For those who love muzzle loaders, it doesn’t get any better than a trip to Friendship, Indiana to visit the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, the biggest organization in muzzle loading. Founded in 1933, this non-profit organization hosts the largest muzzle loading events in the country every year and is a key component of what has kept American muzzle loading traditions going strong for decades.
The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association’s mission is “to promote, support, nurture, and preserve our Nation’s rich historical heritage in the sport of muzzle loading through recreational, educational, historical, and cultural venues such as match competition, hunting, gun making and safety, historical re-enactments, exhibits, museums, libraries, and other related programs.”
A Journey to Friendship: Visiting the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association
Though we have long been passionate about muzzle loading firearms and history and have been reading issues of the organization’s magazine Muzzle Blasts for some time, for fellow describer Brian Beck and I, this marked our first trip to Friendship. Making the roughly 6-hour drive from northwestern Illinois to southeastern Indiana to attend the NMLRA’s 1st Annual American Longrifle Show had been an exciting prospect since the date was first announced. Needless to say, Brian and I were intent on going whether Rock Island Auction Company wanted to send us on an official business trip or the journey was made of our own accord. We were not going to miss our opportunity to visit the famous Walter Cline Range at Friendship, to see what their first stand-alone American longrifle show had to offer, and to hopefully make some new friends along the way. We weren’t disappointed.
This rifle by Keith Vance from West Liberty, Kentucky, on Wayne Estes’ table was probably the highlight of the show for me. The rifle is inspired by the Running Deer rifle that sold for $161,000 in our May 2021 Premier Auction.
Our journey took us south through central Illinois, and finally across the Indiana border. We knew the show was going to be smaller than most of the events Rock Island Auction Company attends throughout the year, but anything associated with the NMLRA has a lot of promise. Plus, getting to go to the first show gave us ample opportunities to actually talk to the vendors and exhibitors as well as meet members of the NMLRA staff such as Vice President Jerry Von Dielingen who were incredibly welcoming. The tiny town of Friendship certainly lived up to its name. Whether we were having some lunch at the Friendship Tavern, exploring the NMLRA grounds, or perusing the wares at the show or the halls of the NMLRA Education Center, everyone we met was very friendly.
The Craft of Muzzle Loading
When we first walked into the show Saturday morning, we were immediately greeted with smiles from the staff and fellow attendees. Out in the entry hallway, there were a few rifling benches setup on display, and one from the 19th century was actually being used to rifle a barrel at the show. Bill Hoover showed us how it worked, explained that it was actually cutting gain twist rifling, and showed us the completed bore when it was done.
It was really cool to see early technology still being used to keep our muzzle loading traditions alive. A contemporary longrifle or half-stock rifle built with a gain twist rifled barrel cut on an antique bench would be a neat piece to add to any muzzleloader’s collection. Feel free to tell my wife. Our 10th wedding anniversary is coming up after all, and I think steel would stand in just fine for the traditional “tin” gift. The hall was also filled with beautiful artwork from David Wright, images of members, and pieces from the NMLRA’s rich history, and that was just the entryway.
Once inside the hall, we showed our NMLRA membership cards, paid the small entry fee, and started checking things out. While several of the exhibitors that had originally been scheduled to have tables were not able to make it, there was plenty to see and many great people to meet. Right away Brian spotted a hunting bag with game hangers and hide panel at Donald Anthony’s Thru the Centuries Traders table. He knew he’d have to take a serious look at it, but we wanted to see more before we started spending money. Nearby, Randy Grunkemeyer from R.G. Gunsmithing had a cool display of custom muzzle loaders, including some fascinating over/under small bore combination guns.
Proud author Bob Woodfill and his excellent book on Hawken rifles.
Historic American Rifles
Among the displays in another row, I was particularly excited to see Robert Woodfill’s table promoting his new book The Hawken Rifle: Its Evolution from 1822-1870. I had ordered his book right when it came out and was happy to tell him how much I enjoyed it and that I could tell a lot of hard work had gone into it. Nearby was a beautiful display of powder horns.
Talking with Wayne Estes about his display and examining the rifle inspired by the historic Running Deer rifle that sold for $161,000 in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 2021 Premier Firearms Auction.
In the rear rows, we both enjoyed Wayne Estes’ display of rifles and talking to him about them, including his rifles by Mike Brooks from Iowa as well as a beautiful rifle inspired by the Running Deer rifle that had recently passed through RIAC.
Getting to meet Wayne in person and see a small part of his collection was a fantastic opportunity. Next to his table was Jerry Scales’ display. His work was beautiful. If Brian or I had deeper pockets, there would have been multiple items from his display happily coming home with us, especially one or two of his cased pistol sets.
