The Kentucky Rifle
In the first part of the 18th century, a wave of Lutheran and Reformed German immigrants started arriving in Pennsylvania, a good many of them bringing Old World gunsmithing skills with them. When they adapted their expertise to meet the necessities demanded of the New World, they invented a new kind of firearm, the Kentucky rifle, which would soon exert a major impact on the development of colonial North America.
Owing to the Quakers’ pacifist dislike of their trade, these artisans moved on from Philadelphia to found communities elsewhere in Pennsylvania, the most famous being Lancaster, established in 1718 about 70 miles west of the capital. While Lancaster was only a trading post and several log cabins, the land surrounding it contained seams of iron ore and tracts of maple and walnut trees, which the German smiths adopted as their favored materials for gunstocks. Lancaster also formed a gateway to the boundless wilderness beyond, ensuring a steady demand among rangers, trappers, explorers, and hunters for well-crafted, reliable, and, perhaps most important, accurate weapons.
Those accustomed to muskets found the typical German firearm an odd-looking gun. Significantly shorter and stubbier than an English-made weapon and equipped with a finer set of rear and front sights than any musket, its most intriguing aspect was the grooves carved inside the barrel (which was smooth in other makes of gun). The weapon was commonly known as a “Jäger rifle.”
In the late 15th century, gunsmiths in the Alpine regions of southern Germany and northern Switzerland had experimented with carving several straight parallel grooves inside a few musket barrels, to see whether they could reduce fouling—the sludgelike gunpowder residue blown down the barrel after a discharge. Contemporary black powder did not burn efficiently, and so whatever was left quickly built up, posing a danger to the shooter if a stray spark ignited it. Gun owners cleaned their barrels frequently, often after every couple of shots. But the narrow grooves acted as canals, draining off residue from the bore’s surface, thus requiring less cleaning. Around 1450 some bright (and, as so often in the early history of firearms, anonymous) German gunsmith cut spiraled grooves instead of straight ones. A helical pattern would not only present a greater surface area to trap residue, but also impart a deadly spin to the ball as it hurtled down the barrel.
Guns with such helical slots were soon dubbed riffeln (from the German verb for “to cut or groove”) to distinguish them from ordinary smoothbores. A bullet fired from the latter would bounce and scrape erratically along the inside of the barrel and assume whatever angle of flight its last contact with the muzzle determined. While the difference between the two was initially almost imperceptible, velocity, weather conditions, and distance to the target amplified the smoothbore bullet’s drift by as much as several feet. Long experimentation among rival gunsmiths revealed that a rifle bullet picked up spin from the grooves only if it gripped the inside of the barrel very tightly. Whereas a smoothbore shooter merely dropped a ball down the barrel so that it rolled down, a rifleman used a bullet cast slightly larger than his weapon’s bore and hammered it down as far as possible, using a wooden mallet and a six-inch metal spike. A final series of taps with a strengthened ramrod shoved the bullet into the chamber. That took work—and extra time—although by 1600 shooters had discovered that bullets wrapped in a thin greased patch of leather slid down more easily.
These changes greatly improved weapons’ performance, but they remained largely unknown outside Germany—in large part because rifle boring was a skilled-labor–intensive and expensive process: carving the spiraled groove required a specialized machine. Only a highly experienced craftsman could ensure that the barrel was perfectly straight. As a result, rifles cost considerably more than plain smoothbore muskets.
But they enabled German hunters to shoot bears, stags, and chamois from as far as 200 yards away in the rugged Alps, something not possible with muskets. While swirling wind eddies wreaked havoc upon a smoothbore’s trajectory and velocity, they had much less effect on a rifle-fired bullet. As early as 1487, shooters were competing in target competitions. By the 1580s the rifle was a relatively common sight in these circles, but in general it remained a niche product with a reputation as being useful for experts only. By 1650 its butt had been redesigned to fit sturdily against the shoulder for greater stability, and it sported the most modern flintlock ignition system available. This was the gun that the Germans took to America.
Accordingly, by 1719 the Swiss-German Martin Meylan had built a workshop in Pennsylvania to bore out gun barrels; two years later Peter Leman was making rifles at Leman Place, a village a few miles east of Lancaster. To serve gun buyers and the burgeoning population, taverns, stores, and inns sprang up along the winding trails linking the isolated settlements, as did outposts providing frames for hunters to stretch and dry their deer, bear, wolf, and panther skins.
