By Adam McCully
Deep in the woods of Jefferson County, there’s a place where you can step back through the years, to a time before Wi-Fi hotspots and Pokémon GO, before cell phones and air conditioning, even before electricity and indoor plumbing. I’m talking about the Jefferson County Longrifles Club.
The Jefferson County Longrifles club began in the mid to late ‘70s. It was the vision of WWII veteran, Russ Harriger who has an exciting story of his own to tell. Russ was a B-17 bomber pilot who flew during the last World War. Harriger flew well over the 25 mission marker required by most WWII bombers before an honorable discharge. After the war, Harriger – who spoke fluent Russian and German – worked as an operative on the border between East and West Germany. If you’d like to know more about Harriger, head to the Jefferson County Historical Society located in downtown Brookville and ask to speak with Eric Armstrong.
When Harriger moved back home to Jefferson County, he took advantage of the fact that he owned a bit of land far from civilization and combined his passion for history and longrifles by creating the Jefferson County Longrifles Club. Here, men and women with a fondness for the outdoors and the frontier lifestyle could get together for target shoots, primitive style camping, and perhaps most importantly, swapping stories and telling tall tales.
What started out as a simple cabin in the woods and a small group of men has grown into something extraordinary. The Jefferson County Longrifles Club now holds monthly shooting competitions on a beautifully manicured and laid out course. The initial log cabin still stands at the middle of the grounds, but now its accompanied by a clubhouse, a target range, a natural spring, and a campground that holds over 100 people during the club’s annual get together with longrifle enthusiasts from all across the East Coast, simply called the “Rendezvous”.
The Rendezvous is perhaps the club’s biggest claim to fame. They were the first to hold such an event, but they started a trend that spread like wildfire throughout the Eastern United States. Over a hundred people showed up to this year’s event, and while modern camping equipment was certainly welcome around the club’s grounds, the main camping area was reserved for truly authentic campers. No Coleman insulated sleeping bags for these hardcore historians. They make do with simple canvas tents and fur blankets.
The real draw of the club is the shooting. For most of the members, the longrifles themselves are a major part of the experience. Ask any one of them and they’ll tell you the history of the gun they’re using. They can tell you what style it was modeled after and what gun maker from the past is responsible for that style. They’ll show you the difference between a rifled barrel and a smooth bore, a percussion firing system and a flintlock. They’ll explain how to load the rifles and what tools you need to operate them (trust me, they’re more complicated than you might think).
Most of the members, especially the ones that have been in the club for a few years, have custom made rifles. Most of these rifles were made by master gunsmith and member, Ron Luckenbill. You might remember hearing about Ron around the time of the film The Revenant’s release. Ron crafted two of the rifles carried by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass and has been hand crafting rifles for over 30 years at his shop in Cameron County. Suffice it to say he’s gotten pretty good during that time and the rifles carried by the men and women of the Jefferson County Longrifles Club are functioning works of art, which is exactly what they should be. They’re recreated to represent a time in history when a rifle was more than just a tool, it was a means of survival. Usually it was a man’s most prized possession and was handed down from generation to generation. In fact, the original legend of Hugh Glass wasn’t so much a story of revenge as the film would have you believe, but rather a story about a man who simply wanted his gun back.
The experience one receives at the Jefferson County Longrifles Club is about more than just longrifles. The members dress themselves up in traditional 18th century gear. More specifically they dress themselves up in gear worn by the frontiersman, hunters, and trappers of the 18th century. I didn’t want you to think that there was a group of crazy people traipsing through the woods in top hats and petticoats. Most of the clothing they make themselves, and the furs and leathers they wear were, in most cases, claimed from animals they hunted with their longrifles. “It’s a pretty cool feeling to know that the clothes you’re wearing come from game that you hunted yourself. It really makes you appreciate what the frontiersman had to go through just to have a shirt and a pair of pants to wear,” said the president of the club, Kevin Johns. And it’s not just the clothes they make themselves, either. Their slings, powder horns, and belt bags, along with a whole host of other items needed to maintain and properly fire their rifles are all completely authentic and usually custom made. Most of the members even mold their own musket balls.
So what goes on during a monthly shoot? You’ve got your beautifully crafted flintlock rifle, you’re dressed to the nines like Davey Crocket himself, do you just kind of… stand there looking like a frontiersman that woke up in the 21st century? Heck no you don’t! The whole point of the Jefferson County Longrifles Club was to create a place where people could act like frontiersmen and frontierswomen, not just look like them. One of the club’s members, Skip Eckert, put it perfectly when he said, “we make learning history fun here.”
That’s exactly what the club’s monthly shoots are all about, learning and fun. The shoots also come with their fair share of “friendly” competition. Each member is given a score card and before they fire a shot they’re eligible for a 10-point bonus just for dressing the part. Afterwards, members split into groups and head down one of the club’s previously laid out courses. The first course is simply named “The Trail” and it winds its way through a wooded area with handcrafted targets set in amongst the trees. Some of the targets are close range shots while others are up to 100 yards away. Each target is assigned a points value based on the shots difficulty and members are responsible for keeping their own score. Sure, the scorekeeping is based on an honor system, but they fact that your competition is armed with a five-foot long rifle probably deters any members from fudging their numbers.
The second course is called “The Mountain Man Trail”. It’s kind of like the equivalent of a mini-golf course… but with guns, which is pretty cool if you ask me. They have all sorts of different target shoots set up, like cutting a playing card in half with one shot, shooting a lollipop at 30 yards, and a tube with a baseball sized opening on one end and a bell on the other. The idea being that if you’re aim is good to put your shot through the hole it’ll run through the tube and sound the bell. Each of these targets are assigned a points value as well.
Finally, after the shooting, members test their frontier survival skills with tomahawk and knife throwing, as well as fire starting and hand burning. The hand burning part isn’t an actual part of the competition, but I would definitely consider it a side effect.
What the Jefferson County Longrifles Club is really all about is having a good time. The members are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting and they’re not just willing to show you how to shoot and load your rifle, they absolutely love showing people how to shoot and load their rifles. They encourage men and women of all ages to come out and participate in a monthly shoot, or just hang out and watch. Western PA has a rich and interesting history when it comes to longrifles, and you can learn all about it by simply asking a member of the Jefferson County Longrifles Club.
If you’d like to learn more about the Jefferson County Longrifles Club or longrifles in general, check out their Facebook page, or better yet, head out to one of their monthly shoots. You can also see some of Ron Luckenbill’s rifles along with other historic and Native American artifacts at the Antique Firearms and Indian Artifact Show, taking place at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds on September 3rd.