Landis Valley gunsmith builds long rifle for museum’s auction

By on April 19, 2017

Craftsman Dennis Griffith enjoys starting from scratch and finishing, literally, at “lock, stock, and barrel,” since the Lancaster County native is a master gunsmith.

Griffith, a retired truck driver, has been pursuing his passion by building Colonial-style Pennsylvania long rifles for the past 20 years.

As a volunteer at the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, Kissel Hill Road, Lancaster, Griffith has built a special flintlock long rifle that will be the centerpiece of the museum’s spring benefit auction, to be held Saturday, April 22, beginning at 4 p.m., on the museum grounds.

“This is a beautiful, one of a kind work of art,” said Rick Brouse, Landis Valley executive member and organizer of the event. “It’s a functioning flintlock muzzle loader that will look great hanging above a fireplace mantel.”

Griffith grew up at Speedwell Forge and lived in the area for most of his 66 years, recently moving to Newmanstown in Lebanon County.

About five years ago, Griffith visited Landis Valley to see an exhibit of guns from the 1700s.

“It was just somebody talking about rifles and I was hoping to see how they made their rifles, like they do in Williamsburg (Va.),” Griffith said. “So I spoke with Jim Lewars (museum director, now retired) and told him it wasn’t a gun shop unless they have somebody building a rifle.”

Lewars agreed with him and Griffith got himself a job as a living history craftsman.

Gunsmith Dennis Griffith crafted a special flintlock long rifle that will be the centerpiece of the museum’s spring benefit auction, to be held Saturday, April 22, beginning at 4 p.m., on the museum grounds.

Gunsmith Dennis Griffith crafted a special flintlock long rifle that will be the centerpiece of the museum’s spring benefit auction,
to be held Saturday, April 22, beginning at 4 p.m., on the museum grounds.

“He said it would be pretty cool to have a gun built in the shop,” Griffith said.

Since that time, Griffith has been sharing his avocation with visitors to the museum, telling the history of the long rifle while demonstrating how they’re made.

But this is the first time that he’s built a Pennsylvania long rifle for the benefit of the Landis Valley Museum auction.

Griffith began the rifle last May and put the finishing touches on by October, to display the rifle for the museum’s Harvest Days.

He put about 130 hours into making this particular rifle, Griffith said.

“If it’s just a basic rifle, it will take about 50 hours,” Griffith said. “It depends on what you’re going to be doing with it, if you want carving, inlays, or engraving; if you want it jazzed up.”

The rifle is made of curly maple wood and it is a working rifle, as Griffith tests all of his rifles before selling them.

“Those (fancier) versions aren’t typical rifles,” he said. “The more practical early rifles were just what people could afford. The rifle back then was a very important tool, to put food on the table, and to protect settlers from hostile people.”

The long rifles that Griffith makes today start at $1,500 and can go “for a whole lot more,” he said, depending on what the buyer has requested.

“I get my ideas from books, from gun makers of long ago,” Griffith said. “I look for authenticity. I don’t want to put a whole lot on and make it too gaudy.”

The long rifle he built this year is fashioned in the style of Isaac Haines, a gun builder who lived in Lancaster County in the 1700s.

“I used the same style as he did, the same hardware, trigger guard and patch box,” Griffith said.

Centuries ago, folks could identify the gun’s maker by the patch box on the side of the rifle near the stock, he said.

“They all had their own style,” Griffith said.

Due to the isolation of the early settlements, each county had its own style of rifle, owing to the rifle maker who lived there. York County and Lancaster County rifles were similar, Griffith said, but Berks County rifles were different, and Lehigh County rifles were unique.

“There were different schools of long rifles, but later, into the 1800s, they started looking more the same,” Griffith said. “I like to build a rifle that’s like an earlier model, rather than later.”

Griffith has already started a new rifle for next year’s auction and that will be in the Lancaster County style of early gunsmith J.B. Beck, he said.

Griffith began building rifles back in 1980, when he bought a rifle kit for $100 from Sears and Roebuck.

“That’s how I got interested in black powder rifles,” Griffith said. “But (with the kit) you didn’t have to do a whole lot of work; it was already pretty much done and I wanted to do more. So, I got interested in building rifles from the ground up.”

Centuries ago, most necessities were built without a blueprint, through trial and error and a combination of interest and inspiration, Griffith said.

“They were ingenious people, and went from start to finish,” he said.

Griffith likes to get into the minds of those long-ago craftsmen to challenge himself, to see what he can do, he said.

“I like to buy a blank piece of wood and carve it how I want it; that’s the inspiration to keep doing this,” he said. “With a kit, you’re limited in what you can do.”

Griffith would like to believe that his knowledge and his art will continue.

“I do this for myself because there’s not many of us doing it,” Griffith said. “Learning this craft does take time and if you spend a lot of time watching TV, you’re not going to learn it. When people tell me they can’t, I tell them ‘if you can screw a light bulb in, you can do this.’ It’s an inspiration to me to pass the craft onto somebody who wants to learn.”

Information on the spring benefit auction and other Landis Valley events can be found on the website: landisvalleymuseum.org, or by calling 569-0401.

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