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Getting a Bang Out of His Work

Story by Staff Writer Art Carey: Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper

Born to build, Chester County man is go-to guy for replica cannons.

When Jeff Stafford was 8, he was infatuated with "things that go bang."

One day, in his father's auto body shop, he fashioned a toy cannon from a small piece of pipe and some scrap aluminum. "I used it to shoot firecrackers," he recalls with a chuckle.

Someday, the young Stafford resolved, he'd make a real cannon.

He did it, and then some.

Atop a woodsy slope in Embreeville, Chester County, he has built or restored more than 150 cannons and gun carriages since the creation of his company in 1986.

Jeff Stafford at ShopSo peerless is the quality of his work that he has earned a national reputation as the go-to guy for aficionados of Civil War-era heavy artillery.

His customers are private collectors, forts, museums, national parks service, shooters and reenactors. For the National Park Service he has built several carriages, including two 14,800-pound coast artillery pieces on the James River in Virginia.

"I build them exactly the way there were made," says Stafford, 53, a tall, sturdy man with powerful hands.

The other day, Stafford was in the final stages of assembling a three-inch ordnance rifle- a cannon to you and me-that will be installed this summer at the Cyclorama Gallery at the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War at Gettysburg National Military Park.

It's a replica of his favorite model, manufactured in the early 1860s by Phoenix Iron Co. in Phoenixville Accurate in every detail, the cannon will be fully operational, capable of propelling a nine-inch 11-pound, bullet-shaped projectile two miles.

"This is where the body shop background times in," Stafford said,  pointing out features of the carriage -- the gorgeously crafted chassis of kiln-dried white oak, painted the correct shade of olive drab, that will bear the barrel. "There are lots of parts and pieces, and they all have to be perfect."

The name of his business is Stafford Wheel & Carriage. His specialty is gun carriages and the 210-pound wooden wheels on which they roll.  But he's capable of fabricating a complete cannon in dozens of different styles, ranging in price from $18,000 to $35,000. He works from arsenal specifications, copies of the original plans, and drawings retrieved from the National Archives.

3-Inch Ordanace RifleHis work is beautiful, says Sue Boardman, coordinator for the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War and a historical consultant on the diorama at the Cyclorama.  "In the reenactment community, he's highly respected because of the historical quality and accuracy of the pieces he makes."

While Stafford's cannons are art objects, they are also functional weapons. Three or four times a year, he participates in competitions. His rifled cannons can hit a four inch-square target repeatedly from 200 years. "I’m more accurate with a cannon," Stafford says, "than I am with a deer rifle with a scope."

Jeff StaffordHe also makes wagon wheels and reproduction Civil War ammunition boxes with dovetail joints and copper tops. The Navy commissioned him to build two Civil War coffee wagons.

Paul Barnett, president of South Bend Replicas Inc., also makes antique artillery reproductions for ship and fort restorations for ship and fort restorations. Stafford "is very proud of his work," he says, "and justifiable so."

Were the New Yorker writer John McPhee to meet Stafford, he might describe him as "a man of maximum practical application."

Stafford, who struggled in high school and professes to be lousy with words, notes there's a term for what he dos. "I'm a artificer," he says "I know how to make stuff."

He bought his first car at age 11, then fixed it up and sold it. At 15, before he could drive, he built a dune buggy. With no training in carpentry, plumbing or electricity, he built his log home, as well as his shop and garage.

"Before I built my house, I'd never built a bird house," he says.  A licensed pilot, he taught himself how to restore an airplane

Nearly as intriguing as his cannons and carriages are the machines he uses to make them. Some date from the 19th century. Others he designed and built himself.  They are examples of Stafford’s mechanical genius, his versatile engineer's imagination and his protean gift for thinking in three dimensions.

"I'm not really a genius, "he protests.”It's just common sense."

His ancestors fought on both sides of the Civil War. He became fascinated with that conflict as a boy. In the early 1960s, his parents took him to 100th-anniversary reenactments up and down the East Coast. On his own, he continued to study and read.

Cars and drag-racing monopolized his attention during his teens and 20s. Then, in 1986, while returning from a trip to Pittsburgh with his wife and son, Stafford stopped at Gettysburg.

"I started looking at cannons, and it rekindled my interest," he recalls. "I wanted one and didn't know where to get one. So I thought, I'll make my own."

It took him a year and a half. In 1988, on the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, he towed his creation -- a three-inch ordnance rifle -- to the battlefield for a reenactment.

Jeff"It makes a huge roar," he says. "People couldn't ignore it. ... One thing led to another, and I was in the cannon building business."

To renew his sense of wonder, he regularly revisits Gettysburg, a place he calls magical.

"I sit by myself and just imagine what it was like, the thunder of the gunfire, the smell of black powder," he says. "It's important to know what happened there, but people today ... don't take the time. They do the bus tour and that's it."

The cannon Stafford was finishing the other day -- the one headed to the Cyclorama -- is a donation, "kind of my contribution to America,” he says.

"They need one at Gettysburg and now's my chance. I know where it's going to be forever."


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Story by Staff Writer Art Carey: Philadelphia Inquirer.
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