Nelson Lewis, rifle-maker of Troy, New York, was one of our well-known makers of muzzle-loading hunting rifles, single shot hunting rifles, double barrel rifles, double barreled rifles having the barrels superimposed, "combination" guns having a rifle barrel and a shot barrel side by side, as well as light weight, medium, and heavy weight target rifles of various calibres. I think it is undoubtedly true that Lewis made a greater number of rifles than any of our other noted rifle makers, with the exception of William Billinghurst. According to Mr. Fred L. Mills of Deerfield, Massachusetts, Nelson Lewis was born in 1811 near Speigletown, New York, a few miles north of Troy. As a young man he followed market hunting - then a legitimate business and highly remunerative if a man was a good hunter and a good shot; and Lewis possessed both of these qualifications.
The business of hunting took him to the shop of J.M. Caswell, in Lansingburg, New York, who was a skillful gunsmith and made both rifles and smoothbore arms for the Militia that was then being organized around Troy and the members of which had to furnish their own arms. Lewis, being fond of guns and of a mechanical type of mind, decided to quit market hunting and learn the gun-making business, apprenticed himself to Caswell and did the stocking for him for a year or so. He was naturally a keen observer and in that way learned a lot about making rifles and guns during his apprenticeship, so that in 1843 he commenced business for himself at a shop on the corner of Congress and Church Streets, Troy, New York, where he made rifles, guns and pistols for more than 40 years.
During the time that Lewis' shop was located here a number of empty powder kegs lined the sidewalk as seats for his customers and a wooden gun 12 feet long hung from iron brackets over the sidewalk as his only sign. The front part of the building was used as a store where guns, rifles, ammunition, etc., were displayed, and the back part was equipped with tools and the few machines of those days as the shop in which Lewis made his rifles and other guns, made repairs, etc. On the wall back of the counters were displayed record targets and groups that were shot by Lewis in matches, or in testing his rifles, or by members of the National Rifle Club of which Lewis was a member.
Lewis, like all the old-time gun makers, has a surprisingly small number of machines in his shop as the major part of the work in making a gun or rifle was done by hand. A boring machine for smoothing or reaming the bore of the barrels and a "rifling bench" with "rifling guide" were practically all the machines found in these old rifle-makers shops on those times. Lewis bought his barrel blanks from E. Remington & Son, using the cast steel for rifle barrels which he smooth-reamed inside, rifled, finished, fitted the lock and stocked in an excellent manner.
Lewis always cut his rifle barrels with a gain twist and absolutely refused to accept an order for a rifle to be made with a uniform twist. His "standard" type of rifling was equal width of grooves and lands and both cut with square corners.
I have examined several Lewis rifles that were rifled with quite wide grooves and narrow lands, but these are exceptions - not his regular standard rifling. If the rifle was a target gun with false muzzle, Lewis ordered the blank to be sent from the Remington factory with the pins fitted before it was sent to him and thus, in his case, the nice snug fitting pins that hold the false muzzle in place were fitted by E. Remington & Sons - not by Lewis. Lewis did not even have a lathe in his shop, but all such work as making bullet swages, bullet starters, threading the patent breech, and end of barrel was done by "Bill" Hart in his machine shop which was near Lewis' shop.
The fine engraving that is seen on Lewis rifles was done by John Wolfe, a German, who worked for Lewis and was his only employee except for his son Kilby. The majority of the stocking was done by Kilby, and all this very fine fitting of the stock to the break-off, letting in the lock, trigger guard, patch-box and all ornamental inlays were his work - all done with the chisel or carving tool by hand. Most of the Lewis' rifles are cut with 6 grooves and lands but occasionally we find one with 8. During the 1870's, Lewis worked considerably in developing "long range" rifles for target work at ranges over 100 rods - 550 yards - in his endeavors to provide rifles that would give better accuracy than the Sharps and Ballard breech-loading, single shot rifles that were then so popular. However, we can find no record that he ever produced a rifle that was accurate at 800, 900 and 1000 yards as the Sharps and Ballard long range rifles.
Lewis was very particular in the rifling and accurately fitting the bullet to the bore of his rifles, and never let a rifle go out of his shop until he, himself, had developed an accurate load for it by range tests. If he could not make the rifle shoot accurately, he "worked it over," or even partly re-rifled it and in this way made it shoot as accurately as desired. If this could not be done, he made a new barrel that was right and never let an inferior shooting rifle go out of his shop.
Mr. Floyd R. Butler, of Raceville, New York, has a larger number of fine N. Lewis target rifles, hunting and target rifles, double barreled rifles and "combination" rifles and shotgun, of various calibers, than any other person with whom I am acquainted. In the tests that he and I have made with these rifle we found them to be exceptionally accurate at ranges including 40 rods. The Lewis best grade, heavy target rifles are regarded as being as accurate as those made by N.S. Brockway, Horace Warner, Wm. Billinghurst, or any of the other makers of super-accurate muzzle-loading rifles. Illustration showing several types of rifles made by N. Lewis, as well as groups shot with these at various ranges are given herein.
A long search in Troy and vicinity failed to locate any photograph, or picture, of Nelson Lewis; I was unable to find any person who had ever seen a picture of him and we do not believe there is one in existence.Source, as of May, 2005 is an old xerox from a large format book.