For gun collectors, the Kentucky Rifle is a prized possession. The golden age of the Kentucky Rifle was from 1780 to 1830, but antiques can be hard to find. In his shop just outside of Blairsville, Indiana, Marvin Kemper makes stunningly accurate recreations of old longrifles as well as his own creations.
Kemper spent 20 years working in the non-profit field. But he wanted to make rifles full time, and when he finally had a backlog of rifle orders big enough 18 months ago, he took the leap. His one-man operation is named Liberty Longrifles.
“I was working a corporate job and I have a master’s degree, but I wanted to do something that I loved,” he says. “I was traveling, and I’d always take a satchel full of my gun books, and sit there and study the pictures I’d looked at 100 times before. And I think that paid off in my interpretation of original art.”
Kemper says there are three types of buyers: those who want a rifle for show, those who want it for shooting, and hunters. Each rifle takes 120 hours or more of work, and Kemper usually has several projects going at once.
“I get projects that are all about historical duplication, and I do rifles that are totally interpretive,” says Kemper. “Somebody will say ‘Just make me a fancy gun. I don’t want a copy of anything.’ So I will do my own thing.”
Kemper’s father made more than 3,000 Kentucky Rifles, but he worked with just two basic patterns. Kemper’s designs are far more complex. Each one is handcrafted from a curly maple blank, with brass butt plates and trigger guards. The guns are decorated with brass and sterling silver. Kemper also crafts pistols, again modeled after the post-Revolutionary War era.
Specialists make the gun barrels and flintlocks. Kemper handles everything else. That includes the patch boxes — used to hold the greased patches wrapped around balls as they are placed into the gun barrel. Kemper says buyers now expect historical accuracy.
“Back in the 1950s and 60s, the Internet didn’t exist, and neither did all of the color books that have come out,” he says. “A Kentucky Rifle was a Kentucky Rifle. Nowadays, people are pretty smart. They’ve done the research.”
Most Kentucky Rifles were actually made in Pennsylvania. They earned their name when they were used by Kentucky soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.
The rifles work almost exactly as the originals would have two centuries ago. They are muzzle loaded and are fired using gunpowder and a flintlock. The inside of the barrels are rifled with spiral grooves, spinning the ball and making the guns extremely accurate to 200 yards.
Kemper receives most of his business from word of mouth. He travels to shows and conventions for longrifles, some attended by thousands of people. He’s shipped guns as far away as Germany.
For more about Liberty Longrifles, visit libertylongrifles.com.