Rifle photos courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.
A rare American flintlock rifle made in 1775—and stolen from a museum in 1971—has been recovered with the help of an antiques collector. It is now available for public viewing in a Philadelphia museum.
The five-foot-long “Pennsylvania rifle” belongs to the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution (PSSR). The gun was stolen while on loan to the Valley Forge museum, according to the Smithsonian. A thief apparently pried open a display case with a crowbar or similar tool to steal the rifle shortly after the park opened on Oct. 26, 1971. A Boy Scout touring the museum noticed the theft soon afterward, but the valuable gun was never recovered.
The PSSR is loaning the rifle to Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia for a special exhibition. The gun’s return was celebrated with a ceremony at the museum Nov. 1 and at a PSSR formal event the next day. The Museum of the American Revolution is displaying the special rifle for the public in a “Cost of Revolution” exhibit through March 17, 2020.
“We had it at the Musket Ball, under cover. Nobody knew. We unveiled it and people went nuts—they jumped out of their seats to get a better view,” Ben Wolf, President of the PSSR, told America’s 1st Freedom in a phone interview. “It’s a special artifact—the detail on it is incredible! These things have gotten silly in value, but the bigger, more important point is that there is so much history to them. They have a story. They should be on display for generations to enjoy.”
The rifle is an example of the type militiamen posted with George Washington’s Continental Army would have used while camped in the Valley Forge area during the winter of 1777-78. The gun was significant to the success of the Revolutionary War because its long “rifled” barrel added spin on the discharging bullet, making for a far more accurate shot at longer distances. British troops using smooth-bore barrels were unprepared for the guerrilla-warfare tactics that the new rifle technology allowed American soldiers to use.
The flintlock was made by Johann Christian Oerter, a Pennsylvania master gunsmith whose work is highly sought by collectors, according to The New York Times. Oerter is thought to have made only about 16 rifles a year from age 19 until his death at age 29 in 1777. The gun has a fine brass-wire inlay on its stock, and Oerter’s name is engraved on the barrel, along with the year and location of the rifle’s creation. The Times article noted that another Oerter rifle with a raised carving on the stock fetched more than $200,000 at auction.
Antiques collector Kelly Kinzle recovered the stolen gun by buying it at a “barn sale.” He told The Philadelphia Inquirer he originally thought it was a reproduction: “My first inclination was that it had to be fake, because the real gun isn’t going to show up in a barn in today’s world. Things like that are already in collections.” Research led him to believe otherwise, however, so he turned it over to the FBI, who returned it to the PSSR. The culprit of the theft is still unknown, though the FBI’s investigation is reportedly ongoing.