Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 127: John Fondersmith Golden Age Smoothbore American Long Rifle

Auction Date: May 14, 2021

Iconic Documented Golden Age John Fondersmith Signed, Engraved, and Relief Carved Percussion Conversion Smoothbore American Long Rifle with Exceptional Symbolic Figural Patch Box and Dragon Relief Carving with Research

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $25,000 - $35,000

Iconic Documented Golden Age John Fondersmith Signed, Engraved, and Relief Carved Percussion Conversion Smoothbore American Long Rifle with Exceptional Symbolic Figural Patch Box and Dragon Relief Carving with Research

Manufacturer: Kentucky
Model: Flintlock
Type: Rifle
Gauge: 54
Barrel: 41 1/2 inch octagon
Finish: unknown
Stock: maple
Item Views: 1090
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 134
Class: Antique

This impressive smoothbore rifle (smooth rifle, possibly originally rifled) is a true work of early American folk art. While early American firearms with carving and engraving are always desirable, this piece has a much higher degree of embellishment than is often found and includes Native American and dragon figures. People and mythical beasts are rarely found among the carving and engraving on early American firearms, especially compared to scroll and floral designs. It was built by Lancaster School gunmaker John Fondersmith of Strasburg Township, Pennsylvania, who was active c. 1779-1803. It is pictured in the included printed copy of the article "J. Fondersmith, Rifle Maker" by Ray McKnight in the Winter 1994 Kentucky Rifle Association Bulletin which provides details on John Fondersmith's life and its designs and interpretations of them are pictured and discussed in detail in the included copy of The American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin #84 from 2001 in the article "J. Fondersmith's Patch Box" by Ray McKnight which ultimately interprets the patch box designs as masonic and representing that "God blessed America." Please see the article for his full interpretations of various elements. McKnight notes that the figures at the tail end of the patch box side plates are Native Americans (identified as female on bottom and male on top) which were often used as symbols of early America and may represent the source of life and rebirth. He also notes that they are seated on crescent platforms that he interpreted to represent the New World/the Americas. Their three feathers he interpreted to symbolize the Christian Holy Trinity and thus represent that God had blessed America. He interpreted the patch box finial to be a god head/the face of God and the three circles at the tip to represent Earth, the Cosmos, and God. Alternatively, they could be representative of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, and God the Father. He points to the three chevrons on the upper side plate and five on the lower as faith, hope, and charity or the Trinity on the top and the five wounds inflicted on Jesus on the bottom and also points to ancient symbolism of the numbers 3 and 5. The portions of the side plates above the Native Americans he sees as the arms of God. If you look at the patch box with the rifle inverted, he suggests the image becomes the Devil represented as the head of a goat and also notes that the three "petals" of the finial represent a lily, the resurrection of Jesus, and rebirth. The patch box lid has the sun and moon near the front, seven stars on the lower rear and a masonic square and compass on the upper rear. He says the stars represent the "luminaries" of the masonic lodge, the sun and moon represent the "regularity or regulations of the ritual of the lodge" and the universe, and the overall perimeter could represent a masonic apron worn by the Supreme Being. Based on all of this imagery and interpreted symbolism, McKnight concluded the rifle was owned by a Freemason. The compass and square alone would certainly merit that argument. His theories about the other symbols also certainly point in that direction, especially given the prominence of masonry in early America and their love and use of symbolism. Other documents from McKnight are included breaking down his interpretation of various other potential symbols on the rifle. In one, he indicates that Jim Whisker and other notable Kentucky rifle experts from the Kentucky Rifle Association had suggested the Indians might represent the Society of Tammany, but he strongly disagreed. The most prominent other figure is the large, raised relief carved four-legged European dragon on the left side of the butt which has a spiraled tail with a spear-point tip and he suggests may represent a guardian of Jesus or democracy, liberty and freedom among other possibilities and notes that it is similar to the dragon by Paul Revere in the Massachusetts Sun and notes that Revere and other Revolutionaries met at the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston. Images of the Green Dragon Tavern also include masonic symbols. He suggests the lock screw plates might represent the "eye of the needle" and the "All Seeing Eye," the raised relief floral pattern at the upper tang represents the Trinity and eternal life, and various other designs as representing God or other Christian ideas. The barrel is smoothbore and has traditional low profile blade and notch sights and a distinct "J* Fondersmith" signature. The converted lock has no visible markings. It has adjustable double set triggers. The furniture is all brass. In addition to the dragon on the butt and the floral carving at the barrel tang, the gun has incised line molding along the ramrod channel terminating in scrolls and "swan bill" design at the ramrod entry pipe, extended tear drop flats, "C" scrolls and border carving at the front of the butt/tail of the wrists, raised molding along the bottom of the butt, an incised edge on the cheek rest, and attractive flame figure. The wear plate ahead of the trigger guard is shaped and engraved like a shell and the toe plate has floral vine engraving.

Rating Definition:

Very good with untouched original dark brown patina on the lock and barrel, mild erosion at the breech, deep attractively aged patina on the brass furniture, distinct engraving and signature, and mild overall wear. The stock is also very good and has distinctive carving, a few stable cracks such as one running from the heel to the cheek rest, attractive flame figure, a chip at the toe, and mild scratches and dings. Mechanically fine. This is a very attractive Golden Age American long rifle with extensive embellishment and symbolism that has been interpreted as representing that God blessed America.

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