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with exerpts from: The Moll Gunsmiths
by: Earl S. Heffner, Jr.

From 1764 through 1889, the Moll family was manufactures of the Pennsylvania Rifle, or Kentucky Rifle, if you prefer. The name Kentucky Rifle was adopted by the layman because of the popularization it had received in the hands of Daniel Boone, a native Pennsylvanian. The rifle above is a Moll percussion lock, made about 1845 by Peter and David Moll in Hellertown.

The development of the Pennsylvania rifle was the result of a mixture of traditions from English and German or German-Swiss settlers of Lancaster County. These two cultural groups, the strongest among the early settlers, each contributed an important element of the eventual Pennsylvania rifle style.

The Germanic settlers brought with them the tradition of the "Jaeger" or hunting rifle used in southern Germany and Switzerland. The Jaeger was a relatively short, large-bore, usually unornamented weapon with a patch box and, most importantly, a rifled barrel. Rifling involved cutting a series of straight or spiral grooves inside the gun barrel, a practice developed in Germany in the 15th or 16th century. A rifled barrel gave the ball or projectile a spin as it was shot out of the gun, improving both the range and accuracy of the weapon.

The English settlers brought with them the tradition of the long-barreled, ornamented fowling piece, a weapon of great beauty, but indifferent range and accuracy. The English fowling piece, like most European and American firearms of the day, was a smoothbore musket without the rifling of the Jaeger weapon.

In the early years of settlement in Lancaster County, German born immigrant gunsmiths set up shops and began to produce jaeger-type weapons. The dense forests of the area made the Jaeger somewhat cumbersome to carry and use and the process of developing a lighter, more maneuverable version was begun. The gunsmiths about 1820 began to increase the length of the barrel for even greater accuracy while decreasing the bore and stock for lighter weight. .

The Pennsylvania rifle was famous not only for its great beauty, but for its superiority over contemporary weapons. It became the favorite weapon of adventurous frontiersmen who wandered into the uncharted regions west of the Appalachians.

The average Pennsylvania Rifle weighed approximately seven to ten pounds, had an overall length varying between fifty-five to sixty inches of which the barrel length comprised forty to forty-four inches. The caliber was approximately .45. The cost of the rifle was directly related to the amount of gold, silver, brass and bone inlays that adorned it. Thus, because of individual tastes, the cost of the rifle could vary between ten and fifty dollars, and took about a week to manufacture.

William, Johannes, John II, John III, James, William Henry, Peter, David, Nathan and John J. Moll, were Pennsylvania gunsmiths. Their activities spanned nearly two hundred years of American history in which their products were a major factor in the determination in the success of our country.

The Moll Gunshops

18th century stone building on north 7th Street, just north of Linden. Possibly the Moll Gunsmith Shop. Photo taken in late 1800's
The buildings, which contained the Moll Gunshops, have not survived the years, so the following description will need to be hypothetical. However, there are certain sizes and shapes of the facilities that were dictated by the activities, which went on within them, and which, undoubtedly, varied in time from place. The Moll Gunshops were probably small buildings where a few men worked and made complete firearms.

The earliest shops were small buildings at the rear of the gunsmith's residence. The forge might have been in the basement of the gun shop, separated from the residence by only a stair. Such an arrangement was reminiscent of Europe, where the economical use of materials has always been a matter of importance in construction work. The proximity of the shop to the residence could also have been a safety precaution, for the shop held a quantity of material, which would be attractive to thieves. The shop may also have been placed near the house as a matter of convenience for the gunsmith, who, at times, needed the assistance of his wife or child. In earliest times, gunsmiths did not always have an apprentice or helper, and it is known that women often assisted their husbands with work that required more than two hands. Then too, if the children saw the attractiveness of their father's trade in an early age, they might be influenced to follow it.

The Moll gunshops were probably built of stone and brick, because they would make the building as fireproof as possible. The gable roof was probably covered with slate, which would also be completely fireproof and long lasting. Against one gable end a stack and forge were built to accommodate one or two men. In the 19th Century, two-place forges were widely used. Under the roof a large bellows was installed to provide a draft for the fire; in the two-place forges two bellows would have to be installed.

Plan for an 18th century gunshop. The room on the right was for the workshops with displays in the front
The floor around the forge would be laid in brick, stone or gravel. A gravel floor made of clay mixed with fine gravel would be packed hard by constant use and by sprinkling the floor with water at the conclusion of each day's work. The soot and dust from the shop made the floor smooth and easy to sweep clean.

One end of the shop would contain workbenches and some primitive machinery, such as a vise, a lathe, and large numbers of hand tools. As the business prospered, the amount of equipment would increase so that several men could work on different parts of a gun at the same time. The shop may even have been divided into a number of rooms so that some of the work area was sealed from the smoke and soot of the forge room. It is also likely that the Molls had sales areas where their saleable stock was displayed and where prospective customers would not be exposed to the soot, dust and smoke of the workshop.

The Gunsmiths

Evidently Johannes Moll had a hard time raising his family in the years following the Revolution. Although supplies were more abundant, inflation soared in the newly independent United States that the phrase "Not Worth A Continental" became commonplace. In Allentown, in 1781, sugar sold for twelve dollars a pound; coffee, two dollars; a silk handkerchiefs, one hundred twenty dollars; a spelling book, twenty dollars; a scythe, one hundred thirty dollars; tea, seventy-five dollars a pound; fabric, twenty-five dollars a yard; a skein of thread, four dollars; and a paper of pins, two dollars.

