By Budd Davisson
Exclusively for Airbum.com
photos as credited at end
At this point in America's life span, it has become difficult for the politically correct amongst us to admit that the firearm is as much a part of America's history as Old Glory, the hammer and the horse. The firearm was an integral part of many chapters of our development, most of them heroic, some shameful, but it was there none the less. For the frontiersmen and those carving a nation out of a wilderness, the firearm was at least as critical to their survival as the axe and plowshare.
The development of the firearm in colonial America is actually the story of the development of America itself. Further, in the first century and a half, beginning in approximately 1700, it encompassed the rise of a thoroughly American art form, the Pennsylvania/Kentucky long rifle (although many were also made in Virginia and the Carolinas). In the long rifle, we have an artifact that was forged by the needs of its environment. Then, as time went on, the culture of the people subtle changed it until it became as uniquely American as the jazz and hot rods of a much later era.
The long rifle was a by-product of the settling of the southeast corner of Pennsylvania. When William Penn began sending settlers up the rivers, which came together at Philadelphia like fingers in a glove, he unwittingly set in motion a long-term cultural event. Each of the parties that traveled up into the wilderness used the rivers as their super highways to travel northward because the topography of the land worked against travel east and west. Long lines of parallel ridges made travel via rivers the natural decision. The rivers deposited these groups of settlers in a fan shaped pattern that started in the west near present day Lancaster on the Susquehanna and continued eastward in an arc until they reached the Easton/Nazareth area on the Delaware. This was to become the heart of the American arms industry until the industrial revolution of the early to mid- 1800's developed mass production in the Connecticut River valley and the government established armories at various locations throughout the young nation.
Thinking of Pennsylvania today, it's hard to imagine it at the beginning. Traveling up river for those first travelers must have seemed as if they were being sent to colonize the moon, it was so far removed from the civilization they had known in Europe. Many of the groups were German in origin, but all knew they were going to have to be totally self-sufficient. They couldn't run across town for a bolt or an axe head. They couldn't assume they would have any help in an emergency so, to guarantee their survival, their group had to be completely self-contained. Every skill thought to be needed in their new environment had to be part of the group. This included gunsmiths.
Those early gunsmiths, circa 1700-1725 brought with them the skills and thought patterns, which had been part of their training and practice in Europe. Their rifles, called jaegers (hunter), were stocky, short barreled weapons (30") usually of .60 caliber or larger and often were smooth bore. The butt stocks were thick and their general outline was purposeful but hardly graceful. They did, however, incorporate the German fetish for function and their flint ignition locks worked reliably.
As Jaegers wore out and were gradually replaced by locally produced rifles, the Pennsylvania environment began to have several effects. For one thing, knowing that they couldn't easily replace the powder and ball expended each time they pulled the trigger, accuracy became critical. Each time they pulled the trigger, they wanted to be bringing home a buck or a squirrel. Where the jaegers in Europe were primarily target shooting or hunting for sport, in the new land, shooting was a matter of survival.
Accuracy with any weapon is driven by many factors, but prime amongst those is the distance between the front and the rear sights. The longer the distance, the more finely the marksman can control where the lead ball will go. This begs for a longer barrel. The longer barrel gives yet another side benefit in that the ball spends more time captured in the barrel with the expanding gases pushing it faster and faster. There is a point of diminishing returns with this concept, obviously, as friction and expansion space become part of the equation. However, there was no way those early gunsmiths could measure the velocity of their bullets, so, as far as they were concerned, longer was better, when it came to velocity and accuracy. By the 1750's the length was continually being increased until the standard barrel was 42"-44" in length with four feet not being uncommon.
