The Cherrytree Family

 

 

 

Early American Longarms

There were a number of different types of longarms used in the early days of our American history (the colonial years (1620) through the 1850's).  Although there were many other types of firearms in use during this time frame, following is a short description of the most common longarms for a number of periods in our history; those most likely to be found in use by re-enactors and history buffs who are also shooters and hunters.

The Colonial Musket

The colonial musket was essentially one of two types: those more or less following the English Brown Bess tradition in style, and those following the French pattern of musket.  The English Brown Bess was most likely the pattern for colonial American gunsmiths as these colonies had been chartered by England and mainly populated by English settlers.  In fact, the muskets used by our forefathers during the Revolutionary War were of both types.  Stolen or "appropriated" Brown Bess muskets, muskets manufactured by local gunsmiths in the Brown Bess pattern, and muskets bought or donated to the revolutionaries by France in the French musket tradition.  The main differences were in the caliber and the method of fastening the barrel to the stock.  The Brown Bess was .75 caliber (yes, that is 3/4 of an inch in diameter of lead coming your way!) and its barrel was fastened to the stock with pins through lugs on the bottom of the barrel.  The French 1766 Legere ("Charleville") musket was .69 caliber and its barrel was fastened to the stock with iron bands around barrel and stock.  In addition, there were differences in outward profile, and in type of lock.  Both were flintlocks, but the Brown Bess used a large lock which was rather rounded in contour; the French lock was flatter and a bit smaller.  Stocks were always of walnut (English walnut in the case of the English and French walnut in the case of the French, of course!)  In early years the stocks were either painted black or stained with tar.  In later years they were stained brown, hence the name "Brown Bess".  Government issued muskets had the arrowhead stamp on the stock and the crown on the lock in the case of the Brown Bess.  Some muskets were commissioned of American gunsmiths by colonial and local "Committees of Safety".  These American made guns combine the elements of the above muskets.

The Trade Gun

The trade gun was generally produced for trade with friendly Indians.  Again, both the French and the English governments attempted to gain Indian support for their causes and manufactured guns to give to Indians swearing allegiance to them.  And again, these trade guns generally followed either the French or English musket patterns, or followed the pattern of fowler guns (see the next section).  Generally, the Indians, upon acquiring these guns, sawed the barrels to a shorter length for ease of use in dense woods.  Eventually, the arms producers manufactured Indian trade guns with the barrel already shortened.  These trade guns, as well as the muskets above, were smoothbore guns (no rifling).  They could be loaded with either a round ball or with shot.  In some cases, colonials under duress and out of lead balls would drop stones, cut up nails, or whatever else was at hand down the barrel!  These guns were often decorated by Indians with feathers, paint, brass, iron tacks, etc. to their own liking.  They were somewhat cheaper and more unreliable than government issued muskets as they were for the Indian trade.  Stocks were usually of walnut or maple.

The Fowler

The fowler was a type of bird gun.  As such it was always a smoothbore gun - usually around 20 gauge - and fired small shot.  Generally, it had a relatively long barrel, sometimes as long as 50 inches or more.  Also, the barrel was round and tapered, though it could be octagonal from the breech forward for about 1/4 of its' length and then round tapered for the remainder.  They were relatively slender guns, with a short (apparently to the eye) buttstock.  Most generally they were flintlock, as by the time of the percussion era the shotgun had been fully developed.  The fowler gun was to be found in early colonial days and was carried during the early revolution when "citizen soldiers" were required to provide their own firearm for duty.  As a weapon against man, they were loaded with buckshot or with a round ball (that's .62 caliber at 20 gauge).  Fittings were generally of brass or silver, and there was little or no carving except on very fine fowlers.  This was for the most part a gentleman's gun.  The fowler was found stocked with walnut, cherry, maple, and any other suitable hardwood of the time, though mahogany was reserved for only very fine furniture.

The Transitional Rifle

This rifle appears just as the name implies.  It is a transition between the very large caliber and heavy, almost clunky looking German "Jaeger" hunting rifle and the long, slim, modest caliber Pennsylvania rifle.  It has elements of both guns.  They were generally of a shape between the two, were larger bored in caliber than the average longrifle yet smaller than the .60 caliber or more German hunting rifle.  They for the most part had a sliding wooden patchbox as a carry over from the German hunting rifle.  They were stocked in walnut or maple (maple being easier to get in the new world) and fittings were mainly of brass.  Carving was normal of a style reminiscent of the elaborate German hunting rifle, but more provincial and beginning to take on its own American flavor.  The most famous of these kinds of rifles were made in the Nazareth, Bath, Easton area where Moravian settlements (such as Christian's Spring) had sprung up in northeastern Pennsylvania.  This was the type of rifle carried by Edward Marshall during his famous Walking Purchase ("run"!) to stake out a land grant obtained from the local Indian tribes.

