The gun that settled the west

The state of Missouri is unequal in its phenomenal history. There are people, places, items and events that changed the history of Missouri and also of the United States.  

Such was the Hawken family who moved to St. Louis in 1807, and the invention was a new style of rifle.

Hawken House Parlor 

The Hawken Rifle is sometimes referred to as “the gun that settled the west.” It is reported that many famous people carried these handmade guns of choice, including Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Jeremiah Johnson, Joseph Meek, John Fremont and Teddy Roosevelt. 

The United States was growing and as people traveled from east to west to explore new lands and opportunities, they encountered new animals not found east of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. 

The .45-caliber long-rifle worked well for deer and the occasional black bear, but was simply not powerful enough to deal with very large beasts such as bison, grizzly bears and elk. 

Brothers Samuel and Jacob Hawken were trained by their father as rifle gunsmiths, building long-rifles. The brothers formed a partnership around 1820 and set up a rifle shop roughly where the Gateway Arch stands today.  

Jacob and Samuel saw the need for a different muzzleloading rifle to satisfy the requirements of the fur trappers and explorers of the west. 

Bill Wakefield

They developed a rifle that would have a 36- to 38-inch octagon-shaped barrel featuring a slow rifling twist and typically .50-caliber or .54-caliber, but could go as high as .68-caliber. 

The ammunition would typically be the lead round ball bullet. The rifle’s action would be a sidelock, early production would be flintlock, and later production would be caplock.  

This rifle is what their customers needed — a muzzle-loading rifle capable of knocking down big animals. They called their muzzle-loading rifles, “Rocky Mountain” rifles.  

The Hawkens did not mass-produce their rifles but rather made each one by hand.

Some of the special features of their new “Rocky Mountain” rifle was the larger caliber with a shorter barrel and a weight of about 10.5 pounds. The shorter barrel made it much easier to shoot from the back of a horse. 

The historic Hawken House.

The walnut or maple stocks had a curved cheek piece, often looking like a beaver’s tail and thus, it was nicknamed that.

They tended to have double triggers. The rear trigger is a “set” trigger; when the rear trigger is pulled, the hammer does not fall but rather the action “sets” the front trigger, the front trigger becoming a “hair trigger,” tripped with a light touch. 

In many examples, when the front trigger is used without using the rear “set” trigger, it requires a firm pull and others require the trigger to be set before the front trigger will drop the hammer at all. 

The front sight was a blade sight. Unlike many modern reproductions, the butt plate and other trim was not made of brass, but of iron.  

These special features and the attention to detail established the J&S Hawken rifle reputation for both accuracy, ease of use and dependability.

Jacob and Samuel Hawken also produced light sporting rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Initially the brothers made their own barrels at their forge near St. Louis with the help of hired workers, but later they followed the trend of buying factory-made barrels, which enabled them to increase production.  

Locks were both made in the Hawken shop and purchased from other sources, while stocking operations were most likely carried out by the brothers and their employees. 

The heyday of the original Hawken was undoubtedly the late 1840’s and the 1850’s, the period of the Great Western migration to Oregon, Utah, and California.  

The demand for the Hawken brothers rifles during this period made these their most prolific years. 

Although popular with mountain men and hunters of the fur trade era, up through the middle part of the 19th century, muzzleloaders were generally replaced by mass-produced, breech-loading weapons such as the Sharps rifle and the Winchester rifle.

Samuel Hawken continued to operate the business after Jacob’s death in the cholera epidemic of 1849. In addition to his business ventures, Samuel was also active in the civic affairs of his adopted hometown, both serving on the fire department and, on at least one occasion, he was a candidate for mayor of St. Louis.

Samuel continued producing these quality rifles until the late 1850’s. In the early 1860’s ownership transferred to J.P. Gemmer, who held true to tradition and maintained the “Hawken” quality until the shop closed in 1915. 

The tools and machinery lay unused in Gemmer’s St. Louis home for over 550 years. Early in the 1960’s the remnants of the “Hawken Gun Shop” were acquired by Art Ressel through the sale of the Gemmer estate. 

Mr. Ressel, a Hawken enthusiast, felt obligated to continue the Hawken tradition and reopened the “Hawken” gun shop. 

