The term Long Rifle (or alternately Pennsylvania or "Kentucky" Rifle) refers to a type of rifle used in early America by both military and civilians. It is characterized by an unusually long barrel, sometimes over four feet in length, which is felt to be in large part a unique development of American rifles, and is almost never seen in European rifles of the period.
The longrifle developed on the American frontier in the period beginning in the 1740s, and continued its development technically and artistically until it passed out of fashion in the mid to late 19th century. It is interesting to note, however, that strong pockets of longrifle use and manufacture continued in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, well into the 20th century, as a practical and efficient firearm for these still quite rural segments of the nation. Longrifles could be made entirely by hand, in a frontier setting, which could not be said of modern breechloaders such as the Winchester model 1885 single shot rifle.
Although experts argue the fine points of origin and lineage, it is accepted that the longrifle was the product of German gunsmiths who immigrated to new settlements in Pennsylvania and Virginia as early as the 1740s. Initially the weapon of choice on the frontier was the smooth bore musket or trade gun, built in the thousands in factories in England and France and shipped to the Colonies for purchase. But gradually a group of solitary frontiersmen, Indian fighters, and professional market hunters began using more and more rifles due to their longer effective range. While the smooth bore musket had an effective range of less than 100 yards, a good rifleman could hit a man size target out to three hundred yards or more. There was a price for this accuracy, however. The long rifle required a full minute to load, far longer than a musket's twenty seconds.
Among the earliest documented working rifle makers are Adam Haymaker who had a thriving trade in the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and also the Moravian gunshops at both Christian Springs in Pennsylvania and also in the Salem area of central North Carolina. All three areas were busy and productive centers of rifle making by the 1750s. The Great Wagon Road was a bustling frontier thoroughfare, and traced this same route - from eastern Pennsylvania, down the Shenandoah Valley, and spilling into both the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and the Yadkin River (Salem) area of North Carolina. Rifle shops dotted this road and kept the frontier supplied with the tools of exploration and conquest of the frontier.
The settlers of western Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina soon gained a reputation for hardy independence and rifle marksmanship as a way of life, further reinforced by the performance of riflemen in the American Revolution as well as the War of 1812. In that war, the longrifle gained its more famous nickname the Kentucky Rifle, after a popular song "The Hunters of Kentucky", about Andrew Jackson and his victory at the Battle of New Orleans, where southern riflemen inflicted horrendous casualties to British invaders and suffered almost no losses themselves.
Just why the American rifle developed its characteristic long barrel is a matter of some conjecture. The German gunsmiths working in America would have been very familiar with German rifles, which seldom had barrels longer than 30 inches, and often had barrels much shorter. The main reason is the longer barrel gave the black powder — which burns slower than modern powders — more time to burn, increasing the muzzle velocity and hence the accuracy. (A rule of thumb used by some gunsmiths was to make the rifle no longer than the height of a customer's chin because of the necessity of seeing the muzzle while loading.) The longer barrel also allowed for finer sighting and thus greater accuracy. Although some speculation would have it that a longer gun was easier to load from horseback by resting the butt of the rifle on the ground, this was not a consideration, as the rifles were not exclusively used from horseback, and making rifles long enough to be loaded in this fashion would make them inconveniently long to be loaded while on foot. For whatever reason, by the 1750s it was common to see frontiersmen carrying a new and distinctive style of rifle that was used with great skill to provide tens of thousands of deer hides for the British leather industry.
These woodsmen were also exceptional trackers and Indian fighters, and played an important role in the French and Indian War which was in large part a guerilla war fought in many parts of the American back country. By the time of the American Revolution a strong tradition of riflery had been ingrained into the citizens of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, and all lands extending westward into the Indian territories.
A shorter, carbine variant was the Hawken rifle or "plains rifle," popular among mountain men and North American fur trappers in the nineteenth century. Kentucky Rifles tended to be slimmer and more elegant than the later, more massive, and shorter-barreled Hawken variant rifles, the Hawken Rifles having evolved from the Kentucky Rifle for use against larger, more dangerous game encountered in the American West, against which more massive bullets and larger amounts of blackpowder were used. For firing heavier and larger diameter bullets and heavier powder loads, the barrel wall thickness was necessarily strengthened, and the barrel length of the Hawken was shortened, relative to the Kentucky Rifle, to keep the carrying weight maneageable.
