Beautiful Tennessee Long Rifle by John Bull
- Product Code: FLA-3181-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
John Valentine Bull was born on February 14, 1777 in Harford County, Maryland, just east of Baltimore City. His middle name was no-doubt derived from the fact that he was born on the feast day of St. Valentine. Bull’s early life is unclear, but it appears that as the very least he was apprenticed as a gunsmith in Maryland, and possibly in Pennsylvania before he moved to what is now eastern Tennessee. Sources vary as to when Bull arrived in the regions that was part of North Carolina at the time, and it is possible that some historical references have confused John Valentine Bull with his older uncle John Bull, for whom Bull’s Gap was named. Bull’s Gap is located in Hawkins County in East Tennessee, about 17 miles west and slightly north of Greenville, TN. Although Seller’s American Gunsmiths notes Bull was working as a gunsmith in Bull’s Gap by 1784, this seems impossible as he would have been only seven years old. More plausible is that Bull’s uncle John may have made excursions to the area during the 1780s, finally settling in the region permanently about 1792 with a land grant from North Carolina. It is also possible that John Valentine’s uncle worked as a gunsmith in addition to running his other business. Again it appears that the two men with the same name were often confused in history, as even the web site for the town of Bull’s Gap claims that the town was established by a “gunsmith from Pennsylvania” in 1792. It seems unlikely that John Valentine Bull established a new home in the wilderness at the tender age of 15. What is clear, however, is that John Valentine Bull was living in Bull’s Gap area by about 1800 and was working as a gunsmith at that point in time. Bull’s Gap was a stagecoach stop and John’s uncle ran an overland stage to Bean’s Station, another coach stop about 19 miles north west of Bull’s Gap, and on the route to the Wilderness Road, which took people west through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky or east to the major population centers of the new United States. Bean’s Station had been established by William Bean, the first white man to live permanently west of the Allegheny Mountains, and a man who had explored the area in the 1780s with Daniel Boone. Bean was a gunsmith and many of his decedents were gunsmiths as well, some of which are now highly celebrated and collectable gunmakers. He and his progeny were the family most responsible for what modern arms collectors refer to as the East Tennessee School of Gunmaking. In 1806 John Valentine Bull married William Bean’s granddaughter Fetnah Bean, and thus joined together the two most pre-eminent families in East Tennessee gunsmithing. It is unclear how much training Bean provided to Bull, but he was likely a strong influence as the guns of both families seem to be the source for the overly long iron breech tang that has come to be one of the dominant features of early Tennessee rifles. This extended tang is sometimes only a few inches longer than a normal one, but in many cases with rifles from the Bean’s and Bull’s the tang is inlet through the length of the wrist and even up onto the stock comb, in some cases all the way to the buttplate! While the rifles of East Tennessee are normally thought of as iron mounted guns, often with “banana” patchboxes, the earlier rifles from the era prior to 1815 appear to have been more influenced by the locations that the gunsmiths working in that region had originally emigrated from, with styling that is often more akin to Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina rifles of the era, with some of the new Tennessee features just starting to make their appearance. During the early part of the 19th century when the rifles in Pennsylvania were starting to be made with shorter barrels and in smaller calibers, the guns of East Tennessee remained quite long with 44”-48” barrels being the norm, and .40” caliber or large bores being common as well. There are a number of theories as to why the barrels were so long, but the most likely reason is that the quality of the powder in the frontier regions of the county (Tennessee was not even admitted to the Union as a state until 1796) was significantly poorer than the powder available in more urban areas. Thus a longer barrel was needed to burn it efficiently and get the most out of the charge. John Valentine Bull remained in the Bull’s Gap area, making rifles through the early 1820s and then moved to Warrior Mountain, Alabama, which is now known as Bull Mountain in Walker County of that state. There he continued to work as a gunsmith and made some well known and very historic rifles, two of which survive today with dates of 1826 and 1829 engraved in their presentation plaques. After the removal of the Chickasaw Indians from the region circa 1832-1833, the Bull’s moved to Bear Creek in Marion County, AL and John Valentine Bull died there on October 21, 1840. He is buried in the Bean family plot in Bear Creek. His wife Fetnah survived until 1857 and died in Texas. John and Fetnah had several children, including Jacob Washington Bull (1810-1880), Russell Samuel Sellers Bull (1812-1887), Rausamond A. Bull (1814-1905), John Wesley Bull (1818-1898), Elisha Rufus Bull (1820-1904), Hannah Rosanna Bull (1822-1863) and Mary Emmaline Bull (1827-1902). Their sons Elisha and Russell both followed in their father’s footsteps and worked as gunsmiths during their lifetime, with Elisha’s work being particularly fine and desirable to collectors today.
