“From a flat bar of soft iron, hand forged into a gun barrel; laboriously bored and rifled with crude tools; fitted with a stock hewn from a maple tree in the neighboring forest; and supplied with a lock hammered to shape on the anvil; an unknown smith, in a shop long since silent, fashioned a rifle which changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately Freed our country of foreign domination.
Light in weight; graceful in line; economical in consumption of powder and lead; fatally precise; distinctly American; it sprang into immediate popularity; and for a hundred years was a model often slightly varied but never radically changed.
Legend regarding this rifle which have never been confirmed have drifted out of the dusty past; inaccuracies have passed for facts. Few writers have given more than a passing word to a weapon which deserves a lasting place in history, and it is a pleasure to present herewith the data collected during the past ten years and to dedicate this work to the KENTUCKY RIFLE.”
—- Capt. John G. Dillon, 1924, From his book The Kentucky Rifle
It is hard to beat John Dillon’s description of an Kentucky Rifle, the popular name for the American longrifle. This hints at the fact that there are a lot of names for basically the same thing. There is even some disagreement as to whether you spell it longrifle or long rifle. Generically, we refer to the American longrifle which includes all longrifles made in what would become the United States of America. We refer to longrifles made in specific States or regions by adding the State or region names such as in Pennsylvania longrifles or Southern longrifles; or even Kentucky longrifles, not to be confused with Kentucky Rifles. Remember that Kentucky Rifles is the popular name for all longrifles and is equivalent in use to American longrifles.
The Kentucky Rifle has been referred to in print since at least the third quarter of the 19th century. Some believe that the name came from the song “Hunters of Kentucky” by Samuel Woodworth recounting Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1812. The song referred to “Kentucky rifles” carried by the riflemen from Kentucky who were prominent in that victory. However, the American longrifle was not just made in Kentucky, it was made in many states along the Eastern Seaboard, including Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia(West Virginia), Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Indiana, New York and New England. In fact, the first longrifles carried into Kentucky via the Great Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road were made in Pennsylvania and possibly Virginia. The manufacture and evolution of the American longrifle followed settlers down the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia into western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina and then west along the Wilderness Road into Tennessee and Kentucky. In one British officer’s account of the effectiveness of the “over the mountains men” from Kentucky and Tennessee in the southern campaigns of the American Revolution of 1780 and 1781, he described their rifles as having been “chiefly made in Lancaster, and two or three neighboring towns in that vicinity, in Pennsylvania.”
The American longrifle originated in and about Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the second quarter of the 18th century and was made well into the second quarter of the 19th century. Martin Mylin, a German Swiss gunsmith, established a shop outside Lancaster in 1719, and is credited with making the first American longrifle about 1740. Eventually, the American longrifle gave way to more sophisticated, mass produced firearms starting with the Industrial Revolution in America around 1840. However, production of the American longrifle never completely ceased. Gunsmiths were making similar guns throughout the 19th century. Mostly, these were high end target rifles, but there were back country gunsmiths making longrifles for subsistence hunting in the Appalachians well into the 20th century. With the renewed interest in all things early American in the 1920’s and 30’s (the Colonial Revival period) as a result of the American sesquicentennial, there was a renewed interest in the Kentucky rifle. It was during this period that John Dillon wrote his book heralding an ever increasing interest in collecting, and recreating these uniquely American firearms.
But I still haven’t really told you what makes a gun an American longrifle. Well, they are long (usually five feet or more), graceful, slender, exceedingly accurate (by the standards of the day), muzzleloading (gunpowder and a round lead ball covered by a cloth patch were loaded from the muzzle(front) of the barrel), rifled (spiral grooves (furrows) were cut into the bore of the barrel to impart a stabilizing spin on the bullet thereby dramatically increasing accuracy), of relatively small caliber (average was around 50 caliber, decreasing into the 19th century), with either flintlock or percussion sidelock ignition systems, a full length wood stock, and usually a patchbox or grease hole on the lock side of the butt stock. The barrels were almost always octagon (“squared” in 18th century terminology) and tapered toward the muzzle and flared back out starting a few inches from the muzzle. This taper and flare (swamp) was generally very subtle giving way to straight tapered and then straight barrels in the mid 19th century. These guns were primarily mounted with brass fixtures (butt piece, toe plate, guard, side plate, thimbles and nose piece); but some, most notably in the South, had iron mounts; and, very rarely, there was a silver mounted gun. Many of these guns were decorated with baroque and rococo carving and engraving as well as inlays of silver and brass wire and sheet. Some of these rifles were extremely ornate and were one of the first truly American art forms. They are now recognized as a significant form of American decorative art and people collect them as such. This is what has driven the price of the best original flintlock American longrifles well into six figures.