The original Jaeger barrels were good sizes chunks of iron, usually measuring at least1 1/8" across at the breech end. Make a barrel like that three and a half feet long and you have 12 to 14 pounds to lug around the woods. Not a lot of fun and not very practical. At some point beginning around 1760 someone figured out that a high speed, slightly smaller ball, killed just as easily as the huge, lumbering lumps of lead being thrown by the jaegers. In addition, the number of balls that could be cast from a pound of lead jumped astronomically. A pound of lead will yield only 17 .64 caliber balls while over 37 .50 caliber balls can be cast and 51 each of .45 caliber. Also, the woodsman was just as likely to be killing squirrels as bucks, so a smaller caliber wouldn't mangle the smaller game as much. If they were going after bigger game with the smaller ball, they just poured more powder down the barrel to push the ball faster. This gave rise to a general trend that for the next 50-75 years would see the caliber decrease gradually to the point that .40-.50 caliber would be common by the turn of the century. This also meant the barrels could be slimmer and, therefore, lighter. As the long rifle spread into other regions of the country, including the south, and small game became the primary target, calibers worked down even further until .32 was common and .28 wasn't unknown. These were true "squirrel rifles."
Many jaegers had a curiously shaped octagonal barrel that carried over into the earlier forms of American long rifles. This barrel, termed "swamped," tapered from the breech towards the muzzle then, at approximately ten inches to a foot from the muzzle end, it would flair out again. The practical reason for this has never been fully explained, although it does shift the center of gravity of the barrel back closer to the shooter's hands giving the firearm much better balance. If, however, that's the reason, why flair it back out towards the muzzle? In all probability, it is a stylistic trend. At any rate, this type of barrel began to disappear by the 1790's and, by the turn of the century, was seldom seen, having been replaced by the much easier to manufacture straight octagonal barrel.
Incidentally, in case you're wondering, barrels locally manufactured used using two basic methods. One involved taking several five or six foot long ribbons, or "skelps", of iron roughly half inch thick and an inch wide and hammer welding them together at one end while red hot. Then these strips were heated and wrapped around a mandrel before being hammer welded together and forged to a rough octagonal shape. The mandrel was withdrawn (that must have been a fun job!), the hole was bored smooth and straightened, then rifled in a home made rifling bench, one groove at a time.
A second method involved folding a thick, single piece of metal around the mandrel lengthwise. This was hammer welded smooth along the bottom in a scarf joint. This produced barrels that sometimes split along the seam with heavy loads.
The octagonal shape, which was initially hammered into the rough blank, was draw-filed to final shape by hand, although water driven grinders were undoubtedly used in larger production shops.
As the rifles developed, a curious trend started in which each location or township developed distinctive styles not only in decoration but in general shape. Some of these locations are no more than 15 miles apart, but the difficulty in traveling that distance, meant the artisans worked in relative isolation so their ideas were less influenced by those far away. Each of these styles, which are termed "schools", were named after their location (Lebanon, Reading, Dauphin, etc). While generalities can be made concerning the differences in the styles it's dangerous to take these as concrete rules. In the first place, gunsmiths often migrated from one part of the territory to another, taking their ideas with them. Also, as time went on, the styles changed and, in some areas, the styles changed faster than in others. A classic example of that is the general shape of the butt stocks.
Through out the region, as time passed, the butt stock became thinner and thinner. Where the jaeger had a flat, 2"-2 1/4" or thicker butt plate (picture a full dimensioned 2 x 6) that had little curve to it, the butts gradually worked their way down to 1 1/2" and less thick. Also, the flat shape of the butt plate gave way to an increasingly curved surface. By the time flintlock ignition began to give way to the percussion cap, roughly 1840, the rifles were extremely thin and the curve of the butt plate was sometimes quite exaggerated.
The side-view shape of the butt was another of the distinctive differences from area to area. Nazareth and Bucks county, on the east, retained straight lines, similar to the jaeger, where, on the other extreme, barely 25 miles away, in Bethlehem, rifles often had extremely curved shapes, sometimes termed "Roman nose" stocks. Travel less than an hour further and the stocks become very linear as is typical of rifles from the Lancaster area.
