“His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains. Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none. He was looking for a Hawken gun, .50 caliber or better. He settled for a .30, but damn, it was a genuine Hawken, and you couldn’t go no better. Bought him a good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said good-bye to whatever life was down there below.” – Thus began the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson” starring Robert Redford.
Along with it began the modern legend of the Hawken rifle, and a modern disease one Rick Hacker dubbed “Hawkenitis”. This disease appeared in the 1980s and is well known among those historical re-enactors who emulate the period of the Rocky Mountain fur trade years of 1780-1840. The main symptom of Hawkenitis is the belief that every mountain man, trapper, and anyone worth his salt rushed out and bought a Hawken rifle for the journey west. This odd affliction caused almost every manufacturer of black powder rifles to catalog at least one “Hawken” rifle beginning in the black powder boom of the 1980’s.
The Hawken family originally took up gunsmithing “back east” turning out Kentucky style long rifles.
Kentucky Rifle Photo
These guns can properly be called “Hawken” rifles, but for this discussion the working definition will include rifled firearms manufactured by the brothers Samuel and Jacob Hawken in their St. Louis, Missouri shop between 1825 and 1855.
Reproduction Hawken Photo
The stereo-typical “Hawken” rifle is a relatively short, half-stocked rifle bored over .45 caliber. “Half-stock” refers to the fact that the wood of the stock stops somewhat less than half-way between the trigger guard and the muzzle of the arm. A fullstock gun will have wood all of the way out to the muzzle. Both of these stock styles were commonly used by many gunsmiths the world over, so a more appropriate term for this style of arm would be “plains rifle”.
As people moved west their guns were shortened for easier use from horseback. Large calibers were called for when dealing with the buffalo, elk, and Grizzly Bear of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, so the demand for large bore firearms increased among the thousands of people moving west.
The annual production for the Hawken brother’s shop was around 100 rifles per year, so it is simply not possible that Hawken guns made up a significant percentage of all of the arms that went west.
So what did the well-heeled mountain man pack along?
The vast majority of the long arms carried by mountain men were flintlocks. The percussion cap ignition system wasn’t commonly available until after 1800, and the percussion cap was a store bought item. In the Rocky Mountains that made caplock guns expensive and rare. Flint could be found in almost any stream bed for free, so a flintlock is a more practical weapon for a traveler in remote areas. Many of the early travelers relied on surplus military arms, as well as arms that may have been inherited from several prior generations. Most of the period literature simply refers to “gun” with no particular mention of the maker, or even whether the firearm in question was a rifle, fowling piece (shotgun), or trade musket.
The plains rifle is an excellent choice for the re-enactor, hunter, or muzzle loading enthusiast. The modern renditions often sport elaborate brass furniture that makes them look great hanging on the wall. Hawkenitis is still so strong “The Hawken Shop” opened its doors around 1990 in Oak Harbor, WA to feed the need so, if someone says he has a “Hawken” rifle for sale caveat emptor.