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John Armstrong of Emmitsburg and his Rifles

Albert Manley Sullivan

The town of Emmitsburg, in the state of Maryland, is cozily nestled at the foot of the Catoctin Mountain, just a few miles north of the beautiful Cunningham Falls. It presents to the world, in its scenic setting, a calm and peaceful image. Its quiet serenity seems an integral part of the towns’ make-up, and suggests that to change this mood would be difficult. Yet this tranquil dignity was a abruptly shattered one Sunday last summer, as 35,000 visitors descended upon the startled little city. They had come to see the Shrine of Mother Seton, who had that very day, been canonized in far away Flume, and had, become America’s first and only native-born saint.

Elizabeth Ann Seton had wrought her magic mostly in Emmitsburg, and these visitors pilgrims if you wish, probably felt they were achieving a sort of celestial first-day cover by visiting her work bench on the same day on which she was canonized. Elizabeth Ann Seton had focused the whole worlds attention on Emmitsburg but it is probable that only a small percentage of all visitors who had jammed the highways leading into Emmitsburg on that Sunday, realized that the little mountain town they were visiting was the home of another famous citizen one whose fame has spread not throughout the world, as Mother Seton’s, but certainly throughout most of America.

John Armstrong. Maryland’s finest and perhaps America’s finest antique gunsmith, also lived and I worked in Emmitsburg. So in its early days Emmitsburg had a famous son, as well as a famous daughter. And at the same time, John was born in 1772 Elizabeth in 1773 and there are other interesting parallels in the lives of these two outstanding Emmitsburg residents. As shown, they were about the same age. Secondly, they began their Emmitsburg careers at just about the same time John in 1808, at least as far as documentation shows, and Elizabeth in 1809.

Then they were practically neighbors in that they each lived in a relatively small social community. Also, they were each beginning new enterprises at almost the same time. Again, they were each outstanding personalities each tops in their fields, they almost had to know each other, and knowing each other, they were probably friends. Speculation, the friendship part, but at least with a solid foundation for support. Then there was the fact that of the three daughters of the Armstrong’s, one was named Elizabeth and one was named Ann. Was this pure coincidence? Or was it because of respect and admiration for Mother Seton by Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong? One more thing, earlier in her career, Elizabeth Ann Seton opened a school for girls in the then frontier like community, where such schools must have been rare. The writer sometimes wonders where the Armstrong girls went to school. Speculation or not, it is an interesting thought for an Armstrong admirer to feel that his pet gunsmith had a saint for a friend. This certainly has to be unique.

Researchers have spent many hours delving for information about John Armstrong. In general, the results have been disappointing, although more has been learned about him in the last five to six years, than ever before. One basic thing that never had been documented was his birth date until last year. A document, now a happy part of the author’s Armstrong collection, was recently discovered among some old papers at a farm sale that establishes his exact birth date. This is a legal paper, part of a court record, in which John Armstrong made a deposition before a magistrate. To verify the age of one Samuel Louden, and in the process. He tells the magistrate his birth date.
Opened the document states:

 Md. Fred County Town

 “On the 22nd day of August 1828 personally appeared John Armstrong before me the subscriber a Justice of the Peace in and for the county aforesaid and made the following oath and declaration deposeth and saveth that he is personally’ well and acquainted with a certain Samuel Louden a citizen of Liberty Township, Adams County Pennsylvania that he does think to the best of his opinion that the said Samuel Louden was born in the year 1776 or before that year and that he has good reason for forming that opinion respecting the age of the said Samuel Louden they being boys together but the said deponent being somewhat the oldest being born in the year 1772 the 5th day of September therefore does make oath and declare that the said Samuel Louden is at least fifty-two years of age and further sayeth not.

