The First Truly American Firearm: The Kentucky Rifle

Courtesy Rock Island Auctions

Rock Island Auctions‘ Seth Isaacson writes:

In the Pennsylvania countryside in the early 18th century, a uniquely American firearm was born that helped thirteen separate colonies defeat the greatest empire on Earth, form one nation, and span a continent. It is fitting that this new weapon was a conglomerate of ideas and built initially by German immigrants in the north and famously used by Anglo woodsmen in the south who became symbols of American ingenuity, self-sufficiency, and determination. In the years following the Revolutionary War until the wide spread adoption of the percussion system, the long rifle reached its pinnacle in small shops in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Many are outstanding testaments to their skill and true pieces of Americana.

It is in this period that they earned their famous nickname from the men who famously used them: the long hunters who explored the Virginia backcountry known as Kentucky. Though they are more properly known as American long rifles, prior to the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson’s astounding victory over a superior force of British soldiers at New Orleans in 1815 solidified their nickname in our national memory. The song “The Hunters of Kentucky” about the battle contained the famous lines: “But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles, For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles.”

Those of you who attended or followed the last RIAC Premiere Auction undoubtedly noticed the wide array of beautiful early American rifles. Many of these rifles came from the extensive Piedmont Collection. Our December Premiere contains another installment from this collection as well as rifles from other collectors. Many of these rifles were built by some of the most talented American artisans of the early republic. Their names are immediately recognizable by those who collect these pieces of art: John Armstrong, Jacob Dickert, Simon Lauck, John Moll, John Noll, John Rupp, George Schreyer, Frederick and Jacob Sell, Peter White, and many more. Each of these pieces is truly a masterpiece and several contain incredibly rare attributes.

(courtesy Rock Island Auctions)

The Kentucky’s roots came from two other firearms in the early 18th century: the shorter, larger caliber German Jaeger rifles brought from the Old World to the New by German immigrants and the long smoothbore fowling pieces and trade guns manufactured primarily in England and Western Europe and imported in large numbers for the fur trade. Why exactly these two forms were married has continually been debated. What is clear is that fowling pieces and muskets were not well suited for taking game at considerable distances, and their larger bores meant they used a greater amount of lead and powder, which were more destructive to pelts and meat. This also meant that a hunter, be they Native or Euro-American, had to carry more weight in ammunition and had to get closer to their targets.

The Kentucky not only improved on those issues, but its long, rifled barrel also offered other advantages: the extended barrel combined with blade and notch sights provided a long sighting plane which allowed hunters to more fully utilize their rifle’s potential accuracy and also had the added benefit of providing more time for the slow burning black powder to combust and thus maximized power even while firing smaller, lighter balls. An experienced rifleman could hit a man or deer sized target reliably at 200 yards or more.

By the time unrest was growing in the colonies in the latter part of the 18th century, gunsmiths were producing a firearm that was found nowhere else in the world. Once the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, the American woodsman and his long rifle rose to the challenge. Many fought in local militias, but the Continental Congress also approved ten rifle units during the war including Daniel Morgan’s famous riflemen. They harassed British soldiers and targeted officers from outside effective musket range to remove key leaders from the battlefield and damage enemy morale. Morgan’s men later defeated the infamous Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of the Cowpens.

In 1780, the “over the mountain men bested a Loyalist militia armed with smoothbore muskets by picking them off at range at the Battle of Kings Mountain and turned the tide of the southern campaign against Lord Cornwallis. George Rogers Clark led a group of Kentucky militia and seized the isolated settlements in Illinois justifying the American’s claim to the vast swath of territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. At this stage, long rifles were still fairly plain and typically had wooden patch boxes, but his younger brother William carried a Golden Age rifle during his famous exploration of the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery. Thus, while the majority of American soldiers during the Revolution were armed with smoothbore long arms, small groups of riflemen used their advanced weapons and prowess to make considerable contributions to the cause.

