The American Longrifle

There developed in the latter days of the American colonies, a uniquely American firearm. From early in the 19th century this unique weapon came to be known as the Kentucky Rifle. Extensive research over the past four decades makes it clear that the Kentucky Rifle, as it is popularly known, was produced along the frontier in many colonies and states following the westward expansion of our nation.  We now commonly refer to the Pennsylvania rifle, Maryland rifle, Virginia rifle, North Carolina rifle and Tennessee rifle as well as the Kentucky rifle.  Many just refer to it as a longrifle.  It was simply known as a rifled gun during the 18th century.  We will call it the American longrifle.   

The American longrifle began to evolve from the European forms during the second quarter of the 18th century along the Pennsylvania frontier, in and about Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  It emerged as an unique American creation following the French and Indian War.  Its golden age is generally accepted to be the period from the end of the American Revolution to the turn of the 19th century. The advent of percussion ignition, interchangeable parts, and an emerging American industrial complex during the first half of the 19th century pretty much made custom made flintlock rifles, and therefore the classic American longrifle, a thing of the past.  However, many fine percussion longrifles were produced well into the 19th century and the production of the American longrifle in this form never quite died out in the mountains of Appalachia.  With the Colonial Revival movement of the 1920's and 30's, there was a rebirth of interest in these guns leading to all our modern scholarship, the popularity of  muzzle loading shooting and the recreation of these guns by many people like myself.

No technological development occurs in a vacuum, and the American longrifle as a technological as well as an artistic development was no exception. It is generally accepted that the American longrifle evolved from the Jaeger rifle brought to the colonies by German gunsmiths in the early 1700’s and most certainly imported in some quantity along with English arms up until the American Revolution. The Jaeger was a short, stocky, usually large caliber,  flintlock rifle designed for hunting by the well to do in the fields and forests of Europe. At one time, some thought that rifling and a patched ball were innovations unique to the American longrifle. They weren’t. These things were known to European gunsmiths for at least two centuries before the American longrifle and were incorporated into the Jaeger.  Some also have the impression that the Jaeger was heavy and hard to handle.  They were not.  From personal experience, I know that Jaegers were surprisingly light and easy to handle.  In fact, I would much prefer to carry a Jaeger in the woods than a typical longrifle.  

That begs the question, why were changes made?  Well, the standard answer has been something along the lines that the American longhunter needed an economical, accurate, and long range gun to put food on the table, take skins for cash,  and protect their families from Indian raiders. The Jaeger rifle was accurate but it was not necessarily a long range gun or economical in terms of lead.  It has been thought that in order to accommodate the needs of the longhunter, the early gunsmiths started to elongate the barrel and reduce the caliber of their rifles. These two design changes did three basic things;  increase accuracy and range, and decrease the amount of lead used for bullets.  It is easy to see how a longer barrel could increase accuracy for long range shots, but the added length also allowed for the effective use of larger powder loads to support those long range shots.  The more powder you put down the barrel, the more time and therefore more barrel length you need for the powder to fully combust.   The potential to use higher powder loads and the higher muzzle velocity that that produces also supports the use of smaller balls.  A smaller ball with a fully combusted higher powder load can have the same impact energy as a larger ball with a smaller charge.   The higher muzzle velocity will also give you a flatter ballistic trajectory and longer range.  Lastly, the smaller ball size means less lead to buy and carry and less powder for small game at short distances.  All in all, the American longhunter got economy along with the ability to make long range shots and take down large game if needed. At least, this is the standard answer that you will glean from some of the earlier research.  

While I have generally accepted this explanation for the elongation of the barrel and reduction in bore size in the American longrifle,  the argument has always seemed to be a little too contrived and does have some problems.  Peter A. Alexander,  in his new book The Gunsmith of Grenville County-Building the American Longrifle,  proposes another theory based on some of George Shumway's research.   While no one denies the influence of the Jaeger on the development of the American longrifle, Peter Alexander proposes that the English trade gun had as much influence as the Jaeger.   The argument goes that there were not enough white longhunters to account for all the rifles we know were made and most frontier settlers did not have guns of any type.  Who then, owned all those early longrifles.  The answer, according to Alexander, is the Indians.  He contends that, as the primary harvesters of furs and skins on the North American continent at the time, the Indians had the most need of rifles and the wealth from the fur trade to buy them.  This argument has the ring of truth to me. 

According to Alexander, the real reason for the longer barreled American rifle, was that the Indians had become accustomed to the long barreled English trade guns and wanted rifles of similar form.  The German gunsmiths here, and possibly in Germany, supplied what their customers wanted.  There may have been more style than substance at work in the evolution of the American longrifle.  Imagine that!   

Another change that was made to the old Jaeger that most scholars consider unique to the American longrifle was the addition of a brass patch box. The Jaegers and the early longrifles had storage compartments in the butt of the gun with sliding carved wood covers. The argument is that these covers were easily lost and something a little more practical was required for the longhunter. Hence, the hinged brass patch box.  There was also a curious deletion from the Jaeger to the American longrifle.  The Jaeger almost always had sling swivels and an American Longrifle almost never had sling swivels.   For some reason,  the American longhunter, Indian or not,  preferred to carry his rifle in his hand.  We don't know why these changes were made and we are not as certain as we once were that these were actually American inovations.   

We have discussed how the Jaeger and possibly the English trade gun evolved into the American Longrifle, but just what is the classic American longrifle? That is really a pretty hard question to answer in a few paragraphs. Typically, and I emphasize the word "typically," it is a slender full stock flintlock rifle with a long barrel (generally around 40 inches or more) of about 50 caliber (or less as time went on) with a brass patch box. Like the Jaeger, the American longrifle was often decorated with silver and brass inlays, carvings, and engravings; first in the Barouqe style and then  in the Rococo style during its Golden Age. Keep in mind that this is a very general description of a style of rifle produced by hundreds, if not thousands, of gunsmiths in dozens of stylistic schools in many states from Pennsylvania south along the Appalachian Mountains  into Alabama and west to the Mississippi river. Obviously, there are bound to be many exceptions to my very general description.

To learn more, check out the list of related reading on the Books & Videos page. If you read no other books on the American longrifle, you need to read the Kentucky Rifle by John Dillin, Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age by Joe Kindig and Rifles of Colonial America, Volumes I & II by George Shumway. These are the books that formed the foundation of this essay as well as much of the scholarship on this subject over the last four decades. However, make sure you get one of the more recent editions of these books with annotations. The Kentucky Rifle was written in 1924 and there are a number of statements we now know to be erroneous. 

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This page was last updated on 04/01/05 .

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