The roots of the American longrifle are in the German rifles, or Jaegers, that were brought to this country by early German settlers and gunsmiths. Among other stylistic changes, the barrels of the Jaegers were lengthened, and the caliber reduced to produce the uniquely American longrifle which made more efficient use of powder and was very accurate at long range. The American longrifle developed to serve the needs of commercial hunters traveling to the frontier and beyond to harvest deer skins for export. These commercial hunters or “longhunters” have long been portrayed as pioneers and explorers of European origin such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. However, there is good reason to believe that as many as half of the early longrifles went to native American hunters who had been using European arms to harvest skins for export to Europe since the first contact with European traders in the 16th century.
There is lots more that I could write about the American longrifle, but the best way to learn about them is to look at them and handle them. On this site you will find photos of some of the better ones that I have made in my Portfolio as well as photos of original longrifles that I and others have owned in the Antique Longrifles Gallery. Look them over good, get some good books on the subject, and seek out original longrifles for study at museums, gun shows, and private owners.
The Kentucky Rifle by Capt. John Dillon
The Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age by Joe Kindig Jr.
Rifles of Colonial America, Volume 1 & Volume 2by George Shumway
Recreating the American Longrifle by William Buchele, George Shumway, and Peter Alexander
The Gunsmith of Grenville County, Building the American Longrifle by Peter Alexander
The American Rifle: At the Battle at Kings Mountain by C.P. Russell, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1941
Rifle Making in the Great Smoky Mountains by Arthur I. Kendall, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1941
This document is not intended to provide detailed instruction in the loading and shooting of a traditional muzzle loading weapon or substitute for personal shooting instruction by an experienced muzzle loading shooter. It is assumed that the novice muzzle loading shooter will seek proper instruction before using their new custom firearm.
Never use anything but commercially available black powder in a muzzleloading weapon. Muzzleloading barrels are made of a softer steel than modern breech loading barrels, and smokeless powders will cause a barrel designed for black powder to explode!
Never point the muzzle toward yourself or anyone else even if you think the gun is unloaded. The muzzle should be pointed up, or down range at all times.
Make sure that your weapon is in firing condition before you load it. If there is any doubt, have it checked by an experienced gunsmith.
Although impractical when hunting, running a lubricated patch down the bore between shots will improve both accuracy and safety. It should extinguish any smoldering embers that might ignite the next charge.
Never load directly from your powder container. Use a separate powder measure. When not loading, make sure that your powder container is tightly capped and that you do not have loose powder laying around. Do not leave powder or caps where they might be exposed to the muzzle or pan flash. At the range, it is best practice to shoot from one bench and load at another taking only the powder and caps to the firing line that you need for priming.
The frizzen/pan should always be open and the cock down when loading a flintlock. This is necessary because even an unprimed flintlock can discharge from an accidental frizzen strike. If you must carry a primed flintlock for hunting, keep a leather stall on the frizzen and the cock at half-cock.
Be certain of the safe load for your gun.
It is recommended that you start with a load of 1 grain per caliber, ex. 40 caliber – 40 grains, and work your load up (or down) from there. If you must exceed a load of 1.5 grains per caliber, do so with great caution; and NEVER exceed 2 grains per caliber in a traditional muzzleloading weapon. If you think you need to shoot 100 grains or more for hunting deer, remember that the original long hunters routinely used loads in the 1 grain per caliber range and they hunted for a living. There is generally a high and a low load that will give you the same group. There is no reason to unnecessarily punish yourself and stress the barrel and breech plug. Note: As an interesting aside, Wallace Gusler told me that we know the historical average load from sales records of powder and lead. He said of all the sales records he examined from general stores, there was always twice as much lead sold by weight as powder. That works out to about 1 gr of powder for each caliber, or enough powder to cover a round ball cupped in a hand.
