Hershel House and his Woodbury School By Mel Hankla Photography by Ric Lambert, Jan Riser, Mel Hankla and H. David Wright
Reprinted with permission from Muzzleloader magazine, July/August 2009. For more information on this and other black powder topics visit the web site atwww.muzzleloadermag.com
Hershel Carmen House was born July 4, 1941 and needs no introduction to these pages. His work has been nationally known for the better part of four decades. Hershel and his younger brothers, Frank and John, are the progenitors of what is known as the “Woodbury School” in today’s contemporary longrifle society, named for the small Kentucky town on the banks of the Green river in which they grew up. Products made by this family ingenuously express their personalities, exhibit varied artistic talents, and reveal a genuine way of life that has significantly influenced many aspects and countless members of today’s contemporary longrifle culture.
The first longrifles that Hershel remembers seeing were in an old store in Jamestown, Kentucky. He says it would have been about 1950. His family had temporarily moved and was living there while his father worked on Wolf Creek Dam that now holds back the Cumberland River and forms Lake Cumberland. After moving back to Butler County in 1956, Hershel found an ancient half-stocked percussion squirrel rifle in his neighbor, Mrs. Gibbs’s, old barn. A long time family friend, he asked her if he could have it. It had belonged to her father, but she let Hershel have it anyway. He promptly fixed it, got it firing, and received a tremendous amount of pleasure hunting squirrels while exploring the woods and paddling the Green river in a homemade canoe.
In 1967, Hershel started building very intriguing mostly iron mounted rifles and through the years has truly become a living legend. In 1979 he was featured in Foxfire V, one of the ongoing series of books recording the customs and lifestyles of people from Southern Appalachia. In 1984 and again in 1985, Hershel was awarded a National Endowments of the Arts ~ Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant. These grants provide funds for traditional craftsmen to take on worthy apprentices, thus passing on their unique trade. In Hershel’s words: “I am usually pushed for time and deadlines which I almost never make. So without this financial assistance I would probably never have been able to share my experience. The grant gave me 300 hours for the project, which allowed time to explain what I was doing and to go into the smallest of details. A lot of these specifics I had never taken time to explain even to myself…”
Through his years as a gunbuilder he continues to go through recognizable phases or periods of specific stylistic trends. In the early years his greatest influence was from the pages of Joe Kindig’s book, Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age. Thus, his first guns followed Golden Age styling of Pennsylvania’s gunbuilding schools. Most of these early guns were brass mounted, a feature rarely found on his rifles today.
By 1975 his work had already evolved through a phase of building rather plain iron mounted Appalachian mountain rifles. He leaned more toward elaborate late flintlock period arms, specifically the type found in Southwestern Virginia or East Tennessee. By this time in his career it became obvious that his personal creative signature would be hand forged iron mounts for most every firearm he made.
By 1980, his guns started becoming considerably wider at the butt and took on the style of earlier, pre-revolutionary war period firearms. These are the guns he has probably become most noted for and are highly sought by collectors, hunters, and shooters. About this time, antique Kentucky Rifle collectors discovered his talents and started having him apply his knowledge and skill in the restoration of some of the finest antique Kentucky’s that are in existence today. Hershel says, that being able to handle and become intimate with these grand old originals helped his career more than anything else.
On April 1st. 1987, Hershel fell victim to a disastrous fire. He had worked for many years and produced countless rifles in a small one room shop that had once been a smoke house. In the spring of 1984, Hershel and friends built a larger two room structure that would provide space for the soon to come N.E.A. funded apprentice. Much like Hershel’s rifles it just never seemed new. His tools was an array of patinaed antiques, but obviously used often and included the complete set of his Grandfather’s (and namesake, Hershel Finney) cabinetmakers planes. There were volumes of well-worn books in an ancient glass fronted cupboard; Hershel’s shop was literally filled with treasures from another day.
Basically a hand worker, Hershel tends to avoid most power tools, not from some romantic notion of using old-fashioned tools, but from personal preference. He generally uses manufactured barrels and “brought-on” lock and trigger components, although his ability at the forge, without a doubt, could be commonly applied to the making of barrels and locks from scratch if his customers were willing to pay for the extra time and effort needed for such work. This is quite evident from his recent involvement in the House Brothers, “An American Tradition” longrifle project. His stockwork has always been from the stick and his stylish iron mounts exhibit perfected skill of both black and whitesmithing.
