Kentucky Rifles: How to Gauge the Quintessential American Firearm
A Kentucky style American rifle by Blunt & Syms of New York. It features a .44 caliber 38-inch octagonal barrel and a back action lock with a double set trigger.
Surprisingly, one of America’s earliest triumphs in artistic and functional design, the “Kentucky rifle,” was not invented or generally fashioned in Kentucky. The name, instead, was coined from a hearty stock of Americans who plied it.
Native Americans called Kentucky the “Dark and Bloody Ground” because of the unending wars between Iroquois and Cherokees for its possession. New Worlders thought of Kentucky as the first Wild West and as a hunter’s paradise.
During the American Revolution, demoralized English officers wrote home about a new type of American-made long-barreled “rifle” that colonial backwoodsmen used with astonishing skill. When the war was won, the new American government paid debts to its officers by offering land grants in untamed land. Claiming their acreage, these adventurers brought their rifles to Kentucky with them.
Near the end of the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans (actually the battle occurred three weeks after a truce was signed in Washington, D.C., in 1814), some 5,000 Americans, including 2,000 Kentuckians with long-barreled guns, under the command of General Andrew Jackson, defeated the British. A popular song written in 1821, “The Hunters of Kentucky” or “The Battle of New Orleans,” forever named America’s rifle.
“But Jackson he was wide awake,
And was not scar’d at trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take,
With our Kentucky rifles…”
The Kentucky rifle was invented and predominantly made in Pennsylvania. A good shooter cost half a man’s yearly wage. Most were used for hunting on a daily basis. They were handed down from generation to generation, and are often found in worn condition today. Antique dealers call this “patina” and charge additional fare for it. Many of the early “flintlock” rifles were converted to the improved “percussion” system in the 1830s. This does not ruin the value of a Kentucky rifle. It is simply a chapter of its life.
The lid of the patchbox is opened by depressing a small button at the base of the stock and impressed with the maker’s name.
Age, artistic beauty, and condition are the most important factors in gauging the value of the world’s most sought-after firearm. A classic specimen is stocked in native American tiger stripe maple. (Dealers note: Tiger maple is almost never found in European furniture and thus is evidence of valuable American origin.) A rare colonial “transition era” (1715-1775) flintlock specimen in a plain grain of maple, walnut, cherry or birch, can command a huge sum. Keep in mind, most plain-wood Kentucky rifles found today were made during the third generation “percussion era” (1825-1860).
Evolved from mass-produced, short, heavy, large bore “Jaeger” rifles brought to North America by German colonists, the improved arm was designed to meet the challenges of a game-fraught and often dangerous new world. Around the mid-18th century, the rifle developed a long octagonal barrel and smaller bore for taking better aim. The slender slope of the beautiful native-wood stock was carved with shoulder pads and a deep crescent butt plate so that it would comfortable to shoot, lighter to carry, and pleasing to the eye.
The right side of the rifle’s rear-end handle was fitted with a clever new feature -a long narrow box cut into the wood for carrying greased wad patches necessary for shooting. The brass-hinged cover on these “patchboxes” were plain in the beginning but soon this distinctive feature on Kentucky rifles was fashioned in elaborate rococo design with fancy engraving. Often, the left side of the stock was carved with “C” and “S” and foliate scrollwork. Many were inlaid with silver and brass decals like moons, hearts and fish. The Kentucky rifle was not mass produced. Thousands of variations were made in small shops by master gunsmiths. Each is a highly individualistic work of art.
The late Joe Kindig, Jr.—history’s greatest collector of the rifle and one of America’s most preeminent antique dealers—considered the long-barreled guns an expression of American folk art. One of my antique buddy’s, Craig Caba, was a friend of Mr. Kindig’s. “Old Joe collected Kentucky rifles because the best examples incorporate the finest craftsmanship not only in wood, but in iron, brass and silver as well.” Craig told me. “Joe liked the fact the gun was primarily fashioned within the inner part of America instead the big port cities that were strongly influenced by European taste. It’s pure American design.”
The rifle is half stocked in walnut with high quality German silver mounts which are engraved with foliage, pheasants and deer.
Norm Flayderman, the famous military and gun dealer, beautifully sums up the important position Kentucky rifles hold in his book, “Guide to American Firearms and the Values.” “There is likely more lore and romance surrounding the Kentucky rifle than any other American gun, or for that matter, any style of firearm in the world. Quite a few qualities give Kentucky rifles their unique appeal. First, distinctive American flavor; they are truly one of the few indigenous American weapons. Secondly, sheer beauty; they are all attractive and pleasing to the eye. Aesthetically, Kentuckys represent the most handsome of all early-American weapons, ranking with the finest products of Europe. Lastly, for their unparalleled role in the development of American history; from use prior to and during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 to the integral part in forging and expanding the western frontiers.”
A beginning student of Kentucky rifles should know that collectors will generally assign a gun to one of three major classifications.
1.) A Transition Period Piece (1715-1775): German design was still undergoing its transformation. Features: Flintlock hammer, 40-plus-inch barrel, approximately .60 caliber, early examples will have sliding wood patchbox covers, little embellishment. Rare and highly collected.
2.) A Golden Age Rifle (1775-1825): Highest development of American rococo design and gunsmith art. Features: Flintlock hammer, 42- to 46-inch barrel, approximately .50 caliber, sophisticated relief carving, fancy brass & silver patchboxes, stocks are made from the finest grains of wood – usually tiger maple. Highly coveted.
3.) Percussion Phase (1825-1860): Quality weapons made with less artistry. Features: Percussion ignition system hammer, 34- to 36-inch barrel, approximately .40 caliber, relief carving is rare but inlay work is often exceptional, plain brass patchboxes, good quality wood. Like all Kentucky’s, still highly desirable.
Like paintings, a rare signed work (the maker’s name or initials on the barrel or elsewhere) of a great gunsmith artist is an important document of history. Most Kentucky rifle makers, being humble Quakers, signed their work with their workmanship, not their name.
Seldom, do I suggest that a line of antiques is a staple to an honorable antique collection, but just as a cherry tops off a sundae, few household collections of American antiques can be called complete until a handsome Kentucky rifle is found to hang on a favorite wall. A good Kentucky rifle is one place where I make my stand. It is part of America herself.
— by Wayne Mattox
The Blunt & Syms rifle in the photos is for sale through Antique Arms & Armour on GoAntiques.com.
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