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 brother’s rifles during this period made these their most prolific years. But this was nothing compared to the heyday the Hawken enjoyed in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
THE BIRTH OF A LEGEND
Ironically, the popularity of the Hawken rifle, well after the fur trade had declined, may have been the inspiration for its legend as “the mountain man’s choice”. The beginning of the legend can be traced to George Ruxton’s novel Life in the Far West, which was published in serial form in 1848 and book form in 1849. Ruxton has his hero, La Bonte, purchasing a Hawken rifle in 1825. Other authors and editors in the 1850’s, such as Lewis Garrard in Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail (1850), Lieutenant George Brewerton in a series of articles for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1854-1862), and Dr. DeWitt C. Petters who had Kit Carson’s autobiography expanded and published in 1958-59, embellished the legend of the fur trapper and his Hawken in their writings. By the time that Sam Hawken was interviewed for an article in the Missouri Democrat in 1882, it was claimed that, “Fifty years ago the man who went West was not equipped unless he carried a Hawkins Rocky Mountain Rifle.”
The legend was kept alive by Horace Kephart when he published his first article on the Hawken rifle in 1896 and later articles in the 1920’s. James E. Serven wrote several articles on Hawken rifles in the late 1940’s and 1950’s that continued to perpetuate the legend. Next to pick up the banner was John Barsotti in 1954. Charles E. Hanson, Jr. sparked renewed interest in Hawken rifles with publication of his book, The Plains Rifle, in 1960 with statements like, “Together they [Jacob and Samual Hawken] eventually developed a reputation for the best in ‘Mountain Rifles’ that was never approached by any other maker.” Hanson cites Ruxton, Kephart, Barsotti, and Serven frequently as sources for statements such as, “Many old long rifles were shortened and rebuilt for these lusty customers, but gradually new rifles from Jake’s shop took their places. In addition the Hawken shop began to furnish all the guns for the Missouri Fur Company.”
The snow ball really got rolling by the time John D. Baird first published his series of articles entitled “Hawken Rifles, The Mountain Man’s Choice” beginning in February 1967 issue of Muzzle Blast magazine. The series was first published in book form as Hawken Rifles: The Mountain Man’s Choice in 1968 and had many additional printings in the 1970’s. Baird was heavily influenced by the writings of James Serven, Ned Roberts, John Barsotti, and especially Charles E. Hanson, Jr. The legend of the Hawken rifle had fully matured with Baird’s book.
THE BLACK POWDER RESURGENCE
Even though muzzleloaders and black powder shooting continued to be common well into the 20th century in certain parts of the country such as the Appalachia Mountains, and saw a small revival with the formation of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) in 1933, it was the Civil War Centennial that sparked a renewed national interest in black powder arms. In addition to the Civil War reenactments, other groups were formed that focused on specific periods in US history. These included the Colonial Period with emphasis on the French and Indian War and the War for Independence as well as the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Era. All across the country, but particularly in the West, interest in the Fur Trade, Mountain Men, and pre-1840 rendezvous reenactments coincided with a growing interest in the Hawken. The beginning of the second Heyday of the Hawken is easily marked by the publication of Baird’s two books (1968 and 1971) and the introduction of Thompson Center’s so called Hawken rifle in 1970. What began as a strong interest in the Hawken became a craze after the release of the film, Jeremiah Johnson, in 1972.
His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains. Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none. He was looking for a Hawken gun, .50 caliber or better. He settled for a .30, but damn, it was a genuine Hawken, and you couldn’t go no better.
It was a perfect storm of the resurgence in black powder shooting, rediscovery of the Fur Trade era, a book, a movie, and a legend about a rifle that had been fermenting for 150 years.
Early enthusiasts were able to cobble together components to custom build Hawken rifles in the 1960’s from parts supplied by the likes of Bill Large, Bob Roller, Wes Kindig, and Harold Robbins. Here are ads from some early 1965 issues of Muzzle Blasts to illustrate what was available in the mid-60’s.
