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Bob Bowman's East Texas

Frontier Rifles

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

With the fall of the Alamo in 1836, two of the most famous weapons in Texas history--a knife carried by Jim Bowie and a rifle used by Davy Crockett--were lost in the mists of history.

Crockett actually left his favorite rifle, which he called “Old Betsy” with his son John Wesley when he departed for Texas in 1835. Today, it resides in the Alamo Museum collection in San Antonio. Crockett used “Old Betsy” to kill 125 bears between 1825 and 1834.

Early pioneers and explorers such as Crockett and Daniel Boone probably depended on Kentucky rifles and a successor, the Plains Rifle, for survival on the expanding American frontier.

Before the two rifles were developed, Texans likely used smoothbore rifles and muskets, but they were often inaccurate, even at short distances.

It was not until the early 1700s, when German arms makers invented a method for rifling a gun barrel that long-range accuracy was possible.

Rifling, the process of cutting spiral grooves on the inside of the rifle barrel, helped achieve greater precision when firing. As the bullet passed down the spiral grooves, the grooves imparted a spin to the bullet.

As is the case with a thrown football, this spin helps the bullet fly in a much straighter line, thereby improving accuracy.

German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the early 18th century brought this tradition to America. These gun makers had perfected their Jaeger rifle and that design evolved into what is known today as the Kentucky rifle.

This is actually a misnomer because these rifles were made in Pennsylvania, but were intended for use on the Kentucky frontier.

The first Kentucky rifles were made in or near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, around 1740.

Most of the military companies serving in the American Revolution were armed with rifles made in Pennsylvania. After independence was won, the new U.S. government asked Pennsylvania rifle makers in 1892 to supply firearms to all military rifle companies.

The Pennsylvania rifle makers worked at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to help develop the first military rifle, the Model 1803, which clearly exhibited its Kentucky Rifle heritage.

The early rifles were plain and simple, but as time passed the production of the rifles evolved into a high art form.

The golden age of Kentucky Rifle manufacturing was 1775 to 1845.

When more modern repeaters eclipsed the Kentucky Rifle, it was regulated to the poor man, who used it well into the 20th Century to put meat on the table.

Bob Bowman's East Texas
November 17, 2010Column.
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers

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(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of almost 50 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)
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The Forgotten Towns of East Texas, Vol. I
By Bob and Doris Bowman
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