Building A Pennsylvania Longrifle
Aug 15, 2013 in News
“Building a Pennsylvania Longrifle”
By Dave Ehrig
“Pennsylvania is where it originated and, with very few exceptions, that’s where it was made. I guess it shouldn’t matter, but it does. After all, that old flintlock not only was the first truly American firearm, but it also played an important role in shaping a wilderness into what is now the United States of America. And that’s something we Pennsylvanians shouldn’t shrug off.” Ned Smith
Ever since Pennsylvania’s first “Special Flintlock Deer Season” in 1974, flintlock deer hunters have walked into the fields and forests of the KeystoneState with a myriad of muzzleloader choices. The early years witnessed antique longrifles and half-stocked Hawken Rifles loaded with black powder and patched roundballs. In the middle years of the late 1980s and 90s, hunters succumbed to the “new and improved” sabotted bullets, replica powders and in-line ignition.
As deer hunters welcomed the first decade of the new millennium, synthetic stocks and scoped added to the potpourri of so-called “primitive” rifles. But in spite of the many forces of change, the one thought that pervaded the hearts and minds of muzzleloaders was: “One day, I will carry a Pennsylvania Longrifle”
So what is this powerful idea that refuses to go to sleep into the pages of history? The very idea that one can and should build their own Pennsylvania Longrifle is so bold and profound a concept that most people are awestruck by the thought. And yet, the construction of this historic and functional piece of colonial art is not all that difficult with hand tools! In fact, there are probably more contemporary builders today than all of our ancestors’ 18th and 19th Century longrifle gunsmiths combined.
To begin your quest, start with a bit of research before you launch into the melding of metal and wood. While the internet has gobs of well-meaning websites for your visitation, few are verifiable as to authenticity and fact.
Over the years, our sport has reliably grown due to the contact and first-person conversations with working gunsmiths. While great longrifle gunsmiths are scattered throughout all of the KeystoneState’s counties, one of the best places to meet many of the best gunsmiths in the country is on the site where most of them gather annually and compete for business. Apprentices and master gunsmiths alike will have their product judged by a jury of their peers. This large annual gathering is at Dixon’s Gunmakers Fair, located 2 miles north of the Krumsville Exit (just north of KutztownUniversity) of Interstate 78 on Route 737.
At some point, you will need to define the style or “school” of stock architecture that your rifle will emulate. That takes a bit of reading and museum hopping. Early Lancaster flintlock longrifles have a distinctly different look to their stock profile than Berks or LehighValley rifles. In fact, collectors have identified12 primary schools and 8 associated schools, according to Tim Lubenesky, President of the Kentucky Rifle Association. “This is the reason why we have exhibited the 12 schools that are on display at the PA Longrifle Museum at the Jacobsburg Historical Society campus, east of Christian’s Spring and Nazareth.
Each year at the Kutztown Folk Festival (www.kutztownfestival.com, the JHS/PA Longrifle museum volunteers display PA Longrifle construction, powder horn and leather bag craftsmen, and a working 18th Century rifling machine. To understand how the intricacies of rifling, grooves and barrel length affects flintlock roundball velocity, stability, and accuracy, it helps to talk to the gunsmiths who have had experience with antique guns and the interpretation of those old skills into new rifles. Moreover, they are their to share there skills and experience with both Transitional (early 17th and 18th Century rifles which were evolving from European Jaegers and longrifles) as well as the high art of the Golden Age Flintlocks.
The Golden Age of Pennsylvania Longrifles evolved at the hands of gunsmiths from about 1776 to 1825. They were trained as apprentices by the masters in Lancaster, Nazareth, Allentown/Bethlehem, Kutztown, Alameangal, Womelsdorf-Reading, Lebanon, Dauphin, York, Littlestown, Emmitsburg and Chambersburg schools of longrifle styles. Using the same hand tools, native hardwoods and wrought iron, training and competition led to the development of highly artistic locks, stocks and barrels. While most of the early longrifles carried simple incised carvings, Golden Age Longrifles exhibited intricate, raised relief carvings on the forearm, lock/tang and under the cheekpiece. Engraved lock plates, brass thimbles, trigger guards, barrels, and particularly the patch boxes exemplified the typical American Rifle. Precious metals of gold, silver and even platinum were inlaid into the barrels, as well as into the intricate relief carvings.
A typical Pennsylvania rifle weighed from seven to nine pounds, with an overall length of a symmetrical fifty-five inches from muzzle to butt plate. Supposedly its .45 caliber ball could kill man or beast at 300 yards or “bark” a squirrel from the tallest tree.