Flintlock rifle, marked on barrel on block letters "J. Moll", english lock, overall length 57 1/4 inches, barrel length 42 inches, 10 silver overlays, curly maple, brass furnituare, caliber .45, full octagon barrel. Courtesy of Paul Beret and Robert Limons (Heffner)

However in later years, he prospered in his trade because in addition to the vast store of tools and personal property, Johannes Moll left quite a bit of real property in South Whitehall and Heidelberg Townships in addition to the property, which he owned in Allentown. The final settlement of his estate amounted to three hundred ninety-four pounds, 15 shillings and nine pence. The property was appraised on January 31, 1795.

After Johannes Moll's death, his son, John Moll, II, carried on the business. During the War of 1812, he stayed at home producing weapons while his brother, Peter, answered the call to arms. The business was a profitable one under his management for in 1814, the amount of tax paid by John Moll II placed him twenty-fifth from the top of the list of one hundred fifty-two taxables. His tax, incidentally, amounted to one dollar and ninety-eight cents.

John Moll, II, sold the business to his son John III on April 11th, 1820. Many items that were sold to him were the same items, which appeared in the inventory of his grandfather's estate. It was during John Moll III's life that the flintlock produced by his father and grandfather was replaced by the percussion type of lock. The early Moll gunsmiths had neither the time nor the inclination to deal in silver or brass ornamentation of the rifles. The rifles were generally plain but with superb workmanship. However, rifles produced in the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War were more ornate, being loaded with silver, gold and brass ornaments. Also the guns were engraved with intricate designs on the metal. This was a common practice of the Molls.

John Moll III lived a long life. He was eighty-seven years old when he died. In addition to maintaining the family business of gunsmithing, he is listed as one of twenty-three merchants in Allentown who, in 1838, offered foreign merchandise for sale. He was involved in local politics when in 1844 he was elected to the Allentown city council at the time Peter Newhard was Burgess. Even though in later years when the business was taken over by his son, William H. Moll, John III retained one-half interest. The firm was then known as J. and W. H. Moll.

Pennsylvania rifle, "J. & Wm. H. Moll Allentown 2143" length 52 inches, barrel length 36 inches, caliber .40, inlays. Courtesty of Ed Minner and Robert Limons (Heffner)

Peter Moll and his partner David made many fine rifles, however they are most noted for their pistols, which were the secondary martial type. A secondary martial pistol is one, which can be made in several ways, namely, by an official contractor who made strictly weapons for the government; for private enterprise for sales to individuals, or for manufacturing on a private contact with owners of ships. Peter and David Moll were not official contractors to the Federal government, but sold weapons to the State of Pennsylvania and also to private individuals. You can distinguish at a glance the difference between the Moll contract pistol and one made for sale to private individuals. The contract piece is a more rugged weapon and usually has a rifled barrel. These pistols were produced on a semi-mass production basis. Peter and David Moll specialized in the brass-barreled pistol. The sporting type had a smooth bore, while the martial type had rifling. The stocks were made from plain maple to make it appear like curly maple.

Kentucky pistol with brass barrel and parts of metal made of brass. The weapon is fully identified by the engraving on the top facet of the barrel, "P&D Moll, Hellertown. From the Smith Collection and courtesy of the Stackpole Company (Heffner)

The Hellertown Molls were kept quite busy making new rifles and pistols and repairing older flintlocks to percussion type pieces. About eighty percent of all flintlocks were converted to percussion types between 1833-55 at a cost of two or three dollars. The Molls were also in the hardware business. They bought numerous tracts of land in Hellertown; one notable piece was purchased from Charles Wagner and wife. It was a ten-acre piece located and bounded by the lands of John Woodring, I. Ott and Jacob Rentzheimer.

Converted Flintlock, "P. & D. Moll, Hellertown", English lock, length 57 inches, octagon barrel length 42 inches, rope finish, no inlays. Courtesy of Paul Beret and Robert Limons (Heffner)

By the 1880's the industrial revolution had transformed the gunsmith trade. Mass produced cartridge rifles and pistols were being produced on a massive scale and the market for handcrafted percussion lock rifles and pistols was negligible. The partnership of Peter and David Moll ended with the death of David on August 31st, 1853. After the death of David, the business fell into the hands of William and Edwin Moll, sons of Peter. After the death of William, the firm became known as Edwin and David Moll. By this time they dealt only in dry goods and groceries. John J. Moll, a grandson of Peter's repaired guns as a sideline in the early 1900's in Hellertown.

Precussion type rifle, "N. Moll" set in gold, length 46 inches, barrel length 30 inches, caliber .38 13 silver and 4 ivory inlays, curly maple stock. Courttesy of Henry Nonnemaker and Rober Limons. Alternate view: Left side stock of the same rifle. (Heffner)

With the death of John Moll III of Allentown in 1883, the decision was made to sell the Allentown gunsmith shop. The sale of the property, in effect, ended the organized activities of the Moll gunsmiths, although a relative, Henry Moll carried on the gunsmith trade for a few years operating a small shop at 606 Hamilton Street until 1889.

Peter Huegel kindly shared the following photos of a flintlock Moll pistol. His family has owned this beautiful pistol for over a century. The flintlock action pistol was probably made in the Allentown factory prior to 1820

Right side view.

Top view showing octagon barrel, engraved J. Moll.

Top rear view of lock with silver inlay and engraving.

Bottom view showing brass inlays and engraving around the trigger guard and cleaning rod

Left side view.