By James Clell Neace - 2001
The history of Kentucky, and indeed the history of the United States, are each closely connected with the chronicle of the Kentucky Long Rifle. This old flintlock rifle is also known as the Kentucky, the hog rifle, or the long rifle. Light, slender, and graceful, this rifle was the first truly American firearm. Created in the 1730s in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by skilled immigrant craftsmen from Germany and Switzerland, the Kentucky reigned supreme, as state of the art, for over a century, until the coming of the "cap and ball" percussion rifle in 1840.
The guns of the first American colonists were not rifles at all. They were smoothbore flintlock muskets imported from Europe. For a number of reasons, these old muskets were not suitable for the American frontier. First of all, they were so heavy that to go hunting with one was like carrying a fence-rail on one's shoulders all day long.
Next, the Brown Bessies, as these smoothbore muskets were called, fired spherical balls of lead and required large balls in order to get weight and striking force. They ranged from 0.60 to 0.70 inches in caliber, with a corresponding hefty recoil when fired. They were therefore wasteful of powder and lead, both being scarce items on the American frontier.
The large balls of the Bessies created other problems. They had high air-resistance, which slowed them greatly, giving them shorter range. Since the balls had no spin to balance the turbulence caused by slight surface imperfections, they curved wildly in flight, just like a pitched "spitball" does in the game of baseball. This erratic, unpredictable motion rendered these muskets ineffective beyond a range of about 60 yards.
The various defects were overcome by the Lancaster gunsmiths. First they reduced the bores of the Kentucky to 0.45 to 0.50 caliber, so that one pound of lead, poured into iron molds, would produce from 70 to 120 spherical balls to be used for bullets, thus conserving valuable lead.
Next the barrel length was increased to 40 inches, so as to get extra push from the expanding gunpowder. This greatly increased the range of the Kentucky, compared to the Brown Bessie, which had a 30-inch barrel.
Finally, the Kentucky was "rifled"
with helical grooving in the barrel. This imparts rotary motion
to the fired bullet on an axis that coincides with the line of
flight (trajectory). This spin gives rifles greater range and
accuracy, compared to smoothbores.
This rifle became the primary weapon of the frontiersmen, especially in the then remote and dangerous wilds of Kentucky. This extensive use in Kentucky led to the adoption of the name "Kentucky" for this rifle. Daniel Boone carried a Kentucky Rifle through Cumberland Gap. My own ancestors, who broke trail in the 1790s through Pound Gap, into what is now Breathitt County, are known to have carried a 0.45 caliber Kentucky Rifle. Both of these historic old rifles are still in existence.
During the Revolutionary War the British soldiers, trained for volley shooting, were supplied exclusively with Brown Bessies. Surprisingly, the bulk of the American Armed Forces also carried muskets, even though George Washington made a special effort to recruit frontiersmen who owned Kentucky Rifles.
Even so, the Brown Bessie muskets did have a few advantages over the Kentucky Rifles. They could be loaded easily, more rapidly than rifles, and did not require custom-made bullets; they would fire anything dropped down the barrel of the gun and would even function as a shotgun. Also, let's face it, some of Washington's raw recruits were not good enough "shots" to require the extra accuracy of the Kentucky Rifle.
Nevertheless, General Washington was able to assemble about 1,400 riflemen (backwoodsmen carrying Kentucky Rifles). In training camps their feats of marksmanship amazed onlookers, some of whom were British spies. Word of these buckskin-wearing riflemen quickly spread to the British Army. Washington soon noticed that the British gave his backwoodsmen a wide berth. As a ruse, he dressed up some of his musket-bearing soldiers in buckskins, knowing that the British assumed that anyone wearing frontier garb was carrying a Kentucky.
Riflemen, when available, were used by the American Army as pickets and snipers, operating from the flanks of the regular Army. At the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, riflemen were used to pick off British officers, greatly contributing to the American victory there, a decisive battle of the war.
The Battle of King's Mountain in 1780, another decisive victory, was won by rifle-toting backwoodsmen, hastily assembled from the surrounding southern Appalachians. At the close of the war, a British captain wrote, "The Americans had riflemen who could hit a man anywhere they liked at 200 paces... At King's Mountain, they destroyed us (1)."
Another British officer commented on General Andrew Jackson's great victory at New Orleans in 1815, a battle largely fought by Kentuckians. He described how a lone Kentucky sharpshooter, dressed in linsey-woolsey and buckskins and firing a Kentucky Rifle, picked off British soldiers mired in the mud flats, creating utter confusion in the British ranks (1).
The Kentucky Rifle was considered to be a necessity by frontiersmen, and practically every frontier family owned one. Rifle shooting was a way of life on the American frontier, and virtually every settlement had a shooting match on weekends and holidays. The rifle was thus used for recreation, as well as for protection and hunting.
In the hands of good gunsmiths, the Kentucky Rifle became a work of art. The rifle was full-stocked with fine walnut or maple wood and decorated with brass or silver accouterments. The wood of choice was select, curly maple. Many of these old Kentuckys are prized family heirlooms today.
By todays standards the loading process for these old rifles was slow and cumbersome, but the backwoodsman, whose life sometimes depended upon getting off a quick shot, became quite adept at recharging his weapon.
To fire, the butt of the rifle was rested on the ground and a measured quantity of black powder, dispensed from a powder horn into a cup-like "charger," was poured down the muzzle. A greased patch of linen or buckskin was lain on the muzzle, and a custom-made ball of lead was placed on top.
A flat object was used to start the ball and patch down the barrel. A slender hickory ramrod was then used to tamp the ball and patch against the powder in the bottom of the barrel. The powder horn was again unstoppered, and the "pan" of the rifle (at the touch-hole) was filled with powder. A steel-faced "frazzle" was drawn down to cover the pan.
The hammer, containing the flint for striking the frazzle, which opened the pan and discharged sparks into the pan, was cocked. The gun was now ready to be aimed and fired (2).
The greased patch made the ball fit tightly and so serve as a gas check. At the same time it provided lubrication, so the charge could be loaded smoothly and quickly. The greased patches were carried in a special patch box on the right-hand side of the stock.
Even after percussion rifles and other more modern firearms were invented, the old Kentuckys never outlived their usefulness. These sturdy, old rifles lingered on for decades in the Kentucky mountains as the gun of choice. As a matter of fact, some Kentucky Rifles are still being made by skilled Kentucky gunsmiths.
A case in point is Judge Arthur Dixon, who served 28 years as Letcher County Judge and retired in 1962 at the age of 65 (5). A skilled craftsman, he took up gunsmithing "because I realized I'd go crazy, unless I had something to do."
As of 1972, at the age of 75, Judge Dixon was still turning out prize Kentuckys in the basement workshop of his Whitesburg home. The wood he used was select-grade curly maple. His guns, upon which he sometimes spent a month just sanding and polishing, are each a museum piece.
One of his rifles hung in the office of former Kentucky Governor Ned Breathitt. Another of his rifles was a gift to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
At the time, Judge Dixon was swamped with future orders, but due to his advanced age, he had stopped accepting additional orders (5).
A quote from York (1) is apt: "There is something special about the graceful Kentucky Rifle. To hold one in your hands is to hold the very history of this state and the history of the nation as well!"
Related articles found in earlier issues of The Kentucky Explorer: (1) October 1986, p. 4; (2) January 1990, p. 53; (3) August 1992, p. 48; and (4) March 1996, p. 45.
Other references: (5) "American Mountain People," The National Geographic Society (1973), pp. 42, 54, 56.
James Clell Neace, 377 Freedom Road, Blackville, SC 29817-4533, is a native of Breathitt County.