A Visit to a Northampton County Gunsmith

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

George Washington was one of the first to recognize the abilities of the Northampton County craftsman. Much of this reputation was the result of the great number of Swiss and German settlers, with their incomparable skills, who chose the country as their home.

Through two centuries this reputation has persisted and has even been enhanced by ensuing generations and new immigrant groups. Many people in the nation pursue the crafts as hobbies, but it would be difficult to find a place where more people earn their livings solely by their sense of art and the way they express it through their hands and fingers, creating things of usefulness and beauty.


From the Journal of a Pennsylvania Rider, entry of June 19,1778:

At breakfast, Stern produced a map which showed beyond doubt that I would add scarcely a half-mile to my journey if I followed along with him to Nazareth rather than making straight for Easton and thence across to New Jersey to New York as I had planned. As he had delayed his mission a full day on my behalf. I felt obliged to sacrifice this half-mile and perhaps a day on my own schedule in order to keep him company on the ten-mile journey from Bethlehem. Besides, his argument that it was better to travel together than to travel alone was most persuasive, as we had heard at Crown Inn the night before that there was Redcoat trouble on the roads.

We settled our accounts at the inn. I got my horse from the good Moravian animal doctor who pronounced him fit, and Stern and I set out for Nazareth. Less than a mile from Bethlehem we encountered a column of light cavalry, captained by a dour red-haired fellow of about twenty-five years, who asked impertinently why I was not in uniform and under arms, and even went so for as to wonder aloud if I might be a Tory (he didn’t question Stern. whose habit marked him clearly of the Quaker sect and therefore exempt from military duty). I answered directly that I had just come or fighting age and was hastening back to my own town of ew York to enlist, after having visited briefly with my ailing uncle in Philadelphia.

“There’s Tory written all over ‘im.” said a lieutenant, an accusation which drew derisive laughter along the column.

Another, an older man who might have been a sergeant, said: “If’n he is a Tory, he’s no worse than his Quaker friend or these Moravians hereabouts. It’s a wonder we can raise an army a tall with everybody figgerin’ how to avoid the fightin’.”

Touched by my youth. or perhaps sensing that I was in earnest, the captain commanded the column to silence and said: “If you are bound for New York. keep to the stage routes and travel by daylight; there’s danger from Indian and Redcoat alike. And you’d do well to carry a firearm.”

With his cap he waved the column forward toward Bethlehem, and Stern and I proceeded on our way northward.

“A testy lot, aren’t they?” I observed, trying to appear nonchalant, though, in truth. I was sorely discomfited.

“They will be in the thick of fighting in a few days,” Stern explained. “A man before a battle is not himself, and thee should forgive them their sharpness, for thee may soon be on the road to battle thyself, though I pray not.”

Talk of battles seemed strange in these surroundings. The region through which we passed, the high land between Bethlehem and Nazareth and stretching out toward Easton, goes by the name of Dry Lands, though the heavy rains of the past few weeks made it appear bosky enough. Much of it was forested in a variety of oak with dark willows here and there. Pasturing cattle stood by the Monocacy and there were several well managed farms with ripening fields of grain. A farm boy fished for trouts in the stream near a crossroads called Hecktown where we paused to water our mounts.

As we continued, Stern, apparently smarting in silence from the sergeant’s attack on his manhood, at length began a discourse on the way in which the pacifist sects in Penn­sylvania contributed in their own quiet fashion to the cause of the Patriots. He pointed out that at war’s beginning General Washington held the workmanship of Northampton County craftsmen in such high regard that he pardoned all workers in the county from the general conscription. pro­vided they turned all their efforts into the manufacture of rifles, a task for which they were admirably suited, since many had descended from the ancient armorers and gun­smiths of feudal Europe and for half a century had been making in Pennsylvania the American backwoods rifle, a firearm superior to any in the world.

Bunker’s Hill would have been quite a different story, he said, if the Massachusetts Patriots had been armed with this eastern Pennsylvania product rather than their clumsy and inaccurate muskets. Soldiers bearing the Pennsylvania rifle were greatly feared by British commanders, he added, citing several instances when the very appearance of backwoods­men carrying these rifles put the Redcoats to rout. As an illustration of the rifle’s effectiveness in combat, he told of the battle for King’s Mountain, where every Patriot was armed with a Pennsylvania rifle, and 390 Redcoats fell in the field and the Patriots lost but 28.

“A good shooter,” continued Stern, “could, with a Pennsylvania rifle, hit a man’s head at two hundred yards or a man’s body at three hundred yards with great cer­tainty.”