Offered here is a wonderful and rare example of an early, full stock flintlock East Tennessee Long Rifle by John Bull. The gun is signed John Bull in a period script on a 2 ¼” long piece of silver inlaid into the top barrel flat 6” forward of the breech plug tang. The gun has the traditionally long, iron, octagon shaped East Tennessee barrel, being 46 ½” in length and about 3/8” across the flats. The barrel exhibits a barely visible taper from .941" at the breech to .931" at the muzzle. The bore is nominally .42” caliber and is rifled with seven grooves. The overall length of the rifle is 66 ½ and it weighs in at a hefty (and rather muzzle heavy) 11 pounds. The rifle has the traditional Bean / Bull long iron breech plug tang that extends from the rear of the barrel, down through the wrist and up along the comb, terminating at the buttplate. This incredibly long tang is neatly inlet into the comb and is secured with four wood screws along its length. Unlike the majority of East Tennessee guns from the post-1815 era, the rifle is not iron mounted, but rather brass mounted throughout, with a few German silver pieces as well. The rifle also has an attractive four-piece brass patchbox that is more typical of eastern rifles from Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina, than the traditional Tennessee iron patchbox. The rifle is a wonderful example of Bull’s work and is likely circa 1800-1820, and shows a combination of Bean (East Tennessee School) and more traditional Pennsylvania features. The rifle shows a minimum of adornment, with the patchbox being the most striking furniture feature, primarily in its simple, clean lines and simple execution. More interestingly, the open patchbox reveals three round holes inlet into the stock for the storage of grease and patches. Traditionally the stock would be routed out to expose an area nearly as large (or as large) as the patchbox door. Later Tennessee rifles dispensed with the cover completely and often had only one or two routed holes in the stock. This gun has the odd combination of the traditional eastern style patchbox and the later Tennessee mountain rifle patch holes. The release button for the patch box is located in the toe plate. The heavily curved brass buttplate is formed of three pieces with the leading edge of the comb cap being scalloped and having two incised lines on it. The simple, exaggerated crescent-shaped brass butt cap and the toe plate are unadorned, although the toe plate does have a pointed finial on its leading edge. Both of these pieces, the toe plate in particular, have a reddish hue, suggesting high copper content brass, like the “red brass” that would be used in the Confederate south during the American Civil War. The simple brass triggerguard guard is secured with two wood screws and is unadorned with a simple round leading edge and a simply formed “pistol grip” to the rear of the guard with a distinctive rearward curl at its terminus that is similar to those found on some other Bull guns. The stock has the distinctive Roman Nose shape and exaggerated drop (about 3 ¾” on this gun) that is characteristic of the “Kentucky rifles” of the “Golden Age” (circa 1790-1820). The reverse of the buttstock has a lovely carved cheek rest, which has a concave recess on the top with two wide incised lines below it. The top of the cheek rest has a simple German silver ornament inlaid into it and secured with a screw, while a simple sheet brass vent pick holder is present below the cheek rest. The brass side plate is of two pieces with an upside down “T” shaped main plate through which the rear most screw passes and a simple brass “football” shaped escutcheon plate that the front screw passes through. This front plate and screw are purely decorative and the lock was only intended to be secured with a single screw, which is a typical feature of many Tennessee mountain rifles. Both sides of the stock have simple German silver “football” shaped escutcheon plates neatly placed to cover the locations of the four pins that were intended to secure the barrel to the stock. The nose cap is of brass and shows the same simple scalloped edge adornment found on the leading edge of the brass cap on the stock comb. Three simple baluster turned brass pipes secure the wooden ramrod, while a fourth entry pipe is present between the primary portion of the stock and the forend. A simple buckhorn style fixed rear sight is in a dovetail cut 12 7/8” forward of the breech plug tang and a thin, relatively low German sliver blade serves as a front sight. It is about 7/8” long and 1 7/8” from the muzzle. The muzzle face is decorated with eight small circle stamps, surrounded by an incised line. Scallops are incised into the sides of the barrel at the muzzle on each flat as well. The lock is an iron roller frizzen affair with a waterproof pan that is marked JOSH GOLCHER. Golcher was a Philadelphia based lock maker who produced locks during the early 19th century. Whisker lists him as working circa 1825-1840, although he may have worked earlier or later as well. It was not uncommon for Tennessee rifle makers to use locks manufactured “back east” during the first half of the 19th century. The double set trigger system has the traditional Tennessee feature of have an extremely curved “set” trigger, which resembles a circle cut in half.
