The Pennsylvania Long Rifle (sometimes incorrectly called the Kentucky Rifle) was one of the most significant firearms in American history. It was used by frontiersmen and also served in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812. Nearly all of these guns were made in a small portion of eastern Pennsylvania, particularly in the tiny little town of Nazareth.
The first muzzle-loading firearms were “smoothbores”. These had a limited range and were not very accurate. They also tended to produce a buildup of residue from the black powder propellant, which tended to foul the barrel and had to be cleaned out frequently.
By the 1600’s, some gunsmiths had the idea to cut grooves into the inside of the barrel. This was probably done originally to hold the gunpowder residue where it would not interfere with the musket ball, but it quickly became apparent that if the groove were cut into a spiral, or “rifled”, it would also impart a spin to the bullet as it left the barrel, which gave greater accuracy.
In the early years of the 1700’s, gunsmiths in eastern Pennsylvania, near the cities of Easton, Bethlehem and Allentown, made some significant improvements to the “rifle”. Most muskets of the time were around .70 caliber. The Pennsylvania gun-makers reduced this to just .45 caliber, and introduced the practice of enclosing the round lead bullet inside a greased cloth patch before it was rammed down the muzzle: this gave more velocity, and also allowed a better grip on the rifling grooves. The barrel was lengthened, which gave more time for the bullet to accelerate before leaving the gun, giving a longer range. The longer barrel also gave improved aiming through the open iron sights. With these modifications, the flintlock rifle was said to be capable of hitting a squirrel at 300 yards. It became known as the “Pennsylvania Long Rifle”.
There were four major centers of manufacturing for the Long Rifle, usually located at places where water-powered machinery was practical. One of these was the “Greasy Valley” along the Wyomissing Creek near Reading PA. Other factories were located on the Little Lehigh Creek near Allentown and Pequea Creek in Lancaster. But the most long-lived location for the production of Pennsylvania Long Rifles was the Bushkill Creek at Nazareth, and it was dominated by the Henry family.
Some time in the 1730’s, an Irish immigrant named John Henry came to the United States and settled near Lancaster, in southeastern Pennsylvania. Here, he took up the practice of gunsmithing, and began manufacturing Pennsylvania Long Rifles. Before he died in 1747, Henry had three sons, and all of them would go on to continue as gunsmiths. It was the beginning of a dynasty.
John Henry Jr, the son of the earlier immigrant, continued to run the family’s gun smithy in Lancaster. This was frontier country: at that time, “the West” consisted of the Appalachian Mountains and the territories in Ohio and Kentucky. There was a constant stream of settlers to these areas, and most of them wanted Pennsylvania Long Rifles. At one point in 1773, John Henry traveled to the frontier town of Detroit to set up a gun shop, but there wasn’t enough business there to keep him, and he returned to Lancaster. His brother Moses Henry, meanwhile, had set up his own shop in Fort Pitt PA, the site of modern Pittsburgh, and was making and repairing guns for local settlers. Eventually he moved to a Shawnee Native American village in Ohio.
The third son was William Henry. He had his own gunsmithy in Lancaster, where he produced rifles for Fort Augusta and also supplied some Virginia militia units. In 1754 he left Lancaster and moved north to Shamokin. Not long after that, he left the gun business and formed a partnership with a wealthy London merchant, which imported products from England.
But two of Henry’s sons continued to make rifles. The eldest son, William Jr, was sent to apprentice with another gunsmith, but the local church authorities banished him for “personal indiscretions”, and he was sent to an all-male church community called Christian Springs, in Nazareth PA. William Jr worked there repairing rifles for the local militia until the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775. His father, who was now a procurement officer for the Continental Congress, gave William a contract to make rifles for the Army, and he set up a gun factory in town. He was joined there by his younger brother Abraham. When, after the Revolutionary War, they won a contract to produce rifles for the United States Army, they built a larger factory on the Bushkill Creek just outside town. This was converted to a grain mill a few years later, and one of Henry’s sons built a new larger rifle factory in Philadelphia.
When the War of 1812 broke out, the Henry family was contracted to make rifles for the Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania militia, and when the Philadelphia factory proved too small to meet the demand, another factory was constructed on the Bushkill outside Nazareth, at a 40-acre complex just downstream from the old smithy. Known as the Boulton Factory, it would become the center of Pennsylvania Long Rifle production for almost 100 years. One of their biggest customers was the American Fur Company, which not only used Henry rifles for its own trappers and explorers, but sold them at profit to various Native American tribes.
Soon, however, gun technology began to change. After the War of 1812, flintlock firearms were replaced by percussion caps, and breech-loaders were beginning to replace muzzle-loaders. The company’s fortunes were fading. It was not able to afford the expensive mass-production machinery used by the larger gun companies in New York and Philadelphia, and while some early snipers in the Civil War used Pennsylvania Long Rifles, the company was not able to win any military contracts from the Union Army.
After the war, the Henry factory and its 75 workers began to focus on sporting arms, producing percussion-fired breech-loading shotguns and hunting rifles. These were hand-made, ornately decorated, and expensive. Business, however, continued to fade away. In 1895 the Boulton factory stopped production, though workers continued to assemble guns to order from already-made parts. The last gun came out of Boulton in 1904, and Granville Henry, the last of the dynasty, died in 1912. In all, the Boulton works had produced at least 100,000 firearms.
Today, the remaining buildings of the Henry Gun Factory and the Homestead where the Henrys lived are preserved as part of the Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center near Nazareth PA. The site also contains the Pennsylvania Long Rifle Museum.