This article is about a rifle, but it begins with an artist and a painting. As early as the 1950’s, many Charles M. Russell paintings that were in Montana collections were being sold to out of state collectors. The Montana Historical Society had tried to buy some of these paintings, but frequently was unable to raise sufficient funds to match the out of state bids. By the early 1970’s, it was apparent that the Montana Club was leaning towards selling the Charlie Russell masterpiece, When the Land Belonged to God. The Montana Historical Society expressed interest in purchasing the painting in the early 70’s, and the director, Ken Korte, wrote a letter to the Montana Club offering to purchase the painting again in December 1975. The Montana Historical Society began a fund raising campaign around that time to fund the purchase. It is not clear from the Society’s records if the painting When the Land Belonged to God was the sole objective, but one of the fund raising items the Society came up with was a collectable reproduction of the Jim Bridger Hawken in their collection. The MHS began working with Green River Rifle Works in 1975 to build this reproduction for them.
A contract between MHS and GRRW was drawn up, signed, and dated April 5, 1976. To summarize, the contract states that:
- GRRW will manufacture no more than 1500 copies of the Jim Bridger Hawken rifle and that each rifle will be produced complete with a Hudson Bay blanket case and contained in a wooden display case.
- The Society shall act as the exclusive selling agent and the price shall be $1200. The Society shall remit to the manufacturer $750.00 for each rifle sold and paid for.
- If the Society receives a down payment, half the down payment shall be remitted to the manufacturer and the balance shall be remitted to the manufacturer when the Society receives payment. [The customary down payment requested was $600.]
- The Society agrees to inaugurate a sales promotion program among its membership and also on a regional and national basis.
- A prototype of the rifle will be delivered to the Society for inspection and acceptance before manufacture begins. It is estimated that the prototype rifle shall be completed by May 1, 1976.
- It is contemplated that the Manufacturer will produce 25 rifles per month over a period of 5 years. It is understood that the Society is not obligated to accept 25 rifles per month unless it has prepaid orders to cover.
- Manufacturer agrees that under no circumstances will it sell any of the prototype rifles except through the Montana Historical Society.
- Manufacturer agrees that under no circumstances will it produce in excess of 1500 rifles.
- It is understood that 100 of the rifles is the minimum number which, when sold, would meet the production and sales cost of both parties and the Society agrees to make every effort to sell at least 100 of the said rifles. It is understood that the Society cannot agree to the purchase of 100 of said rifles unless prepaid order to cover said sales are received. Manufacturer agrees to cease production upon written notice from the Society.
There are letters in the MHS files showing that GRRW intended to stop producing the Bridger Hawken reproductions after #73. Eventually they finished #74 and #75. Correspondence from the Society expressed concern that the model be destroyed and that GRRW would not make any more Bridger Hawkens for other customers.
The MHS files contain a receipt from GRRW to MHS Director Ken Korte stating that the original rifle was received on November 6, 1975 and was to be loaned to the GRRW for a period of 90 days. The rifle was to be kept in the vault of the Zions National Bank during its stay with GRRW. However, there is also a document in MHS files from GRRW dated January 23, 1978, stating that with the MHS director’s permission, the Bridger Hawken had been transferred to Dean Smith and that Mr. Smith would immediately transport the Hawken to MHS. GRRW had the original rifle for over two years while the staff studied every detail and made numerous photographs, notes, and drawings of it.
The Bridger Commemorative Hawken was offered for sale by the Montana Historical Society in late 1976 and 1977 (see advertisement below). Per the contract, the ad said that it would be a limited edition of 1500 rifles, but the actual number built and sold was only 75. The Montana Historical Society acquired the Russell painting in May, 1977, after having raised $150,000 from their intensive campaign and received another $300,000 directly from the State of Montana. The Society continued to raise funds through the sale of the Bridger Commemorative Hawken until GRRW closed in 1980, though the number of orders from its members and the general public had to be a disappointment.
The prototype of the Bridger Commemorative (no serial number) was shipped to MHS on August 10, 1976. Commemorative #1 was shipped November 24, 1976. Commemorative #2 was shipped on December 13th, and Commemoratives #3, #4, and #5 were shipped to MHS on December 23, 1976. Commemorative #9 was fully assembled by Carl Walker on December 13th, then it went to the finish room. It was shipped to MHS on December 30, 1976. Carl also built the prototype and #5, and likely built #2, #3, and #4. The latest information indicates that Gardell Powell built the first four Commemorative Rifles.
