Historical Markers
Pennsylvania Rifle [Industries] Historical Marker
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Pennsylvania Rifle [Industries]

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
Pa. 23 (Marietta Ave.) near west end of Lancaster

Dedication Date:
March 19, 1947

Behind the Marker

The Pennsylvania Rifle in this photograph features a hand carved, curly maple stock with engraved brass inlays.
Pennsylvania Long Rifle, circa 1780.
For generations, Americans have admired markerDaniel Boone, who explored the wilderness of Kentucky and paved the way for western settlement. Boone, of course, carried his trusty "Kentucky Rifle." However, both the man and his rifle had their origins in southeastern Pennsylvania. A product of several influences, the Pennsylvania Rifle owes its existence primarily to immigrant gunsmiths in Lancaster County. The rifle did indeed open the Midwest, but it also played a role in America's first battles, from the French and Indian War to the War of 1812.

Lancaster became the rifle capital of the young nation due to geography and geology. Lancaster was an important crossroads trading post between urban Philadelphia and the western wilderness. As settlers moved west, they needed reliable firearms. Lancaster County had the necessary natural resources to support gunmaking: the largest iron ore deposits in the colonies and forests of quality hardwoods to produce stocks.

Color image of a Pennsylvania rifle detail
The stock and flint lock mechanism of a Pennsylvania Long Rifle
The earliest colonists primarily used smoothbore muskets and fowling pieces to hunt, fight, and defend their homes. But by the early 1700s, German and Swiss gunsmiths had brought rifle-making skills with them to Pennsylvania. What made the rifle a superior firearm was a series of twisting grooves on the inside of the barrel that imparted spin to the bullet stabilizing its flight. As a result, rifles provided greater accuracy at longer range.

The "jaeger" or "hunter" rifles that German and Swiss immigrants brought with them were quite different from what became the Pennsylvania Rifle. They were shorter, heavier, "club-like" devices with a barrel diameter of about six tenths of an inch, and were almost as impractical frontier weapons as the longer, heavier, less accurate smoothbore muskets of the time.

Beginning in the 1730s, the Pennsylvania Rifle began to evolve. Lancaster gunsmiths refined and adapted the German rifle to the needs of the American shooter. Rifle barrels grew to forty inches in length. Their diameter decreased to about one half inch. This reduction in caliber made the barrel lighter. At its best, the new-style rifle was accurate to between 200 and 300 yards. It was sleek, light, and reliable, making it the ideal weapon to use for hunting and in fighting irregular warfare.

A color picture of five rifles, at carrying angles to highlight different sections of the Pennsylvania Rifle.
Details of five Pennsylvania Long Rifles.
This rifle soon became the weapon of choice for frontiersmen and settlers. Apparently so many of these rifles ended up in Kentucky that, over time, the Pennsylvania appellation gave way to Kentucky. Clearly, gunsmiths in several other colonies were producing rifles on the pattern of their fellows in Lancaster. Yet, it is likely that Pennsylvania produced more of these rifles than all the other colonies combined, simply because the Lancaster area had the highest concentration of gunsmiths.

Riflemen played an important role in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, wars characterized by irregular combat in woodland battlefields. By the eve of the latter conflict, several patriot leaders believed that American woodsmen armed with Pennsylvania Rifles could easily defeat stodgy, musket-wielding redcoats. In 1775 George Washington recruited rifle companies as the core of his new Continental Army. The Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment and units from southern colonies answered the call.

Clad in buckskin and with varying equipment, the riflemen shared a strong esprit de corps. Yet, poor planning, tactics, and logistics kept riflemen from providing the decisive blow that Washington sought. Riflemen could provide deadly firepower while under cover or selectively shoot enemy officers, as they did at Saratoga and Hannah's Cowpens, but riflemen could not withstand British infantry assaults. A rifle took too long to load, which meant that in close engagements the British had the advantage in rate-of-fire. In addition, long rifles were not fitted with bayonets. These problems, when compounded with the overall lack of discipline among rifle units, led Washington to refit his forces with more traditional muskets.

Before becoming outmoded, the Pennsylvania Rifle again served its country in the War of 1812. In the war's most legendary battle, the rifle played a role in the defeat of the British in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. A force of ten thousand British regulars, seasoned from combat against Napoleon, approached the city which was guarded by General Andrew Jackson and a ragtag force of five thousand men comprised of a few hundred regulars, pirates, untrained militiamen, and rifle-toting frontiersman. Jackson positioned two thousand riflemen behind cotton bales and ordered them to fire at will. The men poured a withering fire upon the officers and men of the advancing columns. When Major General Edward Pakenham fell mortally wounded, the battle was over. All told, the British suffered two thousand casualties. Americans suffered thirteen dead and fifty-eight wounded.

By this time, however, the Pennsylvania Rifle's days were numbered. Gunsmiths moved beyond it, developing sturdier rifles for the needs of the rugged western frontier. Technological advances such as percussion caps, metal cartridges, and eventually repeating arms eclipsed the older rifle's usefulness by the mid-nineteenth century. The Pennsylvania Rifle was one of the earliest American technological innovations, the product of skilled Europeans craftsmen who adapted firearms for the demands of a new continent.
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