American Rifles | The Original ARs

Article Posted: March 20, 2014

American Rifles

If you tell someone that you own an AR, no doubt images of .223s and gas-assisted AR-15's will come to mind. Dispel those thoughts for a while as we engage in a short history lesson about the original ARs, the American Rifles.

Anyone who has discovered muzzle-loading is undoubtedly familiar with the Kentucky rifle which is synonymous with Daniel Boone. If you're into black powder hunting, chances are that what you shoot is a .50 cal. half-stock patterned after the Plains rifles that were produced prior to 1850. What many may not know is that these rifles touch on a much broader American experience that helped shape our nation's destiny and turned the tide in our struggle for independence.

Our brief divergence into the past begins with the Pennsylvania rifles, aptly named in reference to the early gun makers who had established themselves in the counties west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by the mid 1700's. By the time of the American Revolution, these gunsmiths had begun building a simpler version of the Pennsylvania rifles we know better as the Kentucky rifle. These simpler rifles were better adapted for the frontier and were the guns of choice in the American wilderness. By the late 1700s, rifle making began to spread as a craft beyond the mountains west of the Carolinas where the next generation of American rifles, collectively referred to here as Tennessee rifles, emerged. As a group, these make up what history has penned as American "long rifles". Any discussion about American rifle making just wouldn't be complete however, unless it included the plains rifles epitomized by Samuel and Jake Hawken in the first half of the 1800s. These rugged rifles became the mainstay of the "Mountain Men" who tamed the Rockies and the Central Plains that lead to them.

These iconic American Rifles (AR's) played a crucial role in realizing our Nation's Manifest Destiny which was fully accomplished within the scant 100-year period from 1750 to 1850 when these guns dominated the art of rifle making. American Rifles secured our early economic successes in the fur trade; helped us defeat the most powerful army of the times, allowed us to gain our independence; and removed the final British and Mexican threats to western settlement. These rifles helped us realize that envisioned destiny we dreamed of once we emerged as a young nation.

My fascination with American Rifles began in the late sixties when my dad offered to research a wall-hanger owned by one of our neighbors when we lived in Tullahoma, a small town in Middle Tennessee. Much of the furniture was missing, or replaced with what appeared to be odds and ends. At first, it resembled a military rifle, but more likely it was a Southern Mountain Rifle that hade been converted at some point from flintlock to percussion using an old military lock. The full-length stock was sleek, simple walnut with no end cap or adornments. The barrel was somewhat longer than a typical 2 Kentucky rifle, measuring at 44 inches. The few furnishings that remained were iron, along with the octagon barrel.

The lock had been replaced at some point with a military lock, identifiable by a still-visible spread Eagle on the corroded lock face, assumed to be from Harper's Ferry. The simple and austere appearance of the rifle made it look military, but the stock was too slender, and lacked any other characteristics that would identify it as a production gun.

With some advice from a local gunsmith, my dad replaced many of the missing parts. I helped with the disassembly, cleaning, and restoration of the old gun - a project that ignited my love and appreciation for American firearms and the rich history they represent.

The experience lead me to become the then, youngest (and Charter) member of the Elk River Long Rifles, a group of much more experienced men who each shared a common love for black powder shooting and the lore of these old rifles. Working on Saturdays even before I was in High School, I saved enough money to buy my first gun, a plainsman-style rifle resembling the venerable Hawken. When I wasn't working or hiking the creeks and quiet woods of Tennessee, I would be hanging out with the likes of our early frontiersmen, learning as much as I could about these guns and the kind of men it took to use them. Sometimes a few of us would venture to a farm just south of Franklin, Tennessee where we would spend the weekend in Rendezvous' as black-powder rifle teams from Kentucky and Tennessee competed to see who was best. These were times that the car, and the 20th century itself, could be parked for a while to experience first-hand, the life styles and hardships the countless and unknown heroes of our past endured.

Even today there are many places where you can get a glimpse of what this period of our history was like. Here in Knoxville, Tennessee, that place would be Fort Louden which was originally built by the British between 1756 and 1757 on the Little Tennessee River in the Cherokee territory, 50 miles southwest of Knoxville.

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