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History's Headlines: Kentucky long rifles are Pennsylvania natives

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: May 30 2014 08:17:29 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 19 2014 04:13:21 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Artillery Art

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," said the legendary John Ford, the great mid-20th century director of Hollywood westerns. And one of the longest running legends in American frontier history is that of the so-called "Kentucky" long rifle.

Striding out of the wilderness, the pioneer is shown in song, story and many feet of movie film leading his family wagon and clutching his Kentucky rifle.

Well, stop the picture and turn up the house lights because although that handsome rifle was every bit as accurate and popular as shown, it and others like it were born in Pennsylvania, and, almost without a doubt, their first maker was a Pennsylvania German gunsmith.

"I think it developed as a misnomer long after they were created," says Scott Schweigert, curator of the Reading Public Museum, which has opened an exhibit entitled "Masterpieces of American Longrifles: The Kindig Family Collection," that will run from May 24 to September 1. "Once the frontier had moved further west, the impression was that the longrifle had come from Kentucky and the concept stuck. But they were really made first in Pennsylvania."

The exhibit is made up of over 60 of these Pennsylvania longrifles from the collection of the Kindig family. The patriarch was the late Joseph Kindig Jr of York, Pa. He came from, depending on the source, either a Quaker or Mennonite family background. When he asked his father to let him buy a gun, his father refused because they could be used to kill. He did say that his son could buy one as long as it was not functional as a weapon.

Kentucky long rifles are Pennsylvania natives Joe Kindig started by working with his aunt, an antique collector. The money he made selling more traditional antiques he use to buy rifles, a lot of them. In 1916, at age 16, Joe began to distribute his first mail order listing of European and American firearms. Business was so good that he eventually opened an antique store in York.

By the 1950s, Kindig, with articles in Life and the Saturday Evening Post, was making national news. His collection of antique longrifles was said to be the largest in the country. In 1955 the Post placed a price of $140 for one of Kindig's rifles. Today they can go for six figures, when for sale, which is very rarely.

In 1947 Kindig' son, Joseph Kindig III, joined him in the business and has run it with other family members since his father's death in 1971. Two years ago, Reading Public Museum board chairman John Grandon Smith struck up a conversation with a Kindig relative at a museum reception and the current gun exhibit evolved from that.

The history of the Pennsylvania longrifle has a murky past. "No one knows for sure who invented the first one," says Schweigert, "but we do believe it was in about 1750." He notes they were made in Franklin, Cumberland, Adams, York, Dauphin, Lebanon, Lancaster, Berks, Lehigh and Northampton counties.

They were rifles that came out of Germany. Pennsylvania Germans brought some with them when they came over from the Rhineland and Switzerland. During the American Revolution the Hessians carried one that is called by one author the "European great uncle of the Kentucky." The rifle's barrel was grooved which sent the bullet out faster and more accurately, but it was heavy and difficult to load.

"But the slim elegant Kentuckies," noted the Saturday Evening Post, "... could be loaded faster and with far less effort through what might have been termed a Yankee trick, but more probably was a Pennsylvania German one: The greased patch of cloth or buckskin. This was placed on the gun muzzle, greasy side down, and the bullet was pushed down on top of it and rammed home with a ramrod. The greased patch filled the grooves, eased the bullet down and partly cleaned the barrel when fired out of it."

This patch led to what was probably, aside from its length, one of the most distinguished things about the gun, the patch box. This was a hinged brass compartment built into the side of the gun's stock to hold the grease for patches.

Here is where the gunsmiths placed much of their artistry. Each long rifle was made by one person and reflected their flair for creativity.

Kentucky long rifles are Pennsylvania natives The brass work could look as light as lace and as delicate as a flower. Others included profile portraits of famous people. Even those who have no other interest in longrifles find the decorative work on the patch boxes fascinating.

"Mr. (Joe Jr.) Kindig looks at each Kentucky as a work of art-woodwork, brass patch box, carved wooden stock," said one article from the 1950s, "then set it aside without being able to tell you the size of the bore. He has never fired the gun, and knows nothing or cares, about the mechanism."

Although they were used in the American Revolution, it was not until the War of 1812 that the sharpshooters with long rifles came into their own. According to some military historians they turned the tide at the battle of New Orleans in 1815. Under the command of Andrew Jackson they killed almost all of the British officers, leaving more than 2,000 dead and wounded.

The exhibit is about more than longrifles. It includes furniture items, everything from chests of drawers to chairs. "We have tried to put the longrifles in some context of Pennsylvania German culture," says Schweigert.

The Reading Public Museum is located at 500 Museum Road Reading, Pa. Admission: $10 adults (18-64), $6 children/seniors college students and free to members and children three years old and younger. The museum is open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Go to www.readingpublicmuseum.org for more information.