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Introduction (School History, Architecture, Characteristics)
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Author Topic: Introduction (School History, Architecture, Characteristics)  (Read 7409 times)
Fred Garner
Gunsmiths of the Upper Susquehanna
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« on: June 01, 2012, 07:56:44 PM »

Snyder County Rifles
By
Richard Nornhold, Jr.,  Mark Loudenslager , and Colleagues
Editors: Fred Garner, M.D and Bruce Miller

In 1946, Ray Smith presented a program to the Snyder County Historical Society on “The Kentucky Rifle and its Snyder County Makers”.  This was one of the first attempts to make historians aware of the significant role central Pennsylvania played in the development and manufacture of this unique weapon.  In his program Smith touched only briefly on a few of the gun makers who worked in the area and implied that knowledge of their existence came not from research, but from “old timers” who remembered them and their work.  

As interest in these early rifles and their makers grew, collectors began to notice a unique style which existed on rifles found in Snyder and surrounding Pennsylvania counties.  T. J. Cooper of Juniata Co. was a dealer in early guns and he is probably the person who coined the term “Snyder County Rifle” indicating a rifle with specific features and style.  In 1953, Arcadi Gluckman and L.D. Satterlee in their book American Gun Makers repeatedly identified rifles as being “in the Snyder Co., Pa. style”.   By the early 1960’s, a small group of central Pennsylvania collectors began a serious attempt to research and study these guns and their makers.  They poured through tax records and early assessments in an effort to identify various makers, and they studied their rifles to learn their specific characteristics.  Among this group of early students on the topic were Dalas Ewing, W. Charles Stroup, and Richard Getz.  It was not uncommon in the early 1960’s to find them together on a Sunday afternoon disassembling rifles of a specific maker to discuss their techniques and the features common to their guns.  In 1965, Ewing presented a paper to the Snyder County Historical Society in which he specifically discussed rifles of that region, and presented a list of gunsmiths that had been identified as having worked in the area.  The contributions of these individuals in the study of guns of central Pa. should never be underestimated.  

The term “Snyder County Rifle” refers to a specific school of gunsmithing in which gun makers used a specific style and certain features that are common on guns found in this area.  As people moved to other areas, some of these gunsmiths moved as well and even trained new gun makers who continued to use techniques learned in Snyder County.   It would therefore not be correct to say that these features are found only on rifles produced in central Pennsylvania, but it is probably safe to say that these features are found only on guns produced there or by someone with a connection to the area.  It should also be mentioned that most of these rifles were produced long before the creation of Snyder County in 1855, but because dealers and collectors found many of these rifles in Snyder County, the name stuck.  As Ewing stated in 1965, rifles that were made in Union, Juniata, Montour, Northumberland, Centre, Mifflin, and Snyder Counties are referred to by numerous dealers and collectors as “Snyder County Rifles” because they are so alike in appearance.  A recent effort has been made to rename this school of gunsmithing as “The Upper Susquehanna School” in an effort to imply that this is a more correct term for where these guns were produced.  In reality, the upper Susquehanna is far north in Pennsylvania and southern New York and the guns manufactured there have little resemblance to rifles produced in Snyder and surrounding counties.  That term would therefore be even more misleading than the term which has been in use among the most advanced collectors for more than fifty years.  At least when the term “Snyder County Rifle” is used, one is near the geographical center of much of the production of these rifles.  The number of gun makers who lived in the area is important as well.  Dick Getz was fond of stating that no other county in the United States, save Lancaster, produced more gun makers than Old Union County.  While it would be difficult to prove his statement, it speaks to the volume of nearly 100 different gun makers thus far identified that called this region home.  As many rifles have been found with initials from makers as yet unidentified, this number will undoubtedly grow in the future.

One of the most perplexing questions confronting students of these rifles is, “What makes a Snyder County Rifle a Snyder County Rifle?” Other schools such as the “Lancaster”, “York”, or “Berks” County schools face similar questions, but various books in print do a thorough job of explaining and showing the characteristics common in those and other schools.  No thorough effort has ever been made to categorize or inventory those features common within the “Snyder County School”.  For many collectors it seems enough for them to say, “I know one when I see it”.  While that statement does hold a lot of truth, and advanced collectors can quickly identify a central Pennsylvania gun, it doesn’t help the uninitiated.  And since there are no publications which attempt to show the details common to these guns, the novice is at a disadvantage unless a private collector is willing to share their collection and knowledge.  

Whenever a rifle is pictured in print, it is usually only the patchbox and the barrel signature that is shown.  While these two features are very helpful in identification, they are often not enough to give a complete understanding of the maker or their connection to other makers.  Since  gun makers of the 18th and 19th Century learned their trade under the apprentice system, the techniques, patterns, and methods of production were passed from master to apprentice in a cycle that eventually created rifles of a similar appearance within a given geographic region.  It is these combined details that put a given rifle within a specific school.   It is therefore crucial to have information beyond the patchbox and initials on the barrel to identify a maker within that school.