Stem was acquainted with several of the makers of this weapon, all of whom lived in Pennsylvania’s Northampton County, through which we were passing. He mentioned one John Galcher of Easton, an expert at boring and grinding gun barrels; Daniel Kleist, who made guns in his shop in Bethlehem Township for the Moravian store at Bethlehem, which furnished rifles to companies passing through to the front; Henry Derringer of Easton, a specialist in pistols; Henry Young of Easton, who did ornamental engraving on gun barrels; Mathias Miller, an Easton locksmith who made exquisite firelocks; and Stephen Horn of Easton whose specialty was the making of gunpowder. I duly noted these names in my journal as Stern uttered them, for I thought such knowledge might prove helpful should I find myself serving in this district in a few months.

“In fact,” continued Stem. “when Washington asked for large numbers of guns, every blacksmith in the county was forging gun barrels, every cabinetmaker gun stocks, every locksmith making gun locks, and not only they but their wives and children and the wives and children of their neighbors who had gone to the front all lent a hand, cleaning, polishing and burnishing.

“As thee can see clearly,” he concluded, “a man need not kill in order to serve in times of trouble.”

I asked my learned companion if it were not counted as great sin to create the weapon as to kill the man.

“A contentious man might make such an argument,” he answered.

Thus upbraided, I asked if it would be possible for me to view the manufacture of these guns, for it had never oc­curred to me that one gun was much different from an­other; and, as it appeared that knowledge of firearms would shortly become an asset in my career as soldier, I thought it fortuitous that I should be in the region where the best ones were made.

We had covered about eight miles since leaving Bethle­hem, the last five of which were steadily upgrade.

Stem said that we would be at Nazareth in a quarter­-hour, but that if I wished to see whom he called “the best gunsmith in the world,” I might stay at Christian Spring, while he went on to Nazareth to deal with the land agent. Christian Spring, he explained, was a small village south of Nazareth and the present home of William Henry, Junior, a renowned gunsmith who had begun the manufacture of rifles in Lititz, moving to Christian Spring in 1776. He had brought with him, said Stern. fourteen of his most able workmen; and, as a gentlemen, cordial and obliging, he would most happily show me around his shop.

We resolved thus: that I would stop at Christian Spring, observe the work at the Henry Gun Factory, and take lodging there at the boarders’ house; Stem would go on to Nazareth, conduct his business, and lodge at Nazareth Inn, where I would join him on the morrow, from whence we would proceed to Easton, across the Delaware River and homeward.

As we gained upon Christian Spring, we saw several dwellings similar in architecture to the Moravian buildings in Bethlehem. Some of these were the dormitories of un­married Moravian men, and one, Stern said, was the site of a vocational school for Moravian boys, wherein they learned husbandry, cabinetmaking, locksmithing, black­smithing, and other arts practical for frontier living. The largest of the buildings was a brewery. The single Moravian men tended the many lush gardens and the bounteous orchards which marked this well ordered community.

We made straight for the boarders’ house where the keeper informed me that I might have a room for the night, but that the room in question would not be available until mid-afternoon, when the present occupants, eight Redcoat prisoners, would depart under guard for Philadelphia. Armed sentries, members of the militia of the Committee of Safety, stood in the corridor which lead to the room where the prisoners were housed. I told the keeper that I would gladly wait, so he jotted my name in his ledger and invited me to take my horse to the stable in the rear of the building. I assured him that I would be amply entertained in the intervening hours and that I did not consider it an inconvenience at all.

Stern then led me to a one-story building, the Henry Gun Factory. Approaching it, we heard the loud clanking and rasping of metal tools and the sudden discharge of four or five rifles which fairly stopped me in my tracks, for the events of the morning, particularly the presence of the Red­coats, had, I confess, awakened a number of anxious thoughts.

Stem laughed and explained that the finished rifles had to be tested with a triple charge of gunpowder, a necessary part of gunmaking and something which brings complaints and sometimes litigation from those who reside near gun factories. He added that on one of his earlier trips to Christian Spring, William Henry himself had been called before the Moravian fathers to answer such complaints, but owing to the emergency of war and the dire need for his product, he was allowed to continue.

Henry, a man of average height, a friendly demeanor, and quick, intelligent eyes, met us at the door of his shop. I was gratified to learn that he spoke German and English with equal proficiency, for the momentary departure of Stern would leave me without my interpreter. Stern made introductions, and explained to Henry my interest in learning about the making of guns. The gracious Henry assured me that he would take pains to make my day both enjoyable and fruitful, and we both shook hands with Stern and bade him Godspeed as he departed for Nazareth.

