The Kentucky Rifle As Art

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The Kentucky rifle, which because of its astonishing accuracy earned. A substantial credit for American victories in both the Revolution and the War of 1812, was unknown by that name until after the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. A highly popular ballad of that year described how ”…Jackson he was wide awake and wasn’ t scared at trifles/ For well he knew what aim we take, with our KENTUCKYRIFLES.” It was true that most of Jackson’s riflemen at New Orleans were from Kentucky; but in fact, most of their rifles had been made in Pennsylvania. For it was in gunsmith shops along the Pennsylvania roads leading to the West that the tall and deadly weapon evolved between 1740 and 1830. I n origin it was the offspring of a mating between the long, light, and graceful smoothbore fowling piece developed by the English and the French, and the short, large-calibre, rifled “jaeger” developed by the huntsmen of central Europe. Technically, the Kentucky rifle was the final phase in he three-hundred-year evolution of the muzzle-loading rifle. Aesthetically, its history is also one of evolution. The beauty of a fine Kentucky rifle depends primarily on severe adherence to functional design. Everything about it, from the exact proportions and cut of the stock to the precise length and calibre of the barrel, was determined by the desire to produce a gun that would handle superbly and shoot with the greatest possible range and accuracy. Inevitably, however, as functional problems were solved, more and more attention was given to finish and to decoration, so that the Kentucky rifle became a truly indigenous art form. A first-class rifle was as important to a frontiersman as a first-class wife, and often was loved, honored, and cherished with equal if not greater devotion. As the decades passed, the plain hardwood stock was adorned with ever more elaborate carving; the patch box, which at first was a purely utilitarian container for the greased patches used in loading, became an ornate brass affair whose graceful curves and cutouts were inlaid in the wood and whose surface was engraved with fanciful designs. Cheek pieces, on the left side of the stock, were also ornamented with silver and brass inlays. Eventually, as with many other art forms, a kind of degeneration set in: with the introduction of the percussion rifle, around 1830, there was a trend away from basic functional design toward overelaborate decoration for its own sake. Our sampling of gun décor is taken from The Kentucky Rifle , by the well-known expert Merrill Lindsay, with photographs by Bruce Pendleton, recently published by October House—Arma Press, of New York City.