You should halve the load for a pistol. In other words, ½ grain per caliber.
It is recommended that FFFG black powder be used in barrels below 45 caliber. For barrels 50 caliber and larger, FFG black powder should be used. You can use either FFG or FFFG between 45 and 50 caliber.
It is recommended that you use a pure lead, round ball, .005 – .010” smaller than the bore of your gun depending on how tight a load you want. A ball .005” under bore size will generally give good groups but may require a hammer to start it. That should be coupled with a .015”-.020” lubricated ticking patch. Do not use conical bullets in your traditional muzzle loading weapon unless the barrel was specifically designed to shoot conicals.
Assume that the gun can discharge at any time, including during loading. Never lean over the muzzle or point the muzzle at anyone else during loading. As much as possible, pour in the charge, position the patch and bullet, and handle the ball starter and ramrod from the side of the muzzle keeping your fingers and palm clear of the path of the bullet, ball starter, or ramrod if the charge were to prematurely ignite. Now, you will have to put one or both hands over the muzzle when you start a tight load with the ball starter. This cannot be avoided, but minimize the time your hands are in front of the muzzle. When loading, shooting or working on your weapon at the range, keep the muzzle pointed down range or in another safe direction at all times.
Make sure that the ball is firmly seated on the charge without crushing the powder. Failure to do this, called short starting, is the most common cause of catastrophic barrel failure. If you are lucky, the barrel will just bulge or split. If it shatters, severe injury and even death may result to yourself and bystanders.You should mark the empty and loaded levels on your ramrod so that you know when you have a charge in the barrel and if the ball is seated on your normal charge. I have developed the habit over years of shooting muzzleloaders of delivering three sharp taps on the bullet with my ramrod once I think that the bullet is seated on the charge.
Avoid talking while loading. Loading a muzzle loader is complicated, and it is easy enough to loose track of your progress if you are distracted by talking with someone. Loading a ball without a charge, called dry balling, or short starting a ball happen frequently enough and usually because the loader is distracted. A muzzle loading shooter knows that it is bad form to talk to another shooter at the loading bench or on the line. If you are not sure that you have loaded a charge or fully seated the ball, check! Mark the empty and loaded levels on your wood ramrod so that you can easily check the status of your load.
Make sure that you have removed your ramrod from the barrel before bringing the lock to full-cock. Almost everybody forgets to do this at some time and ends up shooting a ramrod down range. This can be very dangerous as the path of the ramrod is unpredictable and while unlikely, the obstruction may cause the barrel to fail. A range rod with a large handle on the end can make it less likely to make this mistake.
You should prime the pan or cap the nipple only at the firing line with the muzzle pointing down range or in another safe direction. Make sure the lock is securely at half-cock before priming or capping. You should make sure that you have a secure half-cock notch before you start shooting. A faulty half cock-notch or sear can cause an accidental discharge.
Bring the lock to full cock only when ready to fire and pointing down range or toward your target. Accidentally, letting a cock or hammer slip while bringing it to full-cock is a common cause of accidental discharges.
If you have set triggers, set them only after aiming. A very light touch is required to release a set trigger and an accidental discharge can happen very easily.
Always be sure of your target before firing. Make sure that you have an adequate backstop and be aware of any people that might be behind or adjacent to your target or backstop. Do not fire into water or any hard, flat surface. Firing into the ground may also invite trouble if the bullet strikes a rock.
Assume that a gun that has misfired or failed to fire can fire at any time. Consequently, keep the weapon pointing down range until the charge is cleared. Wait at least one minute before re-priming. Most ranges require that the range officer be notified immediately of a misfire. The range officer may clear the charge with compressed air or CO2. Simple CO2 dischargers may be purchased at most gun shops that carry muzzle loading supplies. CO2 dischargers are much safer than the old method of clearing a misfire or stuck ball using a ball puller and are highly recommended. Remember that a CO2 discharger still expels the loaded ball with great force and a load should be discharged with the gun pointing safely downrange.
Make sure that your gun is unloaded and cleaned before storing it. Use a CO2 discharger as mentioned above to safely unload a gun.
Always wear eye and ear protection while shooting.
