Monday, March 11, 2013

History of the American Rifle - II

In our last post, we left off at the beginnings of a rifle designed for American frontiersmen. We will continue our study in this post.

As was mentioned in our last post, the first true rifle designed for the American frontier came out of Pennsylvania around 1738-1739. The area around Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, is regarded as the birth-place of such firearms and for a long time, it was the Pennsylvania Germans (also called the "Pennsylvania Dutch", even though they didn't speak Dutch!) who dominated the manufacturing of rifles in America. From them, the knowledge spread to the frontiersmen of New York, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina and by 1750, it was widespread among all the frontier areas of the Allegheny Mountain range.

It is commonly believed that these rifles were first used in war during the American revolution, but this is not the case. The first time they were used in war was by Pennsylvania frontiersmen against the French fort of Louisburg, on Cape Breton Island.

In New England, these rifles were practically unknown until two groups of men from Pennsylvania and Virginia arrived at the siege of Boston, during the American revolution. The first troops raised by Continental Congress was six companies of men from Pennsylvania, two companies from Maryland and two from Virginia. These men all brought their own firearms along with them. In fact, it wasn't until much later that the United States Government officially started manufacturing rifles for its army. These rifles were popularly known as the Kentucky rifle, even though the design was originally from Pennsylvania.

Soon after the American revolution, the Rev. Alexander Forsyth invented the percussion lock system over in England. It took a while for the mechanism to reach American shores, but once it got here in around 1835 or so, it was quickly adopted here in America. It was also around this time (1840s or so) when the exploration of the American West started.

American long rifles. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License from Wikipedia.
The top rifle is a percussion lock and the bottom is a flintlock.

This created two forms of the American long rifle. For the Eastern frontiersman, the Kentucky rifle design called for a smaller bore weapon, because the Eastern rifleman normally carried his ammunition in his own backpack and usually made his long journeys on foot. These rifles were sometimes called "pea rifles" because they fired .32 to .38 caliber balls, about the size of a pea. Usually, these rifles started out as .32 caliber and as they got older and wore down, they would be taken back to a gunsmith to be rebored and that would increase their caliber. The barrel was long and heavy and the total weight of the rifle was around 12-15 pounds or so. The butt-plate and patch box were made of brass and usually engraved.

In contrast, a person hunting or exploring in the Western United States demanded a different kind of firearm. For one, they needed something of bigger bore to hunt larger animals like moose, elk, buffalo, grizzly bear etc.  Also, the Western hunter found long barrels somewhat more inconvenient to use on horse back. Finally,  the weight of ammunition was not a problem because the Westerner carried his ammunition boxes on his mule rather than on his back. So they used .40 to .60 caliber ammunition and a shorter barrel, the other features of the rifle being retained from the Kentucky rifle design.

We will study more in subsequent posts.

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