“… In his work, Hershel’s attitude clearly follows that of the early gunmaker. Whether at the forge, filing vise or stocking bench he is fast, sure and efficient; he wastes no time fussing about. That is a blend of skill and experience that was very well defined by the adjective “workmanlike” which eighteenth-century patrons used to describe sound products of an artisan’s hands.” He continues by saying, “Original pieces have made a strong impact on Hershel’s personal style, but not to the point of duplication. In fact, Hershel’s translations more often than not seem more successful than the originals.”Even when Hershel borrows elements of design from originals, his rifles are not copies; they are Hershel’s own statement of the many styles which he has encountered and absorbed from living his everyday life, precisely in the fashion that an early gunmaker developed his own identifiable style.
Hershel is well known for his ability in shooting competition and therefore understands what is necessary for a rifle to become an extension of the rifleman and for its components to function efficiently. First and foremost, his main concern with a gun is for it to be a shooter, always considering function before form.
This practical philosophy reflects the essence of utility, a traditional concept and an integral component of the gunsmith trade. However, the most significant signature of his work is the feeling of mellow age and long, but careful use. Even when the piece is brand new, Hershel’s rifles have the look and feel of having traveled a lifetime in the hands of a southern longhunter. Handling one of his rifles spurs the imagination toward visions from an earlier day. The rifles of Hershel House have a special feel about them. This quality of “feel” is hard to describe, but is well known to those who use their rifles for more than mantle decoration.
In the last several years, Hershel has been featured in “Field and Stream” magazine and on Sports Afield T.V. show. He has also become a much sought after presenter appearing at a multitude of workshops and conferences nationwide. He continues to produce several unique long rifles and pistols each year, along with a multitude of one of a kind knives. This past June, Hershel and his brothers hosted the first Woodbury Gunmaking Seminar; it was a great success, and they are now accepting applications for students next year.
Those in attendance at the 2008 Contemporary Longrifle Association Show in Lexington, Kentucky had the opportunity to see the unveiling of a one-of-a-kind completely handmade Kentucky Longrifle by Hershel, Frank, and John House. The building of this exceptional work of art was donated by the brothers for a fund raising raffle for the Contemporary Longrifle Foundation and will be given away at the CLA show this August.
The rifle is a beauty; the wrought iron barrel, the lock, double set triggers, iron mounted hardware, and even the screws are made by hand in the same tradition as those firearms produced by American gunmakers in the 18th century. The rifle is built in their nationally recognized Woodbury School style, and includes many personal and unique attributes for which each are well known. It is relief carved, with engraved iron mounts. The patchbox is tastefully engraved with touches of sterling silver overlays, and a sterling silver escutcheon (for a future owner’s initials) accents the top of the graceful wrist area. The 41″ tapered and flared barrel is rifled in .45 caliber.The only thing not handmade by Hershel, Frank, or John is the fine piece of curly maple wood in which the rifle is stocked. This piece of hand selected wood was donated by Freddie Harrison of Bradford, Tennessee, a supplier of stock blanks to muzzle loading gun makers for more than 30 years.
You are invited to join the Contemporary Longrifle Association and be present at the 2009 annual meeting, August 14th & 15th, at Heritage Hall in Lexington, Kentucky. Come meet Hershel, shake his hand, be part of this exciting project, and the continuing history of the Kentucky Rifle. DON’T MISS YOUR CHANCE to win this entirely hand-made House Brothers , “An American Tradition” longrifle. Chances are available, 5 dollars each or better yet, 5 tickets for $20.00. Everyone interested in being a member of the CLA and supporting our endeavors by buying or helping sell tickets can visit our websites;www.housebrothersproject.com andwww.longrifle.wsfor detailed information about the CLA, photos of the rifle, the House brothers, and the building process. Or call 1-540-886-6189 for more information. See you in August!
About the author
Mel Hankla is a charter member of the Contemporary Longrifle Association and a noted collector of House brothers rifles, tomahawks and knives. Hankla has worked with the Kentucky Humanities Council as a Chautauqua-Living History Character portraying Simon Kenton and George Rogers Clark since 1995. He also portrays Kentucky’s first governor, Isaac Shelby and Benjamin Franklin in other venues. A noted writer, he has contributed articles to many publications. Visit his websitewww.americanhistoricservices.comto learn more.
Larry Pletcher, editor