The Evolution of the Patch Box Cover

In chapter II we reviewed two early rifles dated fifteen years apart.  The earliest being dated 1761 and equipped with a wooden patch box lid and other German Jaeger features. The second, dated 1776 had a hinged, two piece brass lid and a somewhat slenderized architectural silhouette including a longer barrel.  They were illustrated to give the reader a feel for the architecture of the two rifles and to begin to develop a familiarization with them and others made within the same time frame.  Understanding the origin of works of art leads to a greater appreciation of the genre.

In this chapter, in order to expand on that brief lesson we are illustrating and discussing five more rifles chosen to demonstrate the evolution of the American Longrifle’s patchbox cover from its European ancestor’s wooden lids. This series will give you a broader sense and hopefully a deeper appreciation of what was happening in that early period during the third & fourth quarter of the 18th century.  At the same time we’ll take a glimpse at the artistry that began to manifest itself drawing from its origins in Europe and the imagination of the individual riflesmiths.

The first rifle in this series of five has all of the same Germanic characteristics as the Schreit illustrated in the second chapter including the thick buttstock and a wooden sliding patch box lid.  In fact, comparing the two rifles feature by feature lends credence to the argument that this rifle could pre-date the 1761 dated Schreit.  As an example, the carved design has a definite baroque feel to it whereas the Schreit seems to have utilized the newer “rococo” design and is definitely more accomplished in its engraving there being none on our example.  Our rifle is not quite as thick at the butt or breach but is sturdier in silhouette….so who knows?  Then to, it could be of the same vintage or even later if made by an immigrant adhering closer to the older European fashion.  Non-the-less, for our purposes, let’s assume that this rifle is representative of the first rifles made in American, being sparsely decorated and primarily adhering to the Germanic designs produced prior to the invention of the brass PB lid.

The next rifle also retains many early features but now sports a hinged, two piece brass patchbox lid.  This is the most important departure from the European practice of the sliding wood lid and by its very nature makes a tremendous statement.  Not only is it infinitely more practical than the wooden lid, it adds considerably to the beauty of the entire rifle because of its dominance (when seeing a Kentucky what is the first thing that you notice?) and also because of the stark contrast with the richly colored  tiger stripe maple wood stock to which it is attached.  So now we have form and function the likes of which the world has never seen!  Take note of the beautiful, somewhat restrained engraving on the lid that gives this very masculine instrument a very feminine touch.  The rifle is signed J SHRIVER in block letters on the top facet of the barrel.

 The third rifle in this group is, again, an early piece, probably made just prior to or shortly after the Revolutionary war.  It is truly a sophisticated masterpiece exhibiting the design and workmanship of a very gifted man.  By association with a similar, but later, rifle that is signed we know the maker of this rifle to be a one Isaac Haines who lived and worked in Lancaster County, PA.  We’ve placed this rifle as third in the series without knowing for sure where it belongs chronologically, even though it’s reasonable to think that we’ve put it in the right place.  Regardless, it's placed here to illustrate the further development of the patchbox cover having now evolved into four pieces.  This certainly adds to the expense of its manufacture but further elevates the beauty of it, thereby adding to the attractiveness of the entire rifle.  By adding the two sideplates the gunsmith has reduced the severity of the rectangular lid and who by their very nature offer huge possibilities for unique and unrestricted design. This will be self-evident when you examine the last rifle in this series.

 The fourth rifle brings one more important element into the overall design of the now famous brass patchbox cover and that is the piercings.  This rifle was made and signed by Peter Berry of Dauphin County, PA and whose cover is a simple affair with rather sparse engraving but with two piercings in the finial.  There were two Berry’s, a father and son, and we’re not positive which of them made this rifle but that is not important for our purposes here. Berry was probably not the first gunsmith to produce a patchbox cover with piercings but the rifle itself appears to have been made near the end of the third quarter of the 18th century so it fits well in this chapter which is meant primarily to give the reader a sense of the evolution of the PB cover itself.  The extremely broad breadth of the buttstock on this rifle is unique to Berry and easily recognizable by any advanced collector as is the slightly off center placement of the cover ensemble.  The name of the original owner, ROBERT FLEMING, is engraved on the lid.  ( Fleming owned a plantation on the Susquehanna River and served in both the Revolutionary war and the war of 1812 as well.)

The last rifle in our series is from the “Golden Age” (we’ll get to that nomenclature in a later chapter) and sports a fully developed and magnificent cover comprised of four pieces with a total of seven piercings, a silver inlay in one of them, and silver plating on the inner edges of the sideplates.  Obviously, it is beautifully engraved in the rococo vocabulary.  It is a Virginia made gun produced by two gunsmiths.  Simon Lauck made the barrel and signed his name on the top facet of same.  Godfrey Wilkins fashioned and decorated the rifle and signed his name on one of the two silver plates attached to either side of the  forestock just ahead of the lock and counter plates.  He also stamped his initials on the underside of the trigger mechanism.  The silver plate on the opposite side bears the name “T Frye   his Gun” who presumably was the owner of the rifle.  While not germane to our purpose it’s interesting to note that on the cheekpiece side of the stock is a silver and brass inlay depicting the sun in eclipse and is so labeled “The Sunin Cleps”.  There was an eclipse on the eastern seaboard in 1808 so it seems safe to assume that it somehow relates to this event and another involving the presumed owner, Mr. Frye. 

Most students and collectors understand and believe that without a date being engraved on a rifle, one cannot categorically establish with absolute certainty an overall chronological placement of these rifles, especially in the early period prior to the turn of the century.  Some of the gunsmiths had been trained in Europe and some picked up the craft after arriving on the shores of the New World.  They were from different parts & countries of Europe and each had their own style of architecture and decoration and no doubt trained any and all of their apprentices in the same language.  They were spread out all over the north and mid-eastern part of very rural America and while there had to be some interaction there was much that went on totally independent from what others were doing.  We’ll refer back to these thoughts and expand on them in a later chapter.  The evolution of the PB cover as shown here could be done with many other rifles extant.  The ones we have used in this chapter are fully illustrated (with at least 22 additional, detailed images) and described along with twenty eight other rifles of museum quality in the book The Artistic Merits of the AMERICAN LONGRIFLE, Its Art and Evolution available from THEKENTUCKYRIFLEFOUNDATION.

        Haines #3

Lauck #5

     #1 "Reading, PA area"

       #2 Schriver 

               Berry  #4