Known also, at a later time (post 1812,) as the “Kentucky” rifle because of the feats performed with it by Daniel Boone and other woodsmen in winning the land beyond the mountains as well as its exploits at the Battle of New Orleans, this superb weapon was the handiwork of several generations of Pennsylvania gunsmiths. Among the better known (just to name a very few,) in addition to the earliest flintlocks by Martin Meylin, others included Andreas Albrecht, Christian Oerter, William Antes, Jacob Dickert, Jacob Kuntz, Melchior Fordney, Peter Niehart, Herman Rupp, Henry Albright, Martin and Daniel Boyer, Matthew and Peter Roesser, Thomas Butler, Jacob Decherd, Peter and Henry Leman, Philip Lefevre, Henry Dreppard, several Pannabeckers, and numerous members of the William Henry family.
Ned Smith’s Pennsylvania Game News cover of December 1974, (Pennsylvania’s renowned wildlife artist) depicted a Golden Age Pennsylvania Longrifle. Perhaps this rifle struck Ned as an “ideal” type of flintlock rifle. He wrote, “A splendid example of the Pennsylvania gun maker’s art which I sketched from the collection of Joe Kindig, Jr., of York, can be seen in the cover painting on this issue. It was built in the early 1800s by David Cooley, who is thought to have worked in Adams County. The drawing shows this rifle to be a slender 58 1/2 inches in overall length with a 41 caliber octagon barrel 41 3/4 inches long. The inlays, including a brass patchbox and a silver cheekpiece oval, are beautifully engraved. The richly figured maple stock is embellished with scroll and boasts cross-hatched carving typical of that era.”
Two years later, at the height of the US Bicentennial Celebration, Ned expressed his feelings about this native folk art in the July 1976 Game News: “Notes on the Evolution of the Pennsylvania Longrifle.” Ned wrote, “For generations it’s been known as the “Kentucky Rifle.” The reference is to that wild country beyond the Alleghenies where it proved its worth. But it’s really the ‘Pennsylvania Rifle,’ often called the ‘Pennsylvania Long Rifle,’ for Pennsylvania is where it originated and, with very few exceptions, that’s where it was made. I guess it shouldn’t matter, but it does. After all, that old flintlock not only was the first truly American firearm, but it also played an important role in shaping a wilderness into what is now the United States of America. And that’s something we Pennsylvanians shouldn’t shrug off.”
The Pennsylvania Longrifle never really left the hearts and minds of artisans, gunsmiths, collectors, hunters and those who cherish this early American legacy. Ned never forgot, Pennsylvanians never forgot, and today, all Americans are remembering and thrilling to the sight of this purely American folk art.
The Pennsylvania Flintlock Longrifle is celebrated as one of the finest works of folk art to have ever come out of Colonial America. But, its history did not end in the 18th Century. Contemporary artisans studied the works of the old master gunsmiths and faithfully recreated contemporary works of art that rival the originals. Hunters have kept the faith by establishing deer seasons which would honor the contributions of their forefathers.
If you are old school and prefer reading a book first, before leaping into a project, there is a classic text that is used my many gunsmiths and their cottage schools across the land. “The Art of Building the Pennsylvania Longrifle” (Ehrig/Miller/Dixon, c1978; in its 14th edition) offers step by step guidance, tool selection, and the many nuances that are involved in building a longrifle. While many of us in the computer generation may take some reeducation in the use of hand tools, the book is straightforward on their use, sharpening, and expediency. Also, the recipes for metal browning/bluing and wood staining and finishing; as well as techniques for wood carving and metal engraving; are invaluable.
Those desiring a more video graphic approach to shaping wood and metal into a Pennsylvania Longrifle, there are DVDs on the market. When I had taught PA Longrifle construction as an adult education class at MuhlenbergCollege back in the 1980s, I used a 1969 Historic Williamsburg (VA) classic film by Wallace Gusler, “The Gunsmith of Williamsburg.” There has been such demand for this acclaimed film that it has been brought back for builders in a DVD format. American Pioneer Video also offers three others: Traditional Gunstocking” with Mark Silver laying out, shaping and inletting wooden stocks; “Building Kentucky Rifles” with Frank and Hershel House, Mike Miller and the late Ron Ehlert demonstrating authentic, traditional skills; all available at www.americanpioneervideo.com.
Two other video self-help videos now on DVD include James Trupin’s “Building Muzzle-Loaders” parts I and II. Turpin demonstrates in a step-by-step manner, the construction of both flintlock and caplock rifles/pistols in a traditional manner. Available at www.primitiveartsvideo.com. Homer Dangler, one of the deans of American Longrifles, teaches building, carving and engraving on DVDs; available at www.homerdangler.com.
