his piece is adapted from David Harsanyi’s new book, “First Freedom: A Ride Through America’s Enduring History with the Gun” (Threshold Editions).
1. Kentucky Rifle
Martin Meylin has been credited with being the first great American gunmaker and inventor of the Pennsylvania long rifle—which was to become known as the Kentucky long rifle (“Kentucky,” in those days, being anything in the wilderness west of Pennsylvania). Meylin’s small cobblestone workshop still stands off a two-lane road in Lancaster. Local schools are named after him. Plaques have been erected in his honor. State politicians have even written legislation commemorating his contribution to American life.
Well, while we know that Meylin left his home in Zurich, Switzerland, around 1710, and ended up in the German-speaking area of Lancaster County—a place that would become the center of American gun innovation for more than a century—we don’t know much else. And while it is tidy to give a single inventor credit for the gun, it’s probably the case that numerous inventors and blacksmiths engineered the Kentucky rifle over a period of decades.
The invention created by these German-speaking immigrants and their children changed the way Americans hunted, fought, and explored. Captain John Dillin, author of a popular book about the Kentucky rifle in the 1920s, would claim that the gun “changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately freed our country of foreign domination. Light in weight; graceful in line; economical in consumption of powder and lead; fatally precise; distinctly American; it sprang into immediate popularity; and for a hundred years was a model often slightly varied but never radically changed.”
The rifle—the word derived from the German riffeln, meaning to cut grooves—was first developed in Europe as a sporting weapon for noblemen to hunt with more precision. The invention of gun barrels with spiral grooves on the interior was likely to have originated among a number of blacksmiths in southern Germany and Switzerland. The physics of spinning propulsion as a means of improving aim was known to weapons makers for thousands of years—ever since feathers were placed on arrows to make them spin.
by David Harsanyi