By 1730 guns were the area’s most lucrative business, and men with such names as Roesser, Stenzel, Albrecht, and Folecht were making good livings manufacturing rifles. By 1815 no fewer than 60 gunsmiths, each with his own particular style and specialty, worked in Lancaster County.
Between their arrival and the outbreak of the Revolution, these gun makers created the “Kentucky rifle,” perhaps so named because of stories circulating in the early 1770s about Daniel Boone’s distant explorations west of the Cumberland Mountains. At the time any territory so far removed was generally referred to as “Kentucky” (today it embraces both Kentucky and Tennessee). A second theory traces the name to “The Hunters of Kentucky,” a song popularized after Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans during the War of 1812. Its lyrics mark the first appearance of the term “Kentucky rifle” in print. It is equally possible, however, that the term had long been commonly used but never written down.
Whereas the original German Jäger rifle barrel measured on average between 30 and 36 inches long, American rifle makers extended theirs to between 40 and 48 inches. The extra length yielded more efficient combustion of the powder, thereby reducing fouling and maximizing the propellant force, while quieting the rifle’s report and serving to balance the weapon for improved handling. Because the physical forces were more evenly distributed, gunsmiths could lighten the weight of the barrel and fashion a weapon more graceful and slender than the Jäger.
A key ancillary effect of the longer Kentucky barrel was the reduction of caliber. Jäger bores, and those of many smoothbore muskets, averaged .65 of an inch (and there were many monsters of .75 or even .80), while Pennsylvania makers slashed them to between .45 and .50. The smaller bullets made for major economies. Out of a single pound of lead, for instance, a shooter could mold 11 balls for a .75 caliber rifle, but more than triple that—36—for a .50 caliber. Such a difference could mean life or death to a hunter on a months’- or even year-long expedition into the wilderness.
While many Europeans of the time intuitively believed that a large bullet was more effective than a smaller one, any projectile’s lethality actually hinges on multiple factors, especially the proportion of gunpowder to bullet size. British colonel George Hanger, regarded as one of the Enlightenment’s finest shots, observed that American riflemen during the Revolution “never put in more powder than is contained in a woman’s thimble.” Even so, owing to the bullet’s light weight, “they will carry [i.e., load] more than half the weight of the ball in powder.” By contrast, sportsmen in London could use no more than a quarter of their bullets’ weight. By this measure, an American ball weighing 200 grains (a gram equals 14.43 grains) would be boosted by 100 grains of powder, and a British ball of 400 by an identical amount. Thus a British shooter would load the same amount of powder as an American, but the heavier ball would travel slower and less certainly. “What the smaller ball loses by its want of weight,” wrote Hanger, “is most astonishingly compensated for, by the triple velocity given to it, from the great increase of the powder.”
Hanger found that the American method and style of shooting were distinct from anything found in Europe. Nowhere else was accuracy so worshipped as in colonial America. Lengthening the barrel, for instance, increased the distance between the rear and front sights, enabling the shooter to take a more precise bead on his target. Some riflemen even purchased a long, narrow brass or iron tube about half an inch in diameter that could be screwed onto the top of the barrel to function as a rudimentary “telescopic” sight. (Even if the contraption lacked a magnifying glass, it certainly aided concentration.)
American riflemen refused to “guess” how much powder to use for their weapons. After purchasing a new rifle, they would rest its muzzle on snow or a bleached cloth and fire it. If it spat out unburned residue, they would reduce the powder load and try again, repeating the process until no stains appeared on the background. Then they would fashion a powder flask or charger that would dispense the right amount down the barrel. For longer ranges, where the ball would be buffeted by the wind and retarded by air resistance, they would increase powder to raise the muzzle velocity and flatten the ballistic arc; correspondingly, they would cut it to improve accuracy by reducing recoil at shorter distances. To hit enemies who thought themselves out of range, Davy Crockett occasionally increased the muzzle velocity of a .40-caliber flintlock nicknamed “Old Betsey” to a remarkable 2,500 feet per second from the normally 1,600 feet per second (not that Crockett knew these specific data) by loading it with six fingers of gunpowder. During hard times he conserved his ammunition and powder by sawing bullets in two and halving his charge.
While hunting with guns in Europe was reserved for the privelaged, gun ownership on the American frontier was common if not universal. When a boy was 12 or 13 years old, wrote clergyman Joseph Doddridge in 1824 of the typical 18th-century Virginian and Pennsylvanian, he “was furnished with a small rifle and shot pouch. Hunting squirrels, turkeys and raccoons soon made him expert in the use of his gun.” He was taught never to shoot offhand—from a standing position, steadying the weapon against his shoulder—if he could help it. Rather, he was to use a rest—such as placing moss on a log or bracing the rifle against the side of a tree—to steady his fire. Marksmanship was of paramount importance to the American frontiersman.