Sworn before William Coony”

So here is John himself giving his birth date as September 5, 1772, to a Justice of the Peace in Frederick County, in August of 1828, This piece fits the puzzle precisely, and gives us a firm starting date. It also places him in Frederick County in 1828. But most of the pieces of the puzzle are still missing. He does not, for instance, say where he was born. But he does give us a hint. He says he was a ‘boy together’’ with Samuel Louden and he names Sam as a citizen of Liberty Township. The writer has not yet researched the exact location of Liberty Township, but feels it will be in the lower also eastern part of Adams County, Pennsylvania. This suggests that he was born there and that, in turn, fits another slot in the puzzle, at least in the writers mind.

If Armstrong was born in Liberty Township, it would mean he would have been nearer to Hanover, Pennsylvania, than if, for instance, he had been born in Emmitsburg, Maryland. And it is important to the writer’s mental equanimity that he should be close to Hanover during his boyhood. The writer and especially the writer’s son (I dare not withhold this credit) have long felt that John Armstrong was apprenticed to and learned his gunsmithing from George Schroyer of Hanover, There are at least five valid reasons for this belief. Schroyer, one of America’s oldest documented gunsmiths, and one of the truly great ones, used five different features in his guns, some of them frequently, some infrequently, which appear in Armstrong’s rifles. And significantly of two of them used frequently by Schroyer, Armstrong used one all the time and the second most of the time. Since this is being prepared not entirely for antique gun buffs, the nature of the features will not be elaborated upon.

So we do not believe that Armstrong was born in Emmitsburg. We think he moved there about 1793. This would be after becoming an apprentice to Schroyer in 1786, at age 14, and completing his training seven years later in 1793. He would then have become a “journeyman” and the name itself suggests that he moved away from his master and set up shop on his own almost certainly in Emmitsburg. Full apprenticeships in those days were normally for seven years, but not all. Some were for five years and some for only three. If John’s tenure was shorter than seven years, then he probably moved to Emmitsburg that much earlier.
One thing is certain some of his rifles are 18th century. The writer is often asked “If Armstrong was born when you think he was (1770-I had thought), then where are his 18th century rifles?” The answer (clearer now that his birth date is pinpointed) is that any of his flintlock rifles could be 18th century. We have no way of telling which were made first. We only know of four that were made as original percussions. The point is that John developed a style early in his career, in the late 18th century that pleased him and pleased his customers; he did not change that basic design with the passage of time. Neither did Rolls Royce! This is some­times charged as detraction against Armstrong, but the writer (admittedly biased) feels this to be an attraction, rather than detraction. If one spends all the money necessary to buy a Rolls Royce or an Armstrong, one wants it, at first glance, to look like a Rolls Royce or an Armstrong. Incidentally, that style pleases today’s collectors too! If you don’t think so try to buy one of his rifles!

But let’s get back to origins. John’s father, originally from England, was also named John and apparently settled at first in the Cumberland Valley section of Pennsylvania, moving his family later to somewhere in Liberty Township. We speculate that John, Jr. could have been born there. This could fit in with John “being boys together with his friend Sam Louden, and would place him in close proximity to George Schroyer in Hanover. Schroyer was a generation older than Armstrong. He appears in the court records, listed as a gunsmith, as early as 1767 (but not at that time in Hanover). Schroyer age, Armstrong’s nearness to him at the age boys normally began apprentice­ship (John was 14 in 1786 and Schroyer was settled in Hanover at that time) and Armstrong’s consistent use later of five of Schroyer’s details, one of which is very conclusive, all suggest that John learned his trade from Schroyer. John (Junior) married a Miss James. They had seven children four sons, William, Robert, Samuel and James and three daughters, Elizabeth, Ann and Jane. The court records show that John bought lots 1 and 2 in the Emmitsburg plat in 1808. These are the first of a relatively long series of real estate transactions that are recorded to John.

The presumption of the writer is that Armstrong came to Emmitsburg about 1793; set himself up in the gunsmith business and by 1808 was able to buy some property, probably for a house, as well as a business and permanently established his roots. It is known that he was still in Emmitsburg as late as 1841.
Armstrong must have made a success of his business, because he enjoyed a long period of production. We are not sure just when he started but, as stated earlier, it must have been around 1793. We do know statements made by his last apprentice, Nathaniel Rowe, which he was still in the gunsmith business in Emmitsburg in 1840. Since he drops from sight in 1841, it seems safe to assume that his production span was from 1793 to 1840. Forty-seven years is time enough to make a great many rifles.

