Earl Lanning is a distinguished mentor of the current contemporary movement. His enthusiasm is contagious. His place in the whole scheme of things seems to be that of an educator, intent on drawing attention towards young budding artists deserving respect within this specialized field. A personal trait seems to be un-selfishly diverting credit he deserved to the attention and benefit of others. Earl is forever supporting and giving encouragement to young and excited students entering this highly competitive field. Such was with the historic chapter on gunmaking, found in "Foxfire 5", one of the series of books written by high school students of Rabon Gap, Georgia. "The Foxfire Books", focus on the lives and customs of the people of Southern Appalachia. Several of our most famous and prolific gunbuilders of today received their first publicity in this treatise and openly give Earl credit for coaching them into the craftsmen and artists they are today.
Bud Siler, which produced the locks that the most of us used on our first rifles, admits, “if it weren't for Earl Lanning there never would have been a "Siler" lock." Bud and Dottie Siler's high quality investment cast lock literally revolutionized the whole muzzleloading gunmaking industry. The "Siler" lock still to this day lends itself more than any other to custom modifications and decoration. Before the "Siler", builders had to use anything they could get their hands on. More often than not the locks that were readily available were less than dependable; resulting with the better builders resorting to re-building old original locks that had already been worn out for years.
Hershel House who started building guns full time in the late 1960's says, "the first wide butted pre-Revolutionary styled gun I ever saw was built by Earl Lanning...he was also the first person I ever saw doing any hammer chase type engraving.” Hershel has become quite a legend in his own time. His rifles have become the epitome of the southern school of contemporary longrifles.
Jim Chambers who's work was first featured in "Foxfire Five”, has now grown to be one of the leaders in the muzzleloading gunmaking industry. Not only has Jim earned himself the reputation of being one of the finest custom gunbuilders of our time but his company, Jim Chambers Flintlocks Ltd. offers a line of products that has set the standard for the entire muzzleloading industry. Jim started his endeavor to build his first gun when he was 15 years old and comments, "during my search for knowledge and information on the construction of flintlock rifles I happened to run upon Earl Lanning. Earl lived not far from my home and was (and still is) one of the most knowledgeable men in the country on the subject of Kentucky rifles, and he is considered by many to be one of the finest makers of Kentucky rifles around anywhere. He took me under his wing when he saw I was really interested in the old guns, and showed me what to do and what not to do. I was more or less an apprentice to Earl. He helped me complete that first rifle. He did about as much work on it as I did..."
Jud Brennan, another well known and highly respected builder, mentioned during a resent conversation, “the one gun that influenced my early days of gunbuilding more than any other was the rifle that Earl Lanning calls "Genesis." The rifle Jud mentions here was built in the early sixties and can boast that it has Siler lock number #1" filling its lock mortise. This rifle was featured in William Buchele's book, Recreating the American Longrifle , first published in 1966. More than a few of us have worn this publication ragged during our quest to learn how to build a Kentucky rifle. Earl says this rifle is a product of the influence of Joe Kindig. He would take rifles he had built copying the designs he saw on originals in Kindigs collection for old Joe to critique. Joe encouraged him...praising him for his execution... but scolding him for copying the originals. "When are you going to use your imagination? When am I going to see an Earl Lanning rifle?" Earl says that when he presented him with "Genesis", his words were... "Boy...now this is Earl Lanning!"
Earl F. Lanning was born in Haywood County, North Carolina , October 2, 1932. His interest in American history started early in life and ironically actually started to blossom when his family moved to the heart of New York City. Earl’s father had been a Naval Intelligence Officer and was a micro film expert. In spring 1944, he was transferred to New York City to manage a microfilm lab that happened to be located in the Empire State Building. During this time Earl was attending McBurney private school just off Columbus Circle. Being very bored with city life, most days after school he would spend his afternoons roaming the exhibits of Armor Hall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Being around the age of 11 or 12, much of his time during these highly impressionable years were spent obtaining an education that would prove to serve him incredibly more that anything ever learned while sitting in a classroom. During this time he developed great interest into the whole realm of fine Americana, ranging from colonial arms and fine art to Chippendale furniture. He bought his first piece, a sword from the William Randolph Hurst collection, at 12 years of age. In conversation with Bonnie, Earl’s wife of 45 years, she comments, "Earls mother often said, he just never seemed to be a child."
Feeling like fish out of water, mid-year 1945 Earl's family returned home to North Carolina . Joining the military in 1950, Earl served with Naval combat forces during the Korean War and served as an advisor to the French Foreign Legion during the early years of Viet Nam. He was honorably discharged in 1953. Earl Lanning built his first flintlock rifle in 1955. In 1973 he started teaching a Gunbuilding class at Haywood community College. This class graduated over 200 students with a tenure spanning a total of 13 years. When ask what he found the most challenging aspect of his teaching career, he quickly answered, "undoubtedly promoting the concept that what we seek is within ourselves."
Mentors Jones and Pippert
Earl gives the credit for the mechanics of his gunbuilding to old time mountain gunsmith Vee Jones. Earl has taken me to the very spot where he built his first rifle. Vee still makes rifles in this shop that will shoot with any being made in this country today. It's a beautiful little shop sitting about half way up a mountain, with a little stream just about 5 or 6 feet wide, running right behind it. Vee himself has quite a reputation as a marksman, still holding the record for the best "X" ever shot at the famous Cataloochee shooting match. Using a rifle he had built on a Bill Large barrel, he put three .45 caliber balls in one hole, dead center of the "X". This was in 1959.
The artistic aspect of Earl's work was encouraged and influenced greatly by Carl Pippert of Bladensburg, Maryland. Carl was truly one of the first in this century to master the art and craft of 18th century gunbuilding and style. Even as early as the 1950's, Carl was producing rifles that were not only correct in line and design, but were also not copies of anything. He was one of the first to be able to build within a particular geographical gunbuilding "school", not copying, but producing unique rifles that were easily recognized as belonging to that school.
The Old Days
In conversation with Earl he comments, " I shot my first flintlock rifle when I was seven years old. Even as a small boy, I always had a deep interest in frontier history. Perhaps the reason for this was my family’s involvement in the French and Indian war, the Revolution, and the trying years of the Indian wars. I used to sit and listen to my Grandfather Judge E.P. Ball tell stories about my families history and the early settlements of western North Carolina. My kinfolk's really had experienced the everyday trials and tribulations of frontier life and from early on I loved to listen to tales of them hard but exciting times. "
Earl Lanning says that he will never go down in history for being a great gun builder. He does feels very fortunate realizing that being an antique arms collector has afforded him the opportunity to handle, own, and become intimate with many of the grand old originals. Although Earl is not one to brag about his own talents, I believe that the combination of great ability and 65 years of aggressive collecting, quite probably he has an insight into the subtlety of 18th century stock architecture and design that few modern day gunmakers will ever have the fortune of experiencing.
Mel Hankla, Kentucky