Cincinnati’s German-American communities of the latter 1800’s celebrated a springtime festival where people could practice target shooting. The Schuetzenfest originated in 14th century Germany as a military pastime. Contestants at Schuetzenfest used Schuetzen rifles that can be readily identified by their distinctive design. They are usually ornately carved and engraved with shooting and allegorical motifs. The “Swiss style” buttstock tended to be very ornately carved. This served to increase friction against the shooter’s chest and shoulder, in addition to being ornamental.
To allow for steady aim and reduce swaying motion, the Schuetzen rifle had heavy barrels, often weighing fifteen pounds or more. This weight caused recoil and diminished the shooter’s tendency to flinch when pulling the trigger. Lead was sometimes added to the buttstock to counterbalance the heavy barrel.
This German Schuetzen rifle sold for $5,500 at a 2005 auction.
Another engineering feature that enhanced the accuracy of the Schuetzen rifle was a trigger extremely sensitive to the touch, causing less shake to the gun. The buttstocks had an accentuated downward angle, or drop, that naturally positioned it to the shooter’s arm. Buttplates were elongated to hook under the bicep, securing the gun and allowing for greater stability. Extremely accurate sights were standard, but telescopic sights were frowned upon, especially in European matches.
By the turn of the 20th Century, Cincinnati hosted seven Schuetzen societies. In Covington, the Deutsche Schutzen-Gesellschaft was a well-known shooting and recreational society.
The popularity of the Schuetzenfest partly accounts for the rapid growth of the American firearms industry immediately after the Civil War. In 1901, noted author Jack London wrote ten articles for the San Francisco Examiner describing the Schuetzenfest that took place in Oakland’s Shell Mound Park. Celebrities like Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody also helped transform target shooting into a popular pastime.
During World War I, Germanophobia resulted in the gradual disbanding of many German traditions and signaled the decline in popularity of the Schuetzen rifle. Covington’s Schuetzenfest, in fact, was discontinued during World War I and its grounds donated to the Red Cross. Economic hard times that came with the Great Depression and the onset of World War II sealed the ultimate demise of the once celebrated firearm.
• Schuetzen rifles and enthusiasts can be found at shooting events such as the one that takes place annually in Friendship, Indiana.
• German heritage regions such as St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati are good places to locate Schuetzen rifles.
• Inspect rifles carefully, keeping in mind that condition and all original parts are key to maintaining a firearm’s value.
About the Author:
Kentucky native Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Article research by Joe Moran.
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