Ranged around the interior of the shop were about thirty workmen, among them one Jacob Meyer, who sat at a bench carving a gunstock from a chunk of good maple; Fran Michau, a filer who rasped smooth the finished gun barrels; and William Schmuckley, a blacksmith, who stood by a glowing forge, its monstrous bellows powered by a horse on a treadmill.

Henry explained that most of the workers were from outlying districts, traveling to Christian Spring from their farms and other occupations to earn the thirty-eight cents a day gunmaker’s wage. Such itinerants, sometimes num­bering as high as eighty when there were large government orders for guns, would reside at the boarders’ house. Henry said that it was quite likely that I would be sharing my room that evening with Jacob Newhardt, a barrel borer from Dansbury, who had just arrived that morning for a few days’ work at the factory.

Newhardt, a wiry little man, sat working at his bench as we walked up. He spoke only German, and through Henry I learned he would be pleased to share the room with me, though conversation would, of course, be impossible. I said I supposed we could get on quite well by using Indian sign language, a suggestion which produced an inordinate amount of laughter in the little man, who whinnied like a horse, slapped his knees heartily, and stomped his feet. I laughed politely, so he wouldn’t think me obtuse, though, for the life of me, I didn’t catch the joke.

“Now that you have met my workers,” said Henry, “let me teach the the art of making a good rifle. ‘Tis an art in­deed.

“Here is the beginning,” he said, walking to a stack of shining iron bars stacked near the forge. “This skelp – for so it is called – is brought here from the iron works at Dur­ham near Easton. Good, clean and faultless it is, for poor iron makes a poor rifle.

“Each skelp, or iron,” he continued, “is slightly longer than the finished barrel will be, and the smith determines the size of the bore according to the size ball the customer wishes.

“Watch the smith, now,” he commanded.

The man earlier introduced as Schmuckley lifted one of the bars onto his forge, where it rested for a few minutes until it was white with heat. With his tongs he removed the glowing metal to his anvil, where he quickly began rolling it around a mandril – or bick – a long rod which ,his helper had placed on the bar. He continued pounding and shaping the barrel until it was completely rolled, enclosing the bick like a tightly filled sleeve. The helper quickly removed the bick. The flat bar was thus transformed in to a long cylinder with a seam running its entire length, a seam which wanted welding in order to seal the barrel. The smith then placed the barrel back onto the forge until it grew white-hot once more, and commenced welding along the seam.

Thus far, the business had consumed more than an hour, and Henry explained that it would cake another several hours to complete the weld.

All for a single rifle barrel! I marveled at the length of time and the prodigious labor it must require to fill a government order for a thousand rifles, and I considered the wisdom of General Washington in excusing from com­bat these dogged. persistent and skillful workers, whose contribution to the Patriot cause was indeed as worthy as that of the man in the field.

There were more steps before a barrel was ready to be fitted to a stock and flintlock. Another smith worked with a freshly welded barrel, stretching a thread through its hole and peeping in to determine if it had a crook. He then placed the barrel on his anvil and directed an apprentice to strike the barrel with a hammer at points indicated. This accomplished, the barrel was then straight and true and ready for reaming, or filing the barrel hole until it was smooth.

To accomplish this, a man locked the barrel into a specially slotted vise and fastened it to a belt-driven reamer, a rod with one end twisted like a drill bit. This reamer re­volved at a high rate of speed and was guided in and out of the gun barrel hole until all flaws in the metal were worn away. Henry pointed out that the reamer was powered by a water wheel mounted on the side of the building and turned by a lively freshet which flowed through the village to a branch of the Monocacy.

Next, two men worked with a Jong wooden rod with about an inch of sharp saw tooth welded to one end. One man drew a wooden spiral screw through the barrel hole, which led the saw tooth along, cutting a clockwise spiral groove within the barrel. It took a half.day or more for these two men to groove the barrel satisfactorily. The spiral groove, which one can perceive by holding a finished barrel up to the light and peering through it. was necessary. said Henry, to assure the accuracy of the firing piece.

The rifle barrels, once grooved, were then polished on large grinding stones and fitted to stocks. A locksmith bolted the flintlock to the barrel.

