Kentucky Rifle (Deckard Rifle / Longrifle / Pennsylvania Rifle)
The introduction of rifling within the barrel of the Kentucky Rifle made it a more accurate musket past fifty yards when compared to the British Brown Bess.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
The development and naming of the Long Rifle is argued between riflemen of Kentucky and Pennsylvania even to this day. The most accepted history is that the rifle was first forged in Lancaster, Pennsylvania during 1730 by immigrant gunsmiths originating from Switzerland and Germany. The first quality Long Rifles were credited to a gunsmith named Jacob Deckard from Pennsylvania. Many were also made in Virginia and the Carolinas, making the rifle the first American-made firearm. For many years, the rifle was referred to as the "Long" or "Hog" rifle. However, over time, "Kentucky Long Rifle" became the popular name of choice. It was a special weapon - a slender, long-rifled barrel with a maple stock, balanced to hold.
The immigrant gunsmiths saw a need and made a rifle that fit the requirements of the frontiersman. The most widely accessible weapon of the day was the smoothbore musket and it was not designed to be a hunting weapon. The major issues driving the change - along with limited range - was the lack of quality black powder and availability of lead for both proved expensive to acquire. The gunsmiths reduced the bore size of the Kentucky barrel from 0.50 to 0.45 caliber, allowing more "balls" to be molded per pound of lead. The barrel was also increased in length up to as much as 48-inches with 44-inches being the standard. The extra length and smaller bore of the Kentucky barrel allowed use of less powder, producing increased firepower over that of the contemporary British "Brown Bess" musket rifle, a rifle having an unpredictable trajectory owed to her design.
To load the new rifle, the butt was rested on the ground and a powder horn was used to keep the black powder dry. The shooter would visually measure an amount of black powder from the horn into a metal cup-type charger and then tip the powder down the muzzle. Additional improvements were made to the barrel by adding "rifling" - grooves cut into the inside lining of the barrel that caused the ball to spin as it made its way out, achieving accuracy over longer ranges than the basic smoothbore musket. As such, Kentucky rifled barrels had spiraled lands and groves so as the musket ball was fired through the barrel, it took a rotary motion on an axis that coincided with the line of flight. Loading the flintlock was accomplished through the muzzle with an undersized ball wrapped in a greased patch. This patch made the ball fit tightly in the barrel and served to stop gas from escaping between the ball and the bore. A slender wood ramrod was used to tamp the ball and patch against the powder in the bottom of the barrel. The powder horns plug was again removed and powder was shaken on the pan and the touch hole was filled with powder. A steel-faced "frazzle" was drawn down to cover the pan to avoid setting off the powder prematurely. A rotating cock hammer, holding a piece of flint clamped in place, snapped forward when the trigger was pulled, striking an L-shaped piece of steel (the frizzen). The contact of flint against steel created the needed sparks to ignite a small portion of priming powder in the flash pan, forcing flame through the barrel's touch hole and on into the main black powder charge, ultimately exploding the ball out the barrel. This process was practiced over and over to reduce the time of loading.
Daniel Boone carried a Kentucky Rifle throughout his forays into the dangerous woods of Kentucky and through the Cumberland Gap. Eventually, his use of the rifle spread among the people and the Kentucky was considered a necessity by frontiersmen; every frontier family owned at least one. Rifle shooting was a way of life along the American frontier. Most men carried a Kentucky Rifle wherever they went and most settlements would have shooting contests on holidays. The rifle became recreation for the backwoodsman and settler alike, as well as being used for hunting and protection. The Kentucky Long Rifle was more accurate than all muskets made up to that time and soon became legendary as being lethal over 200 yards.
The most popular musket of the day was the aforementioned Brown Bess that fired large spherical balls of lead and was essentially a smoothbore caliber shotgun. The "Bess" was loaded down the muzzle so the musket ball had a loose fit on the powder in the barrel. When the musket was fired, the ball bounced up and around the sides of the barrel and as it left the muzzle with the final direction being essentially unpredictable by the operator, leading to mixed accuracy results at increased ranges. The inaccurate large ammunition held no spin though the low velocity was deadly on impact nonetheless. The erratic, unpredictable motion rendered these muskets ineffective beyond a range of about 60 yards. The abilities and limitations of the musket determined the British Army battle tactics in the 18th Century. The British soldier marched in lines abreast towards the enemy formations. On command, the infantry pointed their muskets and fired in orderly volleys at the enemy from 50 to 60 yards away. Many battles were decided by a few volleys followed by a bayonet charge and ending in barbaric hand-to-hand fighting engagements usually solved with the heavy butt end of the Brown Bess against the head or torso of an unfortunate soul.
Knowing the limitations and effectiveness of the Brown Bess during the 1776 Revolutionary War, George Washington wanted to recruit frontiersmen who owned Kentucky Rifles. General Washington called for and assembled some 1,400 riflemen who carried a Kentucky. The British soon gave the buckskin clad riflemen as much distance as possible. The backwoodsman would act as snipers and brought fire down on the British ranks (especially the clearly marked British officers) before the enemy could fire on the colonists, ultimately helping to win the war for burgeoning American. The War of 1812 brought the British soldier again under the sights of the Kentucky Rifle. In 1815, General Andrew Jackson collected some town folks and an army of Kentuckians to stop the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
As men pushed west, the frontiersman on foot gave way to the mountain man who traveled with a horse and a pack animal. Game for mountain men became larger elk, buffalo, mule deer and both brown and grizzly bears and the Kentucky Rifle was soon found lacking in the required stopping power for such targets. Additionally, as these souls traveled on horseback, the long barreled rifle hung up in the brush and trees.
The Hawken brothers were gunsmiths in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and saw the need for a shorter muzzle loading rifle with a heavier slug averaging .50 to .54 in caliber. The Hawken Rifle became the new rifle standard in America. The muzzle-loading rifle did not disappear entirely when cartridge arms appeared during and shortly after the American Civil War. Few farmers and ranchers could afford the new Winchester or Sharps cartridge repeating rifles. These new rifles fired faster but, when hunting, the one shot muzzleloader could do the job. Many gunsmiths continued to make muzzleloaders into the 1880s and America's first weapon - the Kentucky Long Rifle - was still prized for this reason.