Revolutionary War Historical Article

Those Tall American Patriots and Their Long Rifles

by Donald R. McDowell

Editor's Note: Reprinted by permission from the SAR Magazine, Spring 1988.

How did WE win the Revolution and the freedom to invent that wonderful Institution called The United States of America? And for that matter, just who were WE, an unlikely crew to take on the armed might of the greatest military power on earth. Most of us were tradesmen and farmers, with a few trained soldiers who had served in Colonial regiments. And the WE has to include our French friends who supplied us with arms and equipment and manpower without which we could not have won.

But the subject of this treatise is another part of the WE, a breed of unique Americans who were quick to join the Yankee farmers and tradesmen in battle. These eager fighters were the backwoodsmen from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Carolinas with their deadly long guns, which later came to be known as "Kentucky" rifles. These men did not win the war, and did not even play what could be called a major role, but their contributions had a dramatic impact wherever they were present in substantial numbers. It is probable that never more than a few thousand served at any one time, and like other militiamen, most of them joined the fight when they were needed and went home when they weren't, after short enlistments. And what kind of men were they?

CONGRESS CREATES ARMY

On June 14, 1775, after Lexington-Concord and three days before Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress authorized ten companies of "riflemen" as a first step toward creating a national army. The quotas were filled so rapidly that Congress authorized two more companies of Pennsylvanians on June 22nd, and Lan-caster County had so many eager volunteers that they formed an additional company, making a total of thirteen and a total force of more than a thousand men. They set out for Cambridge immediately, arriving three to four weeks later after marches of up to 700 miles from their staging points

There are more accounts of these hardy men and their contributions than can be included here. How the company enlisted at Frederick, Maryland under Captain Michael Cresap is well documented; contemporary descriptions of this unit can be applied to others. A letter dated August 1, 1775 from a gentleman in Frederick to a friend in Philadelphia gives the following colorful account: ".. . I have had the happiness of seeing Captain Michael Cresap marching at the head of a formidable company of perhaps one hundred and thirty men, from the mountains and backwoods, painted like Indians, armed with tomahawks and rifles, dressed in hunting shirts and moccasins, and though some of them had traveled near 800 miles from the banks of the Ohio, they seemed to walk light and easy, and not with less spirit than at the first hour of their march. Health and vigor, after what they had undergone, declared them to be intimate with hardship, and familiar with danger...."

When Cresap's company arrived at Lancaster, they put on an exhibition of marksmanship for the townspeople. An eyewitness described the performance in a letter printed in the Pennsylvania Packet of August 28th, which says in pare "On Friday evening last arrived here, on their way to the American Camp, Captain Cresap's Company of Riflemen, consisting of 130 active, brave young fellows, many of whom had been in the late expedition under Lord Dunmore against the Indians. They bear in their bodies visible marks of their prowess, and show scars and wounds... two brothers in the company took a piece of board, five inches broad and seven inches long, with a bit of white paper about the size of a dollar nailed in the center, and while one of them supported this board perpendicularly between his knees, the other at a distance of upwards of sixty yards and without any kind of a rest, shot eight bullets successively through the board, and spared his brother's thighs....the spectators, amazed at these feats, were told that there were upwards of fifty persons in the company who could do the same thing; that there was not one who could not plug 19 bullets out of 20 within an inch of the head of a ten-penny nail...."

The Loyalist Bradford brothers, Philadelphia printers, wrote the following story which appeared in the London Chronicle on August 17, 1775: "This province has raised 1,000 riflemen, the worst of whom will put a ball into a man's head at a distance of 150 or 200 yards, therefore advise your officers who shall hereafter come out to America to settle their affairs in England before their departure".

 

"WIDOW-AND-ORPHAN MAKERS"

These marksmen were organized into small, independent units and ordered to pick off British officers during the inactivity around Boston after the Bunker Hill fight. Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet said on August 14, 1775: “The express, who was sent by the Congress, is returned here from the Eastward, and says he left the Camp last Saturday; that the riflemen picked off ten men in one day, three of whom were Field-officers, that were reconnoitering ; one of them was killed at a distance of 250 yards, when only half his head was seen.” Such reports caused great indignation when republished in London. The backwoodsmen were called “. .. shirt-tail men, with their cursed twisted (rifled) guns, the most fatal widow- and-orphan-makers in the world”.