The intent was to build an exact replica of the original. Ron Long had designed a new T. Gibbon style Hawken lock and began marketing them at the beginning of 1975. GRRW immediately adopted this new lock as a replacement for the William Morgan “J&S Hawken” marked lock they had been using on their Hawken rifles. Long soon followed with his Hawken triggers. Fortuitously, or with the encouragement of GRRW, Long began designing a new slant breech plug and tang for a 1-1/8” barrel around 1975 that ended up being a very close copy of the breech on the original Bridger Hawken. The Ron Long lock, triggers, and breech plug were perfect for the Bridger rifle. A commercial butt plate was located that was a close copy of the original. Other commercially available component parts were used such as a cast nose cap (prior to the Bridger Commemorative, GRRW Hawken rifles were fitted with a two-piece, sheet metal nose cap that was hand made). One part, the trigger guard, was not an exact copy of the original Hawken, though. The dimensions of the original rifle, including the stock, were copied exactly.
Herb Troester of Vernal, Utah supplied some photos of Carl Walker holding the GRRW’s photographs of the original Hawken and Greg Roberts’ scale drawing (referred to in the quote below) with detail notes.
Herb Troester provided this description of the notes made by Greg Roberts on the scale drawing above:
“The specs for the GRRW Bridger Hawken are exact to the original, except the original is about .52 caliber. The barrel at the breech measured 1.175 inches across the flats but the muzzle measured 1.125 inches. Don’t think you could call that a tapered barrel, Carl [Walker] said you could make that much difference with a file. The entry pipe is 0.583” OD and 0.510” ID, formed of sheet iron 0.060” thick, with the “flap” or skirt 5/8″ wide…The rod pipes are 0.615″ OD and 0.530” ID. They pulled the breech plug and found a flaw in the rifling. When cutting one groove, the cutter rode half way up on one land for half the bore length. This is the original barrel. The trigger guard also has a casting flaw (hole) in the bottom of the bow. You can’t see Greg’s [Roberts] tracing, notes and measurements on the cardboard unless you look closely, but they are all legible.”
…Neill Fields, who worked at the Green River Rifle Works and handled the Bridger rifle, [said] he helped build copies of the Bridger rifle at GRRW for the Montana Historical Society…He said the Bridger barrel is NOT TAPERED, but the lock panels are, that is, wider across the front than the rear.”
The barrel dimensions from the spec sheet that accompanied the Commemorative rifles are 33⅛” x 1⅛”, .54 caliber with 7 groove rifling. The GRRW copy is accurate in all respects–except the trigger guard scroll! They even filed the inside corner of the butt plate square as can be seen in the photos below.
Here is an example of a certificate of purchase from MHS.
Below are some pictures of the original Bridger Hawken taken by Dave Boender of Roosevelt while it was being studied by the GRRW staff. These pictures are part of a series, some of which were used in the brochure that MHS included with each rifle.
A similar staging to the one above was used on the cover of the MHS brochure. I initially thought the picture above had snow in the left foreground and that it must have been taken at a different time than the photo in the brochure below. Now I realize that isn’t snow but damage to the photograph itself.
Here is the front and back of the brochure and spec sheet that accompanied the rifles, showing the original Hawken rifle (right panel) and one of the Commemorative rifles (left panel).
The accouterments—beaver hat, hawk, shooting pouch, and powder horn—are clearly the same.
We are aware of eight Bridger Commemorative Hawken rifles:
- Serial number 1 (pictured below) in a Kansas collection
- Serial number 9 (pictured below) in a Colorado collection
- Serial number 10 (pictured below) sold by a Montana dealer, currently in a Utah collection
- Serial number 12 in a California collection
- Serial number 22 in a Nebraska collection
- Serial number 42 (pictured below) in a Colorado collection
- Serial number 48 in a Kansas collection
- Serial number 52 (pictured below) in a Kansas collection
The only barrel stamp on the upper flats (the visible portion when the barrel is in the stock) is “S. Hawken, St. Louis” stamped behind the rear sight. All other barrel markings, the commemorative stamp, serial number, makers mark, company name “GRRW”, and address stamps, are located on the bottom flat.
Bridger Commemorative Hawken #9 with wood box, wool cover, and paperwork.
Close up of the lock on #9
Close-up of the S. Hawken stamp on #9, the only mark on the visible flats of the barrel.
The Bridger Commemorative stamp and serial number
The Carl Walker’s makers mark and GRRW stamp
Butt plate on #9, notice the sharp or square inside corner on the butt plate.
Bridger Commemorative Hawken #10
Butt-stock and cheek rest on #10
Lock on Commemorative #10
Nose cap, entry pipe, and wedge escutcheon on #10
Commemorative stamp and serial number on bottom flat
Gardell Powell’s makers mark and GRRW stamp on bottom flat
Bridger Commemorative Hawken #42
Forearm and butt-stock of #42
Lock on #42
Butt stock and butt plate on #42
Commemorative stamp and serial number on bottom flat
Bill McKay’s makers mark on #42
Ron Long breech and tang on #52
Ron Long lock on #52
Commemorative #52 has Carl Walker’s makers mark.