This very attractive, scarce and early Tennessee Long Rifle is in about VERY GOOD overall condition. Like nearly every “Kentucky Rifle” on the market or in collections, this one has had some restoration and repair. These guns tended to have long service lives that extended well into the percussion era and most were converted to percussion at some point in time. As a result, when interest in the collecting of these rifles started during the period between the First and Second World Wars, it was common for collectors to “reconvert” the guns to flintlock. This over enthusiasm for the flint battery also resulted in some rifles from the 1830s and 1840s that were originally produced as percussion guns being “reconverted” as well, thus making a flintlock out of a gun that never was one. Complete replacement of locks is not uncommon either, as many similarly sized commercial locks were manufactured during the era these rifles were produced, and it was often easier to find a similarly sized original flintlock to install in percussion altered rifles, requiring the collector or gunsmith only to remove the conversion drum from the touchhole to finish the reconversion. Due to their often very thin forends, fragile wrists and heavy pinned barrels, extensive repair to the stocks (or complete restocking utilizing the original barrel and furniture) is not uncommon with these rifles. That said, this rifle has its share of repairs and restorations. The hammer, hammer screw and frizzen spring are not original to the lock, and the top jaw and top jaw screw are not original to the hammer. I have mixed feelings about the lock. The lock fits relatively well and an argument could be made that the lock is original to the rifle but I feel that that features of a waterproof pan and a roller frizzen post-date the period that I think the rifle was manufactured in. Given the time period that we know John Bull was working in East Tennessee and the time period when we know he was fully entrenched in the Bean family of gunsmiths via marriage, I feel the rifle itself is circa 1800-1820, and more likely circa 1805-1810. The use of brass furniture suggests early production during Bull’s time in Tennessee, but the long iron “Bean” style tang implies that he had learned that technique from William Bean (senior) or one of his sons William or Russell. As other Bull guns are known that are iron mounted in the traditional “Tennessee” style, and at least two are dated during his early Alabama working period (late 1820s), it seems clear that the brass furniture would be a hold over from whatever eastern influences he may have brought from Maryland or learned from the elder William Bean. The lock features suggest it is circa 1820-1830 and so it is probably a little too late to be original to the gun. The lock appears to have been with the rifle for a very long time, and may in fact be a working period of use replacement with only the hammer and frizzen spring being replaced in more recent times. Both the hammer and the hammer screw fit the lock poorly and the hammer is loose on the tumbler shaft. The lock is semi-functional, but it will only hold on half cock or full-cock if the set trigger has been pulled and “set”. Once this is done and the hammer is cocked, the front trigger releases the cock as it should. The frizzen functions well, and snaps tightly closed as it should. The lock has a mottled brown and gray patina with scattered moderate pitting, making the JOSH GOLCHER mark partially illegible. The replacement hammer is heavily oxidized with a thick brown patina and heavy surface oxidation and moderate roughness. The barrel is completely original and is in its full, original length and does not appear to have been re-bored during the period of use or any time thereafter. The muzzle decoration and wear upon it match the condition of the barrel perfectly, and in fact the muzzle face shows more actual pitting than anywhere on the barrel, which is exactly where the pitting for a muzzleloader that was always in flint (and not percussion) should be. The bore of the rifle remains in about GOOD condition. The 7-groove rifling remains clearly defined for the length of the bore, but the bore is quite dark and dirty with accumulated dirt and grime, as well as moderate pitting along its entire length. The original silver barrel inlay is inscribed with the name John Bull in script. The barrel has a mostly smooth chocolate brown patina, with some lightly scattered surface oxidation and some very light pinpricking as well. Some areas of light pitting are present, mostly near the end of the barrel. The barrel does not show the telltale erosion and flash pitting found at the breech of percussion arms and I believe that that barrel may have escaped being converted to percussion, and thus appears to remain in its original flintlock state. Although the touchhole appears to be slightly enlarged, this appears to be the result of erosion and not the installation of a percussion conversion drum. I believe that the front sight blade is original to barrel, but the rear sight might be a working period of use replacement. The rear sight matches the barrel well and has a patina consistent with the balance of the barrel and may well be original to the rifle as well. I feel that that the brass furniture