Tracing the term "Kentucky Rifle"

The conventional wisdom
In the preface to his 1960 book "The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle", Kauffman gave his thoughts on how the term "Kentucky Rifle" came to be used to describe American muzzleloaders. He thought the practice began with a song about the January 8, 1815 Battle of New Orleans. That song, which is titled "Hunters of Kentucky", includes the words, "But Jackson he was wide awake, And was not scar'd at trifles, For well he knew what aim we take With our Kentucky rifles."

Kauffman's thoughts about the origin of the term "Kentucky Rifle" became the conventional wisdom. My research, reported below, shows that the term "Kentucky Rifle" appeared in print long before the battle occurred and long before the song was published. It may be possible that the popularity of the song helped to propel the term "Kentucky Rifle" into more widespread usage.

The song was originally submitted for publication in the "Ladies' Literary Cabinet" by Samuel Woodworth, and was published in the February 10, 1821 issue. The submission letter stated, "The following song was written at the request of our late friend Hopkins Robertson, who intended to have sung it, in the character and dress of a Kentucky Rifleman, at his last benefit, but was prevented by death. If you think it is worth publishing, it is at your service." The obituary of Hopkins Robertson was published in the November 19, 1819 issue of the "Alexandria Gazette & Daily Advertiser" and states, "Died, At N. York on Saturday evening of a lingering illness, Mr. Hopkins Robertson, comedian, aged 33 years and 11 months."

An 1806 British usage of the term "Kentucky Rifle"
The following excerpt from the 1807 British publication "The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1806" quotes an 1806 usage of the term "Kentucky Rifle Gun". This usage was more than five years before the Battle of New Orleans. Click here to view a pdf with the entire page the quote is from, along with the title page of the book.

Kentucky rifle excerpt from page 220

An 1814 Pennsylvania usage of the term "Kentucky Rifle"
The following excerpt shows a numbered reproduction of a recurring June 22, 1814 advertisement that was included in the March 11, 1815 issue of the "Pittsburgh Commonwealth" newspaper. The reproduction is from William Cobbett's open letter to Lord Sheffield that was published in the August 26, 1815 issue of "Cobbett's Weekly Political Register" (London). William Cobbett's open letter was "Intended to show, that Manufactures of all kinds are carried onto a great extent in America, and that Machinery has been put into use with great success in the making of Woolen and Cotton goods." The June 22, 1814 advertisement that was reproduced in Cobbett's open letter was placed more than six months before the Battle of New Orleans.

Kentucky rifle excerpt from the Pittsburgh Commonwealth newspaper.

An early 1815 battle-related British usage of the term "Kentucky Rifle"
The following excerpts are from a transcript of a March 29, 1815 letter William Cobbett wrote to the Earl of Liverpool. The transcript was published in William Cobbett's 1815 book "Letters on the late war between the United States and Great Britain..."

Kentucky rifle reference in transcript of 1815 letter.

The song "Hunters of Kentucky" was published in 1821
As noted above, the song "Hunters of Kentucky" was originally published in the February 10, 1821 issue of the "Ladies' Literary Cabinet".

An 1821 description of the Battle of New Orleans
Click here for a description of the Battle of New Orleans that was published in William Grimshaw's 1821 book "History of the United States..."

An 1823 reference to the song "Hunters of Kentucky"
The following item from the September 16, 1823 issue of the "Richmond Enquirer" newspaper indicates that the song "Hunters of Kentucky" is included in the 1824 edition of the "Virginia & North Carolina Almanack" and was "sung by Keene in his late visit to Richmond, with great applause".

A reference to 'The Hunters of Kentucky' song in an 1823 newspaper.

An 1825-dated copy of the song "Hunters of Kentucky"
In the March 1, 1825 issue of the "American Watchman and Delaware Advertiser" newspaper, the song "Hunters of Kentucky" about the Battle of New Orleans is attributed to S. Woodsworth (sic). In the following years there were references to the song in various newspapers. Some of the references were advertisements for shows where the song was performed. Other references were new songs that were to be sung to the tune of "Hunters of Kentucky". It seems clear that the song was relatively popular and well-known. That status may have boosted the popularity of the term "Kentucky Rifle".

Samuel Woodworth included his song in an 1831 book
Samuel Woodworth published "Hunters of Kentucky" in his 288-page 1831 book "Melodies, Duets, Trios, Songs, and Ballads..."

The "Pennsylvan-Kentucky Rifle" (1836)
The dichotomy of using the name "Kentucky Rifle" to describe a firearm made in Pennsylvania wasn't lost on people in the 1800s. The September, 1836 issue of "The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine" includes a humorous article titled, "The Autobiography of a Pennsylvan-Kentucky Rifle". The second paragraph includes the statement, "There is much dispute about my parentage, — whether I originally sprang from Sweden with a cross of Manchester, or an holus bolus, a genuine Pennsylvanian. I am indifferent as to my daddy; but this I know, that I first saw the light at Pittsburg on the Ohio..." Click here to see the first page of the 13-page "autobiography".

Go to the Gunsmith Index for more information about "Kentucky rifles" and some of the men who manufactured them in Somerset and Bedford counties, Pennsylvania.