The Pennsylvania Longrifle

(commonly - but incorrectly - known as the Kentucky Longrifle)

This gun was a purely American development deriving from the German hunting rifle.  Various attempts had been made to impart upon the fired ball a spin so as to stabilize it in flight.  Grooves were cut into the barrel in various ways until the right formula had been found.  In the beginning, straight grooves were cut, then rounded bottom grooves, spiraling grooves of various designs until the Germans, among others, had developed a rifled barrel which, when combined with a leather, linen, cloth or paper patch, fit the grooves tightly enough to take a good spin and become more accurate.  Also, the accuracy was aided in no small part by the patch performing two purposes: it served as a gas seal imparting greater velocity, and it allowed the ball to fit tightly into the bore without having to drive it down with a mallet.  This alone aided accuracy as a musket ball sort of "rattled" down the barrel pushed by the gasses until it left the muzzle face and generally took the direction of its last bounce!  The gunsmiths of Pennsylvania first developed the true American longrifle in response to requests from frontiersmen and hunters.  There were many schools and derivations of style but for the most part these guns were made of curly maple or plain maple, had iron, silver or brass fittings, and were made in both the flintlock and percussion era.  Some were profusely carved and engraved.  This is the rifle seen in movies of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and more recently, The Last of the Mohicans.  (Hollywood isn't always "period correct"!)

The Tennessee/Southern Poor Boy

The Southern Poor Boy rifle was a working gun.  As the name suggests, it was a rifle that most could afford in one way or another.  In outward profile and form, it was a Kentucky longrifle, but not in the romantic sense we know the Kentucky rifle from TV and movies.  It did not have lots of shiny brass or silver fittings and inlays, it was not engraved and carved, and in fact had the barest in hardware - generally of iron.  Often, the poor boy only had one ramrod pipe and no patchbox at all (unless there was a simple hole drilled into the buttstock in which to have tallow or grease for the patches.)  It had a patchbox it was probably of iron, and fairly simple in design.  It, as often as not, would not have a muzzle cap.  But it was a longrifle, and as accurate as any longrifle.  This was the gun Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett REALLY carried.  As stated, they were working guns and the guns of the frontiersmen had rough usage.  Picture living in the woods, traveling several days or weeks in that wilderness, and trying NOT to be noticed by hostile Indians and animals.  You would NOT want shiny parts on your gun, or too many things hanging off of it to catch on branches and bushes.  It would be in the rain, dropped occasionally by accident, banged and bumped around quite a bit even if you were being careful.  The last defense was to use it as a club!  This gun had to be simple and rugged, and only Hollywood and our TV producers envisioned the frontiersman as carrying a very fancy fully engraved and inlayed and carved gun.  Such guns MAY have been presented to famous woodsmen from time to time in recognition of their notoriety and fame, but they continued to use their favorite old simple rifle when humping the woods for days on end.  The rifle would be made of whatever hardwood the frontier gunsmith could get his hands on, such as maple, walnut, whatever.  It had iron mounts.  It was stained brownish or left in its natural state and only oiled to protect it from weather.  It generally had the shape of other fancier longrifles of the Southern pattern, but was much simpler.  A good rifle, in colonial days, may cost a man a half year's wages.  This was a working man's gun.

The Schimmel

("Barn Gun" or PA Blue Ridge Mt. rifle)

This gun is little known, but is the Middle Atlantic Colonies version of the Southern Poor Boy.  It was commonly known as a "barn gun" in Pennsylvania for the simple reason it too was a working gun often left in the barn or kept close at hand when working in the fields.  It followed the style and shape of whatever gunsmith school had made it, but it was generally fitted only with a buttplate, one ramrod thimble, and a trigger guard.  It had no carving or inlays.  It was often made of plain maple, cherry or walnut.  Few have survived, as it was a working gun and was banged around quite a bit.  Then too, often the parts were scavenged for other guns when it became worn out.  Quite often, the parts would be bartered back to the gunsmith as part payment for a new rifle.  The gunsmith then tuned the lock, replaced worn parts, refreshed the barrel the same parts could then end up in a very fancy merchantís longrifle!  This was an era when NOTHING was thrown away that still had use and utility (and we know those "frugal" Pennsylvania Germans!).  Locks could be converted into percussion from flint and many were.

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A lower costing rifle or fowler (smoothbore) that has great architecture and uses the same quality parts and is built as well as a fancy rifle without the art.

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No buttplate, entry pipe, sideplate and nosecap.

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A sliding wood patchbox is not out of the question.

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Commonly found in the Berks and Northampton (Lehigh) Co. patterns.

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The survival rate of the original plain guns is very low as they were used very hard, often hung in the barn, becoming rusty and moldy... hence the German word, "Schimmel".

 

"Thoughts On Plain Firearms Of The 18th Century" - by Eric Kettenburg, Gunsmith

The Hawken or Plains Rifle

This rifle developed for use in the plains and mountains of our western regions.  It was almost always of percussion ignition.  It was almost always half-stock in making.  It was always heavier and more ruggedly built and did not have any of the "shiny stuff" found on "Kentucky" rifles.  It was as often as not used on horseback.  It was large caliber to bring down bears and buffalo and Native Americans who contested their right to hunt and trap in areas under their control.  It could be dropped from high on horseback and thus needed to be especially rugged.  If it had a patchbox, it was a simple round affair.  Mounts were of iron.  Hawkens made what was considered the finest of such rifles and the man moving west beyond the Mississippi bought one if he could afford it and find one for sale.  Henry made similar rifles as did others.  They were all nearly identical in form and substance.  There are many fine mass produced examples of this rifle to be had on the market.

 

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