Two words that rarely share the same sentence: Art and firearms. But guns can be decorative art. If you doubt that, you’ve probably never seen a Mecklenburg longrifle, and you surely haven’t met Michael Briggs.
Briggs, who lives in Greensboro, collects 18th- and 19th-century longrifles made in North Carolina. He’s researching a book about those crafted in a prized style – the Mecklenburg School – unique to this area. Now, he’s looking for help from people around Charlotte – a few of whom, he suspects, may have a longrifle tucked in a basement or attic.
In the hierarchy of N.C. decorative arts that include pottery, textiles and furniture, longrifles don’t command a high profile. Yet they rank among the most important, says Robert Leath, chief curator at Old Salem’s Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, home to the state’s most significant longrifle collection.
A couple of hundred years ago, owning a longrifle in Western and Piedmont North Carolina was as common as car ownership today. It was essential for hunting and protection, and often, other than a family’s house and land, “it was the most expensive item they owned,” Briggs says.
Most people made do with plain, utilitarian rifles – the Honda Fits of their day. But if you had enough money, you could buy the Porsche versions – beautiful status-symbol rifles adorned with carved wood and engraved brass and silver. Today, collectors regard those made in the Mecklenburg School of Longrifles – one of nine styles of design in the state – as some of the finest in North Carolina. The best are valued at tens of thousands of dollars.
North Carolina longrifles got their start when Pennsylvania gunsmiths migrated here in the late 1700s. Though the rifles were valued possessions, they were also used regularly, and many “just got used up,” says William Ivey, author of “North Carolina Schools of Longrifles, 1765-1865.”
That’s one reason that Briggs knows of only 18 existing Mecklenburg longrifles. He owns more than 60 N.C. longrifles, including six from the Mecklenburg School. He began collecting in the 1980s and grew to admire the many skills, including metal engraving and wood carving, that fine riflemaking required. “To be a gunsmith, you had to master so many disciplines,” he says.
Mecklenburg longrifles can be identified by several characteristics, including scroll-shaped silver or brass designs on the patchboxes of the rifle butts. Gunmakers also often included their initials. Experts know of 19 rifle makers who worked in the Mecklenburg School. They include Zenas Alexander, Isaac Price and the Black brothers – John, Samuel and William.
Price, believed to be the founder of the Mecklenburg School, was born in 1747 and lived on the east bank of the Catawba River, near Steele Creek Presbyterian Church. William Black, considered the most talented of the group, lived on McAlpine Creek.
Briggs believes some of their work survives today in homes or antique shops, unknown to collectors or experts. When he lectures at the Charlotte Museum of History on Saturday, he’s asking the public to bring any longrifle-related artifacts to help with his research. He’ll bring some from his collection, as well.
He’s hoping for a repeat of his luck at a Rowan Museum lecture in September, when a woman brought in a beat-up rifle. After some sleuthing and cleaning, he recognized the engraved initials “ZA.” It was a Zenas Alexander longrifle, the only one collectors know exists. “That,” he says, “was such a wonderful, successful day.”