A person could order their barrel from Large; get their stock, a Roller lock, and most of the furniture from Kindig’s Log Cabin Shop; and get a set of blue prints from John Baird. But that still left some critical parts such as breech & tang and triggers to be sourced elsewhere or made by hand.
As the demand for component parts increased, people stepped in to satisfy that demand such as Lee Paul of Yreka, California, and Bud Brown of Lodi, Ohio. Lee Paul offered a full set of parts and even finished rifles in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Bud Brown through his Cherry Corners Mfg. Co. began by offering a Hawken lock by 1970 and ended up supplying a complete Hawken kit by 1974.
For a while, Ohio was at the epicenter for the coming Hawken craze. Bill Large was located there and both Wes Kindig’s Log Cabin Sport Shop and Bud Brown’s Cherry Corners Mfg. Co. were located in Lodi, Ohio. But the story would soon be moving west.
THE FIRST SEMI-CUSTOM, SEMI-PRODUCTION HAWKEN RIFLE
At the beginning of the second Heyday of the Hawken, the person that wanted a Hawken had three choices
- Buy something Thompson Center called a Hawken but more closely resembled a Dimick or a California rifle of the 1850-60’s.
- Pay a custom builder to make a more authentic but expensive custom Hawken.
- Buy the parts and attempt to build as near an authentic Hawken as their research and abilities allowed.
A couple of guys in Utah had a different idea. In March of 1972, they formed a company called Green River Rifle Works in their hometown of Roosevelt. Working out of one of their garages, they started out making a replica half stock Leman trade rifle. This rifle was easier to build, and one they chose to cut their teeth on, but all the while they planned on making an authentic Hawken rifle using some production line techniques that would produce a semi-custom rifle more people could afford. They introduced the GRRW Hawken in 1973, just as the craze was building steam.
The first 30 or so were more experimental in their architecture and quality as they tried different component parts and manufacturing techniques. By serial number 40, they had expanded their shop, hired more workers, and standardized component parts. GRRW developed a set pattern that used a William Morgan lock (the one with cast-in engraving and “J&S Hawken” on the lock plate), a Douglas barrel, a Cherry Corners breech and tang, and most often Cherry Corners triggers, butt plate, and trigger guard. To ensure fewer rejects and speed manufacturing, they used a router to form the ramrod channel in the forearm, which was safer than drilling the ramrod hole full length and risk the bit wondering up, down, or to the side. Small parts were made in their own machine shop such as rear sights, thimbles, barrel wedges and staples, and a two-piece, handmade nose cap that was very similar to some found on original J&S Hawken and S Hawken marked rifles.
The GRRW Hawken rifle was well received in the market, and they soon found that the demand for the Hawken and Leman Trade Rifle exceeded their supply chain, particularly for barrels. In 1974, they started making their own barrels, and quickly developed a product line for just the barrels.
The GRRW machine shop produced the barrels, assembled locks and triggers from parts kits, fabricated the small metal parts, and fitted breech plugs, underribs, thimbles, and staples. Stocks were rough shaped on stock duplicators and skilled craftsmen stocked the rifles, inletting all the parts in the stock and performing final shaping. The assembled rifles were next sent to the finishing rooms for final sanding, stain and hand rubbed oil finishes were applied to the stocks while the steel parts received a browned finish and brass parts were polished. This quasi-assembly line resulted in a semi-custom rifle. GRRW continued to improve their manufacturing techniques in an attempt to stay ahead of inflation while steadily improving the quality of the finished product.