The original purchaser for Commemorative #9 lived in Reno, Nevada and Commemorative #42 was ordered by a person in Boulder, Colorado.
Since this article was first written and published in the Green River Gazette, the Bridger Commemorative Hawken #1 has surfaced. Commemorative #1 was built by Gardell Powell and carries his makers mark. It was found at a gun show in Kansas City recently. Neither the seller nor the buyer new what it was initially. As stated above, the only markings on the visible flats of the barrel are “S. HAWKEN, ST. LOUIS”. It wasn’t until the buyer got the rifle home and took the barrel out of the stock that he saw the “BRIDGER COMMEMORATIVE” over “SER. NO. 1” stamped on the bottom of the barrel. It is rumored that the buyer’s wife had to call 911 and request EMS shortly after.
Bridger Commemorative #1 initially went to a person in Butte, Montana.
In spite of all the efforts the GRRW folks put into making an exact replica of the original Bridger Hawken, they were still limited to the parts available at the time.
The main criticism of their late S Hawken pattern is with the trigger guard and its rear scroll. John Baird illustrated the proper shape of the scrolls found on many J&S and Sam Hawken rifles in his article in the May, 1967 issue of MUZZLE BLASTS. For some reason, he didn’t include that chapter in his book where more would have seen it and may have paid more attention to the detail. In Baird’s words, “The scroll guards found on early J&S Hawken rifles all tend to form a complete circle…Later [Sam] Hawken guards tended to be with a tighter, more oval form of scroll, with the rear portion nearly forming a right angle to the bottom of the stock.”
The classic Sam Hawken trigger guard that Baird described is shown on this original Sam Hawken marked rifle.
Track Of The Wolf currently offers a late Sam Hawken trigger guard that closely resembles the originals.
The reproduction trigger guard shown above were not commercially available during GRRW’s years of operation. It’s too bad they weren’t able to have them cast like their Leman guards and butt plates.
Another criticism of the GRRW Hawken seen mentioned on various online forums is that the butt plate on the Bridger Hawken pattern was actually cast from a butt plate on a Dimick rifle. We don’t know how to prove or disprove this claim. Someone may have or know of the Dimick rifle that was used as the pattern, but we haven’t seen any reference to it. Contrary to this rumor, the butt plate on their Commemorative rifles does look like it was patterned from the original Hawken.
The original late Hawken cast butt plate on the Bridger Hawken. (Click to enlarge image)
It is obvious that the reproduction Bridger butt plate (pictured below) has a slight curve or web where the comb meets the crescent on the inside corner. This is easily remedied by filing the curve to a square corner, which was done on the Bridger Commemorative. The butt plate appears to have been intentionally cast with the inside curve to satisfy the contractual agreement with MHS “that the model be destroyed and that GRRW would not make any more Bridger Hawkens for other customers”. GRRW did make and sell a late Sam Hawken rifle very similar to the Commemorative rifle, but they never referred to them as a Bridger Hawken, and they differed in some subtle details including leaving the curve on the butt plate instead filing it square. The other differences were in the length of the forearm, the detail on the entry pipe, and the barrel stampings. The Bridger Commemorative stamp was likely destroyed by GRRW, and they did not use the S. Hawken, St. Louis stamp on any other factory rifles that we know of, though a few rifles have been stamped with it subsequent to GRRW going out of business.
The only other makers of a semi-custom Hawken rifle that come close to being as faithful a reproduction of an original were Art Ressel’s The Hawken Shop offering and the current Kit Carson Hawken parts set from Don Stith. Anything better has to come from a custom builder. (Some may take umbrage with us for comparing a GRRW Hawken with Don Stith’s parts set. It may not be a fair comparison because Stith has had the benefit of the passage of time and a lot more research on Hawken rifles. Stith’s kits are more accurate/authentic, and they should be. Also, Stith may have an occasional rifle finished by some experienced builder on hand for sale, but he is primarily marketing his parts sets while GRRW’s core business was building and selling finished rifles.)
The opportunity to study and copy the original Bridger Hawken had a significant impact on the standard pattern of subsequent GRRW Hawken rifles. The Bridger Hawken, and similar rifles such as Kit Carson’s in the Masonic Lodge collection in New Mexico and the John “Liver Eating” Johnston’s in the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, was the apex of the evolutionary development of the original Hawken rifles. The GRRW Hawken pattern evolved to the same point with the pattern they developed in the process of building the Commemorative rifle. But that’s a story to be told in a future post.