Gunmaking Legacy Continues in Rural Indiana
Please enjoy this article about Marvin Kemper, who is an amazing builder living in Indiana.
The article is by a guest author Amber Kirk.
In the early fifties, the contemporary longrifle movement was still decades from becoming the popular area of interest that now includes a countless number of artisans crafting fine Kentucky rifles, horns, bags, knives and related items. Shortly after returning from the Battle of the Bulge in 1945, Cornell Kemper of Ferdinand, Indiana, began building custom cabinetry for the homebuilding trade. Through the encouragement of a local school teacher and avid gun collector, he would soon apply his skills to crafting Kentucky rifles from the myriad of old busted up Kentuckies that were collecting dust in closets, attics and in gun dealer shops throughout the country. Little did he know that running an ad in a number of national publications that read “Building fancy Kentucky Rifles from your old parts,” would result in droves of requests for newly stocked longrifles. At times, gun dealers would box up and send Cornell 5 or 10 old rifles or an assortment of used parts. By 1952, he was building Kentucky rifles on a fulltime basis. He would continue his craft for nearly fifty years, building his last rifle in 2000 at the age of 84. He was a prolific builder who amassed several thousand rifles over his career. Cornell and his wife, Doris, would raise six daughters and one son, Marvin.
In the early 1960s, a very young Marvin Kemper would spend countless hours playing in the piles of sawdust and wood scraps under the bench in his father’s gunshop. Cornell would exercise great patience and perhaps wisdom in allowing his son to experience his trade, even at a pre-school age. Essentially, Marvin was born into the trade. Today, he still possesses his father’s old bench, complete with all the battle scars of a lifetime of gunmaking. It even includes a number of grooves in the edges where Marvin first polished his skills with a rat-tail file…albeit at the age of 5. Like so many of the gunsmithing families of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became apparent that Marvin’s daily exposure to his father’s craft would prepare him to carry on the craft. Marvin would build his first rifle at the age of thirteen and continue with various additional rifles of increasing complexity as time went on. Cornell always outsourced the engraving of his rifles. When his engraver moved to Colorado in 1991, he was left without an engraver. Marvin found this to be appropriate time to teach himself this skill and was soon engraving his father’s work. While college, marriage and childrearing consumed much of Marvin’s time over the years, he always maintained a serious interest in the longrifle and continued a dedicated hobby of gunmaking. In the spring of 2013, he made a decision to move away from his corporate “day” job and follow in his father’s footsteps on a full-time basis.
Marvin Kemper now builds quality Kentucky longrifles and pistols on a custom order basis. Each piece is typically equipped with flintlock ignition and premium components fitted into a curly maple stock. All are built from the blank and thus, can be built to replicate the work of virtually any of the original Golden Age Kentucky rifles and pistols. Embellishments include relief and/or incised carving, as well as inlays of brass and coin silver. Certain pieces also include fine silver wire inlay. All are engraved in a style consistent with the original makers. Marvin does not consider himself a niche builder, as he finds great fulfillment in building in a broad range of styles. Like many gunmakers, he crafts replicas of the Golden Age arms from Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina regions. He has expanded his work to include a number of accurate replicas of the rifles made by the Bryan family of Lexington Kentucky. One such rifle was recently built and donated to the Contemporary Longrifle Foundation for their annual live auction at the Contemporary Longrifle Association show in Lexington.
Marvin resides near the small town of Wadesville, Indiana, located in Southwest Indiana. He spends each day working the metal and wood that ultimately are transformed into a completed rifle or pistol. When asked what compels him to continue his father’s legacy, he recants, “Like my Dad, I find great joy in producing lonrifles that may ultimately be around hundreds of years from now. Perhaps the greatest indication that my work is genuinely appreciated comes when I have a repeat customer.”