GRRW’s success prompted others to enter the market. Green River Forge was the first with a replica of a Northwest trade gun in 1974. Sharon Rifle Barrel Co. soon followed, first with muzzleloader barrels in 1974, then a Hawken kit in 1976. Ithaca Gun Co. decided to enter the black powder gun market, purchased Cherry Corners Mfg. Co. in 1976, and began producing the Ithaca Hawken at the beginning of 1977. Mountain Arms, later to become Ozark Mountain Arms, was next to enter the market in 1977 with a copy of a copy of one of the Hawken rifles in Art Ressel’s collection. Art Ressel had opened The Hawken Shop a few years earlier as a muzzleloader store, but it wasn’t until 1977 that he began offering parts for a Hawken rifle that were cast from originals in his collection. The Italian company, A. Uberti & Co., and Leonard Allen’s Western Arms Corp worked together to bring to market the Santa Fe Hawken rifle in 1979. Uberti’s Hawken was clearly the most successful, selling as many as 10,000 finished rifles and kits, and lasting into the early 2000’s.
Sharon Rifle Barrel Co
Sharon Rifle Barrel Co. began producing quality muzzleloader barrels around 1974 and started making Hawken kits in 1976. Sharon offered a half stock and a full stock Hawken along with a smooth bore English fowling piece and a less common trade rifle. Sharon’s Hawken kits were well received in the marketplace, helped by the positive reputation their barrels had established. As happened to many companies in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Sharon Rifle Barrel Co. encountered financial difficulties caused by the multiple economic recessions and double digit inflation and closed in 1978.
Sharon’s early ads claimed they made their own parts. This appears to be true of some of the component parts, but the locks and triggers were from L&R and carried the L&R stamp on the inside of the lock plate. The breech plug & tang, ramrod thimbles, particularly the lower entry pipe, barrel wedge escutcheons, and butt plate are unique to the Sharon kits and likely of their own design and/or manufacture. The shape of the snail on the breech plug is unique to Sharon, and so distinctive that it easily identifies a rifle as a likely Sharon kit.
The lower entry pipe is another distinguishing feature, but it may not be obvious on a finished rifle. The entry pipe is a cast piece that does not have the traditional skirt. The front pipe section and the rear skirt section were cast as one solid piece with tapered sides to facilitate inletting into the stock. A hole was drilled through this solid piece for the ramrod. It was probably designed this way to make it easier to pre-inlet the stock as well as making it easier for less experienced builders to properly inlet.
The full stock Hawken kit came with a flat-to-wrist trigger guard. The breech bolster had the same unique snail shape as the half stock, but it was a fixed patent breech rather than a hooked one. The lock and triggers were the same on the full stock and half stock.
Sharon finished a few rifles in their factory for sale, but mostly sold the kits.
The Sharon kits, in the hands of a skilled builder, could be made into a respectable Hawken replica. The classic lines were there. The components were quality. The barrels had a good reputation for accuracy and are still sought after today. They could be made to represent either an early pattern J&S Hawken or a later Sam Hawken pattern.
The inventory of Sharon Hawken kits were likely sold during the bankruptcy proceedings for a company called Old West Arms in Lakewood, CO continued to sell Sharon kits for a couple years after Sharon went out of business.
The barrel making equipment went to a separate company, also located in Colorado, but this time in Colorado Springs, called Hayden-Holmes. It lasted less than a year before it went bankrupt.
Sharon’s impact in the market is disproportionate to their time on the market. Their actual production run was less than two years with enough inventory built up at the time the company went under that another company was able to continue sales post-bankruptcy for another year or two. This speaks well to their quality and desirability.
For more detail on the history of Sharon Rifle Barrel Co. and their guns, go here.
The Hawken Shop
Art Ressel of St. Louis, had acquired some of the equipment of the original Hawken shop from J. P. Gemmer’s descendants as well as collected several original Hawken rifles. Ressel opened The Hawken Shop in St. Louis and started offering Hawken parts such butt plate, triggers, trigger guard, nose cap, hammer, and entry pipe that were cast from a couple of his original Hawken rifles in 1977.