on the rear half of the stock, including the four-piece patchbox and three-piece buttplate are original to the rifle, as is the triggerguard and set trigger mechanism. The patchbox still locks firmly into place but the patch box release is a little loose in the stock, which means that you must do some minor jiggling sometimes in order to latch the cover or release it, after pressing the button in the stock toe. It appears whatever spring tension kept the release tight in the stock is now gone. The small brass stock embellishments, including the side plate, escutcheon plate, and vent pick holder all appear to be original as well. The German silver embellishment on the cheek rest and the eight German silver escutcheon plates along the forend appear original also. At least one other rifle by John Bull is known with these German silver forend plates. The brass entry pipe in the stock appears original as well, and I feel that the rear most pipe is probably original also, while the two forward pipes may be exquisitely produced replicas of the rear pipe. This is only suggested by the fact that when the barrel is removed from the stock, the protected mounting portion of these two pipes lack the age patina found on the other pipe. This may also have been the result of cleaning during the restoration of the forend. The nose cap appears to be original to the rifle and wonderful patina of the brass and scalloped embellishment on the rear edge match the buttplate wonderfully. The stock appears to be original for the majority of the rifle’s length, but about 14” of the forend have been spliced on to replace wood that was probably too far gone to repair. This explains the presence of the original forend cap and other furniture for use on the restored piece of wood. The forend shows numerous cracks and splits that have been expertly repaired from the inside, remaining almost invisible from the exterior but which become visible when the barrel is removed. The exterior of the stock has been expertly stained and refinished to conceal both the splice and the repairs, rendering them almost invisible. Two other wood repairs were revealed when the lock and stock were removed. A small piece of wood, about 1 ¼” in length was let into the stock between the hammer and the tang to repair missing wood there, and a diagonal piece of wood was let into the stock forward of the lock mortise, for about 3”, angling up into the barrel channel, to replace damaged wood in that area. When the barrel was removed from the gun for the stock restoration and repairs the German silver escutcheon plates had to be removed and the four pins that secured the barrel to the stock had to be removed. After the stock was restored, it appears that the German silver plates were reinstalled, along with the pins while the barrel was still out of the stock. The barrel was then set back into the stock with the loops for the pins moved or altered to allow it to lie in the stock, but with only the four tang screws securing the barrel to the stock. As a result the previous owner added a few turns of thin black string to help keep the forend mated to the stock. The barrel is still barely attached to the forend and the forend can easily be separated from the barrel. This means the rifle must be handled in a very delicate manner and remains somewhat fragile along the forend. Failure to understand this fragility could easily result in a broken forend. There are also some minor splinters of wood missing along the forend where it meets the barrel. Amazingly, the stock remains solid and sound, given the repairs and is actually in much better condition than my description implies, but all potential condition issues had to be disclosed for the purchaser. The wooden ramrod measures 43 ¼” in length and is most assuredly a more recent replacement, although it has a wonderful worn look and may be quite old.
Overall this is a really wonderful example of a very scarce and desirable early East Tennessee Flintlock Rifle by John Bull. The gun is really beautiful in person and the photographs do not do it justice. The gun is a wonderful blending of what would become known as the East Tennessee School of rifle making, along with more traditional influences from Pennsylvania. The rifle has tons of eye appeal and its extreme length and deeply curved butt make it a very striking rifle to display on your wall. Rarely do Tennessee long rifles from the first decade or two of the 19th century come up for sale, especially with signed barrels, made by one of the true godfathers of the Tennessee rifle making. While the gun certainly has some repairs and replacements it is really a wonderful example of an extremely rare gun that you would have to search a very long time for in order to find another. For a rifle that has survived some 200 years, it is really a stunning example. As a serious collector of Tennessee rifles one by a Bean or a Bull absolutely has to be in your collection, and this is certainly one of the earliest signed Tennessee rifles that I have seen for sale in a very long time.
Due to excessive length, fragility and value of the gun, extra packing and shipping charges will apply. Please allow $100 for shipping within the continental United States, or you can arrange to pick up the rifle at a show I am attending.