Published: September 18, 2012
While it has often been misnamed “The Kentucky Rifle” because of its use on the early trans-Appalachian frontier and because of a ballad written about the Kentucky frontiersmen and their rifles in the Battle of New Orleans, the long rifle actually originated in southeastern Pennsylvania. It all began in Lancaster County and, according to scholars, it should rightfully be called the Pennsylvania rifle or the American long rifle.
A landmark exhibition of Pennsylvania long rifles, “The Lancaster Long Rifle, The Golden Age of an American Art Form,” is on view at the Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum through December. With guest curators Patrick Hornberger and John Kolar, both well-known authorities in the field, the exhibition was sponsored by the Richard C. von Hess Foundation.
Lancaster County, when established in 1729, included a vast area that later became York, Adams, Perry and other counties. By midcentury, it had been reduced in size to include present-day Lancaster, Lebanon and Dauphin Counties. This area became the center of arms manufacturing for several reasons. First, it had an abundance of iron-ore, limestone and other natural resources; second, it had rivers and streams for the development of water power and transportation. In addition, it was on the “Great Wagon Road” of colonial America, transiting the Appalachian Valley from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, as well as the main route to the west connecting Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and the Ohio Country.
The most important reason, however, was the immigration and settlement patterns of early European, especially German, artisans and craftsmen. By 1785, there were well more than 100 gunsmiths, rifle barrel makers and locksmiths working in Lancaster County. The competition bred quality, innovation and artistry. To most of the men heading west, their rifle was their prize possession and their lives often depended upon its use. Many of these firearms were adorned with finely engraved silver work and rococo carving that was equivalent to anything produced in colonial America. Others were less decorative and more utilitarian in nature. All of them had the reputation for accuracy in the hands of an experienced frontiersman.
This exhibition tells the story of the evolution and development of the Pennsylvania long rifle from the German wheellock to the post-Civil War percussion rifles manufactured by Henry Leman. There are more than 75 firearms on view, including some of the finest known examples. Many are from museums; others are on loan from private individuals. Through the efforts of Joe Kindig III, there are 19 rifles from his famous collection. Most of the firearms have never been viewed by the public.
European firearms in the exhibit include a wonderfully carved walnut stocked wheellock by Peter Dobringer of Wels, Austria, circa 1670, and the only known example of a full silver-mounted English fowler by Thomas Ketland, circa 1775. American long rifles of significant artistic merit include those manufactured by gunsmiths Andreas Albrecht, Jacob Dickert, J.P. Beck, Isaac Haines, John Newcomer, Joel Ferree, John Hagey, Peter Berry and Martin Shell, just to mention a few. A highlight of the exhibition is a long rifle from the Kindig collection by Haines. It is stocked in Honduras mahogany with rococo carving equivalent to that found on the finest Philadelphia furniture of the period.
Silver-mounted American flintlock pistols are rare, but the exhibit has several, including a pair made by Jacob Sees, with brass barrels that date to the late 1780s or early 1790s.
John Philip Beck is considered one of the great early artisans that worked in Pennsylvania. Even to the novice antiques collector, his name is most often associated with the American long rifle. The exhibit has on loan from the William DuPont collection one of the finest examples of Beck’s work. It was manufactured just before the end of the American Revolution and is stocked in fine curly maple with intricate rococo carving and silver wire inlay. The underside of the barrel is engraved “INRI,” an abbreviation for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.
Early gunsmiths are often thought of as only tradesmen or artisans; few realize that some became famous in their own right. Jacob Dickert was a true entrepreneur and businessman. In his later years, he plied his trade well and employed many workmen to manufacture arms for the state and federal governments. Dickert was active in the Moravian Church and subscribed to the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. This was one of the first great highways built in America and was finished in 1790. William Henry started as a gunsmith. He, too, was active in the Moravian Church. After the American Revolution, he served two terms in the Continental Congress and was the treasurer of Lancaster County.
