There has never been a time since its invention that the American muzzleloading rifle has not been produced; yet when regarded simply as a shooting apparatus, it fell out of favor soon after the close of the Civil War with the development of the metallic cartridge. However, during the last 50 or so years, thousands of individuals have again become very interested in them. They study them, read about them, collect them, shoot them and they build them.
The longrifle was vital to the stunning American victory in the Battle of New Orleans, on January 8th, 1815. The Hunters of Kentucky, a ballad written by Samuel Woodworth in 1826, celebrated the feats of accuracy by Kentucky frontiersmen and the rifle they used so skillfully in achieving victory following the lead of Andy “Old Hickory” Jackson. The song popularized the name Kentucky Rifle, not because the guns were made in Kentucky, but because it was used by the men of Kentucky. The name, through long association, conjures up a unique mental image of this grand American icon. Say “Kentucky Rifle” anywhere in the world and people know what you’re talking about, say anything else and you have to stop and explain.
During the 1950s, new interest in building the Kentucky Longrifle emerged, alongside the study and collecting of this uniquely American firearm. In 1960, the great Kentucky Rifle collector, Joe Kindig gave us his revolutionary tome, “Thoughts On the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age” and later that same year Henry J. Kauffman made his statement with “The Pennsylvania~Kentucky Rifle”. It would be two decades before Dr. George Shumway followed suit with his revolutionary two-volume set “Rifles of Colonial America” in 1980. Meanwhile, John Bivins, renowned as a contemporary longrifle maker and author, released his very academic and geographically focused “Longrifles of North Carolina” in 1968 and Dr. Shumway and a myriad of others have since published numerous volumes focusing on specific makers, regions, and styles.
In 1980 Robert Weil authored Contemporary Makers of Muzzle Loading Firearms, the first comprehensive work on new artisans of old traditional firearms. Weil’s book expanded the level of appreciation for this important art form, stimulating interest in contemporary builders and collectors. An extensive amount of research and much thought is required to build a historically accurate early American flintlock rifle. As a contemporary art form, it’s a complex sculpture of three dimensional art featuring two dimensional details. A barrel, trigger/s, lock, and decorative mounts of iron, brass, or silver are inlet into a stock of wood, usually curly maple or walnut according to the builder’s artistic urges of expression. The thought and research required to build a “correct” early American rifle adds unique insight into the spirit of this tool, enhances the mindset of the maker and bestows a deep appreciation of our glorious past that can be achieved in no other way. No doubt, some of the finer longrifles being made today will be collected and preserved for their esthetic aspects alone and never put to use for shooting . Yet I contend, that the Kentucky Rifle is full of life and to be fully appreciated needs to be handled, loaded, shot and cleaned, as well as being looked at, caressed, cherished, and studied.
Mel Hankla - Kentucky