50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
THE HAWKEN RIFLE
Firearms development during America’s western expansion has given our hobby many generic terms—“Derringer” and “six-shooter” are two that come to mind. But one that predates both of these is “Hawken.” Although the name originally referred to a big-bore muzzleloading rifle specifically designed for hunting in the Far West, today it has become a label for almost any muzzleloading rifle and is often misspelled as “Hawkin” or “Hawkens,” something that would have made the Hawken brothers cringe.
Jacob and Samuel Hawken were extremely skilled gunsmiths. It was Jacob who first came to St. Louis, in 1807, one year after Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. That expedition opened an area that had previously only been known as “The Great American Desert.” This, in turn, produced a new breed of adventurers called “mountain men” who ventured into the remote wilderness—specifically “the shining mountains,” as the Rockies were being called. Beaver hats had become fashionable in the eastern U.S., and there was money to be made hunting and trapping in the untamed wilderness.
It wasn’t long before St. Louis became “The Gateway to the West,” the last stop before leaving civilization. In the process, hunters, trappers, and adventurers were buying the best rifles they could afford in this booming city. Recognizing an opportunity when he saw one, in 1815 Jacob Hawken opened a gun shop at 214 N. Main Street, the first of a number of addresses he would occupy over the years.
At first, Jake was kept busy by the vast migration of juggernauts “Hawkenizing” their slender, small-caliber flintlocks for the unknown challenges awaiting them in the Far West. Bores were enlarged, barrels were shortened, and stocks were strengthened. Jacob dutifully stamped these reworked guns “J. Hawken St. Louis,” causing many a modern-day collector to assume that the Hawken shop made a wider variety of muzzleloaders than it actually did. But soon the enterprising young gunsmith found himself building a new kind of rifle for clientele that included the influential Missouri Fur Company, a gun generally referred to as a “mountain rifle” or, more specifically, a “Rocky Mountain Rifle.” The caliber was bigger, the stock was thicker, and the rifle was heavier than most front-loaders of the period.
Meanwhile, Sam Hawken was busy building a lucrative gunmaking career of his own in Xenia, Ohio. When brother Jake sent word of a greater fortune that could be made by the two of them at his more strategic location in St. Louis, it didn’t take much to convince Sam. In 1822 he joined his brother in St. Louis. This was right about the time the percussion cap was invented, and although the earliest rifles built by the brothers were flintlocks—using locks purchased from other purveyors—the majority of Hawken-built rifles were the more reliable and desirable caplocks.
The Hawken rifle was basically a straight-gripped halfstock, although some fullstock versions exist and a few specimens feature pistol grips. The maple stocks were carved in the Hawken shop, where the fancier curly maple was often used. Most of the furniture, including nose cap, wide crescent buttplate, trigger guard, and wedge plates were browned iron, but some guns were built with German silver or brass trim. Double set triggers were standard.
The percussion locks were Hawken-made and usually stamped “J&S Hawken” (some were occasionally left unmarked); they were often lightly engraved. Barrels were bored and rifled by the Hawken brothers themselves. Indeed, it was their deep, slow-twist rifling that made Hawken rifles so adaptable to hefty powder charges and accurate out to 150 yards or more. Calibers were rarely less than .50, with .53 being the norm, and larger bores are known to exist. Barrels were stamped “J&S Hawken,” usually measured one inch across the flats, and were 30 to 38 inches in length. Consequently, the gun could handle hunting charges that ranged from 100 to 210 grains of blackpowder. Hawken rifles normally weighed between 91⁄2 to 12 pounds, a factor that helped tame the rifle’s heavy recoil. In short, the Hawken was the ne plus ultra of a muzzleloading big-game hunting rifle.
The Hawken had a number of distinguishing physical characteristics. Most notable were the two iron wedges set into oval iron wedge plates to anchor the heavy barrel to the stock. In addition, the trigger guard continued in a long band affixed to the underside of the stock, which helped strengthen the wrist. On the earliest rifles, this tang ended in a ring, but on later guns it finished in a graceful scrolled curve. Also helping to soften the lines of what was basically a workhorse rifle was the thick, teardrop-shaped cheekpiece on the left side of the stock. The fixed rear sight was usually a full buckhorn slanted slightly to the rear to reduce glare, while the front sight was a German silver blade. A hooked breech enabled the barrel to be lifted out of the stock (after removing the wedges and ramrod, of course) for cleaning. Occasionally, rifles were made with an iron patch box.
As fate would have it, right about the time Sam joined Jake, General William H. Ashley was organizing the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, destined to become a driving force of the mountain man era. Ashley became a fan of the rifles Sam and Jake were building and ordered a number of them for his outfitters, as well as to trade at hefty prices to trappers and hunters armed with less than adequate rifles in the Far West. Eventually Ashley ordered a massive .68-caliber Hawken with a 42-inch barrel for himself.
The Hawken brothers sold their guns for around $25, but the farther west you went, the more expensive the rifles became. In 1840 Kit Carson paid $60 in gold for a Hawken rifle and was so impressed with it, he armed his mounted riflemen with similar guns when they fought in the Mexican War. As the Hawken rifle’s fame spread, so did the fame of many of its users, which included John C. Fremont, Jim Bridger, and Daniel Boone.
The Hawken was given another boost in popularity in 1849, when gold was discovered in California, bringing a new wave of adventurers into Sam and Jake’s shop. But right at the height of their fame, a cholera epidemic killed Jake. A devastated Sam continued with the business until 1858, when his own health began to fail. After a brief sojourn to Denver, Sam returned to St. Louis in 1861 and sold his business to a fellow worker, William L. Watt. A young German gunsmith named John Phillip Gemmer, who had joined the shop in 1860, bought a share in the business from Watt in 1862. By 1866 Gemmer had purchased complete ownership. He continued making “S. Hawken”-stamped muzzleloading rifles, but gradually phased in his own “J.P. Gemmer, St. Louis” mark as cartridge guns became more prevalent. One of Gemmer’s more notable accomplishments was restocking Sharps rifles in the Hawken style.
Sam Hawken died on May 9, 1884, at age 92, but Gemmer kept the Hawken shop going until 1915. Interestingly, Hawken rifles continued to be used well into the cartridge era, as they were much harder hitting than most lever-actions. Gemmer died in 1919, and both he and Sam Hawken are buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, thus ending the saga of America’s most famous mountain rifle.
Today, although many well-made but mass produced muzzleloaders are labeled “Hawken,” it’s difficult to find an authentically designed Hawken rifle, unless you have one created by a custom gunmaker. For years, I have hunted with a custom Hawken that was built for me in 1976 by John Speak, a former motion picture sound engineer in Hollywood, California, and another Hawken with a 26-inch barrel (designed for use on horseback) that I ordered from the no-longer-existing Ozark Mountain Arms. Both are .54-caliber, feature the later-styled “S” curve of the elongated trigger guard, and shoot remarkably well out to 100 yards with 100 grains of 2Fg blackpowder behind a soft lead conical bullet. Recently, at the Wally Beinfeld Antique Arms Show in Las Vegas, I bumped into the fellow who had made my Ozark Mountain Hawken. He was genuinely pleased that I still hunted with it after all these years. Which got me to thinking: an authentically-styled Hawken rifle definitely belongs on our bucket list as a tribute to the mountain men who helped open the Rocky Mountain gateway to the Far West.