Some of the accounts of marksmanship are almost too much to believe but can be accepted if considered as a few remarkable shots out of many unreported attempts. For instance, the Philadelphia Gazette of August 21, 1775, carried the following: “A gentleman from the American Camp says that last Wednesday, some riflemen on Charleston side killed three men on board a ship at Charleston ferry, at the distance of full half a mile”. Even the deadly “widow makers” would not carry half that far accurately, and American officers discouraged the waste of powder and ball. However, it is very probable that the free-spirited backwoodsmen enjoyed the “sport”, as they did their target and turkey shoots back home.

And what were those cursed twisted guns, the first truly American weapons? The curved grooves in the barrel, the rifling, was important, but “rifles” had been used by special units in European armies since the 1600s. In fact, the American long rifle was developed from the Jaeger (hunter) rifle introduced to the colonies by German gunsmiths who settled in Pennsylvania between 1700 and 1740. The Jaeger rifle had a barrel seldom exceeding thirty six inches in length, with a bore between 65 and 70/100's of an inch. These rifles used soft lead balls cast smaller than the bore, so that when they were forced down the barrel on top of the powder, they would fill the grooves and prevent the escape of gases on firing. After a few shots, powder residue would collect in the grooves, making loading difficult until the barrel was cleaned with a dampened swab. Also, the soft lead ball was deformed during the loading with a resultant loss of accuracy.

RIFLES GAIN NEW SPECIFICATIONS

The main clients of the gunsmiths, the frontier hunters and Indian fighters, demanded changes in the design of their rifles to make them better suited to ob- taining food and for protection. By 1750 these changes had created a precision tool perfect for its purpose. The barrel was lengthened to between 44 and 48 inches to insure complete burning of the powder and provide maximum velocity. Bore size was reduced one-third to between 40 and 45/100's of an inch to save powder and lead, scarce commodities on the frontier. These rifles were loaded by a new system, which was the main reason for their extreme accuracy. A greased or saliva-dampened patch of linen was placed over the muzzle, and the bullet, cast slightly under bore size, was seated on the patch and rammed down on top of the powder. The patch served as a gas seal, cleaning the barrel with each shot and avoiding deformation of the ball. This new type of rifle provided a superbly dependable, economical hunting and fighting tool in which the increase in velocity and accuracy more than made up for the decreased weight of the ball. A .45 calibre long rifle would deliver three times the number of shots from the same amount of powder and lead as a .75 calibre smoothbore musket, with a major increase in effectiveness.

The accuracy of the long rifle came from the patched, lightweight, tight-fitting ball and the resulting high velocity, which flattened the bullet's trajectory and obviated the need for “holding over” a man sized target up to 150 or more yards. The rapid spin of the bullet imparted by the rifling provided a gyroscoping effect which further increased accuracy. The difference in accuracy between the long rifle and the smoothbore musket could be compared to that of an expertly spiral led football and a thrown basketball.

SMOOTHBORE MUSKETS HAD ADVANTAGES

However, the large calibre, smoothbore musket had some important advantages over the long rifle. Musket loading was fast, about four shots per minute, due to the charges being made up in paper cartridges. These consisted of a paper tube which contained powder and ball for one shot. The paper was torn open with the teeth, powder was poured into the pan, the pan cover was closed and the remaining powder was poured down the barrel with the rest of the paper and the ball rammed down on top. The musket was designed for use against massed troops and cavalry, and was an effective weapon when so used. It would deliver its one ounce ball into a man-sized target at 60 to 80 yards from a steady rest, but it was not intended primarily for this purpose, particularly when fired in combat from a standing or moving position.

It is often assumed that use of the massed formations which proved so vulnerable to our backwoods riflemen was evidence of a fixation with tradition and pageantry, but this is far from true. Attacks by successive waves of troops were, rather, a tactic which came about be cause of the recognized limitations of the smoothbore musket. The masses of infantry were not there to provide convenient targets, but to deliver a massed fire, still a military objective which is now effected by automatic and repeating weapons.

