramrods and packaging the products.

In another room of the shop, a table is set up for gunsmithing tasks, another part of the services offered at the House of Muskets. Several years ago, J.P. was sending customers in need of a gunsmith to the nearest facilities in Chama, Farmington, Del Norte and Hesperus, but they didn’t like the long drives and voiced the need for a local gunsmith. In 2007, J.P. was chatting with the owner of the local appliance store and discovered that her son was enrolled in a gunsmithing school in Denver. After graduating from the two year program last summer, Miguel Martinez contacted J.P. to see if he was still looking for someone. He was hired and has since done many projects, from simple repairs to custom machine work to rebuild a firearm.

Upstairs in the retail portion of the facility, one wall is lined with little bags of custom parts that are made for specific black powder firearms. The parts are milled from Ampco 45, a patented German alloy of aluminum and bronze that was originally developed for valve guides on Ford racing engines. The House of Muskets uses the alloy to manufacture muzzleloader nipples, a consumable part that is pounded down by the hammer of the firearm after each shot is fired.

“We sell tens of thousands of these five- to ten-dollar parts a year,” J.P. says, with his company being the only one who makes this particular product that is sold on every continent.

Another popular part manufactured at the House of Muskets is a percussion cap, which is a kind of precursor to the modern bullet. Rather than having to pack in a specific amount of powder each time, a single cap is inserted and fired when the cocked hammer slams against it, causing the packed bullet to leave the firearm in the same manner as if powder had been poured in. The benefit of the percussion caps is that they aren’t as susceptible to the moisture that can prevent the powder from firing; the negative is that one cap is used for every shot. Without the percussion caps, the gun can’t be fired, as opposed to using black powder and flint, good for firing a gun as long as dry powder is available.

Still enthusiastic about his business, J.P. grins as he describes the origins of the term “half-cocked” by demonstrating the position of the striker mechanism on a long black powder rifle. The powder is loaded into the gun with the striker safely half cocked to expose the powder pan. The gun can go off by mistake in this position, however, leading to the modern usage of the term meaning to speak or act prematurely or without preparation. J.P. then squeezes the trigger of the same gun and a spark is visible where the striker hit the flint, although there is no powder in the pan below it. When the striker mechanism causes a spark but the powder doesn’t ignite and discharge the bullet or projectile, this is called “a flash in the pan,” which has led to the modern day meaning of something which disappoints by failing to deliver anything of value.

Definitely not a flash in the pan, J.P.’s House of Muskets continues to manufacture custom parts and services to black powder enthusiasts around the entire world. You can contact J.P. Rappenecker by e-mail at JP@houseofmuskets.com.