By 1980, Ressel had assembled a complete parts set or kit for a late Sam Hawken rifle. The kit included a lock built with his own lost-wax casting of an original T. Gibbon lock plate and internals assembled by noted locksmiths Bob Roller, Ron Long, and Al Shillinger as well as a barrel from Bill Large. In the early 1980’s, The Hawken Shop sold a few assembled rifles built by professional riflesmiths, but as custom rifles, they were twice the cost of a GRRW Hawken and had limited sales. The Hawken Shop rifles were arguably the most authentic Hawken rifles available in the 1980’s as their key component parts were cast from originals. Quality came at a high price and apparently few kits were sold and even fewer finished rifles.
For personal reasons, Art Ressel had to close The Hawken Shop, and it was placed on the market for sale in 1987. Greg Roberts and Claudette Greene purchased “The Hawken Shop” from Art Ressel in December of 1990 and relocated the entire shop to their group of family owned businesses in Oak Harbor, WA. The Oak Harbor Hawken Shop still offers Art Ressel’s Hawken rifle kit using his original castings. It is still the most expensive Hawken kit on the market.
For more detail on the history of Art Ressel’s The Hawken Shop and their guns, go here.
Ozark Mountain Arms
A company called Mountain Arms (later Ozark Mountain Arms) also tried their hands at producing an affordable authentic Hawken replica in 1977.
This company has a convoluted history. Milt Hudson founded the company called Mountain Arms Inc. in Ozark, MO. It appears to have started producing Hawken rifles in 1977.
In 1979, Milt Hudson left Mountain Arms Inc. and formed a new company called The Hawken Armory located in Ozark, MO. Mr. Hudson had apparently been crowded out of Mountain Arms Inc. by some new partners he had taken in. The new owners changed the name of the company to Ozark Mountain Arms and moved it to Branson, MO. The company operated there until late 1983 or beginning of 1984 when it changed hands again and was moved to Ashdown, AR. In the meantime, The Hawken Armory had apparently changed owners and moved to Hot Springs, AR in 1981.
It’s not clear how long The Hawken Armory operated in Hot Springs, AR, but the Ashdown, AR version of the Ozark Mountain Arms continued operating until at least 1987.
In an editorial in the November 1977 issue of Buckskin Report, John Baird had this to say about the rifle,
The Mountain Arms Hawken replica is an excellent piece…However, for the record, their rifle is a near copy of a rifle made by Ed White (now deceased), who used Art Ressel’s original S. Hawken as his model; the same rifle we pictured on page 30 of Hawken Rifles, The Mountain Man’s Choice…We say ‘near copy’ because, in the interests of mass production, some modifications were necessary in the Mountain Arms version, i.e.: 1” barrel instead of a 1⅛” tapered barrel as on the original, minor variation in hardware, etc. Mountain Arms’ Hawken replica is, in fact, a copy of a copy…
The Hawken Shop Hawken has parts that were cast from at least two originals in Ressel’s collection. The Ozark Mtn. Arms Hawken is a copy of a copy of one of those two originals. So in a way, the two replicas are interpretations of the same original Hawken. I once thought that Ozark Mtn. Arms used some of The Hawken Shop parts on their rifle, but now realize that isn’t the case. The Ozark Mtn. Arms parts developed independently.
The rifles were offered stocked in maple or walnut.
The Ozark Mtn. Arms Hawken is a good lookin’ rifle, especially with the fancy wood. As Baird pointed out, it is not an exact duplicate of an original Hawken. The biggest compromise is in the 1” straight octagon barrel, but that isn’t too bad since the 1” barrel makes for an easy handling rifle.
For more detail on the history of Ozark Mountain Arms and their guns, go here.
After several years of operation, Bud Brown, owner of Cherry Corners, found it difficult to keep up with the demand for their component parts and sold their whole Hawken business to Ithaca Gun Company in July 1976. Ithaca produced their first Hawken prototype in 1976 and began marketing the rifles at the beginning of 1977.
The Ithaca Hawken was the first mass produced Hawken that looked like a Hawken. It was offered as a finished rifle and also in kit form in .50 caliber only. It was a decent copy of a late Sam Hawken rifle, but not as authentic as the rifles discussed above.
