Renaissance of the Longrifle

In masterpieces of metal and wood, modern craftsmen revive a straight-shooting icon of the old frontier

At the turn of the millennium, New Hampshireman David Price practices a most unusual craft. He is a maker of longrifles — popularly known as Kentucky rifles, for the most famous wilderness they helped subdue — and several samples of his work were exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival in the summer of 1999, where they were much admired by many of the festival's 1.1 million visitors.

The longrifles that Price creates are modern versions of slender, elegant flintlock firearms of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Originally made in Pennsylvania, the longrifle played a crucial role in early settlement. Part tool, part weapon, sometimes status symbol, it was a unique creation growing out of European technology and the demands of the American frontier.

Today, original longrifles are sprinkled in collections throughout America, including the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, but they have been joined in recent decades by contemporary versions — made by Price, Wallace Gusler, John Bivins, Judson Brennan, Frank House and others — that rival, and in some cases surpass, the earlier guns in craftsmanship.

Contemporary longrifles are often purchased by shooters or collectors — or by devotees of history who don period clothes and gather together to camp, cook and practice living in another time.

At one such "rendezvous" visited by our author, James Conaway, a camper picked his longrifle up and wiped away the dew with a cloth. It was made by David Price, but in the firelight it was indistinguishable from a flintlock that might have emerged in colonial Pennsylvania or Virginia, in another time. It was, Conaway and its owner agreed, "a work of art."

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