Historical Markers
Pennsylvania Rifle Historical Marker
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Pennsylvania Rifle

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
PA 23 (Marietta Ave.) near W end of Lancaster

Dedication Date:
March 19, 1947

Behind the Marker

"You will be pleased to make such arms and Iron work, as requested by the bearer Captain Meriwether Lewis with the least possible delay."

                                                        Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War

A color picture of five rifles, at carrying angles to highlight different sections of the Pennsylvania Rifle.
Details of five Pennsylvania Long Rifles.
To face the unknown challenges of the continent's interior, markerMeriwether Lewis wanted the best guns that money could buy. The success of the Expedition and the very survival of its volunteers depended upon their ability to hunt and protect themselves. Although he had unlimited access to the supplies at the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Lewis decided that he needed something more. And so he traveled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and ordered fifteen Pennsylvania rifles, the dependable long-barreled, muzzle-loading weapon that his Corps of Discovery would use throughout the Expedition.

No other weapon had proven as versatile or dependable on the American frontier as this long, light, and accurate rifle, which could dependably and accurately propel a .45 caliber ball 300 yards. The Pennsylvania rifle was actually a hybrid of two other widely used weapons of the day: the long-barreled fowling pieces used by English settlers that had proven unreliable companions in the dense American forests; and the "jaegers" or short hunting rifles used by Pennsylvania's German-speaking settlers.

A full length water Watercolor of Lewis in expedition garb, by Charles BJF Saint Memin
Meriwether Lewis in expedition garb, by Charles BJF Saint-Memin, 1807.
In Lancaster County, gunsmiths in the mid-eighteenth century borrowed from both weapons to create the Pennsylvania rifle. From butt plate to muzzle, a typical Pennsylvania rifle was nearly five-feet long, consisted of fifty handcrafted parts, and weighed only eight pounds. The stocks, often smoothed curly maple, were embellished with intricate carved designs and engraved butt plates. Beginning in the 1760s, the quality, versatility, and dependability of the Pennsylvania rifle made it not only a useful companion but also a weapon of choice. Demand for this new, distinctly American weapon quickly spread. Within another decade, the Pennsylvania rifle was also made by gunsmiths in Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia.

The other weapons Lewis needed for the expedition he secured from the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Most versatile was the U.S. Model 1803 rifle, the first designed for the Army. With its 33-inch barrel and a .54 gauge, an experienced woodsman could fire two shots per minute, accurately enough to kill a deer at 100 yards. Lewis also selected four blunderbusses - short, large-bore and large-flared muskets that could be loaded with whatever shot or scraps of metal were on hand. William Clark would mount two of these on swivels at the stern of the expedition's keelboat and one on each of the two pirogues, the flat-bottomed boats purchased in Pennsylvania. Lewis also added a swivel-mounted bronze cannon to his stash of weaponry, a cannon that could fire one-pound lead balls or sixteen musket balls - whatever would best address the threat.

Of all these weapons, the Pennsylvania rifle had the most significance to Lewis. Back in Philadelphia after the Expedition, Lewis had his portrait painted for the official history. For the sitting, he draped himself in a tippet, an ermine-skin shawl presented to him by a Shoshone chief in 1805, which he described as "the most eligant piece of Indian dress" he had ever seen. In his left had, Lewis held his Pennsylvania rifle - one manufactured in Lancaster in the Spring of 1803. The portrait survives and is now housed in Independence Historical National Park in Philadelphia. No one knows what happened to the tippet - or the rifle.
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