The Kentucky Rifle…. This is one of my favorite firearm, and maybe the most beautiful rifle ever made.
We must go back to 1700’s. The first colonies began to expand westward. They brought their rifles to America. These rifles were the European “Jaeger” type, but it wasn’t the best choice for Pioneers, Trappers.
The requirements of the Pioneers/Trappers are:
It must be lightweight, and its ammunition must be lightweight. Most traveling was done on foot, with all necessary supplies carried by the person. Given the size of the forests, the relative rarity of trails, and dearth of settlements, the explorer had to carry all necessary items to survive for up to six months. Therefore, the rifle, probably the heaviest single item they would be carrying, needed to place weight at a premium.
It must be accurate. Rifles of the day were slow to load, and a gunshot would scare off any animals nearby. That first shot had to count. One also must consider the limited supply of bullets and gunpowder, carried on the person. With a need to conserve bullets and powder, neither available in the forest, every shot must count.
It must have a minimum of special equipment. Anything relating to the operation of the rifle would have to be carried with the explorer. Loss or breakage of special tools, such as a mallet to drive a bullet into the barrel, would render the rifle inoperable, and leave the explorer out of food.
It must be quick to load. Hostile inhabitants of the woods could descend upon the explorer at any time. While the Indians of the time did not generally have firearms, and had great respect for the person who did have one, they did travel in numbers. Excuse me, can you wait while I prepare my rifle. I’ll only be a few minutes… to take this to the extreme, Simon Kenton was reputed to be able to reload his Ky rifle in 12 seconds, while running.
To solve these problems, the gunmakers began to develop a new rifle.
The key features of the new rifle are these:
The long barrel. This addressed several needs. The very long barrel allowed for open gunsights that could be used in the dark, shady forest, by virtue of placing the rear sight farther from the marksman’s eye. You can’t hit it if you can’t see your sights. A long barrel tends to fire a bullet more consistently, when differing powder charges are used. Game close, use less powder, bullet still goes in the same place. Those who have fired a reproduction of a Kentucky rifle first note the long barrel, which seems rather difficult to aim, as it is nose heavy. However, take the rifle out into dense hardwood forests, and the solution becomes obvious. There is always a tree nearby to rest a hand on to support the barrel. A shortcoming that goes away when you use the rifle within its design parameters.
The smaller caliber. Lighter bullets weigh less, which is critical when you carry your entire supply on your back, and take less powder to shoot, which is critical when you also carry your entire gunpowder supply in a horn. The typical caliber of a woodsman’s KY rifle was in the .40-48 range, adequate for the small game that made up the usual explorer’s dinner, but also optimized for weight. Smaller caliber bullets also resulted in much lighter barrels, making not only the ammunition, but the rifle itself, lighter.
The patched round ball. One of the most overlooked innovations of the Kentucky rifle is the patched ball. The Jaeger rifle depended upon a tight fitting bullet to get a good gas seal and insure that most of the gunpowder’s gas propelled the bullet. The slightly oversized bullet was hard to start in the barrel, and tended to leave lead deposits behind that affected subsequent shots. Consequently, starting the bullet into the barrel was a tedious affair, with an iron (and heavy) rod and mallet (also heavy) to hammer the bullet into the barrel. To solve these two problems, a brilliant but unknown designer used bullets slightly smaller than the barrel, and a greasy patch of cloth to complete the seal. By doing this, the bullet and patch started easy for fast loading, sealed well for maximum power and accuracy, and required no special equipment for loading. No heavy mallet to carry, or to lose or break, leaving one with no food supply. The patched round ball also gave rise to one of the Kentucky rifle’s distinctive characteristics: the patchbox on the rifle stock, with which one could easily store a supply of greased patches, and keep them free of the dirt and debris that would normally stick to a greasy cloth.
The slender stock. What gives a Kentucky its unique, and beautiful, appearance. A slender stock simply weighs less than the massive wood stocks of the Jaeger rifles. This was a tradeoff, light stocks are less stable and more fragile than heavy stocks, but the weight factor comes in again: Carry a heavy rifle, and you can’t carry much else. Stability was overcome with a tree, and fragility was compensated (probably) by careful handling. Add the all important patch box in the stock, and you now have the complete picture of this rifle’s characteristics.
Length: over 65 inch (1,700 mm)
Barrel length: 35 inch (889 mm), to over 48 inch (1,220 mm)
Caliber: .36 cal to .45 cal (9.14 mm to 11.43 mm) were common
Action: Flintlock, Percussion
Rate of fire: User dependent, Usually 2+ rounds a minute
Effective range: Variable, 100 yards (91 meters) typical, to well over 300 yards (273 meters) by an experienced user
Feed system: Muzzle loaded
In service c.1730-c.1850
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