Early American Muzzle Loading Rifles

In Colonial America, a surprising variety of smoothbore and rifled arms were produced in various calibers and designs. While there really was no standardization or mass production of firearms, certain types and designs became popular.

Of those, the so called "Kentucky Rifle" loaded with a patch and ball proved its effectiveness as a hunting arm and a weapon on the battlefield thus becoming the gun by which all contemporary muzzle loading rifles would be compared.

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The Pennsylvania or Kentucky Rifle

In general, Kentucky Rifles are characterized by long barrels, sometimes in excess of 4 feet long with slim full length wood stocks. The bore diameter used was comparatively small, most often between 40 and 50 caliber. The long barrel provided a long sight radius and was considered by many to give better results with low quality powder. A patch box in the side of the buttstock was a common feature on these rifles.

The basic concept of the Kentucky Rifle is generally believed to have originated in Lancaster Pennsyvania in early 1700's. Manufactured primarily in Pennsylvania by gunsmiths of German, dutch and swiss descent(Hamilton, 138), these firearms were designed to fufill a general need by American Colonists in the hinterlands for a rifle capable of killing a deer should the opportunity arise but accurate enough that it could be used practically to kill wary small game as well.

Odd as it may sound, big-game, particulary deer were not all that plentiful in the old growth forests of 18th century America as these areas often lacked meadows and other edge habitat that would provide a constant source of food required by this wildlife. Even in more settled areas full of planted fields there was stiff competion among the populace for this free meat at a time when there were no bag limits or hunting seasons. Small game such as rabbits, squirrels and turkey were more frequently encountered. The use of large caliber European Jaeger rifles available at the time for hunting these animals was wasteful of precious lead and gunpowder.

Colonial era examples of Kentucky Rifles often had a somewhat curved butt plate but rifles made after the American Revolution would commonly sport the crescent shaped swiss type butt plate. This was an apparent influence of Swiss Schuetzen target competitions at the time. It is explained quite well in the definition below from the American Rifleman's Encyclopedia printed in 1902.

Swiss Buttplate - The buttplate of a rifle usually crescent in shape, of metal; it is intended to fit around the arm at a point where the arm joins the shoulder, and aid a rifleman in holding a rifle steadily...
(Gould, 116)

Many people find this type of stock painful to shoot because they try to mount the gun in the same manner as modern long arms by seating the stock in the pocket of there shoulder rather than using it as designed.

The original barrels of old flintlock and early percussion rifles were made by hand from crude steel bar stock. The bars were pounded flat and forged over a long cylindrical mandrel to form a tube which was welded along its entire length. The quality and safety of the rifle was dependant on a near perfect uniform weld along the length of the barrel. A significant amount of time and effort was required to shape, reamed out, and rifle a single barrel. Though the gunsmith might proof the barrel with a heavy powder charge, having invested a half of a week in its manufacture, there was obviously a strong temptation to sell a marginal barrel and hope for the best.

For the average farmer of the time, the purchase of a rifle would be a major investment, akin to purchasing a car today with cash. So expensive were rifle barrels back then that once the rifling had worn down or corrodded away the owner would often take his gun to a gunsmith to have the grooves deepened and the lands smoothed out. This was called "freshening the barrel" and was considerably cheaper than buying a new rifle

Measuring Black Powder Charges in the Palm of the Hand

There is an old fashioned method of measuring black powder for a patched ball rifle load that is a common part of muzzle loading lore. A lead round ball sized for the rifle is placed in center of the palm of the hand, enough black powder is poured over the ball to just cover it. The theory being that hill of powder formed around the ball will be an appropriate charge for a given caliber.

John Jame Audubon, in one of his "DELINEATIONS OF AMERICAN SCENERY AND MANNERS" contained in his 1832 book, "Ornithological Biography" describes a type of informal target shooting competition in Kentucky at the turn of the 19th century, where each participant would fire a shot at a nail that had been partially hammered into a tree from an average distance of 40 paces. The shooter, would endevour to drive the nail into a tree by striking the nail squarely on the head with his shot. To load their rifle each time, the shooter "places a ball in the palm of his hand, pouring as much powder from his horn upon it as will cover it." (Audubon, 293)

To see how reliable this method is, I measured out 10 charges in the manner described above for 32, 45, 50 and 54 cal. The resulting charges were then weighed and a average weight calculated.

Black Powder Charge Weights Using Ball in Palm Method
Caliber Ball Dia. Avg charge Estimated MV Std Dev Charge weight Max dev from Avg
- (inches) (grains) (feet/sec) (grains) (grains)
320.310 19 1450 2.5 +3 & -4
450.440 541600 3.3 +8 & -4
500.490 641500 5.8 +9 & -12
540.535 651350 3.5 +6 & -4

Though this method of measuring powder is probably won't result in an overcharge when used in rifles, it is rather an inexact method. The extreme variation between powder charges from one shot to the next can exceed 20 percent.

As people moved out west into the plains where big game was more plentiful a demand for a handier and more powerful rifle was created. This evolved into what is know as the Hawken Rifle.

The Hawken Rifle

It's origins were in Saint Louis Missouri and Hawken type rifles were made by a number of different gunsmiths. Common features were a bore diameter of 50 to 58, usually they were 54 caliber and capable of taking fairly stiff charges of powder. A shorter barrel and a less curved butt plate than those found on Kentucky or Pennsylvania type rifles.

As the population of the former colonies expanded away from the coast into undeveloped land to the west, there arose a need for accurate rifled arms firing small projectiles and smaller powder charges than those that were previously available.

Patch and Ball Specifications for Rifles

Caliber Ball DiaBall Weight Balls/lb Patch Dia. Charge Range Charge Range
(inches)(grains)(lead) (inches) FFG FFFG
320.310 45 155.6 7/8 N/R 20 to 30 grains
36 0.350 65 107.7 1 N/R 25 to 45 grains
40 0.390 90 77.8 1 N/R 35 to 55 grains
45 0.440 130 55.8 1 1/8 45 to 70 grains 40 to 70 grains
50 0.490 177 39.5 1 1/8 50 to 80 grains 45 to 75 grains
50 0.495 183 38.3 1 1/8 50 to 80 grains 45 to 75 grains
54 0.530 225 31.1 1 1/4 55 to 85 grains 50 to 75 grains
54 0.535 232 30.2 1 1/4 55 to 85 grains 50 to 75 grains
56 0.550 265 26.7 1 3/8 60 to 85 grains 55 to 80 grains
58 0.570 280 25.0 1 3/8 60 to 90 grains 55 to 80 grains

Audubon, John James "Ornithological Biography"   E.L. Carey & A. Hart Philadelphia 1832 Google Books

Gould, A. C. Editor "American Rifleman's Encyclopedia" Peters Cartridge Co. Cincinnati, OH 1902 p. 116 Google Books

Hamilton, Andrew "Daniel Boones on the Rifle Range" Popular Mechanics Aug. 1949 p.138 Google Books


Yard, Edward M. "The Round Patched Ball and Why They Used It. " Gun Digest 34th Ed. DBI Books 1980 p. 236-237

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