Haywood County native Earl Lanning has been called by the Contemporary Longrifle Association, “…truly one of the founding fathers of this whole contemporary movement, the revival of the American flintlock rifle.” Lanning is dedicated to preserving and teaching the art of making Kentucky longrifles, a firearm form that developed in the mid-eighteenth century on the American frontier, and was a specialty of gunsmiths in the North Carolina hills from the time of the Great Wagon Road until the twentieth century. Though the form was practically extinct by the 1950s, it underwent a revival in the hands of a new generation of craftsmen, and today is once again a popular art.
Earl Lanning’s ancestors were early settlers in Buncombe and Haywood County, during the frontier days around 1800 when the longrifle was in its heyday. He has told Flintlock Magazine, “I used to sit and listen to my grandfather, Judge E. P. Ball, tell stories about my family’s history and the early settlements of Western North Carolina. My kinfolks really had experienced the everyday trials and tribulations of frontier life, and from early on I loved to listen to tales of the hard but exciting times.”
Lanning was born and grew up in Haywood County, but it was during a brief spell in his childhood when the family lived in New York City, when Earl was about twelve years old, that what he has called his “love for American antiquities” developed, on visits to the armor collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though his love of history was the direct root of his eventual decision to become a gunsmith, Lanning grew up handling flintlock rifles, so he knew them from personal experience as well as scholarship.
He credits mountain gunsmith Vee Jones with teaching him the mechanical side of rifle building, and Maryland craftsman Carl Pippert, one of the earliest proponents of the longrifle revival, as an artistic influence. Much of his skill also comes from self-instruction, studying examples from the days when, as he told a Western Carolina University interviewer, “people needed rifles just like they needed ploughs and pots and pans.”
Today, Lanning is the one doing the teaching, serving as a highly regarded mentor to today’s young gunsmiths. He still builds and hunts with his longrifles, and “once in a while sell(s) one.” He also demonstrates his art at Mountain Heritage Day and other area festivals.
Earl Lanning gives demonstrations at festivals, living history days, and other events.