Lot 6    

Early Brass Barrel Kentucky Rifle Dated 1771, Attributed to Hans Jacob Honaker, Frederick County, Virginia
.55 cal. smoothbore, 45" swapped octagonal brass barrel, steel tang. Iron rear sight, brass front blade sight. Engraved flat-style lockplate, with flat cock, faceted-style pan, frizzen spring with finial. 2.25" wide brass buttplate, brass sideplate, brass two-piece patchbox, brass triggerguard, brass ramrod thimbles and nosecap. Maple stock with raised carving behind the cheek piece, behind the tang, and a border around the lock ending in the rear with a tear drop. Carved border on the bottom of stock running from buttplate to triggerguard on both sides. Carved border outlining the butt plate. Nice border carved on both sides of the comb of stock. Nice carved molding running from the rear ramrod molding running down past the front thimble.

This rifle is one of the most important American long rifles known. Its prominent feature is the American-made long tapered and flared brass barrel. It is dated 1771 near the breech on the bottom of the barrel and has Do (short for "Anno Domini" 1771 engraved inside the box lid. It is the earliest known dated American long rifle with a hinged box, and is the second oldest dated American long rifle.

The earliest dated long rifle is signed by John Schrite of Reading, Pennsylvania; it has a Germanic style sliding wood box cover. A dated 1771 Pennsylvania side-opening detached box (probably excavated) is in a private collection. While much has been written regarding the hinged box (called "patch box" after 1790) being developed by 1750, the 1771 brass barrel rifle is the earliest survivor.

In addition to its date and extraordinary brass barrel, the architecture of the stock is the strongest Germanic example known to have been made in America. The massive long cheek rest is strongly molded on its edge with a convex section followed by concave molding. The back of the cheek rest ends with a graceful covered step down that terminates with a convex molding running perpendicular to the cheek piece molding. From this molding another curved step blends smoothly into the buttstock. At the wrist, the cheek rest terminates with a flowing serpentine step in concert with the serpentine relief line that forms the transition of the comb and wrist. The only other example of this complex architecture is a somewhat later (ca 1775) iron barrel rifle from the same shop. (See Shumway, Rifled of Colonial America Vol. II, 1980: fig 145, pp.610 and 616.) The cheek-rest of this brass barrel is convex and the overall nature of the buttstock has the bulbous qualities of the baroque style of the late 17th century. Hans Jacob Honaker, like the vast majority of immigrant gunsmiths, came from a provincial area where the style tended to be old fashioned.

The relief carving behind the cheek piece is a simple baroque scroll interrupted by the first cheek rest step. This interruption of the carved design leaves the voluted scroll to be connected by the eye of the viewer. The ending of the scroll has a small rosette with clusters of simple leaves. The high-relief buttstock molding is incised with a front-to-back serpentine line with sprigs ending in circular grains. This "vine and berry" design also runs backward along the top edge of the edge of the cheek rest, travels gracefully down the stepped edge of the cheek rest, and ends in the corner of the brass butt-piece. This termination has two leaves pointing inward with a berry in the center.

The relief molding of the breech stock terminates at the rear of the trigger guard return. At the end of the step a narrow relief molding continues past the triggerguard finial termination with a chip border and small leaves. The breech pin tang carving is also closely related with a three-leaf termination. The wrist carving terminates with a cluster of three leaves when it meets the incise-carved border that surrounds the brass box arched finial. A chip border follows the brass butt-piece along its back and front to the butt-piece top extension. The chipped borders are connected by an incised line that parallels the top extension on both sides of the butt-piece. These combined borders completely surround the butt-piece.

All of the carving is beautifully integrated with the complexly shaped stock. The stock architecture suggest that Hans Jacob Honaker was trained in gun stocking in Switzerland. The carved decorations are more aligned with American backcountry long rifle art -- baroque design combined with folk art qualities. This combination of architecture and carved decoration like this brass hinged box and brass barrel makes an outstanding American frontier statement from 1771. Like many early American rifle guns, the brass barrel was bored smooth in its latest stage of active use. Fortunately, in this conversion to shot gun the remnants of the hind sight survived, revealing that it was originally a folding leaf long-range type. This leaf sight is matched by only one other 18th Century American example. A rifle of ca 1775 from Shenandoah County, Virginia, has an intact leaf sight and it also shares some carved and architectural features with the brass barrel rifle.