The question naturally arises and is often asked “How many rifles did he make?” A good question! One that cannot be answered with any degree of certainty. We can only guess. But as more is learned about the man, and about some of the factors that affect production, the guessing becomes a little easier or rather, a little less difficult. For instance, research by Mr. Daniel Hartzler of New Windsor, Maryland, has revealed that Armstrong had a long string of apprentices. A master worker who might also be a good administrator and teacher, working with two apprentices, could naturally produce considerably more than the master working by himself. It is reasonable to suppose that Armstrong normally employed two apprentices. This is, of course, a factor which would speed up production. But with Armstrong, there were three important factors which definitely slowed it down substantially. One of these factors we are positive was always present. We are less certain of the other two, but one or both of them could also have always been present.

We are sure, for instance, that Armstrong always made his own locks. This is a slow and tedious process and would add to a rifle’s completion time. Most gunsmiths of that period bought their locks from lock manufacturers. They were cheaper and increased production. This saved the gunsmith money in two ways. Then, these locks were probably better than the average gunsmith could make himself. But none of these suited Armstrong. Not John Armstrong, the perfectionist. The store bought locks were not good enough to go on his excellent products, so he made his own locks. Locks of a quality compatible with the high quality of everything else on his truly excellent rifles. Love that man! The locks he made are slender graceful and beautifully proportioned. They blend perfectly into the architectural balance of the gun. It is easy to see why he would not be satisfied with anything less. Everything he did had to come up to the standards he carried in his head and in his heart, and these standards were at summit level. In addition to their beauty, the locks functioned efficiently. The springs of the Armstrong locks in the Sullivan collection, are as crisp and sharp today as they were when they were made 150 years ago. We should begin here to understand some of the reasons why Armstrong is so highly regarded by collectors, and why his rifles are so eagerly sought after.

Incidentally, there is a feeling, a very sensible one, in the Kentucky rifle fraternity that the absence of the original lock in a Kentucky rifle is not too important. This is because the lock was almost never made by the gunsmith and so did not represent his handiwork. Also, locks were expendable they wore out and they were replaced, so they seldom related to the gunsmith who made the rifle. But this does not hold with Armstrong. Because he made and signed his own locks, and because they were so special and were so appropriate to his guns, this absence in an Armstrong rifle is a very serious flaw.

The other two factors that would seriously affect the gunsmith’s output are the barrel, if self-made, and the brass castings. There were a number of barrel-smiths who did nothing but make barrels for use for various gunsmiths. Most craftsmen of that period purchased and used such barrels. But not Armstrong the writer believes he made his own barrels. This would, of course, have limited his production. But Armstrong was more interested in perfection than he was in production. This is attested by the fact that he never made a poor rifle. Some of the other rifle makers who could rival him for the top spot, did make rifles of lesser quality adjusted, no doubt to suit what the customer could afford to pay. But not our hero. He never removed the suit of shining armor never got down off the white horse. Of the twenty eight surviving Armstrong rifles known to the writer, the least of them is an excellent example of design and execution. It is a truly fine rifle, one that any discerning collector would be proud to own. The barrel played such an important role in accuracy, that Armstrong would never have been satisfied to leave control of this vital function to 5omeone else. The writer has examined a number of these barrels with this particular question in mind, and has concluded, at least to his own satisfaction, that Armstrong made his own barrels.

As to casting his own brass fittings, we are not quite so sure. The brass furniture affected the efficiency of the gun only in that it had to be comfortable to the marksman. This was much less important to the guns ultimate purpose accuracy than the barrel. Its principal contribution besides comfort was to please the eye, so you may conclude he did leave the castings to someone else. But our boy was an artist, a true artist, His devotion to beauty is proven by what he has left behind. It is doubtful that he regarded appearance as being of secondary importance. So the writer thinks he made his castings himself. Another indication that he made his own castings is the fact that a number of his trigger guards have the initials “J.A.” cast into the metal on the inside of the bow. This does not prove he made them. But it certainly proves they were made exclusively for him and to his strict specifications.

