Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Pennsylvania rifles which played an important part in the French and Indian Wars, the Revolution, and the War of 1812, were the best firearms of their day. An unusually high quality of workmanship was required to produce them. Each rifle was designed and made by a craftsman skilled in the working of not one medium alone but of all the materials used in making the rifle. He had to be competent in welding and boring barrels, in working and carving stocks, in shaping and engraving brass, and in silversmithing and locksmithing. It is rather remarkable, in view of the importance of Pennsylvania rifles and the interest in them on the part of collectors, that we have so little information about the men who produced them. Several reasons may account for this. Few eighteenth-century rifles survived the tremendous demands made of them, not only in supplying the family larder with game but in protecting the family against Indian forays and in several wars. Again, many early craftsmen did not sign their guns. And the earliest rifles were frequently restocked, or at least changed to percussion type, so that many of the original characteristics can now be only a matter of speculation.

In the case of Jacob Dickert, however, a gunsmith working in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a good many facts are known. That he was regarded as a superior craftsman is indicated by a reference in the report of Tench Coxe, purveyor of public supplies, to the Secretary of War. He referred to "Jacob Dickert and others" in Lancaster as "regular, able, safe, and capable of securing (say 5000)." It would obviously have been impossible for one maker to produce 5000 rifles, but by pooling their resources the Lancaster gunsmiths were very successful in handling government contracts. Among the others who worked with Dickert were Christopher Gumpf, John Bender, Henry de Hull, and Peter Gonter.

Jacob Dickert was born in Mainz, Germany, on January 9, 1740, and came to America with his family at the age of eight. After spending some years in Berks County, the family moved to Lancaster in 1756. Young Jacob may already have become apprenticed to a gunsmith in Berks County, but if he started when the family moved to Lancaster he could still have completed a five-year apprenticeship period at the usual age of twenty-one. According to a 1795 advertisement, he must have started in gunsmithing about 1755, since he states that "any person may depend upon being well suited, as said Dickert, by having forty years experience in that line is enabled to give all possible satisfaction."

The spelling of Dickert's name is recorded by various writers as Dechard, Decherd, Dechert, and Dickart. The latter form appears on his naturalization document, which is dated September 24, 1765, but on the guns known, as well as in six church references, three deeds, and a will, it is written as Dickert. In 1766, with John Henry, Dickert bought land in Manheim Township, near Lancaster, and built a boring and grinding mill. Since there is no record of a mortgage, it is evident that Dickert must have become fairly prosperous by that time. At Henry's death in 1779, Dickert bought his share from his widow for $250. Dickert married Johanetta Hoier in 1765. Their daughter, Anna Maria, married a Lancaster merchant, James Gill, in 1787. Gill and Dickert combined forces for a time and operated a store "in Queen Street, in the well known dwelling house of said Dickert." The gunsmith line was augmented with a stock of groceries, dry goods, and on one occasion an assortment of large and elegant looking glasses. After Gill's death in May 1796, Dickert continued the business. On August 21, 1799, he advertised in the Lancaster Journal:

   WANTED 2000 Musquet Locks and Barrels The subscriber will contract with any person or persons, for any quantity of Locks and Barrels. No locks or barrels will be accepted unless a pattern is first secured from the subscriber. JACOB DICKERT, Gunsmith

    WHO ALSO HAS FOR SALE:  A Large assortment of Dry Goods, suitable for the season, as well as a large and general assortment of groceries, which he will dispose of at the most reasonable rate for cash.

The name of Dickert's grandson, Benjamin Gill, who also became a gunsmith, appears with Dickert's on some of his rifles.

The type of rifle which Dickert and the other Lancaster gunsmiths made is indicated by a letter from Tench Coxe to Dickert and de Huff, dated November 16, 1807:

   . . . The rifles I am instructed to purchase are to answer the following description. They are to be common, plain rifles substantially made. The barrel to be three feet two inches in length. The workmanship to be such as to pass strict and rigorous inspection. The calibre as to fit a ball of halt ounce weight. The finishing (if the work be good and substantial) will be sufficient it not inferior to those commonly made for ordinary use. The barrels would be preferred round (instead of eight square) from the tail pipe or lower thimble to the muzzle; but of the thickness they would be otherwise, except in the angles, that is to say of the thickness they would be in the flat part or the thinnest part of the octagonal barrels. The price that will be paid for the rifle complete will be ten dollars cash.

In another letter, however, Coxe agrees to a price of $10 2/3 for brass mounted rifles, and $11 17/100 for any rifle with silver star and silver thumb piece.

The specifications of the Dickert rifle in the Alamo may probably be taken as typical: Overall length, 65 inches; barrel length, 45 inches; caliber, .55; weight, 8 1/4 pounds. Dickert also made smooth-bore muskets which were an American version of the Charleville firearms secured from France for use in tlie Revolution. On April 17, 1801, he and Matthew Llewellin contracted with the state of Pennsylvania for 1000 of these, model 1795.

The sticks and patchboxes of the Dickert rifles are fine specimens of an early pattern. The relief carving on the stock is appropriately designed for the area, and though the silver star inlay has been lost, the shape of it is preserved. The thickness of the stock at the butt plate, the style of the carving, the cylindrical shape at the small of the stock, and the star inlay indicate that the rifle is of the Revolutionary period or earlier. The patchboxes are typical of those used in Lancaster County by eighteenth-century gunsmiths, but the delicately engraved loops and points on each side of the hinge of the patchbox are peculiar to Dickert.

In addition to his work as a gunsmith, Dickert was active in the community and business affairs of Lancaster. He was one of the subscribers to the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, the first great highway built in America, which was finished about 1790. The improved transportation from Lancaster to Philadelphia doubtless aided Dickert in disposing of his rifles. When the turnpike was continued from Lancaster to Middletown, Dickert was also one of the managers of that enterprise.

According to the Moravian church records, Dickert served on various church committees, and for more than forty years was one of the Dieners (workers or servers) at the love feasts, one of the most historic and important of the Moravian services. Dickert died in 1822. The final church record states simply that "His death "was due to old age." His obituary in the Lancaster Intelligencer reads: "He sustained the character of an honest Man, a good citizen, and an Exemplary Christian."