Kentucky long rifle pioneered accuracy

Paul Smith
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Have you ever thrown a football? Maybe you indulge in the odd game of rugby.

If you’ve attempted either, you no doubt discovered post haste that the ball must be made to spin if it has any hope of hitting its intended target. Baseballs and round rocks you can sling without rotation, but elongated projectiles are entirely another matter. So, the star quarterback throwing the long pass to that wide receiver no doubt puts a wicked spin on the ball. It is an essential skill of the game.

Likewise with rifles: the longer the bullet, the more it must spin if it’s to fly straight and true to the target. If the spin isn’t sufficient, the bullet will wobble and go off course. That’s what usually happens when I throw a football.

Growing up in Spaniard’s Bay, I became more skilled with rocks and softballs. When I first visited my sister for summer vacation in northern Ontario, I was introduced to mainlander sports like football. You might say my passes were somewhat lacking compared to the local boys. But they were patient and taught me the basics. In return I showed them a thing or two about throwing rocks and fashioning slingshots.

The Sudbury lads were also pretty impressed with my pellet gun marksmanship. It was an interesting cultural exchange. I even learned a little Italian cursing. 

Back in the old days, battles were fought in open fields with zero collateral damage or civilian casualties. That was a very good thing. But this sort of warfare was tough for the foot soldier on the bloody battlefield. Opposing sides would literally line up face to face and shoot at each other with guns.

Notice I said guns, not rifles. That’s because in those days soldiers carried smooth bore muskets that shot round lead balls. There was no need to spin the spherical projectiles and therefore the barrels weren’t rifled. The effective range of such weapons was no more than a hundred yards at most. Duelling pistols were also smoothbores, much shorter, and no doubt very inaccurate. Maybe that’s why men got to feuding over women and often settled matters by taking shots at each other. If they paced far enough they’d likely miss anyway and live long enough to have better sense. When pistols got more precise, men stopped shooting at each other over women. Fistfights, on the other hand, do still occur.

In the mid 15th century, someone with an innovative mind got the bright idea that spinning bullets would improve the ballistics of primitive guns. Archers had long realized that a twist added to the tail feathers of their arrows gave them greater accuracy. Gunsmiths may have gotten the idea from bow shooters. Whatever sparked the stroke of genius, there were practical experiments with black powder and rifling as far back as the mid-15th century.

For whatever reason, it took a long while for proper rifles to become practical and mainstream. Right up to the American War of Independence, the British continued to use smooth bore muskets on the battlefield. But innovation on the American frontier would change things dramatically.

Enter the Kentucky long rifle. Since the 1740s, settlers in America had been hand-forging rifle barrels from long, flat bars of soft iron. It was a demanding and laborious process, but realizing the value in placing a bullet precisely, they cut rifling into their bores with crude homemade tools. Then locks, sights, triggers and so on were hammered into shape on an anvil. Fitted with a maple stock from the nearby forests, an object of both beauty and function was born.

Such rifles were still made in isolated pockets of the Appalachian Mountains until the early 20th century. Today, only a few dedicated historical artisans have the skill to build such a rifle from scratch. There’s a DVD available online entitled “Gunsmith of Williamsburg” that documents the whole process from start to finish. I’ve got it ordered.

The British Army learned a fearsome lesson on the effectiveness of accuracy and precision fire on the North American battlefield. Rather than line up and exchange lead at close range, Americans chose to shoot their enemy at long range and live to fight another day. Many brilliantly clad British officers fell from their horses dead on the ground, victim of frontier marksmanship and the long rifle. They didn’t know what hit them, and neither did the confused musket-toting troops under their command. Confusion often ensued, leading to many American victories. The new age of sniping had changed the face of warfare.

There’s an intangible sense of satisfaction that comes from independence and resourcefulness. Imagine the sense of pride and accomplishment that must come from building your own rifle and then shooting your winter’s meat with it. It was commonplace in the settling of this great continent we live on.

I’d certainly like to have a taste of that. Many of us get a fleeting glimpse through hobbies like fly tying and loading ammo. Casting bullets form chunks of raw lead is certainly earthier than buying cartridges ready loaded from Wal-Mart or Canadian Tire. 

A black powder smoke pole, close cousin of the Kentucky long rifle, might bring a hunter closer to feeling the pioneer’s sense of independence. It might be worth learning to shoot one and maybe down a moose with a hand-cast bullet jammed down the barrel with a ramrod.

It sounds cool in theory, but there will only be one shot; no time to reload. I started down the muzzle loading black powder road just a few days ago at the St. John’s Rod and Gun Club. 

I’ve always liked the smell of gunpowder, but the cloud of smoke generated after launching a full half-inch slug with black powder was intoxicating.

The rifle I’m using is by all measures a modern weapon, fashioned in a factory to exacting tolerances on commuter-controlled lathes and milling machines. It’s a .50 cal Thompson Center Encore. But the essential function is very akin to the infamous Kentucky long rifle. You have to pour powder down the barrel, followed by a bullet forced in from the muzzle end with a ram rod. Then you prime and shoot.

To get the best accuracy it’s essential to swab powder residue from the bore after each and every shot. I’m a bit slow, but I’m sure I’ll get faster with practice. I’ve discovered a fresh element to shooting, a sport I’ve enjoyed since childhood. I think I like it.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at

Organizations: British Army, North American, Wal-Mart Canadian Tire Rod and Gun Club Thompson Center Encore

Geographic location: Northern Ontario, Kentucky, America Appalachian Mountains Williamsburg

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