TAI’s most recent Rotating Exhibit Network series includes a panel on southwest Indiana rifle maker Marvin Kemper. Working from his home workshop in Wadesville, Kemper builds Kentucky long rifles inspired both by historical examples as well as by the work of his father, career rifle maker Cornell Kemper.
I first heard of Marvin Kemper’s work while conducting survey fieldwork in Pike County in 2011. Many people in the region who take interest in pioneer arts look to Kemper as an example of excellence in rifle craftsmanship. Tom Talley, who makes hunting bows in Petersburg, suggested I get in touch with Kemper and gave me his phone number. Although Wadesville was outside of my focus area, I reached out to Kemper based on his outstanding reputation. We spent a few hours one evening at his workshop discussing his history as a rifle maker and the techniques he uses to produce his work. In the following excerpt from the interview, Kemper tells me about growing up as the child of a rifle maker and his transition into learning the craft:
Joe O’Connell: The first thing I wanted to ask you about was how you came about learning gun building. What was it like to be around your dad’s work, and how did that influence your learning?
Marvin Kemper: My dad, right after World War II became a cabinet maker for a period of years and through an acquaintance was encouraged to try his hand at basically re-stocking old original Kentucky long rifles–literally taking busted up rifles from the 18th century and the 19th century and taking all the parts off them and making new guns from them. So, that was taking place before I was even born. My dad was a full-time Kentucky rifle maker by 1952. I was born in ’59, so as a little boy playing out in his gun shop, he was very willing to allow me to just kind of hang around his shop and play in the dust and the dirt. I’ve even got his original gun bench. It has rat tail file grooves all around the edge. He would just let me stand there and file grooves and–I think back on that now–it’s a simple thing, but it’s a very meaningful thing. So I was just around it. My dad made over 3,000 Kentucky rifles in his lifetime so it was just something I was around all the time. You know, my true appreciation for it did not really surface, I would say, until I was in my early 20s, out of college and kind of living on my own. I thought, you know, I’ve been around this. I know it. It was something I wanted to try my hand at, so I got started on working with my dad somewhat at that point, back in the early 1980s. And then, over time, I started getting some orders and developed my skill at it. That’s how I, quite simply, was exposed to it–by growing up around it.
Our REN exhibit on Kemper showcases the intricate detail of his rifles, explores his technical processes, and discusses the place of his work in family and community tradition. The display can be seen at libraries around the state along with other exhibits in TAI’s current Rotating Exhibit Network series.
To see more of and learn more about Marvin’s work, please visit his Liberty Longrifles website: