Cool Things - Colonial Rifle
Collectors covet this rare rifle made by a colonial gunmaker. But how did it end up in Kansas?
This elegant rifle is one of the earliest known examples of its kind. Built by a Pennsylvania gunsmith of great talent, it surfaced in Kansas well over a century after it was made.
Gunsmithing could be a lucrative trade in the late 18th century. This was particularly true if the maker was a skilled technician as well as an artist. William Antes was such a man. Born in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in 1735, Antes grew up knowing the value of a good gun on the frontier. During the American Revolution he served as a lieutenant in the Philadelphia militia, and also as a commissioner charged with confiscating the property of British loyalists. Antes later helped his brother built Fort Antes on the western edge of the Pennsylvania frontier for protection from the Lenape tribe, who were British allies. Antes' gunsmithing skills were probably at their height in the years after the Revolution, and at least one historian has suggested he made rifles for American Indians living along the upper portions of the Susquehanna River. His last move was to Canandaigua, New York, where he died in 1810.
An Early Example
Antes' firearms today are considered among the best in craftsmanship and artistry. The gun pictured here may date from the 1770s, one of the earliest known examples of a double rifle made in Pennsylvania. The double rifle, also known as "over-and-under," had two barrels which fired independently. This innovation solved the problem of a single-shot rifle that required reloading between rounds. The double gun's barrels are on a swivel, allowing the user to spin quickly from the spent chamber to the loaded one.
The rifle is 56" long, with octagonal barrels 40" in length, and appears to be .50 caliber. It has a flintlock firing mechanism. Aside from its practical effectiveness as a firearm, the gun is a work of art. The walnut stock is carved with scrolls in relief, and the brass patch box is engraved with floral and scroll designs. Carved head-and-shoulder portraits of a person are located near each lock. Antes engraved his signature in script on the plate near the breech and again on the top of one barrel.
The Antes rifle is considered a treasure by gun collectors, particularly those on the East Coast who know something of the maker's artistry and the rarity of his firearms. The mystery for many of these collectors is how a gun from colonial America entered the collections of a Kansas museum.
The gun was given to the Society in 1917 by Edwin Fox, an insurance investigator who was born in Wisconsin and moved to Topeka around 1900 with his wife and daughters. Fox offered almost no information about the rifle's history at the time of donation, indicating only that it was "found" at Fort Hays. An army post in western Kansas, Hays was an important base for troops defending railroads and white settlements from 1865 until 1889. Hundreds of soldiers passed through the fort, including Civil War heroes Nelson Miles, Philip Sheridan, and George Custer. Although the Antes rifle is not military issue and greatly pre-dates Fort Hays' years of operation, it is possible the gun was brought there by an officer who gave it to a local resident. It's also possible the gun found its way west with tribes during Indian removal.
The Antes rifle is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Cool Things - Colonial Rifle
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2010
Date Modified: July 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.