Along with the artistic elements, a number of the firearms in the exhibit are historically important. The “Miller Block House Rifle” was manufactured by gunsmith Joel Ferree in the late 1770s. Many believe it is the same rifle used by Ann Hupp on Easter Sunday in 1782 to fend off a Shawnee raiding party that had murdered her husband and Jacob Miller. The incident took place near Dutch Fork Lake in what is now Washington County, Penn. She was able to use the rifle to defend the block house until help arrived.
Another wonderfully raised carved rifle manufactured by Dickert was probably taken to England during the American Revolution as a war trophy. It was brought back to the United States about 50 years ago. Both the barrel and butt plate are stamped with Irish registration numbers. Because of these numbers, we know that this rifle was in the city of Dublin in 1843. Unfortunately, the history of ownership was lost during the Irish Civil War when the Four Courts building was destroyed by fire in 1921.
One of a pair of silver-mounted pistols manufactured by J.P. Beck and owned by the Dauphin County Historical Society is on display. The other was stolen from the society in 1941 when the society moved to the John Harris Mansion. This surviving example was made entirely by Beck at the onset of the American Revolution for Colonel Robert Clark, who served from 1777 to 1782 as an officer of the Sixth and Ninth Battalion of Lancaster County. This pistol, because it was made by one of America’s great early gunsmiths, and because of the Revolutionary War use, is considered by many to be a national treasure.
H.E. Leman Manufacturing became synonymous with Lancaster in the 1840s. Henry Leman, who was born in Lancaster in 1812, apprenticed with gunsmith Melchior Fordney and later worked for the Tryon Company, a Philadelphia gun manufacturer, from 1831 to 1834. He then returned to Lancaster and started arms manufacturing on a large scale. Leman actively pursued the Indian trade and in 1837 received his first government contract. He quickly became famous for quality and transacting business with courtesy and honesty. Although he refused to manufacture anything but muzzle-loading firearms, his products varied from rifles to pistols to shotguns. This diversity kept his business alive and well until long after the end of the Civil War. The exhibition contains one of the most diverse collections of Leman firearms ever displayed, including superb examples of Indian trade rifles.
Accouterments such as powder horns and rifleman’s hunting bags are also displayed. Animal horns, especially those from oxen and cattle, were the plastic of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. A horn from an ox was boiled until all the pitch could be removed. It was then scraped smooth. Reheated, it could be flattened or shaped into all kinds of forms. Properly fabricated, it made a lightweight, waterproof container, ideal for transporting and dispensing gunpowder. The powder horns on view were all made in Lancaster County, including an example with raised panels and engraved with folky designs, which came from the direct descendents of Peter Ferree in the late 1960s. Members of the family remember it as passing from one generation to the next.
Animal hide from cattle or deer was the material of choice for the rifleman’s hunting bag, as it proved to be both durable and relatively waterproof. A typical rifleman’s bag, as exhibited, contained those items that were essential for survival on the frontier. They included a powder measure, bullet mold, a jag for “pulling a charge,” screwdriver, cast lead balls and buck shot, patching material, flints, a priming horn and patch knife.
Much has been written about the Pennsylvania long rifle in the past, and the curators and authors of this exhibit have attempted to further scholarship by building on the initial work of Captain John Dillin, Henry Kauffman, Joe Kindig Jr and others. New information has revealed that there were two gunsmiths named Martin Shell, father and son, who worked in what is now Lebanon County. Great effort has been made to dispel some myths surrounding the subject, such as that of Martin Mylin, who was supposed to be Lancaster County’s first gunsmith and working in the 1730s. However, the only known rifle attributed to his manufacture dates 1810 to 1820, a full 50 years after his death.
A full color, hardbound book titled The Lancaster Long Rifle serves as an exhibition catalog. Coauthored by Patrick Hornberger and John Kolar, it is available for $65 from Eastwind Publishing Company, 4302 Baildon Road, Trappe, MD 21673.
The Landis Village and Farm Museum is at 2451 Kissel Hill Road. For information, www.landisvalleymuseum.org or 717-569-0401.
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