What is a "California" Rifle?

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On page 42 of Hanson's Hawken book, he replicates an advertisement by Hawken & Campbell which ends with, "Hawken and California Rifles made to order"

More than once have I read this term, especially when talking about Hawken and Plains rifles. Does it mean something other than the obvious, "a gun made or sold to go to California"? Is it a specific design differing from others?

I know there were "California" sights in past decades one could put on a muzzleloader. The rear was about the size of a fixed but was adjustable for windage and elevation. The front was a little taller and longer than a Remington pistol sight; flat on the rear portion facing the shooter and rounded on the front near the muzzle.

Thanks!

Walt
 
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I’ve seen several definitions that all sound the same as a plains rifle.
I THINK it was just a popular term that came in during the gold rush, as a rifle fit to carry to California
The way a big knife became a Bowie, though Bowie types were known before Jim, or a pocket gun became a derringer
Howdah guns went to Africa where there were no howdahs, and cape guns went to India.
For that matter Alaskans became ‘Sour Doughs’.
However that’s just an opinion.
 

44Bro

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Think large bore shorter barrel. Useful for chasing Grizzleys through the chaparral. There's a book I'm after titled "California Gunsmiths 1846-1900". It has documented California rifles.
 
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Think large bore shorter barrel. Useful for chasing Grizzleys through the chaparral. There's a book I'm after titled "California Gunsmiths 1846-1900". It has documented California rifles.

This is my "go to" site for books. It's the American Book Exchange or AbeBooks for short. They have what you're looking for:


Walt
 
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The only Calif rifles that come to mind are millions of ghost guns and those few made by C Slotterbeck in Lakeside CA. I knew the late Larry P Shelton well and was fortunate to view his personal collection. Slottebecks "fish belly" stocks were his trademark feature and having fired a few they fit me very well. Attached are links to pic of one his finer target rifles and a story about him and how he reportedly died in a freak accident which may make some think when de priming an unmentionable cartridge.


errant-shell/

Larry will be missed
 
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The only Calif rifles that come to mind are millions of ghost guns and those few made by C Slotterbeck in Lakeside CA. I knew the late Larry P Shelton well and was fortunate to view his personal collection. Slottebecks "fish belly" stocks were his trademark feature and having fired a few they fit me very well. Attached are links to pic of one his finer target rifles and a story about him and how he reportedly died in a freak accident which may make some think when de priming an unmentionable cartridge.


errant-shell/

Larry will be missed

Thanks for the info! Too bad about the accident. Reminds me of Bob Tingle having a heart attack on his way to the shop. Both gone too soon!

Walt
 

TFoley

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That fish-belly stock may have been the inspiration for Mr Remington and his Rolling Block rifle stock - NOT that I'd ever mention such a thing here, of course....... 🤔

1656446046636.png
 

Notchy Bob

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@BP Addict ,

Your question is a good one. You are not the first to take an interest in that enigmatic advertisement, and its reference to the "California Rifle."

The St. Louis Hawken shop got rolling in the early 1820's. The sturdy, iron-mounted rifles which most of us think of when we hear the word "Hawken" were called "mountain rifles" in their time. Note that the ad by Hawken & Campbell from the January 20, 1855 Missouri Republican, cited by Hanson, says "Mountain and California rifles made to order, and repairing done on the shortest notice." So, California rifles were made in St. Louis, by the Hawken shop, and they were evidently distinct from the "Mountain Rifles." The term, "Plains Rifle" had not been coined yet, and was apparently not used until into the 1950's.

