Gauging Kentucky Rifles
Just as a cherry tops off a sundae, few household collections of American antiques can be called complete until a handsome "Kentucky rifle" is found to hang on a favorite wall.
Evolved from mass-produced, short, heavy, large bore, "Jaeger" rifles brought to North America by German colonists, the improved arm was designed to meet the challenges of a game-fraught and often dangerous new world. Around the mid-18th century, the rifle developed a long octagonal barrel and smaller bore for taking better aim. The slender slope of the beautiful native-wood stock (primarily tiger maple) was carved with shoulder pads and a deep crescent butt plate so that it would comfortable to shoot, lighter to carry, and pleasing to the eye. The right side of the rifle's rear-end handle was fitted with a clever new feature - a long narrow box cut into the wood for carrying greased wad patches necessary for shooting. The brass-hinged cover on these "patchboxes" were plain in the beginning but soon this distinctive feature on Kentucky rifles was fashioned in elaborate rococo design with fancy engraving. Often, the left side of the stock was carved with "C" and "S" and foliate scrollwork. Many were inlaid with silver and brass decals like moons, hearts, and fish. The Kentucky rifle was not mass produced. Thousands of variations were made in small shops by master gunsmiths. Each is a highly individualistic work of art.
History's greatest collector of the rifle, and one of America's most preeminent antique dealers, the late Joe Kindig, Jr., considered the long barreled guns an expression of American folk art. One of my antique buddy's, Craig Caba, was a friend of Mr. Kindig's. "Old Joe collected Kentucky rifles because the best examples incorporate the finest craftsmanship not only in wood, but in iron, brass, and silver as well." Craig told me. "Joe liked the fact the gun was primarily fashioned within the inner part of America instead the big port cities that were strongly influenced by European taste. It's pure American design."
Norm Flayderman, the famous military and gun dealer beautifully sums up the important position Kentucky rifles hold in Flayderman's Guide to American Firearms and the values. "There is likely more lore and romance surrounding the Kentucky rifle than any other American gun - or for that matter any style of firearm in the world. Quite a few qualities give Kentucky rifles their unique appeal. First, distinctive American flavor - they are truly one of the few indigenous American weapons. Secondly, sheer beauty - they are all attractive and pleasing to the eye. Aesthetically, Kentuckies represent the most handsome of all early American weapons, ranking with the finest products of Europe. Lastly, their unparalleled role in the development of American history - from use prior to and during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 to the integral part in forging and expanding the western frontiers."
A beginning student of Kentucky rifles should know that collectors will generally assign a gun to one of three major classifications.
1.) A Transition Period Piece (1715-1775) - German design was still undergoing its transformation. Features: Flintlock hammer, 40+" barrel, app. 60 caliber, early examples will have sliding wood patchbox covers, little embellishment. Rare and highly collected. $10,000+
2.) A Golden Age Rifle (1775-1825) - Highest development of American rococo design and gunsmith art. Features: Flintlock hammer, 42"-46" barrel, app. 50 caliber, sophisticated relief carving, fancy brass & silver patchboxes, stocks are made from the finest grains of wood - usually tiger maple. Highly coveted. $3,000+
3.) Percussion Phase (1825-1860) - Quality weapons made with less artistry. Features: Percussion ignition system hammer, 34"-36" barrel, app. 40 caliber, relief carving is rare but inlay work is often exceptional, plain brass patchboxes, good quality wood. Like all Kentucky's - still highly desirable. $1,000+