By Wayne Stormer, August 12, 2020, Contemporary Artist of the BP Culture
Yes, we know there are those seeking the Holy Grail of the North Carolina rifles styles from before the American Revolution. They can try to point to one gun or another here and there. The facts are there were a great many guns, and they weren’t like what they were or are searching for. So, what is the problem and why the push for a “school” or “schools” of pre-revolutionary rifles?
The facts are you had German-Swiss Moravians in North Carolina along the Tidewater region from very early times. Many had left North Carolina to join their brethren in Pennsylvania, but still there were those who remained in North Carolina. However, even if they made rifles, it most likely wasn’t the longrifle styles as those in the region preferred fowlers, fusils, and trade guns with its humidity. However, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t or didn’t make any longrifles. These rifles simply don’t exist to draw conclusions from.
Another problem is many of the professed “historians” make the unholy mistake of assuming that the German-Swiss didn’t arrive in the counties of the western parts of North Carolina until a much later time period when the counties were being formed. They overlook the migration by these German-Swiss to this western region of North Carolina in the 1720’s-1750’s by those German-Swiss from Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey. They migrated down the Great Warrior Path that later became the Great Wagon Road into the Yadkin Valley and surrounding regions of the once large Rowan County, North Carolina. This is much earlier than what many county “historians” of North Carolina write. Some went that way and others went to the region that is today Rockingham, Guilford, and Randolph Counties at a very early date. Among those that went into North Carolina from Pennsylvania were also the Scot-Irish and English like the Boones and other Quakers, and we then must throw in those Virginians who joined the migration as well.
These migrating German-Swiss from Pennsylvania brought their rifles and longrifles with them to North Carolina. Some rifles were jaegers of various lengths and the long Swiss sporting rifles of their home countries from when they arrived on these shores, and from those rifles that were imported from Germany (i.e. like with Caspar Wistar Sr. in the late 1720’s and who noted the preference for longrifles already existed before then) or those assembled and made from imported parts in Pennsylvania by those gunstockers and gunsmiths who likewise came over with them. You already know that some of them were Moravians.
Those existing rifles that were brought over from the Fatherland came in different fashion styles depending on the region and maker of them there. They already had both the hunting versions and the military versions of them. How many they had of either is anyone’s guess. We do know that former members of the Jaeger riflemen had come to settle in Pennsylvania and had brought rifles with them. (i.e. an example being Johann Wetzel who had taught all his children, male and female, how to load and shoot on the run with Lewis Wetzel being the most adept at such.)
In the earliest years, things were pretty much a plain affair when it came to rifles as men strove to establish their later renown prosperous farms. Though there were some rifles well made and decorated, from the home country and here, but by far a plain functioning “barn rifle” or “Schimmel rifle” was the order for most of them being made and assembled in Pennsylvania. They same held for wherever they migrated to whether joining those German-Swiss in the Shenandoah Valley or going on to North Carolina and with the Overmountain boys. Fancy rifles were known but they weren’t the majority of the rifles. These were pragmatic practical people who put value on soundness and quality of parts with construction over all else. These were tools for hunting and for self defence, and they were thus used accordingly. Practical common sense dictates these were the majority of the rifles found in North Carolina, and they were of the styles from Germany, Switzerland, and those of Pennsylvania manufacture. Sure, a few Maryland and Virginia rifles existed for those well off, and some fancy guns from the Fatherland, but these weren’t the majority of the rifles.
With this in mind, it is clear the rifles, with a preference for the longrifles, from Germany, Switzerland, and Pennsylvania, were the North Carolina rifles used both in the French & Indian War and American Revolution. They were also the type of longrifles that Daniel Boone and his fellows had and used in their hide hunting business. Still, there is another twist to this story.
It is known there were expert blacksmiths and skilled engineers among the German-Swiss that the governor of Virginia had brought over to create and work mines in Virginia at an early date. They were known to make whatever it is that they needed themselves and, after their term of service, migrated to the Blue Ridge, Shenandoah Valley region, and parts of the Appalachians. Iron was more common and easily accessed for them with brass being much more costlier. Do we really know what their rifle guns looked like then? No, but we know they existed and things were repurposed. We also know that there were many Scot-Irish & English Quakers and non-Quakers that jumped in on the rifle making aspects of the frontier. The Boones were just one of them.
You don’t think rifles made in Europe and in Pennsylvania were sent to Charleston, South Carolina? They were. Not only that, but you had a German-Swiss and Moravian element of gunstockers and smiths there as well. Imported parts would likewise mean a blending of European components there as well too. How much of an influence was had from this direction isn’t known or had. We do know that trade guns were supplied to some of the Indian tribes through this manner. How many rifles did they have? No one knows for sure and there is very little if any provenance of any early rifles in extent for us to create anything out of it.