Lancaster County was one of the first areas settled and was incorporated in 1729. It was to become one of the pronounced centers for arms manufacturing and its craftsmen became well known for their style and execution. Several generalities about rifles from this area during the "golden age" (1770-1840) can be made: The butt stocks tend to be straighter, with fewer curved top lines than the rest of the schools and their brass patch boxes, usually engraved, often worked daisies into their motif. This is the school we've chosen to replicate in the accompanying construction article.
The wood of choice was tightly striped "tiger stripe" or "fiddle back" maple. Maple was plentiful in the Pennsylvania hills although only 5% of the red maple trees had curl and less than .5% of the denser sugar maples had it. However, once a good sized tree with curl was felled, it would yield enough stock blanks to keep a number of gunsmiths busy for some time.
It is likely that for every rifle using fancy wood, there were dozens made using a more common grades of wood. The survival rate, however, greatly favors the higher quality rifles because they existed in more up-scale social environments and their quality was recognized and protected throughout their lives. The more mundane rifles rarely survived to modern times because they were kept working until they were used up.
Maple is tough and light, but the colorful curly grain made it extremely difficult to work because each curl represents a partial reversal of the grain. Patience, wasn't a virtue, it was a necessity. The wood, nearly white in its natural state, was stained with a variety of compounds which darkened the softer grain more quickly causing the stripes to stand out. It was then usually rubbed down with many coats of boiled linseed oil.
In almost all cases, by 1840, styling had begun to get extreme, with random brass and silver inlays, less graceful lines, and no raised, rococo carving. In addition a huge trade had developed in plain, utilitarian pieces destined for the frontier, which had long since moved passed them by.
As man pushed west, the character of the rifle changed with the environment. The horse became the preferred method of travel and a slim wristed, long barrel weapon, exquisite though it may appear, was too cumbersome and entirely too fragile for the rigors of the new life. Also, the further west they went, the increased size of the game demanded a harder hitting firearm.
By the time Ohio was being settled the fragile full stock of the long rifle had begun to give way to a half-stock design with a rib or number of hoops under the barrel to retain the ramrod. Also, the barrels rapidly shrank in length until 36" became a standard, but they were much bigger in diameter and the caliber seldom went above .45. Less attention was paid to decoration and more to function.
The gold rush dragged hundreds of thousands of would-be miners and settlers out into the Great Plains and western mountains where the target was likely to be buffalo, mule deer, bear, Native Americans, or other gold seekers. The size of the balls fired again began to climb with the famed St. Louis Hawken rifles averaging .50-.54 caliber. The Hawken brothers, by the way, descended from a long line of gunsmiths who were there at the very beginning of the settlement of Lancaster, PA.
There is a widespread, and very mistaken, assumption that the muzzle-loading rifle disappeared almost as soon as cartridge arms appeared shortly after the civil war. This couldn't be further from the truth. The average farmer and small rancher couldn't afford one of the fancy new Winchesters or Sharps. Besides, with the exception of being faster firing, the truth is that there wasn't a thing these new fangled arms could do that a well tuned flint or cap lock muzzle loader couldn't do as well or better. Besides, powder and ball was both cheaper and easier to carry than cartridges. Many gunsmiths and small factories were still building muzzleloaders well into the 1880's and many international target teams didn't give up their muzzleloaders until long after that time. Some of the best examples of surviving long rifles exist today because, as late as the 1930's in areas of the rural south, "granddaddy's" rifle was brought down from the attic every hunting season to gather that year's quota of venison.
The muzzle-loading rifle, which many feel reached its zenith in the long rifles of the 1770-1800 period, is an artifact from a time and culture that we shouldn't forget. We were a proud nation then and we are a proud nation now. The "a gun is a gun and they are all for killing" mind-set which is permeating much of the press as well as a new generation, ignores, or can't appreciate, the art of the gun or its place in history. It is my hope that through some of the articles we're going to present on the subject of firearms, that a segment of the population which seldom thinks about firearms will reflect on the true legacy which they have left us.