Originally rather plain, it did not take long for the longrifle to be a source of pride for its owner, and by the 1770s every surface of the rifle could be used as a canvas for excellent applied art. Gunsmiths were recognized as the preeminent craftsmen of their day for they, more than any other tradesmen, had to be expert in all the materials of the time. An accomplished gunsmith had to be a skilled blacksmith, whitesmith, wood carver, brass and silver founder, engraver, and wood finisher. While the European shops of the day had significant specialization of the trades, leading to many separate tradesmen building each rifle, the frontier had no such luxury, and quite often only one gunmaker, aided by perhaps a lone apprentice would make the entire rifle, a process almost unheard of in 18th century trade practice. Mechanically, a Kentucky Rifle was often the most complex mechanical object owned by its user. The flintlock action, with its spring mechanism, and single-action trigger, though, was often purchased in bulk by gunsmiths from England, and then fabricated with skill into an elaborate rifle. Although early locks were nearly always imported, in later years, the domestic manufacturing of locks arose in America among the most skilled gunsmiths.
To conserve lead on the frontier, smaller calibers were often preferred, ranging often from about .36 to .45 cal. Such were commonly used for hunting squirrels and other small game, as well as for hunting deer. As a rifle became extensively more and more worn from use, with accumulated corrosion from firing blackpowder causing the bore to enlarge, it was not uncommon to see many such individual rifles being re-bored and re-rifled at larger calibers, to keep the rifle shooting accurate. Many extant copies of historical Kentucky Rifles are seen with a bore of around .50 caliber, having been the last caliber to which the barrel had been bored and rifled.
The longrifle is said by modern experts to have a range of 80 to 100 yards. This figure is meant for the normal or novice user. A trained, experienced shooter who knows how to take variables into account such as (gunpowder) load, windage, drop, etc. can easily extend the medium range of the long rifle to 400-500 yards. In 1778 at the siege of Boonesborough, Kentucky, one of the officers of the combined British/Shawnee assault force was hiding behind a tree. He stuck his head out from behind the tree and was instantly killed by a ball to the forehead fired by none other than the legendary Daniel Boone, who was known for always firing the same fixed measure load of blackpowder in his rifle. This shot was later confirmed by witnesses on both sides and the distance measured at 250 yards. Hitting a target so precisely at that range would probably make the Kentucky Rifle comparable in total effective (long) range with the British Baker rifle at 700 to 800 yards.
Although less commonly owned or seen on the frontier, the Kentucky Rifle style was also used on flintlock pistols during the same era. These Kentucky Rifle style pistols were often matched in caliber to a Kentucky Rifle owned by the same user, to enable firing a common-sized and common-patched round lead ball. With the same graceful stock lines and barrel style, and craftsmenship, they were noticeably slimmer and had a longer rifled barrel with better sights than had been seen on the earlier Colonial style flintlock pistols. Dueling pistol sets in the Kentucky Rifle style were also made, sometimes in a cased set, for wealthy gentlemen, such as when serving in politics, to defend their honor.
By the turn of the 20th century, there was little traditional longrifle making left except in isolated pockets. The American longrifle, although well known and preserved in museums, was becoming an extinct species as far as modern workmanship was concerned. Few men were left who could build a longrifle. By the 1950s there was no one left in the US who could make an entire rifle by hand, which involved forging the iron barrel from a flat bar, as well as forging all the parts for the gun lock and casting the brass parts in a small shop foundry. Popular interest in muzzleloading rifle shooting as a hobby spurred interest in the origins of the longrifle, and a few men began to search out the last remaining tradesmen who could shed some light on how the rifles were made.
One man in particular, Wallace Gusler, was quickly seen to be a prodigious craftsman, and by the early 1960s he had become the gunsmith at the restored historical community Colonial Williamsburg. In 1965, after years of effort, he and associate Gary Brumfield made the first completely handmade rifle of the 20th century. Later (in 1968), the process was documented in the popular film "Gunsmith of Williamsburg", which is still available. Along with brilliant makers like the late John Bivins, the renaissance of the American longrifle was in full swing and is today again a thriving craft tradition with dozens of active makers.
The 1955 movie Kentucky Rifle gravitates around a trail wagon containing one hundred long rifles. The gun, which is actually the main star of that movie, is displayed under every angle and is even the object of lyric descriptive monologues by veteran actor Chill Wills.
The 2004 movie The Alamo features, among other skillfully crafted props, a Kentucky long rifle owned by the movie's advisor Robert Weil. This rifle was crafted by Brent Gurtek of Duluth, Minnesota.