Courtesy Rock Island Auctions

 

Among the wide array of beautiful long rifles in our upcoming auction is a fine, silver inlaid rifle built by Simon Lauck. He and his brother Peter both fought with Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps and were gunsmiths in Winchester, Virginia after the war. It is a classic example of a rifle built during the Kentucky rifle’s Golden Age. Rifles from this era are favored by collectors due to the unique nature of each rifle and the variety of regional variations. Aside from a few makers who preferred to focus on perfecting the nuances of their designs like John Armstrong, most used many variations of styles taught to them while apprenticed to a master. They in turn passed on their own variations on to the next generation of apprentices. This led to what we now think of as the “schools” based roughly in Lehigh Valley, Lancaster, York, Lebanon, Chambersburg, and may other locales based on shared attributes and lineages.

Gunmakers were influenced by one another especially in specific areas but also adapted art forms from Europe. The carving and patch boxes, for instance, follow European trends in terms of rococo and baroque scrolls. Note the incredible variety in patch box designs on these rifles and all the little details in carving, inlays, and little components. While there were tremendous variations, also note the consistencies such as the fixed blade and notch sights and the beautiful, full length, curly maple stocks.

One area of variation among individual rifles is the variety of inlays. Many included patriotic motifs such as eagles and some contain important, but largely long forgotten, revolutionary era symbols. Such is the case with the rare rattlesnake designs on the Jacob Dickert and George Schreyer rifles. Like the long rifle itself, the use of the rattlesnake as a symbol of the American ethos well pre-dates the idea of a separate American nation. In fact, one of the first known uses of the symbol was in Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” cartoon from 1754 calling upon the colonies to unite, with the support of Great Britain, to defeat the French in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), a conflict started in part by a young British officer by the name of George Washington. Franklin’s cartoon came to represent the need for unity among the colonies in the American Revolution as well.

Courtesy Rock Island Auctions

Rattlesnakes are only found in the Americas and were numerous in many parts of the colonies. Though they do not attack unprovoked, rattlesnakes defend themselves with deadly force when they need to defend themselves. This was the image the Founding Fathers wanted to present to the world in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Americans were not breaking from England needlessly; they were defending themselves against attacks on their lives and freedoms. Rattlesnakes also had another attribute that 18th century Americans knew well. As “American Guesser” wrote in 1775:

‘Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.”

Though this symbol was very important in the colonial era and for the young American republic, very few rifles have been found that incorporate the design, especially as boldly as these two examples by Dickert and Schreyer. The snake patch box designs of course relate to the Gadsden Flag and First Navy Jack used during the war, and Dickert’s is also similar to the design utilized on early Virginia Manufactory rifles.

Courtesy Rock Island Auctions

The Frederick Sell rifle is another good example of the paradox of both unity in overall design through the use of consistent motifs and basic configurations and yet the individuality of the combination of carving and engraving on each rifle. Sell was considered by influential Kentucky rifle scholar Joe Kindig, Jr. as “one of the great masters of Kentucky rifle making” and was part of one of the most influential gunsmithing families during the Golden Age. His greatness comes from the fact that he developed his tremendous skill set while working underneath at least three earlier accomplished masters: George Eister, John Lechner, and Adam Ernst. His presumed father, Jacob Sell, was among the most talented makers of the prior generation, and Frederick’s brother who was also named Jacob (often referred to as Jacob the Younger) was also a gifted maker in his own right.  Sell adopted the best aspects of the designs of each of the men under whom he worked. Thus, he created his own style and his own variations while keeping his designs tied to the past and reflected the American ideal of balancing community with individualism.

Courtesy Rock Island Auctions

Peter White is also a great example of someone that was part of a family line of gunmakers that pre-dates the United States and continued well after our independence was secured by victory in the War of 1812. He is the son of either Nicholas or John White who were both gunsmiths during the fight for independence, and at least one of his sons continued to build rifles after his death in 1834. One of the interesting aspects of White’s rifle is that the lock appears to have been built by him. Most gunmakers used locks imported from Europe or produced by dedicated lockmakers in the cities. This rifle is also noticeably slender relative to others of the style and era.

