James Rada, Jr.
Rifle use has been known to cause hearing damage, but Thomas Worthington’s Armstrong rifle once helped restore Worthington’s son’s hearing.
Worthington, who lives in Sabillasville, was born and raised in Annapolis. His family lived with his grandparents, because a month after Worthington was born, in September 1929, the stock market crashed, heralding the start of The Great Depression.
“We were in bad shape financially, so we all lived together,” Worthington said.
As his family struggled to make ends meet, Worthington’s world was the streets of Annapolis.
His father enjoyed reading outdoor magazines. Once, when Worthington was looking for something to do, he found one of the magazines. The cover showed a man fishing in a beautiful mountain stream.
“I’d never seen anything like it before,” Worthington said. “It was just gorgeous. I’d never seen a mountain before then because I had never been out of Annapolis.”
Worthington decided that he wanted to learn to fly fish like the man in the picture. He asked his father to help him. His father didn’t know how, but he did find a man who was a customer of his insurance business. The man agreed to have the eight-year-old Worthington come to his house twice a month on a Saturday morning. Worthington began to learn to tie flies, cast, and fish.
Once Worthington had learned the skills, the man took him fishing in Frederick County.
“We rode in a Model A,” recalled Worthington. “It took us about four hours. There were no superhighways or anything like that. We rattled along at 35 miles per hour, and usually, there’d be a flat somewhere along the line.”
They went to a spot on Big Hunting Creek at the base of McAfee Falls. They waded into the water, and Worthington started trying to cast where his instructor told him to. The problem was that he kept pulling the fly back before it hit the water. The instructor told him to let the fly land.
“No sooner did the fly hit the water, then the brook trout hit the fly,” said Worthington.
He remembers that his first fish was so red that he thought it was bleeding, but he learned that it meant the trout was a spawning male.
The trip to Frederick County began an annual trip that Worthington would make with the man.
Back in Annapolis, he soon discovered another passion.
Often, he would run errands for people to make a little extra money. Two of the men who he ran errands for were Confederate Civil War Veterans. He would do chores for them and listen to their stories.
At some point, said Worthington, the Veterans “decided to teach me to shoot a musket, in case they had trouble with the Yankees again.”
So they pulled out their old weapons and began instructing the young boy on how to care for them, load them, and fire them. Not that they could fire the weapons in the city, though. For that part of the instruction, the Veterans and Worthington traveled to a farm owned by Worthington’s uncle.
“I was too small to shoot, really,” said Worthington. “I had to stand on a kitchen chair to load the musket.”
Using a reduced charge, the young boy was allowed to fire at a target. He discovered that not only was he good at shooting, but he also loved it. On his fishing trip, he told his instructor about the thrill of shooting a rifle.
Instead of going to Hunting Creek that year, they went to visit the instructor’s friend, who lived in Emmitsburg. They fished on the man’s property. When the man learned of Worthington’s interest in shooting, he told the boy that he thought he had an old muzzleloader in his attic that he would be willing to sell him.
Worthington agreed, and he returned to Annapolis on a mission. He spent the next year running more errands and saving his nickels and dimes. By the time the next year rolled around, he had saved $24.00.
After fishing up in Emmitsburg, the man brought out not one, but two old rifles. One was a flintlock, and the other used a percussion cap. They were covered with soot and years of coal dust. The man offered to sell the percussion cap rifle for $10.00 and the flintlock for $8.00. Worthington agreed and had purchased his first rifles at ten years old.
“They were so long, we couldn’t fit them in the Model A,” Worthington said. “We had to put some sacking on them and put them in the rumble seat.”
When they got back to Annapolis, Worthington and his fishing instructor began cleaning the rifles, exposing the wood curves and metal inlays. They also discovered that the barrels had been filled with beef tallow to keep them from rusting. They held the rifles with the barrels pointed down over a hot stove so that the tallow melted and drained out, leaving the barrels clean and rust free.
In examining the rifles, they determined that Emmitsburg gunsmith John Armstrong made the flintlock. Melchior Fordney, a Lancaster gunsmith, had made the percussion cap rifle.
Worthington held onto his treasures. He never hunted with them, but he did shoot them in competitions. When he was in his late twenties and married with two children, one of his sons had a traumatic hearing loss. He was told that it could be treated, but it would cost $18,000, which was a huge sum in the mid-1950s. He wasn’t sure what he would do until the doctor’s medical partner, heard about Worthington’s rifles.
Worthington showed him the rifles and told him their story. The doctor offered him $4,500 for each one, on the condition that he never tell anyone who the doctor was or the farmer that sold him the rifles. Apparently, there was some bad blood between the families.
Worthington accepted the offer, and he never saw the rifles again. However, with half of the money for the operation raised, the bank was willing to loan the family the rest. The operation was a success, and Worthington’s son’s hearing was restored.
“I’ve always missed that Armstrong rifle, though,” expressed Worthington. “It was such a beauty.”
In fact, he missed it so much that he commissioned a copy to be made that he has hanging in his living room.
Thomas Worthington and his Armstrong rifle replica.