Henry handed me a finished rifle and invited me to fire it on the range he maintained for practice and test firing on the western end of his shop. As he loaded the gun with powder and ball he offered the recipe for gunpowder: salt­peter, sulphur and charcoal, mixed wet. granulated, then allowed to dry. He also explained that the weapon I was about to fire, having a round barrel, was made for military service. Rifles with octagonal barrels, he said, were general­ly used by hunters. The round barrel was lighter and there­fore easier to manage on long marches; the octagonal barrel contained more iron, and therefore it could stand more heat and wear.

I was surprised at the lightness and fine balance of the rifle, and pleased both Henry and myself when I shot the nose from a profile scratched into a slate target.

As we returned to the shop I studied the weapon care­fully, noting the government stamp of approval and the two parallel lines carved on the stock, which, according to Henry, indicated that it would soon be the property of a corporal. r found myself envying that corporal and ex­pressed the wish that it would be my good fortune to be issued a Henry gun upon my entry into service. Henry said that r could do no better, but that, in truth, there were a number of other manufacturers who made fine weapons for the army.

It was late afternoon when I took my leave of Henry, but not before thanking him heartily for a most worth­while day. I returned to the boarders’ house, where I was joined in the small dining room by two militiamen and a blacksmith who had just arrived from near Lancaster for a few weeks’ work at the gun factory. The supper conversa­tion was mostly of guns and their manufacture. I made the observation that the rifles of the militiamen, standing in the corner, were both of Henry make, a comment which drew an admiring remark from the blacksmith.

“The lad knows his guns, all right,” he said.

I dare say I must have tired my dinner companions with flaunting my new knowledge, but they were an agreeable lot and suffered my enthusiasm. As darkness fell I betook myself to my chamber, wrote for a time, and then went to bed, falling immediately into a sound sleep. I was awakened about ten o’clock by Jacob Newhardt, with whom I was sharing the room. The poor man’s workday was just ending, with another beginning before dawn the next day. He lighted a candle and made gestures which I took to mean an apology for waking me, and in a moment he extinguished the candle and fell into the other bed and began snoring a great hollow rasping snore which made sleep quite impos­sible for me.

About an hour later came a loud knocking on our door. I got out of bed, lighted a candle, and opened the door to come face to face with a giant bearded fellow in a coonskin cap and carrying a hunting rifle. I was taken aback by his appearance, but did manage to ask his business, which, he said, was the repairing of what he called his “b’ar rifle,” which had, I discovered as he thrust it under my nose, a broken flintlock.

“I can’t repair your gun,” I said, “and I fear that my friend who is able to fix it is dead asleep for the night. Perhaps if you’d … ”

“Have me b’ar rifle fixed I will,” he thundered, brushing by me in to the room.

At this, the wretched Newhardt awoke, and at first thought the giant was about to shoot him. He uttered some German, which I took to be a prayer.

“My good man,” said I to the intruder, “can’t you see my friend is frightened? Besides he knows not a whit of English.”

“Me flintlock’s bust,” he said to Newhardt, pointing to the broken appendage and completely ignoring my en­treaties.

Newhardt sighed, rubbed his eyes, and examined the weapon. He nodded and beckoned the man to follow him out into the night, after first taking the lantern from the nightstand to illuminate his path. I felt compelled to go along.

What visions we would have conjured to an onlooker, had one been astir at that hour: the wiry Newhardt and I in our nightshirts, and this buckskinned and fringed oaf, all walking along by lantern light as if to some satanic tryst. When we reached the factory Newhardt took from his ring of keys the appropriate one and unlocked the door. In the pale glow of the lantern he selected a newly fashioned lock from a box on a workbench, and within a minute had it bolted into place.

The taciturn hunter simply grunted, took his rifle, and disappeared into the darkness, as Newhardt and I made our way back to our room. I thought it odd that no payment was offered nor did Newhardt seem to expect any, but I guessed it was perhaps the custom of the frontier for the gunsmith to serve the backwoodsman in such a selfless fashion. In any case, as we could not converse, I shortly drifted off to sleep.


Daniel M. Larimer, an Associate Professor of English at the Northampton County Area Community College, Bethlehem, prepared the text for Two Hundred Years of Life in North­ampton County, Pa., The Workers (Northampton County Bicentennial Commission, 1976) in which this story origin­ally appeared. Although this is a fictional account, the processes described are historically accurate and the Henry Gun Factory did, in fact, exist – the Henry family having an outstanding reputation as gunsmiths.


Robert E. Doney, retired Professor of Art at the North­ampton County Area Community College, prepared the sketches.