By the time of White’s death, the long rifle and the flintlock system had peaked and were beginning to be replaced by shorter, larger bore rifles. The percussion system and the spread of industry also helped shift firearms production away from individually built masterpieces. The Hawken brothers’ “Plains” or “Mountain” rifle style relatively quickly became the preferred design as the frontier pushed ever further past the Mississippi. Nonetheless, the long rifle persisted, and its legacy continued to influence American firearms for generations. In fact, long rifles have been in essentially continuous production by American gunmakers from the early 18th century into the present day. One look at the Contemporary Long Rifle Association is all it takes to attest the fact that the art of building the first truly American firearm by hand is still alive and will be for generations to come.

Courtesy Rock Island Auctions

This discussion has hardly scratched the surface of all of the beautiful rifles in our upcoming auction. For more information see AmericanLongrifles.orgKentuckyRifleAssociation.orgKentuckyRifleFoundation.org, or the many detailed books including Joe Kindig, Jr.’s classic Thoughts on The Kentucky Rifle in It’s Golden Age and Merrill Lindsay’s The Kentucky Rifle both of which contain pictures and discussions of several of the rifles in the upcoming auction. Do not miss your opportunity to see these rifles first hand and please join us for our Premiere Firearms Auction December 4th, 5th, and 6th.

comments

  1. avatar Gunr says:

    Wow! With a barrel that long, it could double as a fishing pole. Crappie anyone?
    Are the two Deeeeeeeeeeep grooves actually the rifling? I can imagine a lot of gas escaping around the slug.

    1. avatar Ray Ficara says:

      I’ve been a buckskinner since 1977. My current long rifle is of the TN school and a copy of a VERY early Caleb Brown. Plain iron furniture and browned barrel. The barrel is 44″ long and “swamped”. That means it starts 1 1/16″ at the breech tapers to parallel flats and flares out again to about 7/8″ at the muzzle. Though the barrel is 2″ longer and the gun is 8oz heavier than my previous Tennessee rifle it FEELS about a pound or more lighter as the balance is just perfect thanks to the swamping. The grooves are round but not concentric. They’re the old Sharon Rifle patter slightly assymetrical and very deep 0.18″ compare to the usual .1 or .12″ depth so they GRAB the patch tighter for a much better seal. The twist in 1 in 72″ for a .54 patched ball. The stock is lightly figure southern black walnut not the curly maple favored by the PA masters. Her name is Long Tall Sally.

    2. avatar jwm says:

      I believe that rifle was made for “belted”bullets. It was a thing back then. Put a lead belt on an otherwise round ball and then fit it precisely into the grooves for the belt. The bullets were molded that way.

      The minie ball concept was a little in the future and folks were trying all sorts of ways to get longer range accuracy from their rifles.

    3. avatar David Loeffler says:

      The ball was cast to fit the bore with studs or a band to fill those grooves. That kept windage (gas blowby) to a minimum.

      1. avatar Gunr says:

        Thank you gentlemen. That really is some of the worlds finest “home” gunsmithing.
        Just wondering how big their eyes would get, and what they would say if they were outside their cabin one day, and a dude drives up in decked out sports truck, gets out. and cuts a tree down with an M-16!

      2. avatar Geoff PR says:

        “The ball was cast to fit the bore with studs or a band to fill those grooves.”

        I’m familiar with a copper ‘belt’ on Iron or Steel artillery shells being called a ‘driving band’, was this where it originated?

  2. avatar Max says:

    Why can’t rifles be that amazing nowadays? Instead we have folks like Remington, Kel-Tec and Taurus. blech…

    1. avatar jwtaylor says:

      There are absolutely modern rifles of this quality being made today. But now, as it was back then, quality and craftsmanship are not cheap.
      Back then a man could afford one long gun, and it was more often than not a smoothbore, because guns were so much more expensive, comparitively, than they are now.

  3. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    And I want everyone to remember, there were no mills, and lathes were often foot-powered in this era. Most all of this work was done with hand tools on a bench. The inlays were all by hand, the barrel striking was all by hand, the fitting was all by hand. The springs, sears, triggers, etc were all made by hand, and stoned to fit & function.

    Go out into the pasture, collect up some horse poop as a source for your nitrates, and start making your own powder.

    These were 200 yard rifles that could (and did) kill enemy men stone dead. Made by hand.

