Guns will likely forever be an object of dispute in the United States, but curators in Georgia hope at least to forge an aesthetic consensus with Artful Instruments: Georgia Gunsmiths and Their Craft at the Georgia Museum of Art, on view until February 25. “They’re just wonderful works of art,” says historian Sam Thomas, who guest curated the exhibition with GMA curator of decorative arts Dale Couch. “They’re beautiful pieces, and so anyone who is an art enthusiast and maybe has never touched a rifle—let alone fired one—I think is going to be intrigued.” Invented in the 1500s, the rifle—the term derives from the “rifling,” or spiral-cut grooves inside the barrel—was a technological advance over the smooth-bore gun. (The grooves impart spin to the projectiles, improving their accuracy.) The prototypical American long rifle, commonly called the “Kentucky rifle,” is believed to have been developed in the early 1700s by a gunsmith in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as an adaptation of the shorter-barreled jaeger, a German hunting rifle. Lightweight, accurate, and having good range, it was a favorite of the frontiersmen who fought in the American Revolution, and later, of that ragtag outfit under Andrew Jackson who defeated the British musketeers at New Orleans in 1814–1815.
The eighteen long rifles on display at the GMA (accompanied by other arms such as pistols and a miniature cannon) present some elegant examples of the gunsmith’s craft. The most impressive is a full-stock flintlock long rifle by Wiley Grover Higgins, c. 1830–1840, which has florid buttstock silverwork with acorns—a motif that can be found on Georgia-made furniture—and Indian heads, a cross-hatch-engraved wrist, and a scrolled trigger guard and extension. One of the humblest examples is a William H. Bell rifle from about 1840. Mostly unadorned, it boasts a brass patch box—a compartment in the stock for holding flints and such—with a finial that’s charmingly engraved with what looks like a child’s drawing of an eagle.
Artful Instruments: Georgia Gunsmiths and Their Craft • Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens • to February 25 • georgiamuseum.org