A royal gift
THE idea of presenting a firearm to commemorate a special occasion is not new but to find one presented in the 20th century is somewhat more unusual, as the idea of presenting firearms as commemorative objects had long gone out of fashion. This American ‘Kentucky’ rifle is such a presentation arm. It was especially chosen and presented by the Society of Massachusetts Arms Collectors to HM The Queen on the occasion of her coronation on 2 June 1953. Her Majesty subsequently deposited it in the Armouries of the Tower of London.
These rifles, despite the name by which they are popularly known, were largely made in Pennsylvania. They represent a firearm that evolved to meet particular circumstances. To the North American settler of the 18th century, a firearm was not simply a sporting weapon to be used for recreation but an arm on the accuracy of which the settler and his family depended for their meat supply and for protection against the ever-present threat of death on the wild frontier. Rifles like this were first made famous by association with such pre-revolutionary American adventurers as Daniel Boone, who explored the ‘Dark and Bloody Ground’ to the west of the Appalachian Mountains in the current state of Kentucky. Subsequently, they became known as ‘Kentucky’ rifles.
This type of rifle was developed in the mid-18th century by gunmakers, many of whom were of German origin, who served the frontier communities. It is characterised by a long barrel, which was a simple means of obtaining accuracy, with a small bore, by contemporary standards, that reduced the weight of ammunition that the user had to carry. The calibre was usually around .5in; this rifle’s calibre being .52in. These rifles, in the hands of a good marksman, were accurate at ranges up to 200 metres. Contemporary accounts claimed that at that range a man-sized target could be hit 10 times out of 10.
This example was probably made between 1775 and 1800, has a 42in barrel, a maple-wood stock and an Englishsupplied flintlock lock. Some of the other characteristics associated with a perfected ‘Kentucky’ rifle such as this are a narrow, curved butt-stock, a more curved brass butt plate and a decorated brass hinged patch-box. These characteristics continued to define the ‘Kentucky’ rifle well into the percussion age.
In the American War of Independence (1775-83) the irregular forces attached to the Continental Forces inflicted a disproportionate number of casualties with these rifles on British troops, who were armed only with the smoothbore Short Land Pattern musket. Captain Patrick Ferguson, a Scottish infantry officer, invented a breech-loading rifle in retaliation, but that is another story [see Dawn of the sniper, page 154]. Within the collection is an earlier rifle of the German type from which the ‘Kentucky’ was evolved and also a late example fitted with percussion ignition. All three taken together tell the American long rifle story, examples of which are rarely found in this country. The Royal Armouries is grateful to have such a rifle, one that is not only rare but commemorates a coronation. The Kentucky rifle can be viewed by appointment at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, the national museum of arms and armour. The museum is open daily, 10am to 5pm. Entry is free. Tel:
0113 220 1999; www.royalarmouries.org
This 'Kentucky' rifle was presented to HM The Queenon her coronation in 1953