While researching information about the influence hunters had on the Revolutionary War, many of the search results alluded to the prominence of the Kentucky rifle and its impact on this war’s outcome.

In an essay celebrating America’s Founding Fathers and the right to keep and bear arms, The New American touted the Kentucky rifle and its central role in the American Revolution.

“The American rebels could rely on men who had grown up using firearms as part and parcel of their daily lives. This was especially true on the frontier, where young boys were taught the use of the finest weapon of the era, the Kentucky rifle. By the time they were teenagers, these young men were crack shots whom the family depended upon to hunt game for food and to repel Indian attacks.

“Most of the (Kentucky) rifles came in .40 or .45 caliber, which meant the bullet was heavy enough to smack a target with a wallop but not too heavy to carry long distances. In the hands of an accomplished marksman, the Kentucky could bring down a man or a deer at 100 or more yards and knock a squirrel out of a tree at 200 or more.”

Portrait of Daniel Boone (1734-1820), American pioneer, shown seated on a rock with a long rifle leaning on his shoulder. Undated engraving circa 1861, from a painting by Chappel. Photo: iStock

The New American also cites writings from Captain Henry Beaufoy, a British veteran of several wars, who wrote these remarks about American riflemen of the Revolutionary War:

“The Americans, during their war with this country, were in the habit of forming themselves into small bands of ten or twelve, who, accustomed to shooting in hunting parties, went out in a sort of predatory warfare, each carrying his ammunition and provisions and returning when they were exhausted. From the incessant attacks of these bodies, their opponents could never be prepared; as the first knowledge of a patrol in the neighbourhood was generally given by a volley of well-directed fire, that perhaps killed or wounded the greater part.”

About the Kentucky Rifle

The Kentucky rifle, also known as a long rifle or Pennsylvania rifle, was one of the first commonly used rifles on the American frontier. It was favored by hunters and soldiers. On the battlefield, the rifle made its first noteworthy appearance in the French and Indian War and, later, in the American Revolution.

Here’s how the long rifle was described, as written by Captain John G. W. Dillin in his book, “The Kentucky Rifle.” The book was originally published in 1924, has gone through six editions and includes 126 illustrated plates.

“From a flat bar of soft iron, hand forged into a gun barrel; laboriously bored and rifled with crude tools; fitted with a stock hewn from a maple tree in the neighboring forest; and supplied with a lock hammered to shape on the anvil; an unknown smith, in a shop long since silent, fashioned a rifle which changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately freed our country of foreign domination. Light in weight; graceful in line; economical in consumption of powder and lead; fatally precise; distinctly American; it sprang into immediate popularity; and for a hundred years was a model often slightly varied but never radically changed.”

It was the barrel’s length and, what was then considered unusual rifling, that gave the gun its dramatic accuracy. This accuracy was far more precise compared to the common smooth-bore muskets of the era.

The Kentucky Rifle Is a Pennsylvania Original

Historians generally agree that the Kentucky rifle, also known as the long rifle, was actually a rifle first developed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“The Kentucky rifle — an expertly crafted tool that no frontier family was without — was actually made in Pennsylvania, not Kentucky; the towns of Lancaster and Reading were particularly important centers of production,” according to The New American. “First called the long rifle because of its long barrel, the firearm later became known as the Kentucky because many famous frontiersmen, including Daniel Boone, used it on their hunting trips into that state.”

Uniquely American

The advent of the Kentucky rifle came of practical need and available resources. What American frontiersmen needed and the reasons that defined those needs, are best described in a profile describing the D. Christ Pennsylvania Kentucky Rifle. This rifle is on display at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia.

Travel distances in Europe were not especially great; supplies were easily obtained; and hunters were generally wealthy.

The situation was quite different in the New World. American riflemen, who were generally endowed with hope and courage rather than material wealth, often traveled long distances through locales lacking in supplies. The great need for a more accurate, more economical rifle prompted Pennsylvania gunmakers work long hours at their benches, trying new principles and shaping available materials to new forms.

kentucky rifle

“The broad butt-stock was made thinner with more efficient contour; the butt progressed from straight musket-like form to a modified crescent.  Easily damaged or lost wood patch-box covers were replaced by lids of hinged brass or silver.” — NRA’s National Firearms Museum. Photo: J.P. Beck Kentucky Rifle (NRA)

In the process, (Europe’s) traditional Yaeger rifle (the rifle of choice for many European hunters) went through transformations:

The broad butt-stock was made thinner with more efficient contour; the butt progressed from straight musket-like form to a modified crescent.  Easily damaged or lost wood patch-box covers were replaced by lids of hinged brass or silver. Trigger guards were reduced in size, given a rather straight under-line, and made sturdier and simpler.  Forestocks were lengthened and slenderized, brass fore-ends replacing bone or horn. Native maple replaced European walnut, and a decorative tiger-stripe of dark red or brown was applied where no natural curl or striping showed in the grain. It was found that maple that grew on thin rocky soil produced a closer and curlier grain than trees native to open ground and heavy soil. The trees were cut into 2″ planks which were air-dried for 4 years before they were at their best. The charcoal iron barrels were lengthened, and bores were made smaller. A slow twist was employed for the rifling, of which the groove depth was often less than that found on the Yaeger rifles. A heavier powder charge was employed in relation to bore size.

A survey of 200 barrels indicates that they ranged from 40″ to 44″, with a very few as long as 50″. One-third had 7-groove rifling, one quarter had 8-groove rifling, a very few had straight rifling, and the remaining one third were smoothbores.  The fragile ivory, bone, and pearl decorative inlays of European arms had no place in American guns. Coin silver or brass were used sparingly for patch-boxes and inlays in the flintlock era, more extensively in the percussion period.  Slings, by which the short, heavy European guns were usually carried, were eliminated on the American long rifle.  In short, the Pennsylvania rifle was somewhat more accurate, used less powder and lead, had longer range, and was of graceful contour and handsome finish. It was for practical reasons, therefore, that the average .65 caliber bore of European guns was eventually reduced to an average .45 caliber bore typical in the Pennsylvania-made guns. This was considered large enough for the wild game or the hostile Indian. As larger game became more scarce, bores were reduced further, or in some instances made smooth to use shot.