    1. avatar jwtaylor says:

      My AK took 15 hours to build. My flintlock took over 200, and that was from a kit.

      1. avatar Mk10108 says:

        Technology is a wonderful thing.

    2. avatar Geoff PR says:

      “Most all of this work was done with hand tools on a bench.”

      I’m looking forward to your book on minimalist gunmaking.

      Minimalist nowadays probably means a Harbor Fright (intentional sp.) lath, a deep drill and a chamber reamer…

  4. avatar Skyler says:

    The major flaw, of course, is that they didn’t have bayonet lugs.

    Had Americans had the militia mindset prior to the revolution, they would have all had bayonet lugs. As it was, Continental officers were always at a disadvantage with their militias, and even their few regulars, in that they had no bayonets to counter the British bayonets.

    I think rather than extoll the supposed virtues of this rifle, which was excellent for hunting, we should instead remember it as the failure that inspired the second amendment. This lack of suitable rifles for military purposes is the entire reason for the “well regulated militia” and the right to keep and bear arms.

    1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      We should also NB that the British bayonet of that era was a savage weapon, intended to maximize blood loss from a single wound.

    2. avatar Mk10108 says:

      Militia rarely took on the British. If they did, they would be bayonet practice for the regulars. Washington’s gained experience in the French & Indian war with hit and run tactics Indians used. He realized America did not have the economic resources, nor the manpower to go head to head with the Crown. This insight was instrumental in prolonging the war long enough for Franklin to secure support from the French.

      If a bayonet was installed on the Kentucky long rifle, there would be no independence.

      1. avatar BDub says:

        Indeed. If there was a bayonet lug on a Kentucky Long Rifle it either wouldn’t have gone unused or perhaps even filed off to save weight.

        Riflemen were skirmishers, they avoided engaging ranked British regulars as it would have been foolish to face close-ranked fire and then a ranked bayonet charge from such regulars. Riflemen would prefer instead to use guerrilla tactics, using their superior range and mobility. If a melee were to ever happen it would be at the fringe against scouts and outriders and have been fought with dirks and/or tomahawks, not bayonets in formation, which relies heavily on weight of numbers to break the enemy, and not any particularly inherent deadliness. Typically the British regulars would rank up en masse, march to within 100 yards and fire several volleys, then close the distance with a bayonet charge, if needed, to break the line of the enemy. If your enemy is always staying outside a hundred yards, and harassing you with fire from almost 200, your bayonets are never going to get used. So why would your enemy need any bayonets of their own?

        1. avatar Skyler says:

          You might want to explain that to Washington and his officers and men, who regularly complained that they wanted bayonets. I don’t think bayonets should actually be on these rifles. My point is that they learned that citizens should instead or also have weapons more suited for military purposes.

        2. avatar jwm says:

          The American revolution was won by American, and to some extent, French, troops using european linear tactics and mostly muskets with Bayonets.

        3. avatar hellofromillinois says:

          Not so much. It was won by Washington having the intelligence to avoid fighting and simply control the countryside. For a war of its duration, there were actually pretty few full scale battles. We won by waiting the Brits out and maintaining sufficient support of the populace.

      2. avatar Garrison Hall says:

        “Militia rarely took on the British. If they did, they would be bayonet practice for the regulars.”

        Depends on the tactics used. The article mentioned The Battle Of Kings Mountain and mistakenly labels the British force as militia. It wasn’t, it was a British regular army regiment commanded by an experienced officer. There were militia attached. The Battle Of Kings Mountain is an interesting read. It was fought by Scots Irish militia, “over mountain men” who were not formally part of the revolutionary forces. They were, however, directly threatened by the British and, on their own, organized an attack that devastated an entire line regiment of British regulars. There are several interesting accounts of The Battle Of Kings Mountain and all are worth reading. Sen. James Webb has written an interesting book on the culture of the Scots Irish in America, called “Born Fighting”. It mentions the Kings Mountain battle and is overall a very good read.

      3. avatar BDub says:

        @ Skyler – for regulars, with smoothbore yes…they need bayonets, for as much good as they would have done against seasoned British regulars. It probably would have been better than nothing for them. But I wasn’t talking about regulars.