Never smoke or otherwise expose black powder to flame, spark, or heat during loading, shooting or handling. This includes friction from excess handling, and static discharges. You should use some sort of static control in the area where you handle or load black powder.
Never drink alcoholic beverages or take any drugs that could impair your judgment or motor skills before or during shooting. Many leading target shooters will even forego caffeine before or during a shoot.
With a traditional black powder weapon, the primary rule is to keep it clean and dry.
Also, keep your gun away from damaging chemicals. DEET that is used as a mosquito repellant can strip the finish right off a gun stock so be careful with such chemicals that you might use around your gun.
You should clean your firearm thoroughly, as soon as possible after shooting. Black powder absorbs moisture and is very corrosive. Do not leave black powder in your bore or on the metal parts of your gun any longer than absolutely necessary. I developed the habit as a teenager to not leave the range before I cleaned my gun, and still lubed it again once I got home.
Even if your ramrod is fitted with a tip to accept a traditional wiper (worm), you should consider this for hunting or demonstration use only, using tow instead of cloth patches for cleaning. The wood ramrods, sheet steel ferrules, and wipers on my guns are made as the originals and are intended to be used as the originals. That means ramming down loose loads and cleaning with tow only. You should never try to use a ball puller with one of my traditional ramrods and ferrules. Most of your loading and cleaning should be done with a metal range rod fitted with a bore protector. This will limit the wear to your bore and reduce the risk of breaking the fragile wood rod. I recommend that you keep the metal rod in the bore with a patch soaked in Ballistol while the gun is in storage. Run the patch up and down the bore once a month and replace the patch when it gets cut or worn.
Make sure that you clean the powder residue off the face of the breech plug. The use of a breech plug scraper is generally necessary. From a safety point of view, proper cleaning and lubrication of the breech area is the most important thing you can do. Nothing will render your gun unsafe to shoot faster than rusted breech plug threads. You must maintain the condition of the breech plug inside and out in order to keep your weapon serviceable. Invest in a bore light and make sure that the breech plug and bore are bright and shinny after you finish cleaning. It is not necessary to remove the breech plug for proper cleaning, and doing so will eventually compromise the safety of the barrel.
Don’t forget that you need to clean and lubricate the area behind the lock and around the breech if you suspect that any moisture or powder residue has gotten in there. The same goes for the area around the muzzle. If you are going to use your gun in the rain or snow, you should seal around the lock and barrel with beeswax, bullet lube, or paste wax such that no moisture can get under or behind the barrel and lock.
You should use a non-corrosive cleaner for the bore of your gun such as the commercially available Black Powder Solve. Water and dishwashing detergent will also work satisfactorily. I believe that the best bore cleaner is a 50/50 solution of water and Ballistol and highly recommend it. Once your patches start to run clean, I recommend that you finish the cleanup and lubrication with 100% Ballistol. Ballistol is the best gun cleaner and rust preventative that I have found. It can be used everywhere on your gun.
For more durable moisture and rust protection for both the wood and steel parts of your gun, nothing beats wax. I finish all my guns with Renaissance Wax, metal and wood. I completely coat the outside of the barrel and make sure to get wax up into the threads around the breech plug. I recommend that you do the same on a regular basis. You may use regular paste wax if you can’t get Renaissance Wax. While this is good idea if you only shoot your gun occasionally, it is imperative if you hunt with your gun. The oil based finish that I use on my guns is traditional, but it does not provide very good moisture protection for the wood. You need to use a good paste wax.
Occasionally, you may need to lubricate the moving parts in your lock. I like to use a petroleum based lubricant for the moving parts. I actually use some WWII surplus gun oil, but Breakfree will work. Do not over lubricate, it will just damage your wood. Place a drop of lubricant under the mainspring, frizzen spring and sear spring. Put a drop of lubricant on the tip of the sear and on the fly in the tumbler as well as on the tumbler axle in the bridle and a drop behind the tumbler at the top. You should also put a drop of lubricant on the frizzen pivot screw and on the sear bar where it contacts the trigger. Rotate the tumbler through a couple of cycles and wipe the excess lubricant off the bottom of the lock plate before replacing the lock. Do not over tighten the lock screws. Just snug is good enough.
