Special to Smoky Mountain Living
A real straight shooter
Ron Williams stands with the Tennessee Mountain Rifle he built, which is on display at Red Clay State Historic Park in Cleveland, Tennessee.
“I just met the old dude who built that rifle!” a boy of about 9 exclaimed, as he bounded across the park, face flushed with excitement.
The rifle he referred to was a Tennessee Mountain Rifle — also known as a Kentucky, Southern Mountain or Pennsylvania Gun.
The man who built it is my daddy, Ron Williams.
I’m not really sure when Daddy took on being “the old dude,” although that moniker made him laugh, but he is the one who built the reproduction 1800s long rifle on display at Red Clay State Historic Park in Cleveland, Tennessee, and he is a master craftsman, riflesmith and retired engineer.
I just call him daddy, though, and now as an adult, I realize how daddy’s passion for history and especially the long rifle have made a positive impact on my life.
It’s gratifying to know that others also benefit from the long hours Daddy spends pouring through history books — not as a student preparing for a test, but as one who engrosses himself in a sacred text, with the understanding that what’s found there is precious and has something useful for today.
History has been a lifelong pursuit for daddy, and for the past 40 years he has taken that knowledge into his workshop, where he sits behind the workbench, magnifying light pulled close, cutting bits of silver with a jewelers saw or carving an intricate design into an otherwise ordinary block of wood.
It’s truly a labor of love.
I spent hours there myself, holding one end of a long, unfinished gunstock, while he carefully smoothed rough places in the wood, or fitted the patchbox into place.
The barrel was simply too long, the wood too heavy, for the delicate work to be successful without my help.
At least I thought so at the time.
And even if the smell of linseed oil — used to finish the wood — made me a bit queasy, I now know that, while daddy may have appreciated the help, the real beneficiary was me.
My own love of history and good stories was borne out of the hours I spent in the workshop with daddy. Because at heart, and for all the other titles he might have, daddy is a storyteller.
And I know that as he works at building a historically accurate long rifle, he’s going back to the places he studied, feeling the excitement those men from long ago would have felt, or remembering his own childhood, when as a 6-year-old boy he saw three Civil War muskets hanging on the wall of a dentist’s office, and knew right away that he wanted to know more about those old guns.
He told me, still tells me, stories about other boys who loved muzzle-loading rifles, too, but not when they were considered antiques or relics, and long before firearms became the objects of controversy they are today.
But when long rifles were the newest American innovation, a symbol of progress, a means of protection and sustenance, and a tool that helped build this nation.
He talked of boys who grew to be men, like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton.
Legends and lore about these men and their rifles abound. It is said that Daniel Boone walked all the way from Kentucky to Pennsylvania just to buy his long rifle (called Old Tick Licker, because some said he was so accurate he could shoot a tick off a dog’s back and not hurt the dog), that Davy Crockett could beat any man in a shooting contest with his rifle, Ole Betsy, long before he took her to the Alamo, and Simon Kenton could shoot a target the size of a pie plate some 400 yards away.
Boys from Kentucky and Tennessee were said to be such good shots with a long rifle during the American Revolution that George Washington dressed some of his regular army in buckskins so the British would think they were carrying long rifles, and retreat.
Then, there’s my own family, who settled in the Smoky Mountains before moving south into the Tennessee Valley and northwest Georgia. They carried these same rifles and with them provided for their families and defended this country.
For others, like the Cherokee, the long rifle was not only a tool, but a symbol of changing times.
During the 1700s and 1800s such a rifle might cost nearly $100. Now, these pieces can fetch thousands.
But for daddy, it’s never been about the money.
He loves the stories and the creativity that go into making such a piece. He says that creating “something beyond ourselves” is evidence that we have been made in the image of our Creator.
Daddy is an artisan with many skills: leatherwork, beading, scrimshaw, even jewelry design, but he always comes back to his beloved long rifle.
And I know that each time he sits down with a history book or picks up a block of wood and a chisel, there’s a story coming. And it’ll be a good one.
It was a special day, when as an adult, I felt brave enough to fire one of daddy’s long rifles.
I’m glad I did.
Now, I know firsthand that it must have taken a sturdy frame and strong arms to carry such a rifle, not to mention a high tolerance for pain when the gun recoils “kicking” back against your shoulder.
I know with more certainty now that the physical strength required to live in the frontier must have been accompanied by an even stronger spirit.
Some people never grasp the importance of history, thinking museums are for school fieldtrips, and history books are meant to collect dust on library shelves. I am fortunate to have grown up with a different perspective, a richer past.
The time I spent in my daddy’s workshop held object lessons wrapped up like gifts in the packaging of father/daughter time. And that’s a story worth telling.