The exceptionally large and boldly sculptured triggerguard is unique to the Hans Jacob Honaker Shop, which was the first to develop a strong regional type that extended throughout southwest Virginia and Tennessee in the late 18th and early 19th century. The guard stud was fitted with a sling swivel, and the middle barrel loop is thicker than the others to retain the forward sling swivel. The front of the guard bow has a deep wear groove from the swivel hitting, showing the rifle was carried hundreds of miles without a sling attached.

The imported Germanic lock has remained in its original flint lock form, although the cock was replaced (ca 1789, English origin) during its active use. Since the rifle was used in the late 18th century with this cock, it has been retained as an important part of the rifle's history. The overall age of this brass barrel rifle is evident in the shrinkage of the curly maple breech stock. The butt-piece now extends well beyond the toe and shrinkage stress cracks penetrate the relief carving behind the cheek rest. The witness of the mismatch of the relief buttstock molding is obvious on the lower edge of the toe of the brass butt-piece. On the box side the shrinkage has eliminated part of the incise-carved molding next to the door on the toe side. The deep black patina highlighted by wear is another important record of the rifle's age.

This rifle is a singular bench mark of backcountry production, reflecting the dynamic cultural amalgam of the American frontier.

ATTRIBUTION: The attribution of the brass barrel rifle to Hans Jacob Honaker is based on artistic and structural details found on rifles made by his sons and grandsons.

They have a common architecture of the breech stock that has a prominent "step toe" or "step wrist." The step ends at the rear extension of the guard; the profile of the toe is straight from there to the butt-piece. The comb profile of these stocks typically is a moderate "Roman nose" profile, although occasionally makers used an almost straight line. A very unusual structural feature that occurs constantly throughout the group is the breech pin tang held with a wood screw rather than a draw screw that enters the trigger plate.

The two earliest rifles in the group, (i.e., this brass rifle of 1771 and the iron barrel example, ca 1775) both have their first barrel retaining pins placed in front of the end of the fore stock, offset in the fore end adjacent to rear thimble. Other Shenandoah rifles of the early period also have this unusual placement. This forward placement of the first barrel retaining pin is not a feature found on Pennsylvania long rifles. In the Valley of Virginia, including in the products of the early gunsmiths of the Honaker family, the long pin placement does not extend into the post-Revolutionary Federal period. The placement is moved back closer to the breech between the locks and the tail piece (called "rear ramrod thimble" in modern times.)

While the brass barrel rifle has a single trigger, it is important that Hans Jacob Honaker's sons and grandchildren made set triggers of a distinct type associated with Germanic wheel-lock guns. They have springs held by a single screw that is mounted in the front of the trigger plate. All three Honaker family rifles offered here have set triggers of this structure that is exclusively a Honaker or a Honaker-associated feature. At this writing no other makers in American backcountry are known to have used this type.

PROVENANCE: Jerry Woodward, a western Pennsylvania longrifle collector, found this rifle in a Florida flea market in the spring of 1969. It had a large sale tag marked "Spanish Gun," but Jerry, an experienced collector, immediately recognized its early style and American origins. Shortly after the discovery Woodward sold it to Dallas C. Ewing of Pennsylvania. Ewing sold it to Wester A. White of Freeville, New York, a well recognized collector and researcher of early rifles and guns. Within a few months of its discovery White traded it to Joe Kindig, Jr. of York, Pennsylvania, for an important Indian trade gun by Bumford of, London (now in the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation). Kindig, the author of "Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age" (1960) was the preeminent dealer in American and European arms, and one of the country's most distinguished dealers of American furniture and Pennsylvania folk art. Within a few weeks Kindig employed Wallace Gusler, master gunsmith at Colonial Williamsburg, to restore the brass barrel and lost fore stock. [See report and Kindig letters]. On its arrival in Williamsburg, Gusler called two gun shop colleagues to see this exceptional find. Gusler and Gary Brumfield examined the interior of the box under a household lamp. Rod Moore, sitting on the sofa next to the light observed, "Looks like some writing on the inside of the door." Closer examination and removal of dirt and grease revealed the engraved inscription Do 1771. Later examination uncovered a scratched 1771 near the breech on the bottom of the barrel.

