Hawking The Hawken

In the 1820s, Samuel Hawken joined his brother Jacob at his St. Louis shop, and together they made rifles that helped make history.

Story And Photos By Mike Nesbitt

 

The author poses with a Hawken in full period regalia (JERRY MAYO)

When Jacob Hawken first began making his “mountain” rifles, he incorporated features into each gun that were well thought of based on his experience. Hawken wanted his rifles to be the very best available and, therefore, desired by the most people. His strategy worked, because these days, they are the rifles we remember the most from the early to mid-1800s.

Dan Phariss, a highly regarded gunsmith and black powder historian, may have said it best: “The Hawken, the fully evolved mountain rifle, be it full or half-stock, was the final evolution of the American muzzleloading hunting rifle.”

In my opinion, no other muzzleloading rifle ever surpassed the classic percussion Hawken rifle.

MOUNTAIN MEN NEEDED A RIFLE that was dependable, one that could last a whole year or more in the wilderness. Generally, it had to function without the possibility of major repairs and need for replacement parts, although trapping brigades sometimes had blacksmiths or gunsmiths traveling with them. But with Hawken, that strength and dependability was built right into their rifles.

A Hawken-style rifle and some plunder from the rendezvous era.

For example, muzzleloading rifles were often susceptible to damage with breakage to the stock right at the wrist. To strengthen that area, Hawken rifles and their replicas have the long upper tang, as well as the extended trigger plates. Those two iron or steel pieces reinforced the wrist of the stock at both top and bottom, and screws from the tang go through the stock to anchor the trigger plate.

Unlike many modern modular 70 designs, the barrel is the literal backbone of muzzleloading rifles, as it provides the foundational support for all of the other parts and pieces. With that in mind, the Hawken rifles had heavier barrels than most other models. It could be that this was because Hawkens were expected to make more frequent use of heavier loads, but that explanation isn’t as probable as the brothers simply seeking a stronger foundation for their rifles.

This S. Hawken-style rifle was made in the early 1970s by Green River Rifle Works.

Gunmaker Dave Dolliver shoots a flintlock Hawken he built for the author in 2002.

The locks and triggers used in the Hawken design were also the finest available at that time, and were another reason that they were the finest shooters in the world. Finally, the Hawken shop was one of the first to embrace the percussion ignition system, and while many historians believe the Hawken brothers also manufactured flintlocks, none of these have ever been located.

Some believe the role of the Hawken rifle in western history has been exaggerated, or that the Hawken brothers are being given more credit today than they deserve. But This if nothing else, the Hawken rifles were clearly recognized as being the gun to have if you could afford one. That is not just because they were more expensive than most other rifles at the time, but also because – in the diaries, ledgers and account books of the time – Hawken rifles were frequently the only rifles that were mentioned by name.

The percussion Hawken the author uses the most currently is Three Aces. Also built by Dave Dolliver, it is a .54 caliber with a 35-inch barrel.

Three Aces is shown with a group fired offhand at a recent competitive shoot.

For example, in the inventory listings of what the American Fur Company shipped to Fort Union, in what would become North Dakota, in 1834, a notation indicates “4 rifles, Hawkins.” Another early reference appears in a list of goods taken west by French Canadian trader and fur trapper Etienne Provost in 1829: “2 rifles, Hawkins ($25.00 each).” Those are just two examples (both notations appear in the book Supply and Demand: The Ledgers and Gear of the Western Fur Trade by Olsen and McCloskey). Other rifles were not generally named to this level of detail, but Hawken rifles (and some pistols) always seem to be mentioned by name. In other words, if it wasn’t a Hawken, it was just another rifle.

The upper rifle is a full-stock Hawken-style big game rifle in .58 caliber, while the lower is a lightweight Hawken designed for use by sportsmen.

Although their popularity was not as widespread as their rifle siblings, many Hawken pistols were carried west to the mountains.

For comparison, the price of a “trade rifle” (a rifle made for the fur trade, to be sold or traded to trappers, red or white) as made by Henry, Leman, Tryon or others could be purchased for around $12. At more than twice that amount, Hawken rifles were truly expensive guns.

Details like these serve to remind us how respected and desirable the old Hawken rifles were. Those reminders emphasize the fact that Hawken rifles were certainly on the “roll call” at rendezvouses of the period. At today’s, the caplock Hawken is just as much at home on the good list, and much in demand. There just isn’t anything that spells “mountain doin’s” like an authentically made classic Hawken.

The author’s father made this half-stock Hawken in the mid-1970s, and nicknamed it “Ol’ Horsefeathers.”

HAWKEN RIFLES EVOLVED OVER TIME, starting with the early J&S Hawkens firearms and ending with the S. Hawken rifles, which continued to be manufactured for nearly 20 years after Jacob Hawken’s 1849 death. The differences between the early and late rifles are primarily minor details, such as the use of a single pin to hold the entry pipe for the ramrod on the S. Hawken rifles in place instead of two as used on the J&S Hawken models. But the truth is that each original Hawken rifle was a unique, handmade creation, with no two being exactly alike.

In my 40-plus-year quest to acquire as much Hawken information and experience as I can, I’ve handled – and admired – several original Hawken rifles. But believe it or not, I have never fired one. All of my shooting with Hawken-style rifles has been accomplished with more recent duplicates of these famous guns, many of which have been very exacting copies and that performed in an amazing fashion.

However, Art Ressel, long-time proprietor of the original Hawken Shop in St. Louis, once showed me six Hawken rifles, all laying on a bed. He let me handle them all I wanted, for as long as I needed, and asked me if I could find the one rifle in that group that was not a real Hawken. Although it took me over an hour – a very treasured hour – I’m proud to say that I finally identified the imposter. What finally gave it away? The reproduction had eight-groove rifling while all of the others had seven grooves in their barrels.

The author fires one of his many Hawken-style rifles. (JERRY MAYO)

In short, the Hawken rifle was a highly desired and reliable firearm of the iconic mountain men who blazed trails and helped settle the American West, and it deserves its place in the historical saga of that important period in our nation’s growth, expansion and development. ASJ

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February 17th, 2017 by