FAIRMONT — During the late 1700s and early 1800s, settlers carving out farms in the hills and hollows of what is now West Virginia relied on the long rifle to feed and defend their families.
The long rifle, also known as the Kentucky Rifle, was considered such an important survival tool that settlers were willing to pay regional gunsmiths top dollar to provide them with sturdy, reliable weapons that often doubled as works of art. Gunsmiths decorated the maple or fruit-wood stocks of their rifles with ornate carvings and decorative metal insets sometimes fashioned from silver coins. The brass covers for the patch boxes built into the rifle butts often featured intricate, imaginative engravings.
“A rifle was basically a year’s wages for people living here in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” said Greg Bray, director of the Prickett’s Fort Foundation. “To be able to procure food and provide self-defense for your family, it was a price worth paying.”
An exhibit of 24 rifles and pistols made by 20 gunsmiths working in what is now West Virginia between 1790 and 1880 is on display now through Nov. 11 in the Visitor Center at Prickett’s Fort State Park. The rifles, owned by private collectors throughout the eastern United States, have been compiled, and are presented free of charge, by the Kentucky Rifle Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the heritage of the American-made firearm and the trials and tribulations of the settlers who relied on it.
Despite its name, the Kentucky rifle traces its roots to Pennsylvania, where German-American gunsmiths developed a weapon that vastly improved the range and accuracy of the colonial pioneers’ previous standby, the smooth-bore musket — most of which were imported from Europe. The Pennsylvania gunsmiths, most of them located in the Lancaster area, reduced the bore diameter of their new weapons from the .60 to .70 caliber size of the muskets then in use to the .50 to .45 caliber range, to reduce the amount of valuable lead and gunpowder needed launch a projectile.
Then they extended the barrel length at least 10 inches beyond the 30-inch barrels commonly seen on muskets to provide extra thrust from exploding gunpowder. Next, spiral “rifling” grooves that muskets lacked, but short-barrel German-built “Jaeger” brought to America by the gunsmiths possessed, were carved into the new long rifles’ barrels to improve range and accuracy. The new, all-American firearm had more than triple the effective range of the musket and was vastly superior to the Jaeger in accuracy and range, making the Kentucky rifle the most accurate firearm of its time.
Kentucky rifles developed along regional styles, or “schools” of design, according to Bray, with the Hampshire County School being the largest and best known in West Virginia. Between 1792 and 1880, at least 40 gunsmiths operated in Hampshire County, likely making it the most gunsmith-populated county in what was then Virginia, according to an article in “Historic Hampshire” by historian Mark Smith.
After the Revolutionary War, during which the long rifle was used with great effect by Continental Army and militia snipers, “the demand for civilian guns created a competitive market that involved many gunsmiths,” according to Bray.
One of the oldest long rifles on display at Prickett’s Fort is one crafted in 1790 by Martin Sheetz of Shepherdstown, which features a metal eagle inlay in its curly maple stock. Martin’s father, Philip Sheetz, built muskets for the Virginia Militia in 1776, while another family member, Frederick Sheetz, whose work is also on display at Prickett’s Fort, built Kentucky rifles for the Hampshire County militia that were used against the British in the War of 1812. At least one of Frederick Sheetz’ rifles was used during that war’s Battle of New Orleans, according to Bray.
Among other unique long rifles in the exhibit is one with dual patch boxes built into its stock by Hampshire County gunsmith Nathaniel Oates in 1840.
Flintlocks were used to ignite gunpowder in the long rifles until the mid-1800s, when percussion caps became the norm. The pieces on display show both firing mechanisms.
Of local interest is an 1880 long rifle built by gunsmith Madison Benson, who moved his business to Fairmont the following year, and Bray’s favorite items in the display, an 18th century leather pouch made from the last buffalo killed in Marion County, and a banded powder horn built by a member of the Evick family of Pendleton County in the late 1700s.
“This exhibit is a great history lesson in the craftsmanship and work of more than 20 gunsmiths who plied their trade during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in what is now West Virginia,” Bray said. “Many of the exhibit rifles have never been seen by the general public in this type of venue. The exhibit is a firsthand opportunity for historians, students and artisans to view treasures of West Virginia’s origin.”