Almost every Kentucky rifle has a story to tell. The one I’m looking at has a rectangular silver inlay near the rifle’s butt that reads: “C Kelsey.” And etched along the top of the rifle’s black barrel—in blocky and bold letters—is this: “New Market made by H. Spitzer.”
“This weapon was made by Henry Spitzer,” Michael Tuccori is saying as he handles the antique Kentucky rifle, its curly maple stock glowing gold in the morning sun. “Spitzer was a gunsmith working in New Market, Virginia, and he made this gun for Charles Kelsey, a native of Rockbridge County, Virginia, in 1794. Records show that Kelsey moved into Kentucky with his wife in 1795, only the next year. He took the rifle with him. Now it has come back home.”
As Tuccori says this, we are in a room in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Hung on a wall are his collection of roughly five-foot-long Kentucky rifles, also known as long rifles, amid a collection of equally long fowling muskets, gunpowder horns, and handmade pistols from the American Colonial era. A dealer and collector of antiques, Tuccori, sixty-three, focuses his weapons collection on the few years either side of the American Revolution for a specific reason.
“By the 1800s, you get a more cookie-cutter weapon,” he says. “Before that, it was master gunsmiths working on the frontier with a journeyman and an apprentice. They hand-bored each gun’s barrel, then hand-rifled each barrel themselves using a tool. It was slow and painstaking work. After about 1800, the process got more mechanized, so the weapons get less unique.”
Still, Tuccori goes on, it didn’t take long for everyone who saw a Kentucky rifle to want one. Since the rifled barrels shot balls much farther and more accurately than muskets shot pellets, long rifles quickly became very desirable. “The people settling this part of the world moved around…a lot,” he says. “They traveled into Kentucky, up to Pennsylvania, down into Tennessee, then back. They lived in buckskins or loincloths. There were elk, grizzly bear, and eastern buffalo everywhere, and these rifles helped to keep them fed. And there were also Native Americans who could be hostile. So riflemen and settlers wanted a more precise weapon, both to hunt and to protect themselves.”
A smooth-bore musket, Tuccori says, can fire shot pellets only at close range. Long rifles can be accurate to hundreds of yards. “At one point in Revolutionary times, a man named Timothy Murphy shot a British officer at three hundred yards using a long rifle,” Tuccori says. “That’s a pretty fair shot with an open sight. To the people settling this part of the world, an accurate weapon like that was indispensable. It was more valuable to them than an ax or a hoe.”
Because of their unique history and relative scarcity, the price of Kentucky rifles—as well as that of the long muskets and pistols—has risen significantly in the last few decades. And while it’s impossible to know how many Revolutionary-era long rifles are around, their rareness has made them very expensive.
“Even a nondescript one from the era we’re talking about goes into the six figures,” Tuccori says. “And while we do see a few New England rifles around from that time, the majority of them come from the area between Pennsylvania and North Carolina, though they’re generally referred to as Kentucky rifles.”
Though Tuccori says that new Kentucky rifle finds occasionally bubble onto the market out of attics and unknown family collections, most are traded from known and established collections. “Most are identifiable by collectors. The greater majority of them are made with curly maple stocks and the rest with another hardwood, usually cherry. And each has a hand-forged flintlock. After the Revolutionary War, gunsmiths began to trade once again with Britain and France, and they bought manufactured flintlocks from Europe, which is why the weapons prior to that time are more distinctive. After the Revolution, in places like Birmingham, England, they were making and exporting flintlocks by the boxload.”
Still, the variety of the designs and materials used in the creation of Kentucky rifles goes on and on. Earlier versions of the weapon have far thicker buttstocks, plus sliding pieces of wood to cover the butt’s “patch box,” an indentation where greased patches of cloth were kept to separate the rammed-down gunpowder charge from the ball rammed tight atop it. Later-made weapons have elaborate iron or brass patch-box inlays and thinner overall profiles, each design denoting a specific maker, whether there’s a gunsmith’s name on the rifle or not.
“You know, you look at the guns on the wall here,” Tuccori says, “and you can watch the design evolve across the American Revolution. It’s just another way of seeing how our country made itself.”