A few years ago, this brass-mounted late S. Hawken rifle surfaced:

Hawken California Rifle 1.3.jpg
Hawken California Rifle 1.1.jpg



I think this is probably a "California rifle." It is a sturdy, big bored half-stock, similar in many respects to the more familiar Hawken mountain rifles, but is mounted in brass rather than iron, has that "hook & scroll" triggerguard, and only one barrel key. Otherwise, it is pure Hawken. So, I think this was just a style of rifle that came into vogue in the 1850's, appealing to people who were heading to the Golden State to seek their fortunes. Reading on a bit further in the Hanson book, you'll see some references to gunmakers in Philadelphia, who were building guns specifically for the California market. One of the best known of these was Wurfflein. The triggerguard on this Wurfflein rifle is different from the Hawken shown above, and it has two barrel keys, and a cast nosecap. However, it would likely fit in the same niche in the firearms market of those days:

2020-11-08 (2).png


This one, built by Wurfflein for Major James Carleton, may be more true to the "California" type, and even has the same triggerguard as the Hawken shown above.:

John Wurflein - Philadelphia.jpg



As one of the fellows mentioned, Slotterbeck was a California-based gunsmith who turned out some fine rifles, which were similar to the ones shown above. However, there were plenty of others. This one was by a California gunsmith named Bigelow:

Bigelow California Rifle.jpg


So, I have no definitive proof, but I think it is likely that the brass-mounted late S. Hawken rifle shown at the top of this gallery is a Hawken "California Rifle." It is similar in appearance to the Philadelphia rifles made specifically for the California trade, and to the late percussion rifles made by gunsmiths in California.

My opinion, for what it's worth.

Notchy Bob
 
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@BP Addict ,

Your question is a good one. You are not the first to take an interest in that enigmatic advertisement, and its reference to the "California Rifle."

The St. Louis Hawken shop got rolling in the early 1820's. The sturdy, iron-mounted rifles which most of us think of when we hear the word "Hawken" were called "mountain rifles" in their time. Note that the ad by Hawken & Campbell from the January 20, 1855 Missouri Republican, cited by Hanson, says "Mountain and California rifles made to order, and repairing done on the shortest notice." So, California rifles were made in St. Louis, by the Hawken shop, and they were evidently distinct from the "Mountain Rifles." The term, "Plains Rifle" had not been coined yet, and was apparently not used until into the 1950's.

A few years ago, this brass-mounted late S. Hawken rifle surfaced:

View attachment 146996 View attachment 146997


I think this is probably a "California rifle." It is a sturdy, big bored half-stock, similar in many respects to the more familiar Hawken mountain rifles, but is mounted in brass rather than iron, has that "hook & scroll" triggerguard, and only one barrel key. Otherwise, it is pure Hawken. So, I think this was just a style of rifle that came into vogue in the 1850's, appealing to people who were heading to the Golden State to seek their fortunes. Reading on a bit further in the Hanson book, you'll see some references to gunmakers in Philadelphia, who were building guns specifically for the California market. One of the best known of these was Wurfflein. The triggerguard on this Wurfflein rifle is different from the Hawken shown above, and it has two barrel keys, and a cast nosecap. However, it would likely fit in the same niche in the firearms market of those days:

View attachment 146998

This one, built by Wurfflein for Major James Carleton, may be more true to the "California" type, and even has the same triggerguard as the Hawken shown above.:

View attachment 146999


As one of the fellows mentioned, Slotterbeck was a California-based gunsmith who turned out some fine rifles, which were similar to the ones shown above. However, there were plenty of others. This one was by a California gunsmith named Bigelow:

View attachment 147000

So, I have no definitive proof, but I think it is likely that the brass-mounted late S. Hawken rifle shown at the top of this gallery is a Hawken "California Rifle." It is similar in appearance to the Philadelphia rifles made specifically for the California trade, and to the late percussion rifles made by gunsmiths in California.

My opinion, for what it's worth.

Notchy Bob
That was definitely the kind of answer I was looking for.

Thank you Bob for taking the time and putting that together!

Walt
 

Loyalist Dave

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I know there were "California" sights in past decades one could put on a muzzleloader. The rear was about the size of a fixed but was adjustable for windage and elevation. The front was a little taller and longer than a Remington pistol sight; flat on the rear portion facing the shooter and rounded on the front near the muzzle.

Well according to Ned Roberts in 1947 in his book, The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle, the buckhorn rear sight was then called the California buckhorn rear sight. It appears as though over time, the word "California" was dropped.

