I have sometimes been asked to explain what a “typical” Kentucky Rifle is. Unfortunately, while there are many things that typify Kentucky Rifles, there’s really no such thing as a typical Kentucky Rifle. They were not uniformly mass-produced in factories, but rather made by hand in small, private gunsmith shops all over Appalachian America (eg. Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina). Sometimes they were plain affairs, with no thrilling extras, other times they were ornately engraved or decorated with gold and silver furniture. In the early days of Colonial America, a lot of immigrants from Europe found their way here, especiallly the Dutch, Irish, and Germans. Many of the Germans settled in central Pennsylvania, around York, Lancaster, Elizabethtown and surrounding areas, and undoubtedly in and around Philadelphia–the capitol of Colonial America. These Germans had their own brand of rifles dating back to the late 1600s and early 1700s–the Jaeger Rifle. When they got over here in the Colonies, they continued to make these Jaegers (pronounced Yay-Gur), and after a while, they became as much of a regional phenomenon here as they had been in what would later come to be called Germany.
Gunsmithing was (and still is) a fine handcrafted art, and many examples of those Long Rifles are still around today. During the War of American Independence, much of the Colonial military consisted of volunteers to bolster up the Continental Line. Many of them showed up with their home-grown rifles and caused a stir among the attacking British. You see, at the time it was common to use flintlock muskets–smoothbores–as military arms, and to form lines or rows, advancing towards the enemy. Rather than taking careful aim, it was the practice to have an entire line fire simultaneously in a volley of fire, in an attempt to decimate the line of an advancing enemy. So here we had all these independent “Hunters” (Jaeger is German for “hunter”) hiding behind rocks and trees and using their rifle sites to take aim at individual enemy soldiers, to great effect. The startled British officers began buzzing about these new “Long Rifles” which were being used with success against them. Although most did not know it at the time, this was the future of warfare. Up to that point, a rifle was supposed to be used for hunting game for food, whereas a musket was a military weapon. This led to the old German Jaeger rifles to be called “American Jaegers” and then “Long Rifles” by the British.
Now we get to the Kentucy Rifle. Up to this point the American Jaegers were being called “Long Rifles” by the British, and probably some locals too. Using the Long Rifle (and allowing for the generous support of the Marquis de LaFayette’s gift of 25,000 Charleville muskets to General George Washington) and some good strategies and a little luck, America won its independence from Britain. In the War of 1812, at the Battle of New Orleans, General (Yes, he later became president) Andrew Jackson led a group of some 2,000 Tennessee volunteers (another famous term!) armed with the Long Rifles they brought with them, and were able to defeat the British. After this, amid the celebration, jounalsits coined the term “Kentucy Rifle” and it stuck. So now, in the 21st century, we still call it the Kentucky Rifle. There you have it. There are still artisans in Appalachia who make these by hand, often with magnificent results. Do a search online, and you can find some absolutely beautiful Kentucky rifle artwork out there.
There is a more detailed and expanded story on the Kentucky Rifle at GunClassics.com. There are also stories and links to many other famous firearms at this site. Feel free to drop in and check it out! We have authentic non-firing and blank-firing replicas of these guns at GunsOfOld.com, in addition to a large assortment of reenactor gear, accessories and other items. If you are specifically looking for a replica of the Kentucky Rifle, we have that too.