During that summer and fall Gusler did the restoration and conservation in the Colonial Williamsburg Gun Shop. Gusler sent treatment proposals to Mr. Kindig. Kindig's first response is dated June 3, 1969:

Dear Wallace,

Thanks for your letter and I am glad to hear about the rifle. Naturally, the 2 dates fascinate me. I guess I don't know of any earlier dated one. I really saw it such a short time that I don't remember its details too well. When you bring it back, can you teach me all about it.

I believe you should add the 3 inches to the barrel: but I don't agree with your idea of having the brass analyzed and trying to make up a matching alloy.

I believe the reason old brass looks so different from the new is because most copper ores have a little gold, silver, and other impurities in them. In the early days these were not refined out, as they did not know how. Today all of these are taken out so you have only pure copper. I really believe this is the reason new brass looks different from old.

So when you come up we will try to find some old brass here about the same colour, that you can use. A few old butt plates or broken candlesticks or something. You can let me know if you agree with this.

During this time Gusler was experimenting with core casting a barrel section via all 18th-century processes in preparation for the repair. He wrote Mr. Kindig that the need for the brass to be analyzed was to identify all the elements to get the correct alloy. Kindig was not as open minded as the last sentence of his first letter implied:

"Dear Wallace,

I will look forward to your visit on next Sunday, July 13th.

I don't want the brass analyzed. Get as good a match in color as you can. I expect to tell anyone who I sell it to that the barrel was pieced and just where. So if it shows, I don't care."

It appeared that Mr. Kindig was opposed to modern analytical process. Therefore Gusler visited his shop basement and picked up a piece of brass that Kindig had chosen for the project. It was an arm of a large brass swivel for a small cannon. The cannon had been removed by hack-sawing off one of the forks. Kindig said it was 17th century. It proved to be extremely difficult and did not pour as cleanly as modern brass.

Gusler delivered the rifle to Kindig in the late fall. In a letter dated January, 14, 1970, Kindig commented: "I am delighted with the brass barrel gun. I am sure that it could not have been done better."

Joe Kindig, Jr., died in 1971. The rifle and his other collections and businesses came under the care of his son, Joe Kindig, III. In 1976 Joe Kindig III, lent the brass barrel rifle to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (accession #1976-12, marked on the inside of the trigger guard bow). For many years it was exhibited in the Colonial Williamsburg Gun Shop, then in 1985 it was installed in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg. The rifle was displayed there until 2003 when Joe Kindig, III, ended the loan. Wallace Gusler acquired the rifle from Kindig in 2004.


1. 1972: Exhibited at the York County (PA) Historical Society long rifle exhibition, in conjunction with the first Kentucky rifle forum sponsored by Joe Kindig III and the York Historical Society.

2. 1976-2003: Exhibited at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

3. 1980: Illustrated and discussed as rifle #103 in Rifles of Colonial America, Vol II by George Shumway, 1980: pp. 452-457.

4. Mid-1980s: Exhibited in Virginia Long Rifle Exhibit at Blue Ridge Institute, Ferrum College, Ferrum, VA.

5. Nov. 16, 1996 through June 5, 1997: Exhibited in "12,000 Years Before the 'White Man': an Exhibition of Indian and Settler Art and Artifacts from Southwest Virginia" at the William King Regional Arts Center, Abingdon, VA, Wallace Gusler, guest curator. Pictured on the cover of the brochure accompanying the exhibition.

6. July 28, 2007 through January 6, 2008: Exhibited in "Into the Wilderness: the Settlement of Virginia's Frontier" at the William King Regional Arts Center, Abington, VA. Wallace Gusler, guest curator. Pictured on the cover of the invitation to the member's preview, the cover of the gallery guide, and on the exhibition poster.

7. May 2003, Muzzle Blasts magazine, illustrated in "One brass rifle gun and bullet moulds L 3-0-0" June 15, 1775," by Wallace Gusler, pp. 60-64.

8. May 2004, Muzzle Blasts magazine, illustrated in "Step Toe Group," an article by Wallace Gusler on the brass barrel rifle and its progeny, pp. 6-10.

Lot comes with a copy of "Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age by Joe Kindig. The book is inscribed To Wallace Gusler, who I believe knows more about early Virginia rifles and their makers than anyone else in the world. Joe Kindig

Selections from the Wallace Gusler Collection

The barrel and part of the forestock have been professionally restored and conserved. The stock has never been cleaned and is in blackened and untouched condition.
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