Flintlock longrifles are the oldest type of muzzleloader which is still used in hunting. Rifles carrying a full stock, from the heel to the muzzle, were very common during the Eighteenth Century. Names like “Kentucky Rifle” and “Pennsylvania Longrifle” are synonymous with colonial Minute Men, and the Appalachian Longhunters. Daniel Boone’s “Ol’ Tick Licker,” and Davy Crockett’s “Betsy” personified the lock, stock, and barrel of this era. Curly maple stocks, browned octagon barrels, and fiery flintlocks demonstrated their utility, while the brass patch boxes, relief-carved butt-stocks, and silver inlays expressed their frontier expression of art. These were the accurate shooting “widow-makers of the Revolutionary War,” and they extended the influence of the buckskin-clad riflemen up, down, and westward across the Appalachian Mountains. Longrifles, noted for their accuracy, were normally built with calibers in the 40 to 50 range. Most black powder shoots and rendezvous east of the Mississippi, bear witness to the wide popularity of this style of muzzle loader.
In 1710 and again in 1730, two great waves of German immigrants moved into the huge valleys between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers. Many were indentured servants to English masters, others sold most of their worldly goods just to achieve safe passage. But there was one tool which was considered a necessity and was carried across the Atlantic. That tool was the flintlock gun of Europe, the smoothbore musket. Flintlock in ignition, smooth of bore so as to shoot buckshot or roundballs, it was a utilitarian piece used for securing feathered and furred food for the table, and hides for clothing, shoes and harnesses.
Frontier tools like axes and saws as well as flintlocks were used daily. Repairs were frequent and farmers were always looking for better ways to make their lives easier. Hunters quickly noticed that the German “Jaegar” (hunter) rifle and the longer-barreled Swiss Mountain Rifle shot with greater accuracy, and hit with more authority than the old smoothbore musket. The German, Scots-Irish and French Huguenot immigrants who later became a melting pot known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, sought out local gunsmiths and demanded improvements. Martin Meylin, a Swiss gunsmith in the Pequea Valley of Southern Lancaster County, provided a new type of rifle. Foremost in their imagination was a rifle that was capable of hitting a deer-sized target at a hundred yards. Jaegers could do that, but their slow loading procedure of swaging larger-caliber, over bore-sized lead roundballs down the barrel was both expensive and bothersome to a frontiersman. From such humble beginnings, a new rifle emerged.
Fortunately, for those who are smitten by the bug to build their own Pennsylvania Longrifle, there is a class that has been helping apprentices since 2001. At the Belfast Exit of the PA Route 33 of I78, on the campus of the Jacobsburg Historical Society, is a historic barn that houses about eight students each fall and spring. Each student is given their own work station, complete with a gun bench and vise. As they build and relax in the shadow of the 250 year-old Nicholas Hawk, log cabin gunshop, their finished products will be on display at the museum.
It is hard to believe that 250+ years later, the venerable Pennsylvania Longrifle continues its role in hunting, competitive shooting and collections. For many years, George Dech, Rocky Schreck, Scott Shea, Tim Lubenesky and others have been helping new apprentices to the longrifle get their start.
Besides the obvious advantage of having veteran legendary gunsmiths like Jim Correl and Rich Hujsa looking over your shoulder, students are supplied with quality locks, stocks and barrels. By ensuring that each student learns to correctly inlet metal to wood; to properly align locks to barrels; and to create a period correct, school appropriate, and functional deer hunting longrifle, there is an obvious advantage that books and videos cannot provide.
Longrifles take about 60 to 100 hours of dedicated work to complete. But the experience that is handed down from one generation to the next expedites that completion. For more information on the next class at the JHS Longrifle School, contact www.jacobsburghistory.com
Lastly, it is very significant that hunters build Pennsylvania Longrifles. It deserves our respect. Consider its legendary accuracy, art and beauty, history and significance as a Pennsylvania industry, but most of all, consider its legacy. But take pride in this new/old symbol of our Commonwealth. In the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on October 2nd, 2009, it was resolved and declared:
Whereas, Pennsylvania’s gunmaking tradition has played an important role in the development of the United States of America; and
Whereas, During Pennsylvania’s early history, settlers placed chief reliance on their rifles for sustenance, security and survival; and
Whereas, The Pennsylvania Rifle a unique firearm that was different in principle and outline from any other weapon in the world, was developed by skilled gunsmiths in the Moravian communities of Christian’s Spring, Northampton County, as well as by artistic riflemaker Martin Meylin, in Willow Street, Lancaster County; and
Whereas, Playing an important role in the early years of the Industrial Revolution in Pennsylvania and New England, the Pennsylvania Rifle was also instrumental in the American fur trade and was carried west and south by frontiersmen as they set out to expand the boundaries of the nation; and
Whereas, The Pennsylvania Rifle has been lauded for its beauty and craftsmanship, as well as the ingenuity of the skilled gunsmiths who crafted it; and
Whereas, The color combinations, carvings, engravings and graceful slenderness of the Pennsylvania Rifle cause it to stand alone and remain unchallenged as a primary example of early American art; and
Whereas, Future generations should appreciate the heritage of this long barreled rifle, born to artistic gunsmiths in the communities of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: therefore be it
Resolved, that the House of Representatives recognize the significance of the Pennsylvania Rifle in the history of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Keith R. McCall, Speaker