But we have begged the question long enough. How many rifles did John Armstrong make? Considering all the above, plus the engraving, carving, finishing, and assuming he used two apprentices most of the time, we believe he could not produce his type of gun in anything less than three weeks. This is only seventeen rifles per year. It seems low; consider this only twenty eight Armstrong rifles are to know to exist. Perhaps there are another six to eight around that have not surfaced, so let’s say there are thirty-six remaining.

If full production was seventeen per year, then forty-seven years of production would result in about eight hundred rifles. But no manufacture that ever liver, then or now, has ever achieved full production over a forty—seven year span. Assuming that his chief occupation during that span was making rifles (which we really don’t know), it would appear reasonable to reduce the production rate by at least 25%, This would then give a total of six hundred rifles in his lifetime.
But we do not believe he made that many. If he had, more of them would have survived. Thirty—six represents a survival rate of only 6%. It may be argued that the Kentucky rifle is a very fragile object and that a survival rate of 6% over a one hundred fifty year span is reasonable. And normally we would agree. But Armstrong rifles are not normal. They are at the top of the heap and fine objects usually receive better care than the ordinary. Consequently the survival rate is higher, perhaps 30% higher. If so, the thirty-six survivors would then represent 9% of the total production. This would make Armstrong’s lifetime production about four hundred rifles. This is a big answer to the question, and we are not at all sure we have answered it. The only thing really sure is that any answer will be contested. At any rate, this is our thinking four hundred rifles!

We mentioned the fact that Armstrong took in apprentices. It was known for a long time that Nathaniel Rowe, also of Emmitsburg, was an apprentice to Armstrong. But it has only recently come to light that he was Armstrong’s last apprentice. Ed and Helen Flanagan of nearby Thurmont, profound scholars and indefatigable researchers, have discovered Rowe’s tombstone. Fortunately, the stone gives his birth date, and this fact alone solves a number of puzzles. Before this discovery, collectors felt there were two Nathaniel Rowes possibly senior and junior. This was because of the marked difference in two styles of Rowe rifles. The first was of 18th century styling and followed almost exactly the make up of Armstrong’s guns. This was considered natural, since he was apprenticed to the master and would make guns that resembled those of his teacher. These were thought to be the work of the senior Rowe. The second style, also signed by Nathaniel Rowe, was of a much later vintage around the middle 1800’s. This, then, would be the work of junior. But the Flanagans have discovered that this is not the case. Their research has turned up only one Nathaniel Rowe, despite the large size of the Rowe clan in that area.

The important thing learned was that Rowe was born late and lived a long time. He was born in 1821 and died in 1915. He became an apprentice in 1836, when he was fifteen years old. By Rowe’s own words, he began with Armstrong when he was fifteen, and stated that his tenure was for five years. This would have made Armstrong sixty-nine years of age when Rowe completed his training, and the year would be 1841 very close to the end of Armstrong’s career.

So the obvious facts are that Rowe only made a small number of the early Armstrong type rifles (the writer knows of only five) and then switched to the style which was that time fashionable. Perhaps he made these few Armstrong type rifles during the short space between his becoming a journeyman and Armstrong s death.

The Flanagans have also discovered that one George Piper was apprentice to Armstrong in 1801. This could very well have been Armstrong first apprentice. The writer has seen one rifle made by George Piper. It bears but little resemblance to John’s style.

