Gunsmiths of Hampshire County

An Article by Mark Smith

To the early settler of Hampshire County the rifle was an important tool, as important as the ax or knife. Hostile times and the use of the rifle to provide meat for the family was the fuel that started the rifle making industry in Hampshire County, Virginia. There are some records that indicate there may have been at least one gunsmith making guns in Hampshire County as early as 1760. Probably one of the first gun-makers was Jacob Reed. Jacob Reed lived along the South Fork [Branch] River above present day Moorefield. Reed probably came to this area around 1745. Jacob Reed was most probably a gunsmith because at his estate sale in 1780 the personal property included gun-making tools and gun parts.

One Gunmaker may have done work for Col. George Washington

The Author
Mark Smith is a local Hampshire County gun collector and researcher. We appreciate his contributing this article based upon a presentation he made at Founder's Day 2011. You may find out more about Hampshire County gunmakers at his longrifle blog

In the 1782 census of Hampshire County and also in land records there was a John Campbell. It is probably this John Campbell who made ram rods for Col. George Washington when he was in command of the Virginia Regiment. In George Washington's account book on October 15, 1755, there is an entry that George Washington paid John Campbell for making ram rods; however, we can find no other information that indicates that John Campbell was a gunsmith. It seems the rifle/gun-making industry did not really take off until the Sheetz family moved to Hampshire County around 1790. We do know based on records that Frederick Sheetz was in the western part of the County (now Mineral County) as early as 1792. However, the gunsmiths this article is concerned with probably began work in the early 1800's. Hampshire County probably had more gunsmiths in its boundaries than any other Virginia County. Records indicate that there were at least 40 gunsmiths in Hampshire County from 1792 to 1880. The County was larger than it is today as Hardy, Morgan & Mineral Counties were once a part of Hampshire. Therefore, when a collector or historian talks about a Hampshire County gun, they are considering the old County boundaries.

A large number of gunsmiths have been found in the Capon Bridge area. There were at least 14, and there could have been more. The gunsmiths this article is considering are to be found in the Capon Bridge area. The first question one might ask is: “Why were there so many gunsmiths in the Capon Bridge area from 1800-1860?” Two of the main reasons for this was the Winchester road to Romney, which was completed in 1786 and the Northwestern Pike, which went from Winchester to Parkersburg and was completed in the 1830's. So not only was there a need for those settlers who settled in the County but also for those who were passing through to points west. A lot of those settlers heading West needed a rifle or needed to have one repaired. Hampshire County's population was over 14,000 in the 1850's. It diminished greatly during and after the civil war to a low of nearly 8,000 in 1870 and did not reach over 14,000 again until 1980. Of course Hampshire Co. was smaller by this time, but this still indicates how populated our county was during the mid 1800's. Here are the names of the fourteen gunsmiths from the Capon Bridge area.

  • Zebulon Sheetz (1793-1868)
  • Evan Ward (1827-1865)
  • Simeon Ward (1804-1877)
  • Christopher Slonaker (1799-1863)
  • Henry Topper died 1840
  • Benjamin Shane died 1861
  • Jacob Kline (1788-1869)
  • Jacob Kline Jr. (1829-1865)
  • James Rinehart (1811-1883)
  • John W. Rinehart (1826- ?)
  • Nathaniel Oats (1824-1911)
  • Nathaniel Offutt (1792-1854)
  • James Edward Nelson (1830-1882)
  • Henry Kline (1800-1859)

Zebulon Smith comes from a family of at least a dozen gunsmiths

We will start with Zebulon Sheetz. Zebulon comes from a family of at least a dozen gunsmiths, some of them the finest known in Virginia. Zebulon's father Henry, brother's Frederick and Otho, and nephew, Jacob, all worked in Hampshire Co. Zebulon came here from Shepherdstown. He was born there in 1793. He had his gun shop and residence on Cold Stream Rd. According to Family records he made rifles for the Militia and served in the War of 1812. In 1819 he bought land on Edwards Run Road. In 1835 he sold Gunsmith James Rinehart 40 acres on Edwards run. As we go on you will see that there is much interaction among the Capon Bridge gunsmiths. Zebulon along with several other people headed West before 1840. He went to Indiana and was one of the founding fathers of Monticello, Indiana.

James Rinehart made rifles in this area along with his brother John W. Reinhart until about 1850. James Rinehart must have apprenticed to Zebulon Sheetz and John W. must have apprenticed to his older brother James. John W., brother to James, bought James's land in 1848. In 1849 John pawned his gunsmith tools to Nathaniel Offutt. His brother James had done the same in 1840. John paid the loan off and again used his tools as collateral in 1852 for a loan from Offutt. In the 1850 Census you will find both John Rinehart and Gunsmith Nathaniel Dates living in the same house. John decides to head West and later sets up shop in Missouri as did Nathaniel Dates. Records indicate that Nathaniel Offutt sells John's tools in 1853. One note of interest is that any collector of Hampshire County Rifles will attest to , is that the two Rineharts made more rifles than anyone else in the county at least if the number of surviving rifles are an indication of the number produced.

I believe there is some confusion concerning some rifles that survived that are signed on the barrel flat "N O;" some say they are Nathaniel Dates, while others claim Nathaniel Offutt. I also found records that Offutt was a saddle maker. Benjamin Franklin Shane, Gunsmith, married Delilah, daughter of John Cheshire, in 1824. Shane bought a shop and two acres of land along Edwards Run from the heirs of Nathaniel Offutt in 1856. The same day records indicate that Shane sold his existing shop along the Capon & North Branch Turnpike to Gunsmith Christopher Slonaker. Benjamin Shane died in a gun shop accident in 1861.

