The discussion of the making of the uniquely American long rifle is a subject most often associated with Pennsylvania or Kentucky. There were, however, gunsmiths who produced these artistic and practical objects in other regions. Many of those gunsmiths, like the subject of this story, learned their trade in a gunsmith shop in Pennsylvania. They then brought their craft to, and adapted it for, the regions in which they settled.
My research into the life of George Biddle is an ongoing project, as is my desire to identify and locate examples of his work. If you have any information that might be useful, please drop me a line from my Contact page!
There is very little written on the life of gunsmith George Biddle and even less on his life before he settled in the rolling hills of Sugar Creek Township, Tuscarawas County, Ohio in the 1820s. The student of 19th century Ohio gunsmithing may be more familiar with his son Levi Biddle (1831-1894) who also worked as a gunsmith and of whom more has been written. This is perhaps because more firearms attributable to Levi have survived and, because of their quality and scarcity, are treasured by collectors of early Ohio gunsmiths’ work. That being said, given that Levi learned his craft from his father, it is worth examining the history of George Biddle’s life and work.
Not a great deal is known about George’s parentage or youth, only that his parents may have been Johann Youst Beidler (1759-1796) and Margaret Butler (1759-aft. 1820) and that they originally hailed from York County, Pennsylvania. The Beidler name appears in the historical records being written in a variety of ways but, by 1800, started to appear as Biddle. George had an older brother named Frederick (1787-1866), who would also be trained as a gunsmith, as well as a sister named Mary (1792-?). The Biddle family must have left York County sometime before the death of Johann in 1796 because, before or shortly after their father’s death, it is known that Frederick was apprenticed to Chambersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania gunsmith Abraham Schweitzer. As both sons were minors, it is probable that George was also apprenticed to Schweitzer at the same time.
Abraham Schweitzer (1769-1831) learned the trade of gunsmithing as a youth in the seminal region for Pennsylvania long rifles, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Schweitzer eventually settled in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by the late 1780s and established himself on the north-east corner of the intersection of Front and King Streets in 1805. It is likely in this shop that Frederick and George Biddle served their apprenticeships in the “Chambersburg School” of gunsmithing. Joe Kindig. in his book Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age, identifies a number of traits typical of firearms of this school including low straight combs, beautiful patch boxes, much inlay, and well executed relief carving. Four excellent examples of Abraham Schweitzer’s work are presented in Kindig’s book.
After finishing their apprenticeships with Schweitzer, the Biddle brothers moved even farther west, this time into Fayette County, Pennsylvania. George Biddle enlisted in Captain John Whaley’s company of militia during the War of 1812. This unit was raised in, and around, Connellsville, Pennsylvania. Whaley’s company was assigned to serve under Colonel Robert Patterson and marched with other units to Fort Meigs, modern Perrysburg, Ohio, where it took part in the later campaigns of General William Henry Harrison. The march to, and from, the theater of conflict took George Biddle through the very heart of Ohio and the area where he would eventually settle.
Following the conclusion of hostilities, Frederick Biddle was the first of the two brothers to move to Sugar Creek Township, Tuscarawas County, Ohio. He acquired property near the crossroads of Shanesville and opened a gunsmith shop. Frederick Biddle was the only Biddle listed on the census record for Tuscarawas County in 1820. That same year George and his mother Margaret are recorded on the census record for Bullskin Township, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, a township just north-east of Connellsville. Following the death of his mother sometime shortly after 1820, George moved his family from Pennsylvania to be closer to his brother. George first appears in the Tuscarawas County records in 1826 when he appeared on the tax rolls there as owning 30 acres of land, 1 horse and two head of cattle.
Apparently George and Frederick Biddle worked together for a period of time after George’s arrival and it has been reported that some of their guns made during that period were marked “F.B. and G.B.” One 19th century history of Tuscarawas County recorded that the brothers made guns “…for both white men and Indians.” Frederick eventually moved his family from Tuscarawas to Wayne County, Ohio, living there by 1850. George Biddle continued to produce guns, and obviously train at least one of his sons in the trade, over the next 35-40 years. The author has been unable to determine the number of guns that were made by George Biddle, or how many survive in the hands of museums and collectors. Only one or two examples have appeared in print and those clearly show the influence of Abraham Schweitzer and the “Chambersburg School.” The guns produced by his son Levi, though principally half-stock firearms with commercially available locks, surely represent the stylistic approach that one would likely see in a George Biddle long rifle as well. It is doubtful that the apple fell far from the tree.
George Biddle’s occupation continued to be listed as “gunsmith” in both the 1850 and 1860 census records. Levi Biddle eventually took over the gunsmithing trade from his father in the early 1860s and, by the 1870 census, George Biddle is listed as a Farmer. George Biddle was not a farmer long, for he died in October 1870 and was buried in the Shanesville First Reformed Cemetery in Shanesville, Ohio.
Bender, Mark. “Details of Two George Biddle Rifles”. Newsletter of the Association of Ohio Long Rifle Collectors. September 2020, Part 6. p. 11.
Bender, Mark. “Taking (Re)stock: A Rifle Signed ‘Levi Biddle’”. Newsletter of the Association of Ohio Long Rifle Collectors. September 2020, Part 4. p. 8.
Census, Tax, Wills, etc. records related to the Biddle Family accessed via www.familysearch.org
Ellis, Franklin, ed. History of Fayette County Pennsylvania, with Biographical Sketches of Many of its Prominent Men. L.H. Everts & Company: Philadelphia, 1882.
The History of Tuscarawas County. Ohio. Warner, Beers & Company: Chicago, 1884.
Kaser, Alfred. “Tuscarawas Co. Gunsmith Levi Biddle”, Newsletter of the Association of Ohio Long Rifle Collectors. Volume IV, Number 2, 1982. p. 1-4.
Kaser, Les. “More on Levi Biddle”, Newsletter of the Association of Ohio Long Rifle Collectors. Volume V, Number 1, 1983. p. 6-7.
Kindig, Joe. Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age. Second Edition. George Shumway: York, Pennsylvania, 1983.
Metzgar, Thomas J. and James B. Whisker. Gunsmiths of Western Pennsylvania, Volume I. Bedford Village Press: Bedford, Pennsylvania, 1988.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.