If you need to remove the barrel for cleaning, there is a right and wrong way to do it. You must remove the tang screw, remove the rear lock screw (don’t forget this, it goes through the breech pin (plug) recoil lug) and loosen the front lock screw. Once you remove the screws, remove the barrel pins or wedges. Pins go in from the right and must be removed from the left. Wedges go in from the left and are removed from the right.You need to remove the barrel without prying it up from the muzzle. Prying the barrel up from the muzzle will most likely damage the muzzle, nose piece, forearm, wood around the tang and may damage the tang. You need to drop the barrel out of the stock at the breech first. You do this over a floor mat or carpet. Hold the barrel loosely at the muzzle and breech and turn it over so that the barrel is hanging down. While holding the gun at the muzzle and loosely around the breech, tap the heel of the butt on the floor lightly. It may take a few taps, but the breech of the barrel should fall out of the stock to be caught in your fingers. Gently let the breech down to the floor and the muzzle should pop out of the stock.Whether you remove the lock or not depends on how loose it is in the mortise. Do not remove the lock by rocking it out. You may break the mortise. Unscrew the lock bolts and use them to drive the lock out by tapping on them alternately with a screwdriver handle.As a general rule of thumb, NEVER FORCE ANYTHING. If something doesn’t want to come apart or go together, there may be a good reason. If you are having problems, call me!
Important Note for Households with Children: Children are very inquisitive and ingenious. Every precaution should be taken to make sure that a child, or any untrained person for that matter, cannot get their hands on a loaded gun. It is the position of this builder, unpopular as it may be in certain quarters, that no gun should be stored loaded and powder and caps should be stored in a secure location separate from the firearm and safe from prying little hands. An ATF approved powder magazine is strongly recommended for the storage of all powder, caps and ammunition. The last thing the muzzle loading shooting community needs is a tragic accident due to negligence.
So, you want to build longrifles. The most important thing you can do before you waste your time and money is STUDY. The following books and videos are highly recommended to form the foundation of your longrifle library:
Rifles of Colonial America, Vols l & ll by George Shumway
Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age by Joe Kindig Jr.
The Gunsmith of Grenville County (Building the American Longrifle) by Peter A. Alexander
The Art of Building the Pennsylvania Longrifle by Chuck Dixon
I also recommend the following videos:
Building a Kentucky Rifle by Hershel House
Traditional Gunstocking by Mark Silver
Relief Carving a Kentucky Rifle Circa 1775 by Wallace Gusler
Engraving a Kentucky Rifle Circa 1775 by Wallace Gusler
As you read and view the above, you should know that most builders have someone else (like Mark Weader at Jack’s Mountain Stock Company – (717) 543-5370) inlet their barrel, cut the ramrod groove, and drill the ramrod hole. Many folks use parts kits. Jim & Barbie Chambers offer the best kits and the best locks . I stock my guns from a blank and do all the work myself much like in Mark Silver’s video. However, almost nobody does this as it takes a lot of time and is not cost effective. As I consider myself an artist and have no interest in being a manufacturer, I don’t care too much how long it takes. It just has to be right.
You should also join the forum at American Longrifles. This is where you get all the information that is not in the books and there is a lot.
Lastly, but by no means least, you need to handle and study original longrifles. That is the only way you are really going to know what the rifles look and feel like. You just can’t see everything in a photo. The CLA (and KRA if you are a member) shows are a good place to see both original and contemporary longrifles.
There are also classes of which you should be aware. There are week long classes in stocking, carving and engraving at the ArmsMakers Workshop every October at Conner Prairie near Indianapolis. The NMLRA sponsors 3, 6, & 9 day classes as part of their Gunsmithing Seminar at Western Kentucky University every June. The Gunsmithing Seminar classes are intense, and for people who already have good skills and a lot of stamina. With the 9 day classes, you spend at least 90 hours in class. You do an entire semesters work in two weeks. The Conner Prairie classes are more for beginners and are more laid back. Links to both these sets of classes may be found to the right under “Seminars/Workshops.”
Being a traditional gunmaker (actually any art, craft or trade) involves a lifetime of learning to master it. However, with lots of study and help, people do build excellent first guns; but you will need help. If you try to do it on your own, you will probably not be happy with your first attempt.