How the Kentucky Rifle Won the American Frontier

As recorded by J.D. Bentley March 21st, 2018
How the Kentucky Rifle Won the American Frontier

The Kentucky Rifle (also called the longrifle or the Pennsylvania Rifle) was the first purely American firearm. If not for the Kentucky Rifle, the American frontier may not have been settled so quickly and the shape of the United States as we know it might look entirely different.

Early colonists used Brown Besses, smoothbore flintlock muskets that were built in and imported from Europe. As early Americans like Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, and others began pushing westward, it was evident that these European guns were deeply unsuited for the wilderness of Virginia (which then also encompassed what would later become West Virginia and Kentucky).

There were three main problems that led to the invention and adoption of the Kentucky Rifle:

  • Brown Besses were heavier, at around 10.5lbs.
  • There was a shortage of lead in the American frontier.
  • There was a shortage of gun powder in the American frontier.

The Brown Besses fired large balls of lead, around .70 inches in caliber. The larger size of these balls meant higher air resistance, resulting in a slower projectile and a shorter range. Their range was made even worse by the lack of rifling inside the barrel. This is why military tactics of the time emphasized volleying, where groups of soldiers fired en masse at one another. Individual marksmanship was not emphasized because the smoothbore of a Brown Bess resulted in a brutal curve on the projectile that rendered it useless (in terms of accuracy) past 60 yards, though it remained lethal up to 175 yards.

Brown Besses were too heavy, they required too much lead, they required too much powder, they were only effective within a limited range, and something needed to be done. In order to conquer the frontier, something lighter, economical, and accurate was needed.

The Kentucky Rifle in Pennsylvania

The Kentucky Rifle helped Daniel Boone and others settle Kentucky territory, but it was not commonly called the Kentucky Rifle until a popular song, The Hunters of Kentucky, named it as such. The song commemorates the defeat of the British by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. A quarter of Andrew Jackson’s men in that victory were from Kentucky.

The relevant line comes in the 5th verse:

But Jackson he was wide awake,

And was not scar’d at trifles,

For well he knew what aim we take,

With our Kentucky rifles:

So he led us down by Cypress swamp,

The ground was low and mucky;

There stood John Bull in martial pomp,

And here was old Kentucky.

The Kentucky Rifle actually got its start in Pennsylvania, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the Pennsylvania Rifle. It was developed by German gunsmiths to address all the issues Brown Besses presented to the frontiersmen.

The weight of a Kentucky Rifle could be as low as 7lbs. The bore was reduced from around a .70 caliber to between a .32 to .45 caliber, meaning a greater number of bullets could be cast from a single pound of lead, thus conserving valuable lead and allowing the frontiersmen to carry more ammunition.

The barrel was also lengthened. The Brown Besses were generally fitted with a 42- to 46-inch barrel. The barrel on Kentucky Rifles could exceed 48 inches. This is why they are also known as longrifles. Increasing the length of the barrel meant the expanding gun powder was able to give its bullets an extra thrust, increasing the range significantly over the Brown Besses.

While the Brown Besses had a smoothbore, Kentucky Rifles were given a helical groove that conveyed rotary motion to a fired ball. This balanced the turbulence caused by surface imperfections, greatly reducing the curvature of the projectile’s path, increasing both accuracy and range.

While Brown Besses were ineffective at distances greater than 60 yards, the Kentucky Rifle was deadly at a range of 200 yards or greater by a trained marksman.

At the siege of Boonesborough, Kentucky in 1778, an enemy officer was hiding behind a tree. When he stuck his head out from behind it, he was hit square in the forehead and killed by a lead ball fired from the longrifle of Daniel Boone. Boone was a famously capable marksman who was able to account for variables such as drop and windage, and who was known to always fire the same fixed measure of gunpowder in his rifle. This shot was confirmed by witnesses on both sides at 250 yards.

Colonel George Hanger, a British officer, was stunned by the efficacy of the Kentucky Rifle and became interested in the weapon after watching his bugler’s horse get shot out from under him at a distance of around 400 yards.

Colonel Hanger wrote:

"I have many times asked the American backwoodsman what was the most their best marksmen could do; they have constantly told me that an expert marksman, provided he can draw good and true sight, can hit the head of a man at 200 yards."

(M.L. Brown’s Firearms in Colonial America: The Impact on History and Technology 1492-1792)

The Kentucky Rifle: A Family Rifle

By the 1750s, the Kentucky Rifle had already been adopted by frontiersmen and their families, the brave souls who climbed past the Allegheny Mountains, through the Cumberland Gap, and into the land that would become Kentucky and Tennessee. In such a land, a firearm was a necessity—an accurate and economical firearm even more so.

These early settlers depended on the Kentucky Rifle for food and for protection. It enabled them self-sufficiency when their mere existence absolutely required it and it contributed to the development of the healthy gun culture we see in the United States today, especially in Appalachia, the South, and other rural cultures.

The popularity of the Kentucky Rifle lasted nearly a century until 1840 when the cap and ball percussion rifle was introduced. But much is owed to the Kentucky Rifle.

Without the Kentucky Rifle, the frontier would have been much more difficult to explore, settle, and tame.