September 4, 2015
By Joel R Kolander
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They go by many names: Kentucky rifles, American longrifles, Pennsylvania rifles, and so on, but they all reference a single style of muzzleloader that instantly evokes images of a young American nation – and rightly so. Those distinct long and rifled barrels are a unique American twist on a design that is linked directly to this country’s origins. Capt. John Dillin said it best in his 1924 book, The Kentucky Rifle,
“From a flat bar of soft iron, hand forged into a gun barrel; laboriously bored and rifled with crude tools; fitted with a stock hewn from a maple tree in the neighboring forest; and supplied with a lock hammered to shape on the anvil; an unknown smith, in a shop long since silent, fashioned a rifle which changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately freed our country of foreign domination. Light in weight; graceful in line; economical in consumption of powder and lead; fatally precise; distinctly American; it sprang into immediate popularity; and for a hundred years was a model often slightly varied but never radically changed.”
These eloquent guns earned their name from the location of their manufacture. Most “Kentucky” rifles were actually created somewhere in the foothills or mountains of the Appalachian mountains by European immigrants who had settled there. These rifles exemplify the hard work, gumption, and dogged persistence shown by those early pioneers. Truly a “one stop shop,” there was no division of labor. Each gunsmith was responsible for every stage of manufacture: barrel, lock, action, stock, and any artistic embellishments he wished to add. It required a gunsmith to also be a blacksmith, carpenter, engineer, and sometimes a silversmith, carver, and engraver. It was hard work done entirely with hand tools, but the fruits of the labor were sweet. At the finish, a man would have a tool that was indispensable on the frontier. Much like today, it could be used to provide food as well as protection, two vitally essential functions.
The Kentucky rifles featured in Rock Island Auction Company’s September Premiere Firearms Auction represent the finest ever made. Produced during the “Golden Age” of Kentucky rifles, some of the most well-known and skilled gunsmiths are represented in the sale courtesy of the expansive and impressive Piedmont Collection of World Class Kentucky Rifles. Such a grouping is the result of decades of collecting, focusing on the very finest, high condition pieces that exude the beauty of a bygone era. Here are some of the top arms of this collection.
John Armstrong was a gunsmith located in Emmitsburg, Maryland whose smithing career spanned circa 1808 – 1841 (though some say he started as early as 1793). His works can be found in many of the most respected books written on Kentucky rifles and he is generally considered to be one of the very best of the era. His pieces often draw comparisons to Swiss watches and Rolls Royce automobiles – classics that defy time. We could only find one previous rifle built by Armstrong using percussion ignition, though there are rumored to be as many as four originally created as percussion arms. In either case, this example remains supremely rare. The rifle was undoubtedly produced in his later years of manufacture and features inlaid brass plate, beautiful wood carving, twelve silver inlays, engraving, and checkered sections of the stock.
This flintlock Kentucky rifle made by Peter Neihart has enjoyed quite a bit of attention in its lifetime. Featured in several noteable books, this significant piece has a stunning, full-length curly maple stock, brass wire inlays, carved embellishments, an attractive patchbox, silver inlays, engraving, and other brass accents. It won the Kentucky Rifle Association’s “Best of Show” in 1969 and is accompanied by a contemporary miniature of itself!
The gun’s significance in Kentucky rifles is also notable, as detailed by George Shumway in his book Rifles of Colonial America, Vol. I.
“A lot is known about Neihart from the research of Ronald G. Gabel… This rifle serves as a transition piece linking the Germanic style of rifle made at Christian Spring with the classic curved-butt Lehigh Valley rifles of the Federal Period and beyond… The two-piece engraved brass patch-box on this rifle, with the lid bearing the date 1787, has a finial of fleur-de-lis pattern. This is the earliest dated use of this pattern that we can be certain of…”
One of the aforementioned artisans who took inspiration from Armstrong’s designs is clearly Adam Ernst, a top gunsmith in his own right. A quick look at the patchbox, cheeckpiece, engraving, and buttstock carving reveals more than just a slight influence from the era’s preeminent maker. What stands out as unusual on this rifle is its brass lock plate when most were made from browned or case hardened iron.
These magnificent guns represent only a fraction of the more than one dozen spectacular Kentucky rifles appearing in this auction courtesy of The Piedmont Collection. The brief descriptions given here only scratch the surface of the deep, rich histories of both the arms and their makers. It cannot be overstated that Kentucky rifles played a role in shaping this great nation. Initially a tool of “rugged individualism,” well before Herbert Hoover coined the phrase, these rifles’ superior range and accuracy provided a distinct combat advantage in numerous conflicts such as the Seven Years War, the War of 1812, Texas’ War for Independence from Mexico, and the American Revolution.
Please view our extraordinary selection of this historically significant rifles from some of the era’s top gunsmiths. Collectors’ respect for these early artisans is not misplaced! Ponder for a moment that often one man was responsible for specializing in a number of areas in the manufacturing process. To do at such a high and renowned level, even recognized hundreds of years later, is something that can be recognized by anyone who appreciates a superior level of quality and dedication to task.
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