Word of this intriguing new form of weapon soon spread west and south, followed by a younger generation of gunsmiths who had learned the trade from their emigrant fathers. The Carolinas, the Ohio River country, Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee all witnessed an influx of German-trained smiths. Virginia west of the Tidewater area, in particular, was a hotbed of rifle ownership from the early 1750s.
Until automation emerged in the first third of the 19th century, each and every part of a rifle was crafted in a gunsmith’s own minifactory, which turned out between 15 and 30 guns each year—thereby excluding outsiders from the process and preventing unapproved competitors from setting up shop. To further protect the secrets of the craft, the gunsmiths’ apprenticeship structure was by far the most onerous of any trade: teenagers served their masters for no fewer than eight years to learn the mysteries of engraving metal, casting brass, assembling complex firelocks, carving wood, forging metal parts, and rifling barrels.
Rifles found especially eager customers among the Indians. For the colonists, the most alarming aspect of this preoccupation was how well these firearms fitted traditional Indian ways of warfare—and threatened to make them deadlier and more effective. When first encountering hostile Indians, English settlers (especially those with a soldiering background) recorded their surprise at how different native people’s way of warfare was from their own. In European warfare of the time, troops formed into long, thin lines, spread across a chosen field of battle and rigidly marshaled by their officers and noncoms. They would fire a volley or two from their muskets, then advance toward the enemy army with fixed bayonets. Essentially, then, late 17th- and 18th-century warfare was based on three factors: volume of fire, officer-imposed discipline, and shock combat at close quarters. By contrast, Indians relied on individual accuracy, initiative, and surprise. Where Europeans insisted on decisive clashes of arms in the open field, Indians preferred guerrilla attacks in the woods.
Wilderness fighting favored fleet, camouflaged, loosely organized bands of men traveling light and adept at using trees, ravines, and rocks to pick their targets and snipe at the enemy before moving to another hiding place. Indians’ favored strategy was to operate behind screens of scouts who alerted them to lay ambushes along rivers or paths through ravines. Such attacks nearly always were made from a distance, using rifles or bows, for it was a rash chief who engaged trained soldiers in hand-to-hand fighting.
Eventually colonists adapted to wilderness fighting (and frontier living) by adopting Indian methods. So it was that while schoolboys in New York toiled over their Latin declensions, young men on the frontier learned how to imitate “the noise of every bird and beast in the woods,” as Doddridge wrote of western Pennsylvanians after the French and Indian War; the “imitations of the gobbling and other sounds of wild turkeys often brought those keen eyed and ever watchful tenants of the forest within the reach of the rifle.”
Perceptive commanders soon discontinued the typical European practice of marching through the woods in a body, instead advancing with at least several yards separating each man. They trained their troops to scatter and take cover if attacked. No longer would they plunge forward in a targetlike line but instead creep silently forward on their bellies once a scout detected the enemy. Most important, to avoid ambushes the best officers and frontiersmen never left a swamp or forest by the same path they had entered.
Still, sometimes officers had to be sufficiently flexible to rely on the old imported methods of mass, volume, concentration, and discipline. Consequently, between King Philip’s War and the French and Indian War, an authentic American way of warfare evolved on the frontier, its doctrine an admixture of European and Indian practices. It relied much more heavily on individual enterprise (symbolized by the rifle and accuracy) than was acceptable in Europe; yet it was also more disciplined (symbolized by the mass-firing muskets and bayonets) than anything previously seen in America. Colonists on the defensive might still use the tried-and-true European tactic of forming the infantry into lines, but these were lines that took advantage, Indian style, of any available cover. Likewise, they learned that, when taking the offensive, they needed to combine firepower with loose, fluid movements rather than remaining in a static line and moving directly forward.
In the hands of the most masterful commanders, the fusion of New and Old World ways could prove devastating against stiff European formations and mobile Indian ambushes alike. The famed Kentucky rifle—a weapon slow to load but devastatingly accurate in the hands of a master—would usher in a new era of warfare, heralding the birth of American individualism in battle.
Adapted from American Rifle: A Biography by Alexander Rose. © 2008 by Rosewriter, Inc. Printed with permission of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, Inc.