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Pennsylvania Long Rifle


William Antes, New Hanover Gunsmith

 ~Written by Robert Wood, Goschenhoppen Historian~

 

William Antes was born in a mill by the Swamp Creek into the venerable Henry Antes family on 21 September 1731. He was baptized 21 November 1731 at the Falkner Swamp German Reformed Church which his  family had helped to found. Little is known of William Antes early life, but that he was a gunsmith there is no doubt. I recently held in hand one of three known, signed William Antes’ rifles.

 

 

 

That there are only three surviving Antes rifles is not odd. Pristine 18th century flintlock rifles known to be made in Pennsylvania before the Revolutionary War are exceedingly rare, there being only about 40 or 50 “perfect” ones in existence. The graceful, Pennsylvania long rifles with curly maple stocks were delicate. Those that survived rough use sometimes had the barrels drilled to make shotguns. Also, the original flintlock firing mechanisms were usually replaced with the new percussion locks in the 19th century.

 

Although “gun” is a generic term for firearm, a gun is different from a rifle. Antes and the other German Pennsylvania gunsmiths were known for making rifles. The inside of a gun barrel is smooth; the inside of a rifle barrel has spirals cut into the metal which impart a spin to the ball (Conical bullets were developed a hundred years later prior to the Civil War). The gyroscoping effect of the spin gave the lead ball stability and accuracy. Think of the accuracy of a spinning football thrown as a forward pass compared to the inaccuracy of a kicked football that has no spin.

 

During the Revolutionary War the British “Brown Bess” musket was a smoothbore gun. Without rifling and with the ball slightly smaller than the bore to facilitate loading, the one misshapen lead ball went tumbling down the barrel and flew in whatever direction it was tumbling as it left the muzzle.  Musketry, then, depended on volley fire and being hit was a matter of providence as the guns didn’t even have rear sights. Rifles, on the other hand, were deadly accurate at 100 yards and beyond.

 

 

The disadvantages of rifles, however, were that they were expensive to make; slow to load; each had its individual bullet mold; they could not be fitted with bayonets; and were rather delicate for the rough and tumble of military service. Most of the patriots’ firearms in the war were muskets, not rifles, although there were rifle companies.

 

Although often called “Kentucky rifles,” flintlock long rifles were made by  German settlers in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley. The term Kentucky rifle came from a popular song about the battle of New Orleans during the war of 1812. In that battle, 5,000 Southern militia armed with rifles and under the command of Andrew Jackson devastated a much larger invading British army which was fresh from defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. The song celebrated the “Kentucky rifle” not because it was made in Kentucky, but because it was used by Kentuckians. The tune became the campaign song for Jackson’s 1828 successful bid for the presidency and remained popular through his two terms. Hence the term.

 

Lancaster was the center of the rifle making craft although rifles were made throughout the region. Ironically, although the Moravians in Bethlehem and Nazareth were pacifists, they were among the earliest rifle makers. Specific dates are hard to ascertain, but the Pennsylvania flintlock longrifle evolved between 1725 and 1750. Flintlock production generally ceased around 1830 with the invention of the percussion cap.

 

Most all Pennsylvania gunsmiths were “stockers.” The locks were imported from Europe, and the barrels were made here in specialized mills. The stocks, fittings, brass patch boxes and the other bits were fashioned here by the gunsmith and his apprentices.  The smith’s main creation was the wooden stock of walnut or, popularly, curly maple and cherry. There was no small skill involved in crafting the final product. They could and sometimes did make the locks and barrels here, but it was more cost effective to import them from England. Too, it is doubtful that the colonists  could make spring steel. A rifle required three reliable steel springs, and steel making in America was, at most, in its infancy.

 

 

Present day gunsmith Randy Konrad, who works at his home on Paper Mill Road in northern Douglass Township, notes that “It takes about150 hours to complete a flintlock rifle. This time can go up significantly depending on ‘furniture’ added such as an elaborate patch box, or decorative inlay work such as a compass rose on the cheek piece.

 

“Also, carving and engraving also can run up the time for a ‘stocker’ such as myself. Even if every hand motion has meaning, it still takes significant time due to the care required at each step. Even a small slip up can severely damage the final product. I fabricate the nose piece, lugs, pins, etc. There is significant finish work on all brass furniture. Brass castings (butt plate, trigger guard, side plate) are rough and foundry fresh and require final shaping and polishing. Thimbles (hold the ramrod), tail piece, sights, trigger plate, barrel tang---all require final shaping.

 

“Exposed iron and steel parts can be left in the “white” or browned. Browning is controlled rusting which may be accelerated with dilute nitric acid (aqua fortis). After acid is neutralized the barrel is warmed and coated with linseed (flax) oil. I also use aqua fortis for staining the curly maple. It brings out the grain and gives the same look found on old rifles.  

 

I always found it interesting that the metal and wood are finished with the same chemistry. These are period correct methods of finish. So flax produced the finish (linseed oil) and the cloth patch material (linen) used to patch the ball.

 

“All these rifles fire a patched round ball. A greased or spit lubricated patch of precise thickness  wrapped around the precision round ball insured the tight fit required to engage the ball and give it a spin. The critical diameter of the ball was assured by having a custom bullet mold made for each rifle by the gunsmith. A matched set. One of the reasons that riflemen were not appreciated by General Washington was the  difficult logistic of providing ammunition for rifles. Military muskets, on the other hand, were made to general caliber specifications and could be easily supplied with premade cartridges.”

 

 

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