Another puzzle concerning the early apprentices of Armstrong has been cleared up because of the research of Dr. George Shumway. Four or five rifles were known that were signed Wickham & Matthews. The rifles from their styling were obviously Maryland rifles. One of them, owned by a friend of the writer is an extremely fine rifle of great beauty. The rifle has so much Armstrong in it that it was almost a certainty that the makers knew or were associated with Armstrong. But who was Wickham, who was Matthew? No one seemed to know. Nothing appeared in the records. Then Dr. Shumway in his systematic research, found evidence that Wickham was Marine Tyler Wickham, who is well known in antique mili­taria and for whom the “Wickham Band” is named. The document shows that he was one of Armstrong’s very early apprentices. After leaving, Armstrong Wickham became U.S. Inspector of Arms during the War of 1812 and later, under contract manufactured Model 1821 muskets for the Army.

Between these early and last apprentices, Armstrong must have had a constant stream of young men in training. It is said that all four of his sons were apprentices at one time or another. Some evidence of this shown in a rifle examined by the writer. Which is signed Samuel Armstrong. It is a rather mediocre copy of its master style. Another rifle is said to be signed Robert Armstrong, and is thought to be made by another of Armstrong’s sons. Apparently the boy’s did not follow in the master’s foot­steps for any length of time. The two Armstrong apprentices who did prove to be great gunsmiths in their own right were, of course Marine Tyler Wickham and Nathaniel Rowe.

There has been a general feeling that Armstrong was a poor business man and lived hand to mouth existence. This was probably true of many gunsmiths, and the tag was likely applied to John because of the sale of some gunsmithing tools and equipment in 1822. Most researchers and many collectors are aware of this recorded sale, and some think he went out of business at that time. We now know the latter is not true. For one thing the writer’s son has an Armstrong that is dated the only one known November 1836. Nor do we think the sale was made because he was hard up and desperately needed cash. It is more likely he had an over­supply of tools and was selling them to help someone else get started in business. Not to Jacob Harner, to whom the sale is recorded, but possibly for one of his graduated apprentices. Perhaps Harner himself was an earlier apprentice.

It is not likely that a gunsmith that employed a long continuous string of apprentices would be having a bad time economically. Taking on an ap­prentice in those days was somewhat like adopting another son; and with four of his own, Armstrong certainly did not need another son. The master was charged not only with teaching the lad his trade but also in supplying his material needs. Very often the apprentice lived in the master’s house as one of the family.

Moreover, again thanks to the research of Dr. Shumway, some of the real estate deals that are recorded are in four digit figures. This at a time when most ordinary transactions were in the low three digit range. Ac­cording to Dr. Shumway, several of these real estate deals were made with Samuel Louden, John’s boyhood friend. It is reasonably certain that John Armstrong took adequate care of his family, and lived comfortably.

Armstrong’s rifles are among the very finest of the Kentucky’s ‘‘Golden Age. This ran from about 1790 to 1820, a period following the Revolution when the country was glutted with gunmakers, but shy of gun buyers. To stay in business, a gunsmith had to build finer and finer rifles to attract his share of the dwindled demand Armstrong learned his trade and then started his business in this atmosphere of excellence, motivated by the grim certainty that gunsmiths either made a superior rifle or their business perished. It was first-rate training, but it is doubtful that Armstrong needed such a push. With his tremendous talent, his innate artistry and his desire for perfection, he probably would have made a superb rifle under any circumstances.

One way or another his products were among the very best. His rifles were long, slender and graceful. Their architectural balance is excellent. His guns hang together, they please the eye at first glance, and they start the acquisitive juices flowing. This quality is difficult to put into words, but it has a slam-bang effect on the beholder. A gut reaction. Not many gun-smiths had this magic, but all students of the Kentucky rifle will agree that Armstrong had more than his share.

The late Joe Kindig, Jr., dean of all Kentucky collectors, in his remarkable book Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in Its Golden Age, says of Armstrong:

"John Armstrong’s workmanship is magnificent and his designs are just about perfection. I cannot emphasize the beauty of his rifles."

Emmitsburg, especially during the Bicentennial Year, can be proud of her talented son, who began life just four years before the period started.

If you have any information on John Armstrong and his rifles,
please sent it to us
 at history@emmitsburg.net