Along with the banjo, the Ford, jazz and blue jeans, the Kentucky longrifle is an American invention. In history, rifling has been attributed to Germany in the mid-1400s. Gunsmiths started creating rifles with longer barrels in the late 1600s. Following the French and Indian War (1754-1763), German craftsmen in Pennsylvania began making guns with longer barrels.
Kentucky was the frontier in that era, and hunters, trappers and explorers began carrying the long-range guns, first referred to as the “Kentucky longrifle” in the 1812 song, “The Hunters of Kentucky.” Furthermore, Kentuckians have a reputation as sharpshooters, in part because of the accuracy of the Kentucky longrifle.
It was a .50 caliber gun of solid maple with a full stock and 42- to 46-inch barrel. The crescent shaped buttplate, patchbox and cheekpiece helped identify one as a Kentucky (or Pennsylvania) longrifle. It was used in many battles in the Revolutionary War.
Giles County resident Wayne Trout has been enamored with guns and gun history since getting his first one at age 12. The Norfolk, Va., native with a craftsman and artistic bent has participated in competitive shooting and made rifles for around four decades.
“Someone once asked me the price of one of the guns I was shooting; one I had built,” says the neatly bearded 61-year-old. “I told him it wasn’t for sale. He asked again. I responded the same. After a few rounds of Q and A in that manner, the wheels in my head began to turn. What if?”
At that time, Trout was making Civil War military rifles in his home workshop, all the while keeping his day job with the City of Norfolk. Five years ago, his brother and he got into a conversation about the longrifle culture. “It’s not a mountain man background as much as a pioneer type,” he explains. “It’s an art form. The architecture of each longrifle is based on what school it comes from.”
School here refers to a regional style, not a real school. As gunsmithing moved southward from Pennsylvania into Virginia and even the New River Valley and Wytheville, gun makers in each region would change this, tweak that, re-mold something to give it a unique identity – one which could be used to recognize a longrifle. They look alike for the most part, but someone like Trout, who has studied photos and toured numerous exhibits and museums, can see the small differences that sets one made in one region apart from another area.
The self-taught gun crafter loves working with his hands. He starts with a solid piece of maple and an idea. He is not reproducing a longrifle, but creating one that adheres to the general principles of workmanship, style and size with a tiny personal touch or two. Trout does all the engraving and most of the brass work, so no two are identical either.
“I met a collector once who let me see and touch his amazing guns. Touch is much more important than sight in longrifle examination,” he explains. “There’s some special memory in our brain that files touch in amazing detail. When I hold a gun, I can feel how the curves go and how the lines blend together. One can feel a small surface dip or imperfection that might not be easily seen.”
Trout has spent many hours in Williamsburg, where they make their own longrifles, and become fast friends with gunsmiths there. Last month he attended the Contemporary Longrifle Association in Lexington, Ky. Not long ago, he honored his wife Margo’s wishes to attend the Sight & Sound Theatre in Lancaster County, Penn. Imagine her surprise when she learned there was an exhibit of 60 original Lancaster County (a haven for gunsmiths) rifles at the nearby Landis Valley Farm Museum! Earlier this year, he went to Bowling Green, Ky., for a colonial hand engraving class.
Wayne and Margo retired to the New River Valley four years ago. “Frankly, I got tired of driving to the football games,” he says. He began coming to the area as a lad, graduated from Virginia Tech and has always felt a bond to the mountains. “And our son’s family here is, of course, a big bonus!”
“I don’t know anyone in the New River Valley doing this kind of craftsmanship, so there’s no one to hang out with and talk about longrifles and the challenges of making them,” he states. He does pop into the little gun shop on U.S. 460 near the Marathon gas station just west of Route 700 to Mountain Lake in Giles County to chat.
He has a gun for sale in there. You’ll know it by either an engraved script signature or an engraved block letter name and a small fish logo after Trout. It’s also the only Kentucky longrifle in there.
By Joanne M. Anderson
Photos by Laura’s Focus Photography