History of Campbell County, Tennessee

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A Short History of the Kentucky Long Rifle

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     The great Kentucky flintlock-hunting rifle was more accurate than any known previous firearm and soon became famous. The history of Tennessee, Kentucky, and certainly the history of the United States, are each very much connected with the history of the Kentucky Long Rifle. This rifle is also known as the Kentucky, the hog rifle, or the long rifle. It was designed to be light, slender and graceful, and was the first truly American firearm. Created in the 1730s in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by skillful immigrant craftsmen from Germany and Switzerland, the Kentucky rifle was the supreme implement created as a state of the art, ultimately for over a century, until the coming of the "cap and ball" percussion rifle in 1840.

     The guns of the first American colonists were not rifles at all. They were smoothbore flintlock muskets imported from Europe. For a number of reasons, these old muskets were not suitable for the American frontier. First of all, they were so heavy that to go hunting with one became a significant chore.

     The Brown Bessies, as they were called, fired spherical balls of lead and required large balls in order to get weight and striking force. Their diameter was gauged from 0.60 to 0.70 inches in caliber, with corresponding robust recoil when fired. They were therefore wasteful of powder and lead, both being in short supply on the American frontier.

     The large balls of the Bessies created other problems. They had high air-resistance, which slowed them greatly, giving them shorter range. Since the balls had no spin to balance the turbulence caused by slight surface imperfections, they curved viciously in flight, much like a pitched spitball does in the game of baseball. This unpredictable motion rendered these muskets ineffective beyond a range of about 60 yards.

     These assorted imperfections were prevailed over by the Lancaster gunsmiths. First they reduced the bores of the Kentucky to 0.45 to 0.50 caliber, so that one pound of lead, poured into iron molds, would produce from 70 to 120 round balls to be used for bullets, therefore conserving valuable lead.

     Next the barrel length was increased to 40 inches, in essence, so as to get extra thrust from the expanding gunpowder. The Kentucky Rifle had a greatly improved range compared to the Brown Bessie, which was fitted with a 30-inch barrel.

     In its finality, the Kentucky was "rifled," with helical grooving in the barrel. This conveys rotary motion to the fired bullet on an alignment that coincided with the line of its flight trajectory. This spin gives rifles greater range and accuracy, compared to smoothbores.

     The Kentucky Long Rifle was more accurate than any known previous firearm, and it soon became famous with a flight being deadly at over 200 yards, which was an astonishing range at that time.

     This rifle became the primary weapon of the frontiersmen, especially in the isolated and hazardous wilds of Tennessee and Kentucky. The extensive use in Kentucky led to the adoption of the name " Kentucky" for this rifle. Daniel Boone carried a Kentucky Rifle through Cumberland Gap.

     During the Revolutionary War the British soldiers trained for volley shooting, and were fitted wholly with Brown Bessies; surprisingly, the volume of the American Armed Forces also carried muskets. George Washington made a special effort to recruit frontiersmen who owned Kentucky Rifles.

     Advantages of the Brown Bessie muskets over the Kentucky Rifles were that they could be loaded easily and more rapidly than rifles, and did not require custom-made bullets. They would fire anything dropped down the barrel of the gun and would even function as a shotgun. Moreover, some of Washington's raw recruits were not good enough shots to require the extra accuracy of the Kentucky Rifle.

     General Washington was able to assemble about 1,400 riflemen or backwoodsmen carrying Kentucky Rifles. In training camps their feats of marksmanship astonished onlookers, some of whom were British spies. Word of these buckskin-wearing riflemen quickly spread to the British Army. Washington soon observed that the British gave his backwoodsmen wide latitude. As a hoax, he dressed up some of his musket-bearing soldiers in buckskins, knowing that the British assumed that anyone wearing frontier garb was carrying a Kentucky.

     Riflemen, when available, were used by the American Army as pickets and snipers. These skilled soldiers operated from the flanks of the regular Army. At the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, riflemen were used to pick off British officers. This feat greatly contributed to the American victory there, which was a decisive battle of the war.

     The Battle of King's Mountain in 1780, another decisive victory, was won by rifle-toting backwoodsmen. These heroes were quickly gathered together from the neighboring southern Appalachians. At the close of the war, a British captain wrote in effect that the Americans had riflemen who could hit a man anywhere they liked at 200 paces. He suggested that at King's Mountain the mountain men whipped the British troops.

     Another British officer remarked on General Andrew Jackson's great victory at New Orleans in 1815, a battle largely fought by Tennesseans and Kentuckians. He described how a lone Kentucky sharpshooter dressed in buckskins and firing a Kentucky Rifle picked off British soldiers buried in the mud flats, creating total confusion in the British ranks.

     The Kentucky Rifle was considered to be a necessity by frontiersmen, and practically every frontier family owned one. Rifle shooting was a way of life on the great American frontier, and nearly every settlement had a shooting match on weekends and holidays. The rifle was thus used for recreation, as well as for protection and hunting.


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