Less than 300 Hawken guns were produced during this period before Mr. Ressel closed the gun shop in the early 1980’s. 
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Again, the original “Hawken” quality was unobtainable and a valued part of American history ceased to exist.

In December of 1990 a new and equally great period of the “Hawken” story began. Mr. Ressel sold the entire shop to a small, family-owned business located in the state of Washington.

Greg Roberts and Claudette Greene purchased “The Hawken Shop” to preserve this valued part of Americana. Once again, the classic “Hawken” had returned! 

Current planning was to wait two years before proceeding with the “Hawken” venture. At that time, Greg and Claudette were absorbed in the planning and development of a traditional muzzleloading rifle in the style of Dimmick and Leman, and felt they could not devote additional time to the “Hawken.” 

However, fate intervened and a foundry fire destroyed all other tools and parts, except for the Hawken tooling. Consequently, Hawken was back in business, producing Hawken rifles once again.

In this age of substitutes and clones, the very idea of owning an original is incomprehensible. Originals are normally reserved for only the very wealthy and influential. 

Not so with “The Hawken Shop.” This quality and originality is again available to anyone who desires to own the finest. Go online to  

There you will find original Hawken rifle kits, collectables, rifle parts, knives and tomahawks, historic information and blogs.  

The Hawken rifle is an American icon and deserves a prominent place in the history of the United States, and the Hawken Shop is keeping this tradition alive.

Christopher Hawken was born in 1825 and worked in his father’s shop until Jacob died of cholera during the epidemic in St. Louis in 1849. 

After his father’s death, Christopher headed west to California during the Gold Rush. He returned in 1854 and married Mary Ann Eads, and settled down to life as a farmer. 

He purchased 100 acres of land in the country near the intersection of Big Bend and Grant Road at 25 cents an acre, and began farming and building a home. 

The Hawken House was completed in 1857. Mary Ann and Christopher had nine children; eight boys and one girl. Only three of the children survived to adulthood, including their only daughter, Mary Emma. 

It is believed Mary Ann died of typhoid fever in 1878. Christopher never remarried. 

Following a fall from his hayloft in 1900, he left Hawken House to live with his son, Jacob, a graduate of Washington University who practiced law and lived in Kirkwood. Christopher died in 1905 at age 79.

The Historic Christopher Hawken House is the oldest house in suburban Webster Groves. It was the first home in Missouri to receive federal funds for restoration, which matched the amount raised by the citizens of Webster Groves, and is listed on the National Historic Register. 

It is now maintained and operated by the Webster Groves Historical Society. Furnished entirely in the Victorian decor of that period, it is open to the public and special tours are available.

Renovations were undertaken and completed in the early 1970’s. The home is decorated with several pieces that belonged to the Hawken family. 

The residents of Webster Groves donated the rest of the furnishings. A curator researched the period and used only items that would have been found in the house during its early days. 

In the basement of the house is an extensive collection of dolls from around the world dressed in their native costumes, and a gift shop. 

Behind the house is the Webster Groves History Center, a rustic-looking barn constructed in 1976 that houses the Society’s extensive archives collection. 

A garden at the rear of the house is a gift of the Webster Groves Herb Society. Visitors can picnic in the adjacent Southwest Park following their tour of the home.

The historic Hawken House is located at 1155 S. Rock Hill Road, Webster Groves, MO 63119. It is well worth the time and the small visitation fee to get a little history lesson from the guides in the home who are very knowledgeable. 

The house is quite lovely with original antiques belonging to the Hawken family, as well as other antiques of the time period. 

Do you know what a funeral piano is? The guides will be happy to explain it all to you. You are free to roam the gardens which are used for private events such as weddings, and there is the Hearth House, which may be rented for social events. 

All in all, it is worth an hour or so of your time to learn about the family who once lived in this home and their famous rifle.  

The Hawken House Museum is open for tours on Tuesday and Thursday from 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
The last tour starts promptly at 2:30 p.m. Please arrive early.

To arrange for a special tour, please call Judy Seltzer, Hawken House manager, at (314) 968-1857 or e-mail

(Bill Wakefield runs the Traveler’s St. Louis office and can be reached at

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