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The Kentucky rifle

An American invention

The Kentucky Rifle is a uniquely American invention, for uniquely American needs. It is the first firearm designed in what was then the colonies, and probably the first mechanical device of any sort designed expressly in the new world.

To trace the origins of the Kentucky rifle, we must go back to the time when the colonies began to expand westward. During the 1700's, most ethnic immigrants had a wide variety of landscape to choose from in the colonies, and so they settled in lands similar to home. Much of Appalachia was settled by Scotsmen, as it’s steep mountains and scarce population were almost identical to the Scottish Highlands. In the case of the Germans, the deep, rolling forests of Pennsylvania were remarkably similar to the Black Forest, both in topography and weather. The relatively settled nature of the area gave easy access to the materials and machinery needed to ply their trade. Thus, it was only natural that the Germans would settle in that area, and German gunsmiths would reproduce the forest hunting rifle.

However, they had their work cut out for them, as the Jaeger rifle was not the optimal solution for the explorer of the American wilderness. Our forests at the time had a few unique qualities about them, which set them apart from the Bavarian forests, or any other.

They're larger. Much larger. The Appalachian forests that ran from New York to Georgia covered more territory than all of Germany.

They were largely unexplored, with settlements being few and far between. The traveler in these forests would have to be self sufficient, as trading posts or other sources of supplies could be weeks away, if you could find them at all.

Travel was done almost exclusively on foot, or occasionally with pack animals. This meant that the intrepid explorer had to carry all supplies on their back to last for several months. Weight became a premium concern. This is complicated by the fact that , at the time, a person could not carry more than a week's food supply with them, if even that. Sustinence would need to be derived from the land.

And, being dense hardwood forests, there isn't much in the way of edible plantlife. The tall trees tend to drown out lesser plants, and a hardwood tree, while magnificent to look at, just doesn't do much for the appetite. If you want to survive in a dense forest, animals are your only consistent food supply. And animals existed in plenty, from rabbits to deer - if you could catch them. Short of setting a trap and waiting, your only choice for surviving in the American forests was a rifle. And unlike a weekend in the Black Forest, running out of food in the Appalachian forests meant starvation.

To meet these needs, the gunmakers had quite a few problems to solve. A rifle to accommodate the Appalachian traveler needed several qualities:

It must be lightweight, and its ammunition must be lightweight. Most traveling was done on foot, with all necessary supplies carried by the person. Given the size of the forests, the relative rarity of trails, and dearth of settlements, the explorer had to carry all necessary items to survive for up to six months. Therefore, the rifle, probably the heaviest single item they would be carrying, needed to place weight at a premium.

It must be accurate. Rifles of the day were slow to load, and a gunshot would scare off any animals nearby. That first shot had to count. One also must consider the limited supply of bullets and gunpowder, carried on the person. With a need to conserve bullets and powder, neither available in the forest, every shot must count.

It must have a minimum of special equipment. Anything relating to the operation of the rifle would have to be carried with the explorer. Loss or breakage of special tools, such as a mallet to drive a bullet into the barrel, would render the rifle inoperable, and leave the explorer out of food.

It must be quick to load. Hostile inhabitants of the woods could descend upon the explorer at any time. While the Indians of the time did not generally have firearms, and had great respect for the person who did have one, they did travel in numbers. Excuse me, can you wait while I prepare my rifle. I'll only be a few minutes... to take this to the extreme, Simon Kenton was reputed to be able to reload his Ky rifle in 12 seconds, while running.

To solve these problems, the gunmakers began to evolve the Jaeger rifle into a firearm suitable for the task at hand. They made several changes, unique to gunmakers in the colonies.

The long barrel. This addressed several needs. The very long barrel allowed for open gunsights that could be used in the dark, shady forest, by virtue of placing the rear sight farther from the marksman's eye. You can't hit it if you can't see your sights. A long barrel tends to fire a bullet more consistently, when differing powder charges are used. Game close, use less powder, bullet still goes in the same place. Those who have fired a reproduction of a Kentucky rifle first note the long barrel, which seems rather difficult to aim, as it is nose heavy. However, take the rifle out into dense hardwood forests, and the solution becomes obvious. There is always a tree nearby to rest a hand on to support the barrel. A shortcoming that goes away when you use the rifle within its design parameters.

The smaller caliber. Lighter bullets weigh less, which is critical when you carry your entire supply on your back, and take less powder to shoot, which is critical when you also carry your entire gunpowder supply in a horn. The typical caliber of a woodsman's KY rifle was in the .40-48 range, adequate for the small game that made up the usual explorer's dinner, but also optimized for weight. Smaller caliber bullets also resulted in much lighter barrels, making not only the ammunition, but the rifle itself, lighter.

