Stolen Revolutionary War-era rifle recovered

A rare 1775 rifle made that was stolen from a museum display in 1971 has been returned to its rightful owners. Manufactured by master gunsmith Johann Christian Oerter near what is now Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the firearm was on display at the Valley Forge Museum of American History in Valley Forge State Park when someone crowbarred open the supposedly theft-proof case and made off with the five-foot-long rifle on the morning of October 2nd, 1971. A visiting Boy Scout was the first to notice the empty case a few hours later and alert the staff.

The number of signed and dated rifles from the Revolutionary War era known to exist today is vanishingly small. Born in Fredericksburg a member of the German-speaking Moravian community, Oerter was one of the premiere gunsmiths of the period. He engraved his name, the date and “Christian’s Spring,” the town where the weapon was made,  on top of the rifle’s long iron barrel. Someone else who was probably the first owner carved “W. Goodwin” on the rifle’s wooden stock. The museum is researching the name to find out more about who W. Goodwin was.

The guns proved instrumental in the American war effort, allowing colonial soldiers to shoot more accurately and from farther away than their British counterparts, who carried smooth-bore muskets. Some scholars credit the colonists’ ultimate victory to the more advanced firearms carried by their troops. […]

Known for their elaborate silver and brass wire inlays and carved decorations, Oerter’s firearms are recognized by arms scholars as some of the finest and most important of the period.

The rifle the FBI returned Friday is only one of two signed and dated examples of Oerter’s work known to still exist. The other, housed in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, was given in the early 1800s to the future King George IV, then the Prince of Wales, by a British cavalry officer who served in the war.

The flintlock rifle disappeared for 50 years until it came into the hands antiques dealer Kelly Kinzle last year. He got the rifle at a barn sale and assumed it was a fake. Upon closer examination, however, he realized it was the real deal. His lawyer made the connection between this Oerter rifle and the one stolen at Valley Forge in 1971. They alerted the FBI’s Art Crime Team who, together with city and county police, investigated the reemergence of the artifact seeking to trace its path and identify the perpetrator of the original crime.

The owners, the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution (PSSR), acquired the rifle in 1963. They loaned it to the Valley Forge Historical Society to exhibit at their museum, whose collection forms the core of the new Museum of the American Revolution. When the rifle was restored to the PSSR, they arranged to put it back on display (albeit in an facility with a tad more rigorous security). It will make its public debut in the special exhibition Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier on Wednesday, November 6th, and will remain on display through March 17th, 2020.

7 thoughts on “Stolen Revolutionary War-era rifle recovered

  1. A work of art. Hand forged with crude tools, That wooden stock looks like Tiger Maple. Did Oerter also do the delicate carving on the stock? Was he German, I thought the Moravians were Czech?

  2. I think the Moravian church was founded by Nicolas Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf in 1722, in a town in Saxony, Germany.

    I can make a day of it in Philly–go see the musket and then check out the sphinx in her new digs at the University of Pennsylvania museum. :hattip:

  3. The roots of the church go back much further to the 16th Century. After the Hussite Wars many Moravian Czechs fled from forced conversion by the Hapsburgs. Some settled in Saxony in the late 17th & early 18th Century. From whence the church was founded.

    Herr Oerter did beautiful work! I never figured out why some call those ‘Kentucky Rifles’. In 1775 when that rifle was made there was only one tiny European-American settlement in Kentucky, and there were no craftsmen there that could forge a weapon like that. Pennsylvania needs to reclaim the name.

  4. I would not say that they were made with crude tools – they may not have been made in a factory to a standard product definition, but they would still have been fine tools.

    I remember when I trained to be a craftsman, when you checked out someone else’s toolbox it was like a story of quality written in steel, brass and wood. I remember they guy who trained me had a special tool he made out of a copper tube to which he soldered discs of copper at each end. It was magnificent in action, but still looked like a bit of scrap water pipe in his toolbox 😉

  5. Bad wordsmithing on my part to say ‘crude tools’. Certainly the engraving and the woodcarving is exquisite and was done with tools as good or better than any available today.

    What I was thinking of was the ‘old-fashioned’ way he had to hand forge the barrel, bore it, and then tap it to create the helical rifling lens and grooves. And the lock and trigger, did he have to forge those with hammer and anvil? Or maybe he used a sand mold?

    In any case IMHO it was done with more precision than the muskets that were being made in Sheffield and Charleville-Mezieres.

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