Now we come to the another factor of the Overmountain boys. That many of them came from Pennsylvania in those early years is known. They came over to help fight against Ferguson and the Loyalists/Tories at the battles of Kings Mountain and battle of Cowpens etc. They were using the rifles they had brought with them as well as the plain yet well built “Tennessee Mountain Rifles” which were an extension of the Pennsylvanian “Barn rifles” and “Schimmel rifles”. They were making their own, and had been making their own, well known quality gunpowder since after the French & Indian War as wekk. How and why? Because a couple families who were in the gunpowder manufacturing business had migrated there from the industrialized Ft. Cumberland region of Pennsylvania after the French & Indian War when there wasn’t a reason for continuing business for it there after that war. Clearly there were also capable smiths among their ranks who were trained and later had their sons trained in riflemaking. At that time period, and still afterwards, they sent for or went to Lancaster or York Counties in Pennsylvania to get the best rifles for themselves they could at times. We all know about David Crockett setting off to do such as others had done before. He didn’t want just a rifle. No, he wanted a FINE quality fancy rifle with all the bells and whistles. Clearly, he had seen such rifles and was aware of them among the people in his region. Therefore, you can rightly guess that such fine Lancaster & York County, Pennsylvania guns were seen and had by some of those Overmountain boys in addition to their “Mountain rifle” versions of the barn and Schimmel rifles.
Therefore, during the American Revolution, those early North Carolina rifles were being made like their Pennsylvanian counterparts by the Moravians and others in North Carolina. The fact that they were in existence is known from the promissory notes made in procuring such rifles when a scarcity of military arms was had after the battle of Charlestown in South Carolina was had and thousands of arms lost. Rifles were pressed into military service with promises made to pay a greater high dollar for them in Spanish milled dollars after the war.
There are those rifles in existence that tend to lend credence to the idea that the Overmountain Tennessee rifles had an influence upon the later post-revolutionary North Carolinian rifles. As for the pre-revolutionary North Carolina rifles, they were a varied affair of ones from Germany, Switzerland, and those made in Pennsylvania for the greatest part with some made emulating such in North Carolina. This doesn’t not mean that there weren’t individual preferences for touches and decorations here and there like the running deer etc., but that style also existed already in Germany and Switzerland.
To my mind, there wasn’t any one particular “school” of North Carolina rifles in those days. Rifles were made by the Moravians at Winston-Salem, the Boones, and others at other places, but Pennsylvania rifles were still being sent from their makers in Pennsylvania to all parts of the frontier including the Overmountain folk who were also making their own bare bones rifles. Those Moravian made rifles were the same as they had been making in Pennsylvania.
With this in mind, the search for any North Carolina school for rifles prior to the American Revolution is null and void. This is especially so without any rifles with verifiable provenance. Once again this makes them Pennsylvania rifles made by transplanted Pennsylvanians. If a difference in rifles existed, they would have been made known in the records, but they only reflect the spread and acceptance of the German-Swiss Pennsylvanian longrifle culture in the colonies and later states. The longrifle culture spread and was now in use crossing both cultural and state boundaries, and its effective proper military use was realized by leaders like Daniel Morgan, Baron von Steuben, and others before them like Colonel Henri-Louis Bouquet.
However, for my money, I’m inclined to bet along the lines of those early pre-revolutuionary rifles as being either being brought with, imported, assembled and stocked from various European imported parts, or made by those immigrant German-Swiss here themselves both non-Moravian and Moravian alike. Good ideas back then, like now, spread fast along certain folk and their migrations on this North American continent while crossing cultural lines here. The degree of accessories and decorations would depend on the individual and the person building said rifles. There is also the fact many of those early families went further west into middle & western Tennessee, up to the old North West Territory, and elsewhere with any of the existing rifles they had after that time. Thus one can only speculate as to a rifle’s origins. A Pennsylvania rifle could have made the journey to Maryland, Virginia, North & South Carolina, Tennessee, the Old North West Territory, and further west all within the same generation or two……but it wasn’t in either Pennsylvania or North Carolina any longer
This may not be what some wish to believe and have, but it is the only real conclusion that a reasonable person can be drawn to with what is known and had. Without provenance and a sufficient number of such rifles existing from that time in North Carolina, one is merely grasping at whiffs of smoke and straws. Sometimes people cannot see the forest for the trees. However, if you stick with the basics and simple fare in choice of rifles, you won’t be far wrong from what the majority of those people had back then.
Maybe one or two rifles will arise from that pre-revolutionary time period. That would be great and wonderful, but it still wouldn’t represent all the pre-revolutionary rifles of North Carolina or establish a set North Carolina “school” of rifles. The long comb under carved line was had in Germany as was the running deer decorations. It could indicate what German or Swiss school that gunstocker or builder was trained at though. Still, I’m open to new discoveries as they come along.
(This article was originally posted in the Contemporary Artist of the Blackpowder Culture Facebook Group. Publication rights reserved for Pierre Stormer for what will surely be a really-cool publication. Wayne Stormer graciously allowed me to re-post it here. I think this is a fascinating topic, which is in the infancy of its development.)