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The Village Idiot

The Emmitsburg Rifle

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(6/2016) I don't recall who, or what, got me interested in muzzleloading firearms, but I do remember the first one I bought. CVA (Connecticut Valley Arms) made affordable reproductions in the 1970s and I assembled a Kentucky cap & ball pistol from a kit I found at Chuck's Sporting Goods across the PA line. We were living along the Taneytown Pike then and Dad occasionally had to chase off late night gasoline thieves. He asked me to charge the pistol with powder and a rag, not wanting to hurt, but rather frighten night time trespassers with a shot across their flank, as it were. He only busted one cap on that pistol and word of the 14 foot flame it sent across the porch, and the trespasser still screaming as he ran through the square in Emmitsburg a mile later, ended the late night raids. That pistol seemed to ignite more than just gunpowder as my friends who tried their hands at hitting a mark with it mostly ended up buying muzzleloading rifles to hunt with.

There was a black powder craze sweeping the country in those years as people went mad over Hawken's rifles and the Mountain Men Rendezvous, probably spurred on by movies such as "Jeremiah Johnson". The country's bicentennial was also approaching and artifacts (including firearms) from that era were being trotted out for public admiration. I recall an article in a sporting magazine about the discovery of a secret set-trigger mechanism in the pistols used in the Burr-Hamilton duel. The mechanism was found by a gunsmith who was tasked with making exact copies of the Hamilton family dueling arms. (Ah the good old days when men had enough honor to actually fight over it, though the hidden set-trigger mechanism brings the honor of the Hamilton family into question.)

Uncle Dale showed up at the Taneytown Pike house with a smoothbore flintlock musket he said dated back to the French and Indian War (17541763). Easily the oldest firearm I'd ever seen, it inspired me to purchase another CVA kit, a Kentucky flintlock rifle. While I was playing with reproductions Uncle Dale (among other more skilled than I area gunsmiths) took to buying barrels, locks, patch boxes and hardwood blanks he and they would shape and assemble into long rifles. Many a locally made muzzleloader became a work of art!

Oddly, in the midst of all that I was reading and hearing about muzzleloading firearms, I didn't hear about a gunsmith by the name of John Armstrong until 1987 when DW moved into town with me. We chanced upon a collector of "things Emmitsburg" who mentioned he had an Emmitsburg rifle. I was more than a little surprised to hear Armstrong, an Emmitsburg resident, had cranked out flintlock rifles and shotguns, and was supposedly well known for his skill at metal engraving and wood carving. A sometimes gun collector/trader confirmed that there were Emmitsburg rifles out there, and they fetched a very nice price if one could get an owner to part with them.

Son Jack was old enough to learn to shoot and hunt before I thought of the Emmitsburg rifle again, and then only because it came up in conversation with Ben Kelkye, Jack's hunter safety teacher and youth program coach. Ben, an Iranian born NRA firearms "instructor of instructors" has black powder in his blood.

"You're from Emmitsburg? You know about John Armstrong and the firearms he made?"

Sheesh. Iranians know about Armstrong? Gun collectors across the country know about him? A doll maker in Minnesota knows of Armstrong as a skilled metal engraver/wood carver! Hell, everyone seems to know about the man, but not the Emmitsburg locals I talk to.

The town's famous (unknown) son turned up again as Gary Casteel (monument restorer) and I were chatting about local history after the Doughboy had been placed upon its new pedestal and everyone else had wandered off. Gary asked me if I knew who John Armstrong was and I allowed he was a gunsmith working in the Emmitsburg area sometime in the early to mid 1800s. I was then asked if I knew where Armstrong had lived in Emmitsburg. I hadn't a clue, though I've learned since that his shop was next door to where Doc (Curley) Thomas has her practice today. (Standing in front of that building I ponder who might have walked out of it clutching an Armstrong firearm. Some local hunter needing a shotgun for turkey, or perhaps a man with the far west glaze in his eyes cradling a long rifle he hoped would feed and protect him as he crossed the mountains into the frontier?) Gary's next question was "Do you know where he was buried?" (Some researchers believe he was buried in a cemetery in Thurmont, though no marker exists today.)

Gary suggested I write an article about Armstrong. If I take that up Gary has a brother who restores antique firearms and would be willing to help me in such an endeavor. The ENJ editor tells me he has information sent to him by owners of Armstrong's firearms. I've also heard rumors of two rifles still in the Emmitsburg area valued between $73,000 and $120,000. (I think it best that rumor be left a rumor.)

While I haven't decided to write about Armstrong, I have begun asking about his rifles (and shotguns) among my friends who are "primitive" firearms enthusiasts. They, of course, wonder why the town of Emmitsburg has never capitalized on its gunsmithing son. Which prompts me to ask, at a time when drawing tourists to this area seems to be the "in thing", why hasn't the Emmitsburg rifle (and its maker) been honored with a weekend of primitive firearms lectures, workshops and/or shooting events?

I'm sure there are still a few flintlock and cap & ball fanatics around (18th century long-hunter reenactors were turning up for Ben Kelkye's muzzleloader safety classes not all that many years ago) who would love to lecture on the history and craft of such works of art. A quick look online reveals Mountain Man, Muzzleloading Reenactments are still big tourist attractions in places west of here. Maybe it's time to draw the children of the pioneers who carried John Armstrong's rifles over the mountains into the Kentucky frontier back to Emmitsburg? At least for a weekend each year?

I'll not hold my breath while waiting for Emmitsburg to catch a clue. Maybe Thurmont Mayor John Kinnaird (John was always more into local history than I) can chase down Armstrong's resting place and promote the man and his craft? Hell, John would have jump on Emmitsburg what with Thurmont's history of exploiting its history!

Hey, Thurmont even has a sportsman club where the shooting of firearms is well established. The event could be billed as "Northern Frederick County's own 18th Century Gunsmith, known worldwide for his metal engraving and wood carving skills."

So much of our past has been, and is being lost. Gods save us if we have to count on Thurmont to preserve our heritage (and turn a profit while doing so.) Then again, if Thurmont citizens are willing to do it, more power to 'em.

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.