Antique Kentucky Rifles



2015-06-26 11:16:44

Antique Kentucky Rifles is the name given to American long rifles, sometimes also known as Pennsylvania rifles, developed in the 1740s and in fashion until the second quarter of the 19th century.

The American frontier around Lancaster, Pennsylvania during the 1740s saw the development of the American long rifle, evolved from German models immigrated with German gunsmiths to the area in the 1620s.Background & history of production

The model was instantly popular, the design often varied but little changed over the course of a century. These rifles took over the popularity of muskets due to greater accuracy. The price paid was a longer time taken to reload, up to a minute. Long rifles could be made entirely by hand, and therefore were suited to the more rural areas of the frontier.

Much of the rifle’s manufacture and use occurred in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky. The design was adopted by numerous gunsmiths all over these areas, who added little touches of their own, mostly for decorative and aesthetic purposes rather than altering the basic model.

The rifles were heavily employed in the War of 1812, and it was after this that the long rifle gained its more well-known, if less correct name, the Kentucky rifle.

To begin with, the design was very plain being handmade in rural areas during the frontier period. However it was graceful, often made from curly maple wood, and began to have more artwork applied as time went on. Gunsmiths were also blacksmiths, wood carvers, brass and silver founders, engravers and wood finishers, and ultimately, many produced quite beautiful weapons. The guns were often also given names by their owners.

The significance of these guns to American history is much appreciated. Captain John G. W. Dillin, in his 1924 book ‘The Kentucky Rifle’, states that these firearms ‘made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately Freed our country of foreign domination’.

Did you know?

The long rifle gained the name ‘The Kentucky rifle’ in great part due to a popular song entitled ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ by Samuel Woodworth. The song tells the story of Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the final battle of the War of 1812. It was used as Andrew Jackson’s campaign song in the 1820s during his Presidential campaigns. One verse states:

‘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’.

Collecting guide

Due to the long time span, large area, and number of gunsmiths the American long rifle was developed and used over and by, it may be worthwhile to focus a collection.

When these rifles were heavily used, corrosion accumulated from firing black powder. This cause the bore to enlarge, so it is common to see re-bored rifles up to larger calibers to keep them shooting accurately.

Price guide and notable auction sales

While Kentucky rifles as a genre are not particularly rare, their scarcity and worth can vary hugely depending on their history, their maker, their owner, their detail of embellishment and decoration etc.

They are sold for between a few hundred up to several thousand, sometimes tens of thousands.

  • Dickert & Gill Kentucky Flintlock rifle, circa late 18th-early 19th century, sold for $18,000 at Rock Island Auction Company in April 2012.
  • John Phillip Beck Kentucky Flintlock rifle, circa 1785-95, sold for $18,000 at Morphy Auctions in August 2009.
  • Leonard Reedy Kentucky/Pennsylvania rifle, circa 1825 with magnificent carved relief, sold for $28,000 by Heritage Auctions, November 2011.
  • Peter Gonter Flintlock Kentucky Rifle, Revolutionary War era, sold for $30,000 by Rock Island Auction Company in April 2012.
  • Leonard Reedy Kentucky rifle, circa 1820s, sold for $64,000 by Morphy Auctions in Februay 2012.
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