On the eve of the great American muzzleloading revival of the early 1960s, before Italy had emerged to dominate the traditional muzzleloader market, a handful of American gunmakers toiled away on designs.
Some, such as Royal Southgate and Hacker Martin, became famous in their sooty sphere; some did not. One of these unheralded craftsmen, Bob Tingle of Shelbyville, Ind., lays claim to several firsts, including the first 20th-century American percussion target pistol, the first American percussion arm using coil springs, and the first American percussion pistol featuring a frame-mounted firing pin. But Tingle’s most ambitious achievement was the mighty Tingle .44 Blackpowder Magnum Revolver.
Never heard of it? Welcome to the club.
Predating Ruger’s Old Army .44 by more than a decade, the Tingle .44 Blackpowder Magnum Revolver is all but forgotten today. Only 25 of these massive single-action revolvers were built. What is most odd about them, though, is not that so few were built, but that they were built at all.
An Unpredictable Genius
Born Sept. 18, 1925, in Decatur County, Ind., Robert G. Tingle was a cranky World War II veteran who set up an all-purpose blacksmith and welding shop just outside the smallish town of Shelbyville in east central Indiana. According to Jim Guy, Tingle’s sole full-time paid worker, Tingle was an unpredictable eccentric with a knack for shaping metal.
“Bob was a mechanical genius,” Guy said, “and he could out-cuss anyone I ever met. When he got in a bad mood, which was fairly often, he’d lock himself in his shop and yell at anybody who tried to get in. I never really figured him out.”
In 1959, Tingle decided to put his talents to use manufacturing black-powder guns. According to Erwin Fagel, one of his shooting buddies, it seemed the thing to do at the time.
“Bob and I were shooting black powder in the early 50s, long before it became popular,” Erwin said. “We’d go out to Brady Meltzer’s farm and shoot all day long. We shot original guns because they didn’t make replicas back then. Pretty soon, Bob decided he could probably make a decent gun himself. And he could. He could make anything.”
Machined mostly from scrap metal and surplus barrels acquired by sorting patiently through scrap piles, Tingle’s first gun debuted in late 1959 as the Tingle Blackpowder Magnum, a single-shot .40-caliber percussion pistol with a center-mounted hammer. John Amber, editor of Gun Digest, wrote admiringly of Tingle’s pistol, and it was a big hit at the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association’s annual shoot the next year. Tingle was inspired to enter the gun business full-time as the Tingle Manufacturing Co.
The Next Step
What next? A revolver, of course. It would be called the Tingle .44 Blackpowder Magnum Revolver, and production of the resulting handgun began with a 25-unit test run. The enormous six-shooter was the first American percussion revolver to be manufactured in almost a century.
As it happened, the first run of 25 was destined to be the last. According to Fagel, Tingle decided that building them was too labor-intensive to be practical, and one day he simply stopped the project and never resumed it.
If you get a chance to examine a Tingle .44 Blackpowder Magnum Revolver — such as the one in the NMLRA Museum in Friendship, Ind., for example — your first reaction will probably be an awed, murmured expletive.
The gun is a strikingly eclectic mixture of features. If a Colt Walker and an 1858 Remington sneaked out of their holsters and had children, this is what the offspring would look like.
Unloaded, it weighs almost 4 3/4 pounds. Lacking investment casting or heavy forging equipment, Tingle resorted to a three-layer laminated steel frame that is pinned and bolted together. Silver-soldered to the frame are two bulky recoil shields. The topstrap is joined to the rear of the frame with a 3/16-inch slotted machine bolt. The 7-inch octagonal barrel, a Winchester cut-down, is threaded into the frame for a full inch, prefiguring the Ruger Super Redhawk by a quarter-century. The gun is topped with a ventilated rib bearing the simple, hand-stamped attribution: “TINGLE MFG. CO. SHELBYVILLE IND. U.S.A.”
The hammer nose is flat, and the rebounding firing pin is frame-mounted. A blade front sight is slotted lengthwise into the barrel rib, and the rear sight is a simple U-notched blade mortised into the frame. The hammer and loading lever are case-hardened, and the rest of the gun is rather casually finished in a thin blue-black.
The big Tingle .44 revolver won’t win a beauty contest, but it shoots like a barn on fire. Each chamber can accommodate 60 grains of FFG black powder, which is just about redline for a revolver. But when loaded with a modest charge of 25 grains of triple-F and a 124-grain .435-inch roundball, the Tingle will shoot 3-inch groups at 25 yards off sandbags. Firing for groups isn’t particularly challenging; the massive, brooding handgun sits squarely in your hand with all the solidity of a pool table in a basement. The trigger pull is fairly light and crisp at about 3 pounds.
As you fire the gun, you’re amazed at what can be accomplished with a surplus milling machine, a set of hand files, a drill press and raw talent. Granted, some of the gun’s eccentricities would make Sam Colt come roaring out of his grave. The edges of the frame are sharp enough to peel the hide off an unwary knuckle. The chamber mouths mike at anywhere from .427-inch and .431-inch. The grips are a bland species of cast-off walnut.
Still, the darn thing shoots well.
End of the Magnum
Abandoning the concept of his mammoth .44 revolver after the first run of 25, Tingle concentrated on building his single-shot .40-caliber target pistol, a single-barrel mules-ear, or “sideslapper,” shotgun, and a side-hammer .45 percussion rifle with a concave cheekpiece.
Many of Tingle’s early guns are marked “Tingle Blackpowder Magnum.” One day in 1965, however, Tingle found a letter in his mailbox. It was from Smith & Wesson, and it politely informed Tingle that Magnum was an S&W trademark dating back to 1935.
Not wanting to tangle with a 900-pound gorilla, Tingle cease-and-desisted. The single-shot target pistol became the Model of 1960, the .45 percussion rifle the Model of 1962 and the mule’s-ear shotgun the Model of 1965.
Of these, the most successful was the 40-caliber single-shot Model of 1960. Unpatented, it likely inspired Thompson-Center’s later Scout pistol and carbine. Examples of the Model of 1960 occasionally appear on firearms auction Web sites, where they rarely fail to attract a winning bid.
The unpredictable Tingle died unpredictably Jan. 26, 1978, during a whiteout Hoosiers still call “The Big Blizzard.” Leaving his house in the early morning, he slogged through thigh-deep snowdrifts to his shop at Shelbyville’s Smithland Pike. Halfway there, he sat on a tree stump to catch his breath and died of a crushing heart attack at 52. The Tingle Manufacturing Co. died there with him in the swirling, indifferent snow.
In the two-and-a-half decades since Tingle’s death, time has provided perspective on his work. Some of it is ungainly and rough around the edges. But still, you somehow get the impression that Tingle’s guns will still be banging away when other contemporary muzzleloaders have rotted into clumps of red rust.
As for Tingle, his fame endures only among the relatively few folks who have owned or read about his firearms, the most intriguing of which was the mighty Tingle .44 Blackpowder Magnum Revolver.