If a survey was taken as to which manufactured gun “won the West”, most authorities agree hands down it would be the Hawken Rifle. Although the Colt and Winchester were popular, by far the Hawken Plains and Mountain Rifle was considered the best for the needs of that territory.
They were big bore muzzle loaders, equipped to take on large powder charges which could be effectively used when hunting large game such as buffalo. The rifle was created to meet the specific demands of living on the new frontier. It was also useful if the owner was charged by a large grizzly bear, the powerful rifle probably saved many a life.
The rifle was outstanding for range and accuracy in its day and had an effective range up to 350 yards which enabled it to hold its own against newer models for many years.
The Hawken rifle which “won the West” was manufactured in St. Louis, but to go back to the beginning of the manufacturer of this particular weapon, you must come to Greene County.
Samuel Hawken came to Xenia April 12, 1816 to open a gun shop. All the guns he sold in his shop were manufactured on site.
The Hawken family consisted of at least four brothers, Samuel, Jacob, Dan T. and Christian. Apparently at one time or another, all of the brothers were in the gun manufacturing business. They had all worked in the federal armory in Harpers Ferry and were all experienced gunsmiths. Dan T. manufactured rifles near Springfield for a number of years. Christian apparently worked in Xenia sometime after Samuel left for St. Louis.
Samuel purchased land on East Main Street in Xenia then later bought property on East Market Street which adjoined his Main Street holdings. When his father died in 1821, he went to Hagerstown, Md. to assist the family for a while, but after his wife died in 1822, he left Greene County for good. He moved to St. Louis where his brother Jacob had located his gun manufacturing business. It was not until 1827 that a power of attorney was executed to allow his representative to sell the land, however the property was not sold until 1839.
It was not until after he left Greene County that his name became a legend among rifle enthusiasts. He related the following story to a St. Louis newspaper reporter in 1882.
Samuel and Jacob had separate businesses until 1825, when they united to manufacture the “J and S Hawken Rifle.”
At first all of the rifles manufactured were flintlock, but when the percussion system came along in the 1830’s, they converted to this new style of gun. A flintlock requires placing the powder into the barrel then the wadding and bullet. A “pan” located by a small hole In the gun barrel had to be loaded with powder then a spark from the flint fired the powder in the gun. Percussion rifles allowed one to place a small cap on the lock, then fire the gun, igniting the powder in the gun. This was a major improvement.
It wasn’t long before the brothers realized that the guns such as the Kentucky rife usually manufactured in the East, were not suitable for life on the frontier. The small caliber was adequate for small game, but would not stop moose or bear. They manufactured large caliber rifles, usually in the 50 to 54 range which weighed between 10 and 12 pounds with an octagon barrel of 34 to 38 inches in length. The cap lock rifle sold for $25.
The brothers also manufactured pistols and shotguns. They perfected their rifle over the years, changing from a full stock to a half-stock model which later became their trademark. In 1832, the business was thriving with a dozen full time gunsmiths working to meet the demands of the public.
In the 1850 census, Samuel had $1,000 invested in his business. He had used 2,000 feet of lumber, a ton of iron, 520 pounds of steel, 2,200 pounds of charcoal and 50 pounds of brass. He had four employees and a monthly payroll of $120. The company manufactured 100 rifles and 20 shotguns that year.
Samuel became active in the St. Louis community. He served as City Alderman in 1828 and was a volunteer fireman. He retired from the business in 1854, leaving his son William to run it, but the business closed in 1857.
Samuel and William moved to Denver, Colo. where they worked in other gun shops. The business was sold to an employee, John P. Gemmer, who changed the name of the factory to “Hawken Rifle Factory”. Later another name change from “Hawken” to “J. Gemmer” took place. He closed the business in 1915.
The Hawken Rifle became popular because it met the needs of those living in the Western part of the country. They realized if they were to stay in business, they had to meet the demands of the times. Many well-known individuals purchased and owned Hawken rifles, among them Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Jim Bridger and James Clyman.
Original Hawken rifles are highly prized in museums and some private collections. Replicas are very popular among black powder enthusiasts.
Joan Baxter is a long-time historical writer and Greene County resident.