Tom Eblen: A historic icon, Kentucky long rifle increasingly seen as work of art, too

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 11, 2014 

The Kentucky long rifle has been an icon for two centuries, thanks in part to the myth and folklore that grew up around the taming of America's early Western frontier.

But recently, the best surviving examples of these weapons have been attracting attention for another reason: They are impressive works of art and craftsmanship.

"For art collectors, this represents a new frontier," said Mel Hankla of Grayson, who has been researching Kentucky rifles for more than three decades.

He will give a lecture about them at noon on March 19 at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort. Admission is $25, or $20 for Kentucky Historical Society members. Reservations must be made by March 14; call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414.

Most of the long-barreled flintlocks that pioneers and settlers brought into Kentucky during the last half of the 18th century were made in southeastern Pennsylvania, where German gunsmiths pioneered the technology. They were called "Kentucky rifles" because that was where they were used.

But Hankla's research has focused the fact that some of finest of these rifles were actually made in Kentucky, between about 1790 and 1840.

Hankla, 56, is a broker in early Americana and an actor who portrays pioneers George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton in the Kentucky Humanities Council's Chautauqua series. He also starred in Michael Breeding's film, Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, on Kentucky Educational Television last year.

Hankla has always been fascinated by firearms and Kentucky's pioneer era. As a graduate student, he learned how to make black-powder guns. Since then, he has investigated the handful of gunsmiths who made long rifles, tracing their development and movement into Kentucky from Virginia and North Carolina.

"It is an art form that is unknown even to most experienced collectors," said Bob Noe, a major collector of early Kentucky furniture whose pieces are now at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. "Mel has pioneered this work."

"These are decorative arts," said Mack Cox, another major collector of early Kentucky furniture and paintings who owns several rifles. "This artistic tradition is important to Kentucky culture, and more Kentuckians should know about it."

Cox said Kentucky rifles are especially impressive as art objects because gunsmiths had to master many different skills, from steel-making to wood-carving to brass, gold and silver inlay work.

Kentucky rifles were essential tools of survival for frontiersmen. They also became status symbols; a man's most valued possession.

There were families of Kentucky gunsmiths: Rudolph Mauck and his sons, Henry Peter Mauck and Daniel Mock; Conrad Humble and his brother, Michael, who made Daniel Boone's rifle; William Young and his son, Jacob; and William Bryan, a founder of Bryan's Station, and his son, Daniel, who owned Waveland.

Only two guns signed by Daniel Bryan, who was Boone's nephew, are known to exist, Hankla said. Other Bryan-style guns are unsigned because the family had a large shop with as many as 25 gunsmiths, each making a different part of rifles, much like a modern assembly line.

Hankla has studied geography, genealogy and similarities in rifle design to figure out how gunsmiths were related and who may have apprenticed with whom.

As with the gunsmiths, families sometimes fabricated the elaborate scrimshawed cattle horns that were used to store gunpowder. The most famous family of powder-horn makers was the Tansels of Scott County.

At the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation's Antiques & Garden Show last weekend, Hankla showed perhaps the largest display of fine Kentucky rifles ever assembled: 18 guns and 12 powder horns borrowed from eight collections.

Hankla said there are probably fewer than 50 surviving examples of early, fancy Kentucky-made rifles. At least two of those in his display last weekend had histories as impressive as their craftsmanship.

One was the state-owned rifle that Jacob Young made about 1800 for pioneer leader William Whitley. An eyewitness says Whitley used it to kill the Indian chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812. Whitley also died in that battle. His horse, rifle and carved powder horn were returned to his widow, Esther, who was said to have been as good a shot as he was.

Thomas Simpson, who likely was Jacob Young's teacher, made a rifle for Col. Gasper Mansker in 1791 that may have been the result of a boast Simpson made in the Kentucky Gazette the year before. He wrote the newspaper that he could make a rifle as fine as any man in the United States. Hankla now owns it.

The Chickasaw chief Piomingo was so impressed with Mansker's rifle that he wrote Gen. James Robertson, the Indian agent and founder of Nashville, asking if the U.S. government would have Simpson make him one in return for his peace efforts. When Piomingo died in 1799, that rifle was buried with him.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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