The first of the Slonaker family to settle here from Holland was Christopher. He fought in the American Revolution for our independence. We believe his grandson is the Christopher Slonaker who is this gunsmith. In 1827 Slonaker bought the gunshop and land formerly owned by Gunsmith Henry Topper. Henry Topper was sort of a traveling gunsmith; we have found him in several other areas of the country. However, he was here long enough to make some rifles in our county, and he states in the 1820 Census of Industry that he had made 12 rifles worth 18 dollars each in 1819 at his property along the Great Cacapon. In Wilmer Kern's book Historical Records of Old Frederick County, Va. page 359, he states there is a tombstone with the name Maria Ann Topper born 1807, died 1809, in the Thomas Edwards Cemetery. She is believed to be the infant daughter to Henry Topper. Henry left this area, and we find him again in Bedford County Pennsylvania at about 1840.

There were three Kline's who were gunsmiths in this vicinity. Jacob, Henry & Jacob Kline, Jr.  I believe that Henry and Jacob Sr. were brothers, not father and son as some earlier researchers have said. Jacob's gunshop was near Parks Hollow on Dillions Run. He indicates in the 1820 census of industry that he had two employees and made 18 rifles and they were worth 18 dollars each. Jacob was born 1788 and died 1869. You can find his grave at the Hebron Lutheran Church Cemetery on Rt. 259. Some researchers say Jacob Jr., shortly after serving his apprenticeship with his father, leaves this area and sets up a shop in Ohio. I do not believe that Jacob Jr. left Hampshire Co. I have found records that say he died in 1865. Henry leaves this area for Ohio in 1846, but I am sure he made several rifles while he was here.

Simeon Ward, Gunsmith, Christian Church Elder and Preacher, was another area gunsmith. His son Evan P. Ward born about 1827 was also a gunsmith. We know he made guns because we have seen one signed on the barrel flat "E. P. Ward." Evan P. Ward died from wounds he received at Lynchburg in 1864 while fighting with the 18th Virginia Calvary. You can find his resting place close to that of his father at the Christian Church Cemetery on Christian Church road.

James Edward Nelson may have been one of the last gun makers in this area

James Edward Nelson, Gunsmith, is listed as a gunsmith in several censuses. I believe he may have been one of the last gun makers in this area. Nelson was born 1831 and died in 1882. He is still listed as a gunsmith in the 1880 census. By this time there were very few gunsmiths left. The heyday ended at the beginning of the Civil War. James Edward Nelson was a Sergeant in the 23rd Virginia Calvary. Nelson was also the Great Great Grandson of James Caudy, this area's Indian fighter and namesake of Gaudy's Castle. You can find the grave of James Nelson at Parks hollow Cemetery; approximately 2 miles west of here on the north side of Rt. 50.

The Hampshire County Rifle

The Hampshire County Rifle is a muzzle loading long rifle that was made in the boundaries of Hampshire County from the late 1700's, though the late 1800's. I think it is possible that a few could have been made as late as 1900. The Hampshire County Rifle is a Kentucky Rifle such as the one Daniel Boone carried. The Kentucky Rifle is truly the first American Rifle. These long rifles with beautiful maple stocks and stunning patch boxes were first made by German immigrants in Pennsylvania. The Germans were already familiar with rifling firearms in the Jeager Rifles from their homeland.

The German Yeager had a large caliber and short rifled barrel. The rifles they made here had long barrels with smaller calibers. Calibers seen on Hampshire Co. rifles range from 36 to 45 with the larger calibers on earlier rifles and smaller calibers on later rifles. Barrels on Hampshire Co. guns seem to range between 30" to 46" in length. Typically the early rifles had longer barrels and the later ones shorter. These barrels were also mostly octagon shaped. Most Hampshire County rifles have Double Triggers, one being a set trigger as these rifles were made for accurate shooting. Hampshire County Rifle's are almost always stocked in Maple and some have wonderful Curl & Tiger stripe. Most Hampshire County rifles are full stock, though a few guns 1850's and later are halfstocks.

A star inlayed with coin silver on the cheek piece was common on Hampshire rifles

The first guns made here were flintlock; then around 1830 percussions started to show up, and probably from 1835 on, most rifles made here had the percussion lock. The earlier Hampshire County rifle had a wider, taller butt on the stock, and many of these were carved, some incised, and some relief. These are the most sought after rifles, and they rarely ever surface. On these rifles you will typically find a star inlayed on the cheek piece made from coin silver.

The early Hampshire County rifle looked the same as the Winchester, Charles Town, and Shepherdstown rifles. Probably about that time the percussion lock came into use, maybe even a little before Hampshire County makers began to develop a unique style of rifles. Today collectors call it a "School". In this case, the Hampshire County "School" rifle had the famous Roman Nose Stock. This is also about the time that carving on guns was replaced by coin silver inlays: hearts, weeping hearts, stars, fish, ovals, crecent moons, etc. Most of these inlays had some Christian meaning, which now collectors call symbolism. From this time on the acorn also began to dominate the finial on the engraved brass patch boxes. This is not to say the flower or pointed finial was not used anymore, just not as much. Another thing almost unique to the Hampshire County rifle is that once percussion locks dominated our area rifles, there were small brass lid boxes on the cheek piece side that were used for percussion caps. Naturally, these are called "Cap Boxes." You do see a few of these on Ohio guns, but not many.

Many, but not all, of our Hampshire County Rifles are signed by the maker on the octagon barrel between the breech and the rear sight. It is nice when you can find a signature whether initials or the entire name as this leaves no doubt as to who made the rifle. But through careful study and comparison to other signed pieces, you can usually determine who made the rifle. This should give you some idea of what a Hampshire County Rifle is.