He also documents that at about the time of the California Gold Rush, the Picket or Sugar-Loaf bullet became quite popular, and different rifling was needed, often gain twist. So perhaps a "California Rifle" was simply what in St. Louis was known as a Mountain Rifle but made with a gain twist barrel intended for use with a patched, sugar-loaf bullet, and perhaps even made with what we call buckhorn sights. Roberts reports that these type of rifles shooting the new bullets "were far superior in accuracy, range and killing power to the round ball. "

LD
 

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Ned Robert new more about muzzleloaders because he was there with uncles and lots of old timers best book on muzzleloader you can buy
 

Notchy Bob

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Well according to Ned Roberts in 1947 in his book, The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle, the buckhorn rear sight was then called the California buckhorn rear sight. It appears as though over time, the word "California" was dropped.

He also documents that at about the time of the California Gold Rush, the Picket or Sugar-Loaf bullet became quite popular, and different rifling was needed, often gain twist. So perhaps a "California Rifle" was simply what in St. Louis was known as a Mountain Rifle but made with a gain twist barrel intended for use with a patched, sugar-loaf bullet, and perhaps even made with what we call buckhorn sights. Roberts reports that these type of rifles shooting the new bullets "were far superior in accuracy, range and killing power to the round ball. "

LD
Good post, Dave. I had forgotten that about the old-time "California buckhorn" rear sights mentioned in Major Roberts' book. The sights that came to my mind were the "California sights" made and sold by the late Andrew Fautheree (1939-2014), a highly-respected west-coast muzzleloading gunmaker. This is a picture of his California front sight, from an old Track of the Wolf catalog:

California Sight 1.1.JPG


Track still carries these front sights, but the Fautheree California rear sight is no longer available. If I remember correctly, this was a nicely machined adjustable semi-buckhorn sight. The adjustment mechanism was very subtle, so as not to offend traditionalists. I regret that I don't have a picture. However, there was a nice little half-stocked percussion rifle which sold on this forum recently (see .40 caliber price drop again... ) which I am pretty sure had a set of the Fautheree California sights.

I'm not so sure about the conical projectiles, though. I'm not aware of any rifles intended for sugar-loaf bullets coming out of the Hawken shop. At last report, the original Hawken rifling bench or guide, with a uniform and non-adjustable 1-48" twist, was still in existence and in the possession of the Missouri Historical Society. However, I would not be too surprised to learn of rifles for conical bullets being produced by some of the more progressive builders in Philadelphia, Denver, or California.

Regarding the gain twist, @Loyalist Dave makes a good point. This old rifle by J.J. Freitas (the only Portuguese-American gunsmith I know of) is marked "GAIN TWIST" on the top barrel flat:

J.J. Freitas 1.1.png


Incidentally, this rifle conforms very well to our hypothetical "California Rifle" style; half-stock, heavy barrel, brass mounts with the "hook & scroll" triggerguard, and no frills. One thing you can't really appreciate in this photo is that the end of the barrel has been turned round, to accept a precision bullet starter. At least two of the rifles pictured in my previous post had similar treatment, although the Hawken is not one of them. You can see this clearly in another image which is a part of a series of photos of the Freitas rifle on Mr. Curtis Johnson's Flickr page: J.J. Freitas Rifle

I think Mr. Johnson put up five excellent images of this rifle in the series, with some written commentary on the page below each picture. It's worth taking a look.

A lot of people will look at this rifle and think, "that looks like a Dimick." It is true that Horace Dimick of St. Louis built rifles that were very similar. Here is an example:

Horace Dimick Halfstock.png


I would submit that Mr. Dimick was following a trend rather than setting one when he designed and built these rifles. I think this general pattern, which may be the "California Rifle," was a style that became popular in the 1850's, and gunmakers from Philadelphia to San Francisco were trying to give their customers what they wanted.

That pretty well sums up my own take on the "California Rifle" as it currently stands. However, as far as I'm concerned, the topic is still open for discussion.

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 
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