The display promoting Jeffrey Jaeger’s book Indiana Gunmakers and Their Muzzle-Loading Rifles, 1778-1900 was really cool. He had more original antique rifles than anyone else at the show and the fact that they were from the show’s home state was particularly interesting. I had not seen very many Indiana rifles before, and an elaborate rifle with a relief carved rattlesnake cheek piece was an impressive sight.
He explained that he believed the rifle was built to commemorate the American Revolution given the prominent use of the rattlesnake as a symbol for the budding country in the late colonial and early national periods. Jeffrey’s other rifles were also compelling, each one with something different to see. One had unusual double length ramrod ferrules that were an interesting touch. Because Indiana was a bit of a middle ground for many headed west, the state’s rifles exhibited a lot of diversity.
Black Powder Shooting Range
We decided to head outside for some fresh air and to check out the ranges before the Midwest summer heat became too oppressive. Not long after walking outside, we heard the distinctive report of a muzzle loading rifle followed by a noticeable delay and then the sweet “ding” of a shot hitting a far-flung steel target. I turned to Brian and said something to the effect of, “Someone is clearly doing some serious long range target work. We have to go see what they are shooting.”
We made our way across the road and down the firing line until we found the shooters. There was a group of guys with various muzzle loading rifles shooting at targets hundreds of yards away from the firing line. We had travelled to Friendship to see traditional American longrifles, but witnessing the shooting skills of these marksmen was certainly impressive. They were using much more modern muzzle loaders complete with high power scopes and shooting at targets much further than I would ever imagine even attempting with my favorite rifle. As was everyone we met, these gentlemen were very friendly and even invited us to try their rifles out.
We walked down the firing lines checking out the various ranges and wishing we hadn’t left our muzzleloaders at home despite the heat and humidity. We won’t make that mistake next time, for sure. I was particularly interested in seeing the NLMRA’s Primitive Range, so we headed back across the road to find it. On our way, we met fellow Illinoisan Daniel Vogt hard at work, in French & Indian War era attire, preparing deer skins and explaining the traditional processes he was using as well as other methods he has used. As a deer hunter and 18th century living history enthusiast, Brian was particularly interested, and we also figured out we will likely run into him at the Galesburg Heritage Days next month as part of the fur trade rendezvous.
After checking out the Primitive Range (again wishing I had at least brought along one of my pistols) and the log cabins and block houses at the Living History area, we headed back inside. Brian quickly saw that only one of the bags he had been eyeing was left and sealed the deal at Thru the Centuries Traders and also learned that he and Donald had shared Scottish ancestry and passions for Scottish history. I picked out a nice knife with a bone handle and some small items for my shooting pouch.
Before we said farewell, we made the rounds again and ogled plenty of nice muzzleloaders another time, including the rifles being raffled off to support the NMLRA’s programs (we both bought tickets), and also talked with the staff about the plans for next year’s show which they plan to be bigger and better.
September 2021 Muzzle Loading Events
The weekend of the 11th and 12th is certainly going to be a noteworthy weekend in muzzle loading history. One of the reasons I wanted to attend the show was to introduce myself to existing and potential clients and to promote Rock Island Auction Company’s upcoming Premier Auction on September 10th through September 12th. This sale is absolutely packed with muzzle loaders. Literally hundreds of muzzle loaders across various categories fill this auction.
The timing couldn’t have been any better. The catalog went online as we were traveling to the show, and we were pleasantly surprised how many people recognized our tell-tale Rock Island Auction Company polos. Numerous attendees and exhibiters told us they had already started looking at the online catalog and how much they enjoyed the selection offered in our May Premier Firearms Auction. I’ll be putting out an article on some of my favorite muzzle loaders from the auction soon, but definitely check out the catalog if you haven’t already.
A highlight of Rock Island Auction Company’s September Premier Firearms, an American smoothbore flintlock attributed to Hans Jacob Honaker of Virginia with sideplate inscribed for A. Moode on Sept. 15, 1789.
While we are auctioning off an incredible array of muzzle loaders in Rock Island that weekend, the NMLRA’s grounds will be absolutely packed for the start of the 10 day annual championship shoots across multiple categories on their fifteen ranges. In addition to the excitement at the firing line, they will also have vendors, lectures, and plenty of comradery to go around. While we will be too busy helping sell hundreds of classic muzzle loaders this September and can’t make it back down for the national championships, you can be certain that Brian and I will be back down to Friendship soon with our muzzle loaders in tow.
If you’d like to learn more about the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association and all that they do to support our muzzle loading heritage and shooting sports, please visit their website and sign up to be a member. In addition to supporting a great organization run by some of the friendliest and most dedicated people around, you’ll also get a subscription for their magazine, Muzzle Blasts. The magazine alone is more than worth the cost of joining, and it also gives you range access at the NMLRA’s Walter Cline Range and other benefits.