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Is the Kentucky long rifle misnamed?

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The short answer is “No.” That said, what we almost always refer to today as the ‘Kentucky long rifle’ wasn’t always called that. Rifled gun, hog Rifle, Pennsylvania long rifle were just a few of its earlier names. Why did ‘Kentucky long rifle’ win out?

Got its fame in Kentucky

“Let it be known that this famous weapon was developed by gunsmiths resident of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” pronounced Dr. S.K. Stevens, director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, in 1963, “that most of them were manufactured on Pennsylvania soil during frontier days, and that the weapon’s acquired misnomer is an unfair, unfortunate and unstable accident of history.”Louisville-Courier, Louisville, KY https://www.newspapers.com/image/107997124">1

To which Colonel George Chinn, director of the Kentucky Historical Society in that era, responded: “Everybody knows that the rifle used so extensively in Kentucky and called the ‘Kentucky Long Rifle’ was made in three counties of Pennsylvania. But it got its fame in Kentucky.”2

The long rifle was in use in Appalachian Kentucky as late as 1904, as this photo shows. Back reads: "John D. Bush, 12 years of age, squirrel hunting on Razor Fork of Clover Fork of Cumberland River. Young Bush carries a "long rifle," with double set trigger, as well as a powder horn and accompanied by a dog."
The long rifle was in use in Appalachian Kentucky as late as 1904, as this photo shows. Back reads: “John D. Bush, 12 years of age, squirrel hunting on Razor Fork of Clover Fork of Cumberland River. Young Bush carries a ‘long rifle,’ with double set trigger, as well as a powder horn and accompanied by a dog.”

Muskets were of limited use

The long rifle did indeed begin to evolve from the European forms during the second quarter of the 18th century in and about Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Now, if the gunsmiths were in Pennsylvania, why wasn’t there high demand for long rifles locally? Well, Pennsylvania settlers who sought to hunt principally to put meat on their family’s table may have found more effective means of providing food than hunting with a gun. Before the widespread availability of the long rifle, which at that time was a hand crafted and expensive item not readily available, most of that region’s settlers would have only had access to a musket.Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 74(3), 247-279. Retrieved May 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27778782'>3

Muskets might have been of some use in hunting larger game, such as deer or bison, but for the smaller game, which most settlers might have hunted in the eastern Pennsylvania backcountry, muskets were of somewhat limited use.

Muskets were heavy, had a very short range, and the noise and smoke would scare away any game for miles. If a poor farmer sought to hunt to put food on his family’s table it was far more cost effective to trap small animals and birds or to fish rather than to attempt to use an expensive gun (like the long rifle) in search of small game.

The Jaeger was too unwieldy

British made Brown Bess musket ca 1790.
British made Brown Bess musket ca 1790.

Meanwhile, for settlers passing through Lancaster on the Great Wagon Road, en route to the westernmost reaches of the colonial frontier, a firearm was a must. If not a musket, what about a rifled European firearm?

It is generally accepted that the American long rifle design was developed 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 muskets 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.4

But the Jaeger was too unwieldy for the long journeys demanded of Great Wagon Road travelers. It was hard to load and noisy. On far western colonial frontier lands, hunting was no pastime, but an important economic activity. The fur trade provided for many frontiersmen the only possibility of getting cash; and venison was their most important foodstuff.The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 69(1), 3-14. Retrieved May 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20087726">5

The long rifle fulfilled all these requirements

The frontiersman needed a rifle which would be economical in the use of powder and lead, for the country was thinly populated and supplies were difficult to obtain. The rifle must also be as noiseless as possible because in Shawnee and Cherokee country it was dangerous to make oneself too conspicuous. Finally, it was essential to have a weapon which could be quickly loaded and which guaranteed the utmost in shooting accuracy. The Jaeger rifle was accurate, but it was not necessarily a long range gun or economical in terms of lead. But the long rifle fulfilled all these requirements.

No single person cemented the association of the long rifle with Kentucky quite like Daniel Boone.
No single person cemented the association of the long rifle with Kentucky quite like Daniel Boone.

While no one denies the influence of the Jaeger on the development of the long rifle, Peter Alexander, in The Gunsmith of Grenville County: Building the American Longrifle, 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 long rifles we know were made, and most frontier settlers did not have guns of any type. 

Gunsmiths gave ’em what they wanted

Who then, owned all those early long rifles?  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.The Gunsmith of Grenville County: Building the American Longrifle. Scurlock Pub Co.">6 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 in Lancaster, PA supplied what their customers wanted.