      4. avatar BDub says:

        @ Skyler – for regulars, with smoothbores yes…they need bayonets, for as much good as they would have done against seasoned British regulars. It probably would have been better than nothing for them. But I wasn’t talking about regulars.

      5. avatar BDub says:

        @ jwm – Sorry, but that’s just not the case. The Americans (and the French) rarely lined up in front of the British in traditional formations, and when they did it usually had disastrous results. Most of the experienced American and French cut their teeth fighting Indians, and those tactics informed their methods against the British. The historical literature is full of accounts of British officers complaining about how the Americans fought, and conducted them selves in the field of battle. Frustratingly for them, the Americans tended to fight on the defensive, shooting from cover, or prone (unheard of for traditional military formations of the time), and then falling back when advanced upon. This was repeated until the British lines were strung out, thinned down and/or exhausted.

    3. avatar BDub says:

      You don’t need a bayonet lug when your entire strategy is staying out of engagement range, let alone charge range.

      1. avatar Geoff PR says:

        Were there any bayonets on private-owned rifles then?

        Being as those were single-shot in that era, a bayonet on the end of your rifle might be real handy if your first shot didn’t kill the bear who was attacking you…

    4. avatar jwm says:

      It was my understanding that prior to 1776 the british colonials had militias and the musket was their standard. George Washington wore a red coat during the French and Indian war.

      I’m no expert but it would seem that the colonials had enough muskets and even cannon as british subjects that when the brits marched on Lexington and Concord it was to take possesion of stocks of artillery and other arms provided by the crown to militias.

      1. avatar Skyler says:

        They had some bayonets, but most soldiers arrived with their own personal arms, and not as part of a properly equipped militia. The second amendment was meant to encourage individual citizens in the future to be properly equipped. Their model was the Greek Hoplite who was required as a citizen of certain standing to maintain a proper panoply of armor and weapons to fight in the phalanx.

    5. avatar LarryinTX says:

      And today, we require *removal* of perfectly functional bayonet lugs! Are the British behind that?

      1. avatar Angryaz says:

        No but defiantly a king is…… death to tyrants

  5. avatar Gregolas says:

    A fine article, Seth. Thank you for the lesson.

    1. avatar Tom in PA says:

      Superb article!! Thanks!

    2. avatar BDub says:

      Indeed. I got goosebumps.

  6. avatar jwm says:

    A lot of those flintlock rifles were not replaced in the percussion era. It was cheaper, and this was a period of history when money was hard won, to convert a flint to cap and ball than buy a whole new rifle. If you lived on a farm along the more settled and built up area along the eastern third of the country a converted flint lock worked just fine for hunting and varmint control.

    In the hills of WV and KY, where I still have family, muzzle loaders of all type were used well into the breech loading era simply because they were cheap to get and powder and lead were cheaper than cartridges.

    Converted long rifles were still present in my family until the early 1900’s as working guns. Same with muzzle loading shotguns.

  7. avatar Tom in PA says:

    Some of the early “Pennsylvania” rifles, the precursor to the Kentucky rifle, were built right down the road from me in the town of Willow Street, PA by Martin Meylin, who built his blacksmithing and gunshop here in 1719. The building still stands today. My sons went to Martin Meylin Middle School – the libtards (not too many here in Lancaster County) would spontaneously give birth to a small farm animal if they knew a school was named after a Swiss-German Mennonite gunsmith. Local historians (some with family links) don’t think MM made very many, and that most of the rifles came from the Baker and Dickert families in Berks County. History is interesting at times!

  8. avatar BLAMMO says:

    Imagine what they could have done with anodized aluminum and composite plastics.

    Yeah, that’s a joke, son.

  9. avatar Coyyote says:

    My gunsmith, Dave Lauck, is a descendant of Peter and Simon Lauck who fought under Geo Washington in the Morgan Rifles. After the war they opened a barrel making and unmaking shop in Va. In the Lauck tradition, Dave still makes fine rifles and pistols that you can see at DLSports.com.

    1. avatar hellofromillinois says:

      With that kind of a family history you’d hope he’d be producing firearms with classic craftsmanship instead of assembling ARs and 1911s.

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