Gunsmith makes history haunt MDC Lake City Shooting Range

KANSAS CITY Mo -- When Richard Dale pulls the trigger at the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Lake City Shooting Range, sparks and black smoke go along with the boom. So does the figured maple wood and finely-crafted steel and brass parts that his hands shape and polish. Dale builds his own flintlock shotguns and is a dead-eye target buster with them.

“I was with a friend and he had his dad’s muzzle loader,” Dale said. “As soon as I saw it I was struck and have been ever since, and that was in 1963.”

Dale built his first black power gun in 1968. Since then, he’s built dozens of muzzle-loading pistols, rifles and shotguns. At first, he built guns that use percussion caps to ignite the black-powder charge.

“Then I got into flintlocks and now I hardly shoot anything else,” said Dale, of Napoleon, Mo.

Flintlock rifles use a hammer with a piece of flint that strikes a metal part called a frizzen, creating a spark. The spark ignites gunpowder in a small pan on the lock, or firing mechanism, and that ignites the gunpowder in the barrel seat. That’s what propels the bullets used in rifles or the small shot used in shotguns.

America’s founding citizens used flintlock guns to win the Revolutionary War in colonial times. Flintlocks came West as Missouri was first settled. Guns using percussion caps became more popular than flintlocks in the mid-1800s. But Dale has a fondness for the earlier times.

“I build everything except the lock and barrel,” Dale said. “If I want a certain style of lock or a part and I can’t buy it, then I’ll build it.”

He builds some guns that are fancy and others patterned after simple styles used by fur trappers and explorers in the 1700s and early 1800s. Either way, his firearms are unique. The highly-figured maple, cherry or walnut wood that he carves into gunstocks are themselves works of art.

“I prefer birdseye maple,” Dale said.

His creations sell for four-figure prices. But he doesn’t hesitate to take his flintlocks afield and shoot them. Dale hunts with his muzzleloaders. Plus he appears at frontier re-enactments and black-powder shooting matches. He’s also a regular shooter and a volunteer at the skeet range at Lake City, which is near Independence. For instance, he may break out his double-barrel smoothbore flintlock.

“Shooting skeet with a black-powder gun, I don’t feel I’m at any disadvantage against a modern gun,” Dale said, “except sometimes the smoke will block my vision for firing the second barrel.”

Shooters have a mistaken impression that there’s a long delay between the trigger pull and the firing of a flintlock gun, he said. But when the flintlock is adjusted and handled properly, the shot is almost instantaneous. Dale prefers a 20-gauge, but he’s built 12- and 10-guage shotguns, too.

Sometimes he’ll add inlays to guns, as frontier shooters often did. He’s used brass, silver, pewter and a gold tooth that was melted down. He modeled one after a gun built in 1806 that had inlays representing an eclipse of the sun and the moon that year.

“Ninety-nine percent of my work is done by hand with a file and chisel,” Dale said.

His guns are generally historically accurate, though he will vary designs at times to suit his tastes. But he greatly admires those who first used black-powder guns to feed families and defend homes.

“That was serious stuff back then,” Dale said. “For me, they’re just what I like to shoot.”