Ithaca launched an aggressive ad campaign with advertisements in all the muzzleloader magazines and other modern gun magazines throughout 1977. After less than two years of production, Ithaca sold the Hawken line to Navy Arms who continued to offer a Navy Arms/Ithaca Hawken that was made in the USA with the Cherry Corners parts well into the 1980’s. Economics finally persuaded them to start importing Uberti Hawken rifles made in Italy and marketed as Navy Arms/Ithaca Hawken.
For more detail on the history of the Ithaca Hawken, go here.
Uberti/Santa Fe Hawken
Uberti started development of their Hawken rifle in cooperation with Leonard Allen of Western Arms Corp out of Santa Fe, NM about the same time that the Ithaca Hawken was being produced. Western Arms Corp first advertised the new Uberti “Santa Fe” Hawken in the middle of 1978. The Santa Fe Hawken was a reasonable replica of a late Sam Hawken rifle, but a notch below the Ithaca Hawken.
It is obvious that Uberti copied either an Ithaca Hawken or a custom Hawken rifle built from Cherry Corners parts because the Uberti Santa Fe Hawken so closely resembles a Cherry Corners/Ithaca Hawken. The Santa Fe Hawken reached the market in 1979.
With encouragement from John Baird, Leonard Allen was also working with Uberti to make an exact replica of a J&S Hawken rifle in the Montana Historical Society museum. Ed Webber built the prototype rifle for Uberti to duplicate, and Uberti did ship Allen a few samples of what was known as the Baird-Webber J&S Hawken and even had plans for Uberti to open a manufacturing facility in the USA to make the Baird-Webber J&S Hawken, but the rifle never got into production due to either manufacturing challenges or Allen’s legal and financial difficulties or possibly both. Allen was forced to change the name of his company or face a lawsuit from Olin Corporation. It later split into to two different companies—one called Western Gun Store and the other Allen Firearms Mfg. Company. When Allen Firearms went out of business in the 1980’s, its inventory was purchased by Old-West Gun Co., now Cimarron Firearms. Cimarron F.A. continued to market the Santa Fe Hawken from Uberti, and Uberti also sold their Hawken rifles through other distributors such as The Log Cabin Shop and Track of the Wolf. The Hawken was listed in Uberti’s catalogs as recent as the early 2000’s.
For more detail on the history of the Santa Fe Hawken and Uberti Hawken, go here.
Green River Forge
Green River Forge never built a Hawken rifle, but they did compete with GRRW in the semi-custom muzzleloader market. The company was started by Frank Straight in the early 1970’s in Bellevue, WA. The company started out selling patterns for period clothing as well as some apparel and accessories for 17th and 18th century reenactments. In 1974, they advertised their first muzzleloader, a copy of a Barnett Northwest trade gun. They followed up with a Hudson’s Bay Factor’s Pistol and a half stock flintlock rifle called the Astorian.
The business was sold in early 1977 and moved to Springfield, OR. That year, the new Green River Forge was advertising a new rifle they called the Oregon Territory Rifle as a second cousin to the Hawken. This was a percussion half stock rifle with two barrel keys, brass mounts, and a GRRW barrel.
By 1980, the company was sold again to Bill Brandenburg, the business manager of Green River Rifle Works, and moved to Roosevelt, Utah. Brandenburg would eventually move the company again, this time to California. It’s not clear if Brandenburg ever built or sold any guns while he owned the company.
Green River Forge has often been confused with Green River Rifle Works due to the similarity in their names. It didn’t help when Green River Forge began advertising their guns with GRRW barrels. Once the company was moved to GRRW’s home town, the confusion only got worse.
For more detail on the history of Green River Forge and their guns, go here.
Pedersoli also entered the market with a Hawken replica that is very similar to the Uberti Hawken in appearance. Pedersoli entrance was after the Heyday of the Hawken, but it is the only one still being made today.