So. What set the design of the new long rifles apart?

  • Longer, octagonal barrels
  • Rifling, obviously
  • Smaller bores than either muskets or Jaeger rifles
  • A ‘patch’ used to stuff a bullet

Octagonal barrels were quite common on rifles

On the question of barrel length, George Chinn, the director of the Kentucky Historical Society mentioned at the beginning of this article, said “Frontier gunsmiths designed the popular Kentucky and Pennsylvania long rifles to lip level of their owners-to-be.” In general that makes barrel lengths at least 40 inches. Chinn went on to say that the KHS has determined Daniel Boone, whose long rifle the Society owns, to be about 5′ 10″; taking the average measurement from the lip to the top of the head plus the actual length of Boone’s gun gives them the final calculation.The Lexington Herald, Lexington, KY. https://www.newspapers.com/image/685274438/">7 Longer barrel lengths muffled the noise of the gun firing. Also, a longer barrel could increase accuracy for long range shots, plus the added length also allowed for the use of larger powder loads to support those long range shots.

An early to mid-19th century long rifle shows clearly the octagonal barreling of this firearm.
An early to mid-19th century long rifle shows clearly the octagonal barreling of this firearm.

The octagonal barrel was easier to make than a rounded barrel. In Colonial America, heavy machinery was rare, and a lathe that could turn a barrel without warping it was expensive. By contrast, there was a simple gravity-fed cradle that allowed flats to be ground by a water-driven grinding wheel. Octagonal barrels were quite common on rifles. Guns made abroad or in the more settled areas (fouling pieces and muskets) tended to have round barrels.Octagonal barrels: why? TheHighRoad.Org. https://www.thehighroad.org/index.php?threads/octagonal-barrels-why.140805/">8

The purchaser specified the caliber wanted

“The first step [in rifling] is the drilling of a lengthwise hole through a bar of soft iron (ed.—the ‘flats’ mentioned above)—without the aid of modern machinery. Then begins the work of cutting the grooves inside the barrel. This is done with a little hand-made saw soldered to the end of a long rod. One groove is cut at a time. The course of the saw is controlled by a spiral cylinder of wood, as long as the barrel, which itself is cut out by hand. The furrows in the wooden guide tally with the grooves to be cut inside the weapon.

“The actual cutting is done by clamping the barrel in a vise and then working the wooden cylinder back and forth by hand, which is regulated by a ‘head block’ made of wood and leather.”9 

There was no set caliber for the boring on the long rifles. The individual purchaser, when placing his order, specified the caliber, and a bullet mold was made to fit that gun. Later, after the rifling was worn a little, the owner would get the bore re-cut. A new bullet mold was made to fit the ‘new caliber.’ The general range of calibers, however, was .34 to .41.”Lexington Herald-Leader, Lexington, KY. https://www.newspapers.com/image/695021979/">10 This bore, smaller than both the Jaeger and the musket (.60 — .75) saved on lead and improved accuracy.

The best rifles are furnished with two triggers

Patchbox on stock of a Jacob Kline long rifle. This gunsmith worked in Hampshire County, VA (now WV); ca. 1820 or later.
Patchbox on stock of a Jacob Kline long rifle. This gunsmith worked in Hampshire County, VA (now WV); ca. 1820 or later.

Finally, what was patching? “One historic day, a rifleman, probably in Pennsylvania, wrapped a bullet smaller than the bore of his gun in a piece of linen or tanned deerskin —a patch— so that it filled the space between the missile and the walls of the barrel. This rind, or peeling, around the bullet engaged the grooves in the barrel and set the ball to spinning, and at the same time sealed the explosive gasses from the powder back of the bullet so the full force of the load was used to drive the lead pellet.” The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY. https://www.newspapers.com/image/107130319/">11

This account leaves off one small but crucial detail about the wrapped bullet: the fact that the linen or deerskin was greased. “The ball is enclosed in a small bit of linen rag, well greased at the outside,” says one British account from 180012, “and then forced down with a thick ramrod. The grease and the bits of rag, which are called patches, are carried in a little box at the butt-end of the gun. The best rifles are furnished with two triggers, one of which being first pulled sets the other, that is, alters the spring, so that it will yield even to the slight touch of a feather. They are also furnished with double sights along the barrel, as fine as those of a surveying instrument.”

More articles on firearms:

Me & Bessie went out hunting any ole time(Opens in a new browser tab)

That’s old Hide-an’-Taller, the best gun ever seen(Opens in a new browser tab)

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