Shown here is a previously unpublished John Davidson longrifle. It was made for a farmer in Rockbridge county Virginia and is still in the family. While the rifle is the victim of a very poor restoration job many years ago, there is still considerable artistic merit to the gun.
The longrifle is mostly intact. The original nose piece is missing as is the trigger guard. The guard on the rifle now does not belong by any stretch of the imagination. It was just stuck on there so there would be a guard. Missing wood in the forearm and around the lock and tang was replaced with body putty, but the thimbles appear to be original as does the lock plate with a period conversion from flint to percussion. The best part of the longrifle is the butt stock. It has a typical John Davidson patchbox with some great engraving, and some unique floral cheek side carving.
Rather than further describe the longrifle, I will let the photographs speak for themselves. I do have to beg your indulgence for any deficiencies in the photographs. They were, by necessity, taken at the owners house, outside, on a sunny, windy day, in the partial shade of a large tree. It is amazing they turned out as well as they did.
“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
Shown here is an original rifle attributed to William Britton of Hampshire County, West Virginia. It is published on page 64 of Gunsmiths of West Virginia by Lambert and Whisker. This rifle has been re-converted from percussion to flint. The Maslin lock shown is not original to the gun and is poorly fitted in the lock mortise. The forearm has been replaced forward of the rear thimble. Otherwise, everything else appears to be original. The best features of the rifle are the incised carving in the wrist and buttstock and the engraving of the side plate, toe plate and patchbox.
This is an original, fully iron mounted rifle most likely made somewhere on the border of southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee probably between 1820 and 1830.. The lines of the breech stock look Virginia while the mounts are typical East Tennessee. The stock is a plain piece of Black Walnut in pretty good shape with the exception of saddle wear through to the ramrod hole. They barrel has been shortened at the breech at least once about three inches. All the parts appear to be original, and the lock and triggers still work exceptionally well. The lock is a cheap hardware store variety with no fly or half cock notch. There is stamped decoration (circles) around the muzzle and the rear buckhorn sight. The barrel is particularly heavy and coned. The coning makes it difficult to guage the caliber, but I estimate it at about 38 caliber. Particularly when you consider that two or three inches were cut off this barrel lightening it some, it is pretty clear that this gun was not shot offhand. This gun had to be shot from some sort of rest. This rifle shows lots of honest wear and in-service repairs. I see no evidence of modern repairs or restoration.