The patched round ball. One of the most overlooked innovations of the Kentucky rifle is the patched ball. The Jaeger rifle depended upon a tight fitting bullet to get a good gas seal and insure that most of the gunpowder's gas propelled the bullet. The slightly oversized bullet was hard to start in the barrel, and tended to leave lead deposits behind that affected subsequent shots. Consequently, starting the bullet into the barrel was a tedious affair, with an iron (and heavy) rod and mallet (also heavy) to hammer the bullet into the barrel. To solve these two problems, a brilliant but unknown designer used bullets slightly smaller than the barrel, and a greasy patch of cloth to complete the seal. By doing this, the bullet and patch started easy for fast loading, sealed well for maximum power and accuracy, and required no special equipment for loading. No heavy mallet to carry, or to lose or break, leaving one with no food supply. The patched round ball also gave rise to one of the Kentucky rifle's distinctive characteristics: the patchbox on the rifle stock, with which one could easily store a supply of greased patches, and keep them free of the dirt and debris that would normally stick to a greasy cloth.

The slender stock. What gives a Kentucky its unique, and beautiful, appearance. A slender stock simply weighs less than the massive wood stocks of the Jaeger rifles. This was a tradeoff, light stocks are less stable and more fragile than heavy stocks, but the weight factor comes in again: Carry a heavy rifle, and you can't carry much else. Stability was overcome with a tree, and fragility was compensated (probably) by careful handling. Add the all important patch box in the stock, and you now have the complete picture of this rifle's characteristics.

A uniquely American invention to solve a uniquely American situation. In the process, some uniquely American habits were also created. Traditionally, American soldiers have been, man for man, the best marksmen in the major armies of the world. This relates directly back to their forest exploring ancestors, where marksmanship made the difference between thriving and starving. That weeded out the less than adequate very quickly. American soldiers have also typically kept their firearms the cleanest and most well maintained. Once again, their ancestors learned this the hard way: dirty gun, no shoot, no food, starve.

When the forests had been fully explored, the need for the Kentucky rifle's unique characteristics went away, and so did its manufacture. As exploration moved into the plains territory of mid America, the rifle of choice was the Hawken. Heavier caliber for the larger game, shorter so that it can be fired without a tree for support, a more suitable rifle for the Plains states.

While long rifles were made into the late 1800s, large scale manufacture had died down by the mid 1800's. And so it would, the forests had been fully explored, settlements established, trails and bridges built. There was no need for a firearm that placed accuracy and weight over handling and hitting power.

Today, most of the examples that can be found in museums and collections are the 'Golden Age' rifles from the Lancaster, PA area. One must remember that these rifles, for the most part, are showpieces, elaborately made for rich landowners. As such, they represent the pinnacle of development, and not the origins. To get a true picture of why this rifle's unique characteristics were developed, one must look to the woodsman's rifle, which was rather plain, usually with a walnut stock and iron accoutrements.

It is interesting to note that a rifle of similar porportions evolved elsewhere, at a later date. These long barreled, slender stocked rifles were found in and around the mountains of Afghanistan, and while no recorded history of their evolution is known to exist, the design appears to be primarily for light weight and accuracy, as it was carried by travelers on foot. Who wants to lug a 10 pound rifle up a mountain? Locally, the Afghan rifle is known as a Jezail, and features a deep set stylized stock, usually with percussion lock. The example I have is a matchlock, reported to have been brought out in the mid 1970's, by an enterprising group that went into this region with a few cases of Russian shotguns for trade. The designers of these rifles did have to face one problem not encountered in the US: the Afghan mountains have few trees. For this reason, most Afghan rifles, including the example I have, come with a folding bipod.

Update: Well who would have thought it? I may start an investigation on the Afghan rifle's history after all. I have heard from no less than three members of our armed forces who are stationed in Afghanistan, and have come across these rifles for sale in local markets. I'd love to have one or two of those rifles myself - so if anyone can bring a couple of extras home with them at not too horrible a price, I would be deeply appreciative. And keep your heads down over there - we want all of you to come home and enjoy the peace you've risked your lives to preserve.

What do you call it?

The earliest documentable reference to a generic name for this unique rifle was 1825, and a song about the battle for New Orleans during the war of 1812. The Hunters of Kentucky extolled the virtues of a Kentucky regiment, perhaps a bit too glowingly, but, hey, it’s a song. In it, there is a line about “Kentucky Rifles”. The song contains no description of a long barreled, slender stocked rifle, just one reference to "Kentucky Rifle". For this reason, it is safe to assume that the name was in use prior to 1825, otherwise those hearing the song would have no clue what the lyrics referred to.

It is also called the Pennsylvania Rifle. As a geographical term, there is merit to this name. The bulk of Kentucky rifles were made in Pennsylvania, though examples were made in just about every state in the Union at the time. However, this rifle was not traditionally referred to as the Pennsylvania rifle. The earliest references I’ve found to “Pennsylvania Rifle” dates to 1928, and Dillon’s book, which makes brief use of the term in a later chapter. To put it in perspective, Dillon’s book is titled: “The Kentucky Rifle”. So, we can reasonably assume that Pennsylvania Rifle is probably a 20th century term, with more of an interest in location than historical signifigance. However, if one uses the term “Pennsylvania Rifle” as a measure of geographical accuracy, the actual name would be ‘The Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, and Tennessee Rifle’. That’s a mouthful. And I've probably missed a few states.