The market was so big during the Heyday of the Hawken in the 1970’s and early 1980’s that other companies such as CVA started importing rifles from Italy and Spain that they called Hawken rifles. These were no more authentic looking than the TC Hawken, but competed directly with it. Lyman entered the market with a rifle that has some similarities to a Hawken, but they wisely called it the Great Plains Rifle.
With all this competition, no other company offered the variety and available options on a Hawken rifle that Green River Rifle Works did. Their Hawken pattern evolved over time not too unlike the original rifles, culminating in a very authentic late pattern Sam Hawken rifle as a result of their collaboration with the Montana Historical Society on the Bridger Commemorative project.
The other semi-custom manufactures never achieved the size of GRRW either. At its peak, GRRW had over 20 employees and offered as many as five different Hawken and Leman models as well as a Tennessee Mountain rifle called the Poor Boy, a Trappers Pistol, and for a short while, a Northwest trade gun. Sharon came the closet to GRRW’s scale with their barrel making operation and their kits, but they didn’t come near to producing as many factory finished rifles as GRRW.
The rifle from Ressel’s The Hawken Shop was the only one that was more authentic than GRRW’s rifles. It was a true custom rifle, never produced on the scale of GRRW, and was almost twice as expensive, so far fewer of them were sold.
Green River Rifle Works struggled with suppliers and creditors through the multiple recessions and the double digit inflation of the 1970’s and finally succumbed to the adverse economy in September, 1980. Even though they went out of business before the Heyday of the Hawken ended, they are still the rifles that all the other semi-customs are compared to.
Several people tried to continue the GRRW tradition in different reincarnations.
The barrel making equipment moved from Roosevelt to Duchesne, Utah, then to Grand Junction, Colorado and finally on to Las Vegas, Nevada—the latter continuing to operate into 1990.
Separate from the barrel manufacturing, other companies such as Rocky Mountain Rifle Works of Kaysville, Utah, Oregon Trail Riflesmiths of Boise, Idaho, and H. E. Leman Gun Co. of Myton, Utah made copies of GRRW rifles well into the 1980’s.
Not everybody was a fan of the Hawken rifle. This letter was published in the January-February 1979 issue of Muzzleloader and expressed the sentiments of more than a few.
Charles E. Hanson, Jr. let some of the air out of the Hawken bubble with publication of his book, The Hawken Rifle: Its Place in History, in 1979. The Hawken craze had become too much for him to endure as a historian. With exhaustive research, he documented that the Hawken rifle wasn’t as common in the fur trapping brigades and at the Mountain Man rendezvous as the legend would lead one to believe. Some see it as a rebuttal to Baird’s Hawken Rifes: The Mountain Man’s Choice, but Hanson was primarily correcting many of his own miss-statements in his book, The Plains Rifle. In fact, Baird published a very favorable review of The Hawken Rifle: Its Place in History and Hanson responded with a complimentary letter to the editor, so there doesn’t appear to have been any animosity between the two.
The end of the Heyday of the Hawken really came about as a result of changing tastes and new fads coming on the scene towards the end of the 1980’s. Baird likely saw it coming and may have contributed a little to it when he started publishing his new magazine, Black Powder Cartridge Rifles. Many diehard Hawken enthusiasts started hanging up their well-used Hawken rifles and began competing in BPCR contests. Ron Long sold his Hawken lock, trigger, and breech plug business in December 1981 to focus full time on BPCR. Those that weren’t drawn to BPCR often went head-over-heels into Cowboy Action Shooting.
One-by-one, GRRW’s competitors in the semi-custom Hawken market went out of business in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
But those were shining times while they lasted!
 Charles E. Hanson, Jr. The Hawken Rifle: Its Place in History. (Chadron, Nebraska, 1979) pg. 55-56.
 Charles E. Hanson, Jr. The Plains Rifle. (The Gun Room Press, Highland Park, New Jersey, 1960) pg 9.
 Hanson, op. cit., pg. 33.