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Bettis rifles continue to captivate

POSTED: February 5, 2013 12:31 a.m.
Autumn Vetter/

Phill Bettis inspects some Bettis rifles that were handcrafted by his ancestor, Phillip C. Bettis, in the mid-1800s.

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It’s been more than a century since his great-great-grandfather worked the forge and other tools used to create them.

But despite the passage of time, whenever Phill Bettis holds a Bettis rifle in his hands, he feels a special connection to his ancestor.

“It is an awesome experience,” Bettis told a group of about 50 members of the Camp 1642 Sons of the Confederate Veterans group, when asked what it’s like to hold one of rifles and know a family member had made it.

“You wonder what his dreams were, what he wanted to see and how did the [Civil War] change that, and what hopes did he have.”

Bettis, a south Forsyth attorney and contributing columnist to the Forsyth County News, brought a couple of the rifles that were handcrafted by his namesake, Phillip C. Bettis, in the 1800s to the recent meeting, which was held at the Bell Research Center inside the Cumming Playhouse.

Phillip C. Bettis was born in 1835 and died in 1884.

“So he almost made it to 60. For that era, that’s pretty good,” Bettis said.  

He came to Forsyth County from Spartanburg County, S.C., probably as a teenager, bringing his trades of blacksmithing and rifle making with him.

Bettis said it’s unclear exactly how his ancestor learned the trades, but he guessed it was probably from a relative.

Phillip Bettis’ skill set was unique, however, in that not everyone who knew blacksmithing could create rifles.

“This was another level of blacksmithing,” he said. “And you think about the skills involved, this included woodworking and brass working.”

According to Bettis, his ancestor’s production operation likely was the first manufacturing facility in the county, although a far cry from what modern Americans think of when they hear the term.

The process consisted of just Bettis, a forge, handheld tools and perhaps some of his five children helping him.

“You would have had grist mills and that sort of thing, but as far as manufacturing, I don’t know of anything that predates this,” Bettis said.

He noted that the skills were useful, especially since farming probably wasn’t too easy in Forsyth.

“This was not the best area to farm since it’s so hilly,” he said. “This was probably one of the first manufacturing facilities in Forsyth County and I’m not just saying that because he’s a relative.”

It’s suspected that Phillip Bettis had two manufacturing shops, from which he also would have sold the rifles. One has been confirmed off Post Road in the Vickery Creek area.

“He could have had another location, and that’s a little spooky because it’s about 200 yards from my home, but we’re still trying to prove that one,” Bettis said. “That was on Bentley Road.”

The rifles were “utilitarian,” said Bettis, noting they “mostly were used to hunt squirrels and rabbits … to put food on the table.”  

Still, most of them have decorative touches, such as “little stars or curly q’s” on the barrel tip. Others have brass “patch boxes” on the side of butt and brass rings at the end of the barrel.

“He just had to add a little flourish to it,” Bettis said.

Phillip Bettis served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, likely not seeing much in the way of battle due to his high skill level. He probably spent most of his time away from the battlefields, working to repair weapons, his great-great-grandson said.

He said it’s ironic that every Bettis rifle is emblazoned with his ancestor’s signature, yet his army payroll records show something much different.

“It’s funny because his payroll records in the army, he always just put an ‘X,’ Bettis said. “But he could sign a gun barrel.”

Besides the signature, the Bettis rifles always also feature a silver sight, created from a coin cut in half.

It’s estimated that Phillip Bettis produced anywhere from 150 to 200 rifles throughout his lifetime. The Bettis family has been able to reclaim several of them over the years.

Today’s prices, about $2,000 for one, are much more than the $25 to $50 that Bettis estimated the rifles originally sold for.

“I would say for that era they were pretty expensive,” he said. “That was probably the most technology that anyone in the household had.”

A family legend, he said, states that one of the rifles may have gone for even more than the typical price.

“There’s a little lore in the family that Sawnee Mountain was traded for one of the rifles,” he joked.

Bettis said the American Long Rifle Association is “very interested” in learning more about the Bettis rifles.

“We’ve had some communication with them and they actually want to list them in their collection,” he said.

Bettis said he understands the interest in the rifles; he’s loved them since he was a child.

“My grandparents kept one in the back of a closet. I was always fascinated with it, so they made sure I got it when everybody passed on,” he said.

He hopes to reclaim at least enough of the rifles to pass them down to the next generation.

“I’m trying to get all the grandchildren of my dad to have one,” he said. “We’re one short. We have seven grandchildren and we have six [rifles].

“It would be kind of cool to carry it down another generation, and I think they would appreciate that.”

Phillip C. Bettis probably would too.

 

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