The first truly American firearm has its roots in 18th century Pennsylvania. Perfected by German immigrants, the flintlock long rifle reached its pinnacle in the years between the Revolutionary War and the rise of the percussion rifle.
It was during this period that the American long rifle acquired the name of the Kentucky rifle, due to its popularity with long hunters, men like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, who explored the Virginia frontier. Andrew Jackson’s triumph over the British in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 was celebrated in the song “The Hunters of Kentucky,” which contains the lines, “But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles, For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles.”
Settlers of Appalachia carried these rifles with them, but out in the backcountry gunsmiths were few and far between, making the repair or replacement of a firearm difficult. This led to the rise of numerous part-time gunsmiths in the region.
“The guns made in these crude shops, though often very accurate, were easily distinguished from those made in Pennsylvania. Instead of ornate and decorated stocks of curly maple, they were plain, simple and most always of walnut. Whereas the Pennsylvania rifles featured brass hardware, those made in Tennessee and North Carolina were forged of iron.”
Up in the mountains these rough-hewn version of the Kentucky rifle were known as “hog rifles” or “squirrel guns.”
The process of crafting a Kentucky rifle was labor intensive. Gunsmith often had to create their own specialized set of tools before crafting a rifle. Often, the creation of these tools, first required the engineering of still other tools. John Rice Irwin reported that one old gunsmith’s collection consisted of 76 tools, all handcrafted out of files, rasps, and other scrap metal!
With the advent of modern firearms, the art of smithing a Kentucky rifle began to die out. A resurgence of interest in the craft in the 1960 and 70’s brought about a national revival, but prior to that the art would’ve almost surely been lost if weren’t for the perseverance of a gunmaker named Hacker Martin.
Born in 1895, Hacker Martin learned the art of Appalachian gunsmithing from his grandfather. At age 14, Hacker made his first gunstock out of a walnut post from his grandfather’s porch. As Hacker reached adulthood, he honed his skills to the level of a master gunmaker. Word about his talents spread, and soon hundreds flocked to his shop seeking repair for their heirlooms or hoping to buy one of Hacker’s handmade guns.
During the Depression, the Smithsonian Institute became aware of Hacker and recognized him for continuing the tradition muzzle loading rifles.
Hacker soon went into the gristmill business, his daughter Betty recalls: “Dad had such a love for cheap power and waterpower was the least expensive form of energy available. Dad’s first investment was the Cedar Creek Mill that he purchased from Grover and Dolly Campbell in 1940. We were living seven miles west in Pleasant Valley at the time. The old mill was in need of repair so Dad and some of his friends put it in operation again.” In addition to grinding grain, Hacker used the mill as his gun shop. “Dad stored large slabs of curly maple tree stock in the top of the mill. He first sawed it in the general shape of a rifle using a band saw and then rasped it down. It took several months to make each of his beautifully crafted guns. The mill’s waterpower allowed him to grind the flats on the barrels.”
When the United States joined World War II, most mass produced firearms were funneled into the military, creating a national shortage. This created even more interest in Hacker’s unique skills.
Shortage of Rifles Will Not Find This Man Unprepared
Now that firearms are going the way of all civilian luxuries, into the treasure chest of the nation’s armed forces, squirrel hunters and duck-decoy enthusiasts are searching ally and barn loft for grandpa’s old rifle to replace the modern calibre rifles they have already contributed, or are planning to donate, to State Guard units for the duration.
One man likely to feel the early effects of a return to pioneer firearms is Hacker Martin, who operates the Old Cedar Creek Mill and Gunshop, route 4, Jonesboro. Stacked up in the workroom of his mill are scores of guns of every make and model from a piece dating back to the late 1600’s to the rifle he finished making for himself a month or two ago.
Martin cleans and repairs guns for his neighbors and when his mill isn’t keeping him too busy, he finds time to fashion his own rifles. He never has much of a chance to use these latter himself, for there is always a customer who has heard of his skillful work and wants to buy his rifles as soon as they have been completed. At present Martin is making a rifle for an author-friend in California.
The most dramatic piece in Martin’s stack of firearms is a long slim musket that is old enough to have seen service in the War of 1812. Of the flintlock type, it fires with an ear-deadening roar and a cloud of gunpowder smoke.
One of the first Colt revolvers to be made is the most valuable gun Martin possesses. It bear the Patterson, NJ, address of its maker, Col. Samuel Colt, with the date 1837, just two years after the famous first Colt revolver was produced, and is worth several hundred dollars.
Several pistols of Civil War vintage may also be seen in Martin’s store room, but the queerest piece is a gun made about 1683. It started out to be the wheel-lock type, but was changed by its second owner to the flintlock variety, and was well on the way to becoming still the third style when its owner gave up in disgust and left his gun to rust.
Old Cedar Creek Mill, where Martin maintains his gun shop, is an unusual item in itself. Built at sometime between the years 1837 and 1850, it is said to be the only mill in the United States operating on wooden cog wheels, and the original cogs are still in use, grinding flour and corn meal day and night during the busiest seasons.
-Kingsport Times, July 5, 1942
Every part of Hacker’s rifles were made from scratch. He shaped buttplates, trigger guards and even the screws from scraps of metal. In the section on Gunmaking in the Foxfire Five book, famous guntrader Turner Kirkland said of Martin, “Hacker started making rifles in the 1920’s. He never made what you’d call a reproduction. His rifles were a continuation of the hand production as they were done before.”
Those who knew Hacker often commented on his sense of humor. When asked how long it took him to make a gun, Hacker replied, “From three days to six months, depending on what sort of rifle you want to make up.” The articles he wrote for “The Muzzleloader” magazine are riddle with his wit. He instructed would-be gunsmiths on how to “rifle a 48″ barrel in about an hour using a sub-teenager for power.” In another article, Hacker revealed his recipe for a solution used to brown barrels. “Use a quart of cheap alcohol, to keep her from freezing, and a quart of common cooking water. Rain or soft water is best, of course. Into that throw a handful of bluestone and an ounce or two of nitric acid. Fill up the gallon jug with chamber lye (urine) from your bed pot. Cork your jug and shake her up once in while so the ingredients will dissolve and mix up good. Let set a week or two and use it at once as you see fit.” Ever the comedian, Hacker concluded the article with the following offer, “If you do not have any chamber lye, I will be glad to furnish you with some for $2.00 per gallon.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the gunmaking tradition that Hacker Martin preserved, check out this tour of master gunsmith Hershel House’s shop:
My dad caught the blackpowder bug in the 1970’s. Him, and many other young men of that era, influenced by films like Jeremiah Johnson, made up the first wave of blackpowder muzzle-loader revivalists. My dad went so far as to make his own rifle, a .50 caliber Thompson Center Hawken Rifle he bought as a kit. That rifle now hangs in my living room, a family heirloom. Here are some photos of Dad’s artwork on the stock:
- Photos of Hacker Martin supplied by Bill Ruggie and scanned by Robert Weil on the Contemporary Makers blog.
- Guns and Gunmaking Tools of Southern Appalachia by John Rice Irwin