Were Kentucky Rifles made in Kentucky? Very few, and most are percussion rifles, built later than 1820. The reason for this relates directly to the reason the rifle was so often used in Kentucky: the dense forests, difficult to pass through. Being hard to walk through on foot, transporting gun making equipment was out of the question. The Northeastern states, with their ports and well developed roads, had ready access to the raw steel and barrel making equipment. It would serve little purpose to have shipped barrels all the way to Kentucky with it’s limited number of trails. Better still, build the rifle elsewhere and carry the completed item to Ky. Three Kentucky based makers come to mind: Joseph Griffith of Louisville, the Settle family of Greensburg, and Mills of Harrodsburg. These were all mid to late 1800s makers, and while the style follows the slender, graceful lines, the period of manufacture made them more of a nostalgic item or a target rifle than a state of the art weapon.

Should it be called the Pennsylvania rifle? A good question. In Connecticut, Samuel Colt invented and made the first repeating pistol, the Colt Revolver. One never hears of the Connecticut pistol, though. Horace Smith and Daniel Beard Wesson devised the first metallic cartridge pistol in Mass. So should any metallic cartridge revolver be named after that state? Now there's a contradiction in terms! In fact, almost no firearms are named for the area that they're made in. Usually, they are named for the inventor, but as no one person invented the Kentucky rifle, that really isnt possible. There is the Springfield rifle, also known as the 03A3, but it is named for the arsenal, not the locale. In any case, this question was supposedly put to rest in the 1960's by the Kentucky and Pennsylvania Historical Societies. They settled the matter with a shooting competition, winner gets naming rights. The Kentucky team handily won the contest.

It is curious to note that a Kentucky Pistol also exists. This is a single shot pistol with a curved grip, and like the rifle, has no real history of being made in Kentucky.

In the end, the historical term “Kentucky Rifle” refers not to it’s location of origin, but the area that molded it’s design, and justified it’s manufacture. When the settlers moved west into the plains area, the rifle of choice was the much shorter Hawken. With pack animals, wagons, and open plains, one could travel easily and carry more food with them, and the absence of trees made the long barrel somewhat unwieldy. Hence, the accuracy and efficiency of the long barrel, and the lower weight of the slender stock, were no longer needed. It was the dense forests of Kentucky that molded the design of this particular rifle. While the rifle could, and was, built outside of Pennsylvania, it would not have existed without the deep, unexplored forests of Kentucky to require its unique characteristics.

Having said all of that, I will close with this simple statement: call it whatever you want to. Over the last 80 years, various historians have come up with new names for this rifle, all insisting that theirs is the 'correct' name. What is the correct name? Whatever you want it to be. Kentucky Rifle is the first recorded name to be applied to this rifle, and certainly one of the most charismatic. Much as I hate to belabor this point, I do get a bit put out with revisionist historians, changing history with as much an eye towards personal glorification as fact.

The fact that I was born and raised in Kentucky, and reside there today, in no way influences my opinion on this subject. Not one bit.

10,279 Posts
One of the nicest studys on the American long rifle that I've read. Thank you! I have a 50cal Hawken that I hunt with but will one day get a Kentucky rifle too. Guess I'd go with flintlock though a combo would be nice too.


9 Posts
Kentucky Rifle indeed

I was also born and raised in the Kentucky Hills. There are a few gun clubs that have old fashon Long rifle shoots. But if you bring your Hawken they will laugh you out of the state.

Teh annual state shoot moves around to certain ranges. These ranges being private clubs. Yet there the only ones big enough to hold the event.

I have shot in two of the events. Couldn't out shot my dad though. it takes skill even with the long rifle.

Though most of the guns back then where made in Pennsylvania, it will forever be a Kentucky Rifle. And i am byest on this. :)

334 Posts
The only downside to a Hawkin is the barrel lenth, mine is only 34 1/4 " long.
But I can shoot higher charges in my 1" cross section barrel.


Still I would like to have a smaller caliber in a Kentucky Rifle.

I too thank you for the post on the good old long arms, got me thinking.

3,467 Posts
sorry, as all I READ of this thread was the TITLE!!!,,,YET!,,,just today ISPIED
a $49 'wall-hanger' muzzle-loader,,,,HAND/HOME-MADE,

galvinized water-pipe upper/in-line igintion/slam-fire smooth bolt-face on the percussion-cap/hand-carved stock/hand-hammered-'fittings',,,,it took untold-hours/sweat to fabricate.

about that rusty-rifled-bore?, [simple],,,SOMEBODY DEARLY LOVED THAT BARREL.

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