Page Three

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.

A note about the photography presented above and about further study

All of the photographs are from the works of George Shumway and Doctor James Whisker with the Hawken from John Baird's "Hawken Rifles, the Mountain Man's Choice," (The Gun Room Press).

Shumway and Whisker have devoted much of their lives to illustrating and documenting the long rifle in it's many guises and both have published and/or written a number of excellent books on the subject. Their books should be part of every historian or firearms enthusiast's library.

George Shumway Publishing
3900 Deep Run Lane
York, PA 17402
(717) 755-1196
James Whisker
Old Bedford Village Press
Box 1976
Bedford, PA 15522
(814) 623-1156

To enter the sub-culture of the muzzle loading and long rifle enthusiast, join the National Muzzle Loading Association and receive Muzzle Blasts, their fun and informative magazine.
Tell them sent you. :-)

Box 67
Friendship, IN 47021
(812) 667-5131

For a series on building your own
long rifle go to:

Part One - The Concept
Part Two - Getting Started
Part Three - Inletting the Barrel and Tang
Part Four - Inletting the Lock
Part Five - Fitting the Butt Plate

To enter the sub-culture of the muzzle loading and long rifle enthusiast,
join the National Muzzle Loading Association and
receive Muzzle Blasts, their fun and informative magazine.
Tell them sent you. :-)

Box 67
Friendship, IN 47021
(812) 667-5131