The Gunsmith John Rupp

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By John Kolar

The phrase “One picture is worth a thousand words” is credited to Fred Barnard in the trade journal Printers Ink December, 1921. Barnard was promoting advertisements that appeared on the sides of street cars.

That is probably the best way to describe the Leigh Valley flintlock rifle in the attached photographs. This rifle was made during the American Revolution sometime in the early-to-mid 1770s. It has an overall length of 58 1/4”. The 60-caliber smooth bore heavily swamped barrel is 41 15/16” long. Finely stocked in curly maple, it is both incised and raised carved with dimension and architecture that you would expect to see in an early rifle. The butt is 2” wide and 4 ¾” high. There is a 1/2” step in the stock where it meets the wrist and the wrist is 1 5/8” wide and 1 3/8” high. Photos clearly show that the large flat cheek piece protrudes almost 2’’ from the stock although in original flint the period lock may be a replacement. Finally, the faceted ram rod, wide trigger guard bow and other cast furniture bespeaks those design elements of a German jaeger rifle of the 1750s.

I first saw this rifle in 1978 when the family purchased it from Wes White. Wes had acquired the rifle in a furniture trade with Joe Kindig (“Kindig”, rifle #62, Pg. 176). The rifle eventually became the prize possession of the family and my good friend. An avid historian, my friend was very fond of this rifle. After her courageous battle with cancer and untimely passing the family let me photograph the rifle. This article is in part a tribute to her. She was wonderful steward of American History.

This is the earliest signed John Rupp rifle known and, to my knowledge, the earliest signed rifle made in the Leigh Valley. As to who the first John Rupp gunsmith was is of some debate. The following article is based upon the early research of Sam Dike with input from Ron Gabel and current work by Bob Smalser. If you ever want to start a serious discussion in the KRA, CLA, or any gun collecting group just bring up the subject of who was the “first” or the “earliest” gunsmith. If you really want to get confused just look at the internet and the various Family websites. What follows is a summary based upon the most current verifiable information. Where plausible I have included an alternative explanation.

Johann George Rupp was born in the village of Wimmern in Lower Alsace, Germany in August of 1721. The Rupps were Mennonites of Swiss origin. Various European references show that Johann George Rupp had at least four ancestors who were gunsmiths starting as early as the 1500’s. He married Ursula von Peterholtz in January of 1750. She was of noble blood, the daughter of Count Heinrich von Peteroltz. Ursula was born in the town of Rabshwiern, in the duchy of Zweibrucken, Upper Alsace in August 1722. The family objected to her marriage because Rupp was a commoner.
The couple came to Penn’s Woods in the new world in August of 1750 aboard the English ship “Brothers”. Wealthier than most immigrants, they acquired a large tract of land of over 600+ acres around Trexlertown, in what is now Lehigh County, under a land warrant dated the 25th of December 1752. In the late 1700’s there were so many men with the last name of Rupp working in various trades at this location that the area was called Ruppsville. The modern location today is the intersection of Schantz Road and State Route 3009 in Upper Macungie Township, Pennsylvania.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that John George Rupp may have made this early rifle. He came from a family of European gunsmiths and even though he was considered a “commoner” he is described, in other records, as a most superior and talented young man. Local tax records in America at this time were non-existent. He may have been much more than a farmer or wealthy land owner. During the Revolutionary War he was a member of the Ranging Company of Northampton County under Lieutenant Colonel Philip Boe. Did he carry this rifle while on patrol? John George Rupp died on August 13, 1807 in Macungie Township, Northampton (now Lehigh) County.
If it were not for the existence of another later rifle with an identical signature in script on the barrel (the rifles shown in the second set of photographs), you would probably come to the conclusion that John George Rupp made the early rifle. This second rifle dates in time to the period 1795 to 1810. It is a Golden Age period rifle, manufactured 20 to 30 years later than the early rifle, and has a strong resemblance to the work of Peter Kuntz. Could John George (1721-1807) have made this rifle? How did he know the work of Kuntz? While the architecture and elements of the engraving on both rifles is the same, the carving style is completely different. After the Revolution, when local tax records often gave an individual’s occupation, John George Rupp is never mentioned as a smith or gunsmith, but again, his prominence as a large land holder may have precluded any mention of another occupation.