Any student of early American arts can point to a European connection in the area of architecture, furniture styles, music, and production within numerous trades.  The American experience transformed these cultural mores into a uniquely American product which is often unique to a specific geographical area.  Regions in America then influenced products produced in other regions.  The Snyder County Rifle is a case in point.  The first settlers within central Pennsylvania came from counties to the east, especially from those counties settled by the Pennsylvania Germans.  They brought their language, foods, religions, and methods of farming and manufacturing with them as they settled in a new region.  Berks County is undoubtedly one of the counties that had a lot of influence on the development of central Pa., and the Snyder County Rifle probably shares more features with Berks Co. Rifles than with any other school.  A real need for future research is to identify where the earliest gun makers apprenticed, where they were from, and who did they teach?  The shops of Samuel Baum would be a good starting point.  Who was his master and how many apprentices and journeymen did he influence throughout his career?  The Smith (Shmidt) and Dreisbach families were also early gunsmiths from central Pa. and undoubtedly had considerable influence on the development of regional characteristics.

There are probably three features that are more indicative of a rifle produced in central Pa. than any other.  First and foremost is the shape of the gun.  Sometimes it seems as though there was one pattern for the shape of the stock, and all Snyder County Rifles were cut from that single pattern.  This pattern has produced a very specific profile for Snyder County guns.  The top of the gun, above where your cheek would rest when shooting the gun, is called the “nose”.  If a line was drawn straight back from the top of the barrel to a point above the butt end of the gun, this line would not intersect the “nose” of the gun.  The distance from that line to the nose is known as the “drop”, and Snyder County rifles generally share this specific drop and stock pattern.  The second feature common to Snyder County rifles is the release button for the patchbox. Not all rifles have a patchbox, but those that do, have the patchbox release in the butt guard.  Both of these features seem to have a definite relationship to the Berks County School.  The third feature is common, but not found on all central Pennsylvania rifles.  That is the way the rear ramrod pipe was constructed.  Many area gun makers constructed this end pipe in two separate pieces and then fastened them together with a rivet.  The rivet is visible in the center of the ramrod pipe and is usually a reliable indicator of a rifle associated with Snyder County.  This technique continued to be used by the Laudenslager family in Ohio and was undoubtedly used by others after they left this area.

While many Snyder County rifles were never signed by their makers, those that were, most often were signed with initials in script.  The inability to read these script initials has often led to the wrong attribution on many rifles.  Fortunately, there were some makers who signed their entire name and some that even put the name of the town where they worked.  Other rifles have been found where the names or initials of two different gun makers have been found on the same gun.

While the Ewing presentation to the Snyder County Historical Society in 1965 will always be seen as the beginning of serious research on the gun makers of central Pennsylvania, much more has been learned in the past 40 years. Ewing identified sixty one gunsmiths or persons associated with the gun making industry in the area.  In recent years, that number has nearly doubled as additional gunsmiths associated with the area have been identified.  In addition, more information has been learned about gunsmiths that he identified.  In an attempt to bring more of this information together in one place, this compilation of gun makers associated with central Pa. is provided.  If nothing more of a gunsmith is known than was presented in Ewing's presentation, it is briefly recapped here.  Other names and information comes from tax lists in the Snyder County Courthouse, tax assessments in the Union County Courthouse, census lists, a list provided by Ronald Gabel for the Kentucky Rifle Association in the fall of 1986, from gunsmiths identified in The Pennsylvania - Kentucky Rifle by Henry Kauffman, names found in American Gun Makers by Col. Arcadi Gluckman and L.D. Satterlee, Arms Makers of Pennsylvania by Dr. James B. Whisker, family information and research provided by Mark Loudenslager, and sometimes from a combination of these sources.  A few names come from other sources as noted.

While some of the gun makers that follow never created a gun that would fit into the “Snyder County School”, they all worked in the area, and therefore probably contributed to the rifle style that eventually developed.  This list includes gun makers who worked in Northumberland County before 1813 when Old Union (Union and Snyder today) and Old Columbia (Columbia and Montour today) Counties were separated from Northumberland County.  It must be assumed that these early gunsmiths had some influence on what would become the “Snyder County Style”.   An addendum includes gunsmiths from parts of Northumberland County after  1813 and other closely associated counties.  Since S.H. St.Clair and some of the Laudenslagers moved to Juniata Co., and several gunsmiths from western Snyder and Union Counties moved into Mifflin  and Centre Counties, some gunsmiths who worked in those areas are included in a second list of gun makers who should not be ignored when studying local rifles.


The same is true of Montour and Columbia Counties where the shop of Samuel Baum in Danville was the training ground for various gunsmiths.  As more of their guns are examined, some of these gun makers may be removed from this list as not being consistent with the “Snyder County Style”.  When dates are used immediately following the name, they indicate the time period when the gunsmith is believed to have been working.  The place following the working date is where they are known to have lived at some point.


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