Feb 7, 2014

Firearm History: Kentucky Long Rifle

Back in 1776, American colonial patriots were an unlikely bunch to be taking on the greatest military might of that period in history. They were men (and a few women) who came from all walks of life: tradesmen, farmers, plantation owners, mixed in with some veterans of the French and Indian War and French volunteers who came across the sea to help win the revolution. Backwoods colonials were among them from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Carolinas with their long Kentucky rifles. While the colonial military leadership and their tactics decided the outcome, the patriots played a substantial role with a few thousand militiamen against seasoned British troops that outnumbered them as they arrived by ship to quell the rebellion.

It was after the Lexington-Concord firefight and three days before the Battle of Bunker Hill that the Continental Congress authorized and established ten companies of riflemen on June 14th 1775 as the Continental Militia and the first national army of what would become the recognized nation called the United States. They marched from staging and recruitment points, some marching as far as 700 miles to meet at Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A company was formed in Frederick, Maryland under the command of Captain Michael Cresap who wrote a letter dated August 1st, 1775 to a friend in Philadelphia:
.. . I have had the happiness of seeing Captain Michael Cresap marching at the head of a formidable company of perhaps one hundred and thirty men, from the mountains and backwoods, painted like Indians, armed with tomahawks and rifles, dressed in hunting shirts and moccasins, and though some of them had traveled near 800 miles from the banks of the Ohio, they seemed to walk light and easy, and not with less spirit than at the first hour of their march. Health and vigor, after what they had undergone, declared them to be intimate with hardship, and familiar with danger....
When the company arrived at Lancaster, they put on an exhibition of their marksmanship for the local folks. An eyewitness wrote about the performance in a letter that was printed in the Pennsylvania Packet on August 28th:
On Friday evening last arrived here, on their way to the American Camp, Captain Cresap's Company of Riflemen, consisting of 130 active, brave young fellows, many of whom had been in the late expedition under Lord Dunmore against the Indians. They bear in their bodies visible marks of their prowess, and show scars and wounds... two brothers in the company took a piece of board, five inches broad and seven inches long, with a bit of white paper about the size of a dollar nailed in the center, and while one of them supported this board perpendicularly between his knees, the other at a distance of upwards of sixty yards and without any kind of a rest, shot eight bullets successively through the board, and spared his brother's thighs....the spectators, amazed at these feats, were told that there were upwards of fifty persons in the company who could do the same thing; that there was not one who could not plug 19 bullets out of 20 within an inch of the head of a ten-penny nail....
Marksmen were organized into small and independent units and acted as snipers to pick off British officers around Boston after the Bunker Hill battle.
Once again, the Pennsylvania Packet recorded the even on August 14, 1775:
The express, who was sent by the Congress, is returned here from the Eastward, and says he left the Camp last Saturday; that the riflemen picked off ten men in one day, three of whom were Field-officers, that were reconnoitering ; one of them was killed at a distance of 250 yards, when only half his head was seen.” Such reports caused great indignation when republished in London. The backwoodsmen were called “. .. shirt-tail men, with their cursed twisted (rifled) guns, the most fatal widow- and-orphan-makers in the world”.
The marksmanship of the American militia was aided by the fact that the Kentucky rifles were grooved with what is called rifling. The length of the barrel provided a substantial effective range, with one unit reporting that their snipers had killed three men on a ship at Charleston ferry at a distance of a half mile.
The American long rifle was introduced to the American colonies by immigrant German gunsmiths who settled in Pennsylvania between 1700 and 1740. Those initial rifles were called the Jaeger rifle whose barrel rarely exceeded thirty-six inches in length with a bore between .65 and .70 of an inch. The rifles used lead balls that were cast smaller than the bore so they would be forced down the barrel, filling the grooves that prevented the escape of gases when fired. Because black powder burned dirty, the grooves would fill with powder residue after a few shots and make loading difficult until the barrel was cleaned with a damp swab. The lead balls were also deformed, which reduced accuracy.
Frontier fighters and huntsman needed rifles designed to be more accurate. By 1750 the changes made created a precision rifle that matched no other. The barrel was made longer to 44 inches and sometimes 48 inches, providing more velocity. The bore size was reduced to .40 and .45 of an inch to save powder and lead. Loading was a bit different as well. A greased patch of linen or one that was soaked with saliva was placed over the muzzle and the bullet seated on the patch so when it was rammed it was tight. The patch helped seal gasses and also helped clean the barrel as it was fired with the lead ball. This provided an improvement that led to a more accurate and economical hunting and fighting firearm. The .45 caliber long rifle could deliver three times the number of shots from the same amount of powder that was used in the .75 caliber. The result was remarkable accuracy at 150 or more yards. The difference between the long rifle and the smoothbore musket, which the British were using was remarkable.
Yet, the smoothbore musket had its own advantages: it could be loaded faster because paper cartridges were used and the larger caliber was devastating at closer ranges against troops and cavalry at distances between 60 to 80 yards from a standing or moving position.
The British standardized massed formations could be devastating with the large caliber smoothbore muskets with disciplined and seasoned troops. American units that tried to stand toe-to-toe with the British troops did not do so well.
Experienced American rifleman realizing that the long rifle was slower to load, would speed up loading by keeping three extra balls between the base of the fingers on each hand, getting off two or three volleys and then retreat before the British fell upon them with their bayonets – falling back to reload and fire again.
Pennsylvania became the center of firearms manufacturing during the middle to late 1700s, derived from those German gunsmith immigrants. Firearms used in the American Revolution and the War of 1812 were produced there. As firearm technology advanced the Kentucky long rifle became a thing of the past except among collectors. Today, there are still hunters, reenactment shooters, and collectors who use blackpowder rifles like the Kentucky rifle. The American Rifleman has become synonymous with the Kentucky Long Rifle. Famous frontiersmen like Daniel Boone used the Kentucky rifle.

The Muzzle Loading Rifle; Walter M. Cline; WV, 1942
The Treasury of the Gun; Harold L. Peterson; NY 1972
The Kentucky Rifle; Captain John G.W. Dillin; 1942

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