John George and Ursula Rupp had eight children including four sons. Genealogical and tax records show that two of these descendants, Herman (1756-1831) and John (1762-1836) were both gunsmiths. The work of Herman Rupp is best expressed by the two, finely signed and dated rifles shown in Merle Lindsay’s “The Kentucky Rifle” and now in the Hansen collection. Both rifles were in the York Historical Society Exhibit in 1971.

Photographs of this second later rifle were taken by Ron Gabel before it was seriously damaged in publisher George Shumway’s fire. Ron had purchased the rifle from the collection of Dr. Charles Sell of Allentown, Pennsylvania in the early 1960’s. This is the only other known John Rupp rifle with his signature in script atop the barrel and is shown in its original condition. As I said, the signatures in script on the barrels of both rifles are identical.

John Rupp (1762-1836) was probably the gunsmith who manufactured both of these rifles. We don’t know who he apprenticed with, but there are records that show apprentices for various trades started to learn their skill at an early age. This John Rupp, could have created the early rifle in his second or third year of his apprenticeship in 1777 or 1778. The more important question is the significant difference in carving between the early and later rifles. The gunsmith who created the later rifle had to have some knowledge of the work of Jacob Kuntz or some connection to the Kuntz family. The carving is almost identical to the Kuntz rifles in the Collection at Rocky Hill or in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fortunately, in the last few years a great deal of research has been completed that shows there was a close association between the Moll, Rupp, Neihardt and Kuntz families. All Mennonites coming to America from similar locations in Europe, they lived within close proximity of each other. They often attended the same churches and had close family ties. Elizabeth Neihardt was married to gunsmith John Moll II (1773-1834) and Barbara Neihardt married gunsmith Jacob Kuntz (1780-1876).

Another alternative is that John George (1721-1807) was a gunsmith and his son gunsmith John Rupp (1762-1836) made the later rifle using a signed barrel manufactured by his father. This could very well have happened. How often do we see rifles of a much later date or in a completely different style in which the name on the barrel doesn’t correspond with the attribution to the gunsmith. This would explain the completely different style of carving between the early and latter rifles.

It is thought that if immigrant John George Rupp was not a gunsmith his sons, who were gunsmiths, probably learned their trade from either William Moll (1712-1780), John Moll I (1746-1794), or Peter Neihardt (1743-1813). Of interest is the fact that gunsmith John Rupp (1762-1836) was listed only as a “smith” when tax records started to include occupations. Even in 1807, when his brother Herman Rupp became the Tax Assessor for Macungie Township, he listed himself as a “gunsmith”, but listed his brother John as only a “smith”.

Finally, there is a second John Rupp gunsmith (1789-1848). Andreas Rupp (1760-1838) was the third son of immigrant John George and Ursula Rupp and Andrea’s son John became a gunsmith and is believed to have learned his trade from his uncle John Rupp (1762-1836). His work is very similar to the work of gunsmith Peter Kuntz (1786-1848) and is the last rifle in the photographs. Now in the Hansen collection, it is stamped atop the barrel in block letters “John Rupp”. It too shows the close relationships between the Rupp’s and the Kuntz’s.

The author would like to thank Nancy and Patty the daughters of Ruth Collis for the opportunity to photograph and study the early John Rupp rifle. Ruth was the secretary of the Kentucky Rifle Association for over 40 years. This rifle was one of her prized possessions and as mentioned in the article she loved american history. Her courageous fight with cancer was an inspiration to all the members of the KRA and she will be sorely missed.

Selected Sources

“An American Family & Its European Heritage”, rootsweb, Web, Dec 13, 2002

“A Picture, etc.”, Wikipedia Encyclopedia, n.d. Web, January, 2017

“John George Rupp Jr. (1758-1809)”, WikiTree, Web, Dec, 2016

“John George Rupp Sr. (1721-1807)”, WikiTree, Web, Dec,2016

“Rupp Family”, GAMEO.org, Web, Dec 2015

“Gunmaker Peter Newhard (Newhardt) (Neihardt) (1743-1813)”, WoodenBoat Form, Web,
November, 2010

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