The Kentucky rifle has been an American icon for nearly 200 years. Most contemporary shooters have an excellent grasp of the inherent importance of personal firearms ownership, just as our colonial and early American ancestors did, thanks to the reminders left for us in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. However, in our present age of the modern sporting rifle assembled on one version or another of the ubiquitous AR-15 receiver, it is easy to forget that firearms were once unique products, handmade individually, start to finish, by skilled craftsman. The Kentucky rifle was not just a tool specially developed to meet the needs of a growing nation, it became an American art form in its own right.
In early 2015, the Kentucky Rifle Foundation, the educational arm of the venerable Kentucky Rifle Association, created an exhibit for the NRA National Firearms Museum that featured 20 rarely seen original Kentucky rifles loaned from the country’s finest private collections. The exhibit re-introduced some of the talented men who armed our ancestors for the hunt and for mortal combat. Visitors might have been surprised to learn that most of the rifles were made in Pennsylvania, in shops founded by Swiss and German gunsmiths who emigrated to America. Men such as Beck, Graeff, Dickert, Haga, Eyster, Schroyer, and Lauck are but a few of the artisans whose rifles remain with us today as a testament to their skill and artistry.
- RELATED STORY: Building a Classic Kentucky Flintlock Rifle
These early immigrants brought with them the heavy, big-bore, short-barreled Jaeger rifles of their homelands. These weapons used too much lead, too much powder, were too slow to load and were too heavy to haul all around the vast expanses of frontier America. Colonial gunsmiths gradually changed their traditional rifle designs to better suit the New World. By 1720, the first of what would come to be known as Kentucky rifles emerged. The calibers dropped from .70+ to a more economical .50 caliber or less. They became streamlined. Their barrels got longer to increase bullet velocity and give the shooter a longer sighting radius resulting in improved accuracy.
One of the most important American improvements was abandoning the old Jaeger rifle’s oversized bullet, which had to be hammered down the barrel with an iron ramrod. Not only was the Jaeger slow to load, but the soft lead bullets could be easily deformed and diminish accuracy. The Kentucky rifle used a ball slightly smaller than the bore that was sealed into the rifling with a greased cloth or leather patch. The lubricated patch allowed the bullet to be quickly pushed down the barrel with hand pressure alone and protected it from damage during loading.
- RELATED STORY: DIY: Build Your Own Flintlock Longrifle
The Kentucky rifle was a general-purpose tool that evolved as a unique response to the varied requirements of the American frontiersman. It was capable of the fine accuracy needed for effective hunting and combat at distances beyond which Indians could engage with bows, spears or muskets. As a weapon of war, the Kentucky rifle was not even half as fast to load as the musket and had no provision for a bayonet. However, it was not the weapon of a line soldier. The rifle was the weapon of the guerrilla fighter, and the first American snipers in the Revolutionary War quickly established for themselves a reputation for lethality among British officers and non-commissioned officers. The British redcoats called the Kentucky rifle the “Widow-Maker.”
Earning Its Name
Exactly when these uniquely American long rifles came to be called Kentucky rifles is not entirely certain. Daniel Boone’s adventures in the rich lands of Kentucky west of the Appalachian Mountains, and the subsequent stream of settlers through the Cumberland Gap into this new frontier, may have been a part of it. The name Kentucky rifle first appears in an 1822 poem called “The Hunters of Kentucky,” written by Samuel Woodworth, about General Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. In the fifth verse, he wrote:
But Jackson was wide awake,
and wasn’t scar’d of trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take
with our Kentucky rifles;
At that time, the battle was one of the greatest military victories in the United States’ brief history and the Woodsworth poem was made into a song. The song enjoyed great popularity nationwide and the name Kentucky rifle stuck.
For the purposes of this article, let us examine in detail two of the 20 Kentucky rifles that were on exhibit, the earliest and the latest. The earliest rifle was made during the Revolutionary War by John Philip Beck, who worked in Lebanon Township in Pennsylvania from 1777 until his death in 1811. By this period, the Kentucky rifle’s salient characteristics as a weapon are fully evolved. However, as an art form, this graceful rifle’s sparse decoration only hints at the beautiful creations that would come to full flower after the turn of the century.
- RELATED STORY: 6 Steps To Making Your Own Rifle Scabbard
The 40.75-inch, rifled, octagonal barrel is approximately .50 caliber, well suited to taking large game as well as enemies on the battlefield. The typical hard maple stock has the usual cheekrest and is barely adorned with some relief carving on the wrist and buttstock. Instead of the ornate brass patchbox we commonly associate with the Kentucky rifle (they come later), this early piece has a simple and practical sliding, wooden-lid patchbox. The typical brass finger-rest triggerguard also shows some engraving. This rifle is equipped with sling swivels, which is unusual for Kentucky rifles and suggests military use. Kentucky rifles were so long it made sling carry generally impractical.
The latest rifle in the exhibit is a magnificently ornamented percussion piece crafted in 1848 by William Barnhart Sr. at his shop in Green Township, Ross County, Ohio. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1802 and came of age as the people of the new United States sought their fortunes on the western frontiers. By this period, half-stocks had come into style and smaller calibers were common, making the rifles better suited to small game like rabbit and squirrel. The rifle is an impressive 55 inches in overall length with a 40-inch-long, octagonal barrel.
The beauty of curly maple wood made it the favorite of American gunsmiths for high-end stocks and this piece shows the signature striping of a well-selected blank. The hole on the top of the wrist was for a nipple pick. Like the Beck rifle from approximately 60 years earlier, this late rifle retains the cheek support and relief carving in the stock but is now covered in engraved, silver-mounted inlays, including an elaborately hinged patchbox. Brass was by far the more common material for Kentucky rifle furniture and inlays. This rifle also has adjustable sights and dual set triggers. Like many a fine work of art, this one was signed by its creator.
Learn The Legacy
Those wishing to learn more about Kentucky rifles should visit the Kentucky Rifle Association website at kentuckyrifleassociation.org and the Kentucky Rifle Foundation website at kentuckyriflefoundation.org. The Kentucky Rifle Foundation is the education branch of the organization and offers an extensive collection of print books and CDs loaded with information compiled since the first gathering of collectors in the 1920s to the present day. The Foundation is a non-profit organization that relies on private donations to preserve the history of the Kentucky Rifle and share it with future generations.
- RELATED STORY: Custom-Built Flintlock Longrifle
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.