Muskets were not thought of as precision military tools, and the standard piece did not even have a rear sight, but a large volley of heavy lead balls thrown in the general direction of a foe could do great damage. The principle can be likened to bird hunting; most shotgun pellets are wasted, but enough find the target to kill or disable. And followed by a bayonet charge before the enemy, usually at close range, could reload, the tactic was very effective. However, against dispersed riflemen who stayed out of range of both the inaccurate muskets and the bayonets, this kind of warfare did not work very well.

Loading of the long rifles was slower than the musket because powder and balls were carried separately in a powder horn and a bullet pouch. A little powder was poured into the pan, then more down the barrel, measured by the experienced eye of the rifleman. The patch would then be extracted from the patchbox in the stock of the rifle and placed over the muzzle. A bullet was placed on the patch and the whole rammed down easily with the greased patch acting as a lubricant. Some of the more experienced riflemen speeded up the process by keeping three extra balls between the base of the fingers on each hand, creating odd cavities which stayed with them for life. The usual tactic in a firefight was to get off two or three volleys, and then retreat to avoid the bayonets and get time to reload and fire again.

HELPED DEFEAT BURGOYNE

These sturdy men and their rifles were an important, if not decisive, element in many battles. Contrary to popular legend, there were no eagle-eyed sharpshooters with long rifles in the fight at Bunker Hill, but there were stout New England militiamen armed with their own smoothbore muskets, familiar tools like their plows and axes, which they used with great effect. However, rifles were important in an important engagement two years later. Colonel Daniel Morgan, who had led one of the Virginia companies to Cambridge in July of 1775, commanded a corps of riflemen who opened hostilities on September 19, 1777 at the first Battle of Freeman's Farm, the start of what is often called erroneously the Battle of Saratoga, the point of final surrender of Burgoyne's army.

As the advance party of four regiments of British regulars broke into the clearings of the farm, they heard a chorus of eerie turkey gobblings coming from shadowy figures in fur caps in the surrounding woods. Then the sharp crack of long rifles broke the stillness, and within minutes every British officer was killed or wounded and non-coms and privates began to fall. The rest of Burgoyne's troops rushed to the rescue and the riflemen, thought to be no more than a company, melted into the woods, continuing their gobbling as they joined the rest of Morgan's troops.

The woods filled fast with tall men in fur caps, round hats and hunting shirts. The crack of rifles resumed, joined by the duller reports of muskets as Cilley's New Hampshire Continentals closed up with Morgan's men. Burgoyne tried to bring his artillery into action, but cannoneers and their officers were picked off before their guns could be loaded. The fighting continued for more than three hours, while decimated British regiments closed up again and again, and companies shrank to platoons and platoons to squads in what was, to them, a new type of warfare. They were finally saved from complete annihilation by the arrival of a strong force of Baron von Riedesel's Germans.

The Second Battle of Freeman's Farm on October 7th, in which General Simon Fraser was killed by one of Morgan's riflemen, finished Burgoyne's army as a fight- ing force, and led to the surrender of more than 5,000 British and Germans on October 17th.

AT KING'S MOUNTAIN

Riflemen were entirely responsible for an overwhelming victory at King's Mountain on October 7, 1780. A force of more than 1,100 Tories, trained and equipped by the British and commanded by Major Patrick Ferguson, were ordered by General Cornwallis to march west into the Watauga settlements in the mountains along the present border between Tennessee and North Carolina and force the mountain people to declare their allegiance to the Crown. Word of Ferguson's expedition spread quickly, and the Watauga men, hardiest of the hardy pioneers, chose not to wait, but rather to meet Ferguson before he came anywhere near their homes.

Companies formed rapidly under Colonels Isaac Shelby, “Nolichucky Jack”, Sevier and Charles McDowell set out, each man with his horse, his rifle and a bag of parched corn. Along the way they were joined by Campbell's Virginians, Cleaveland with more Carolinians and other local leaders. Major Ferguson got word of this force, now totaling more than 1,400 men, and decided to take refuge on King's Mountain, hoping for reinforcements. They were attacked there by 900 of the best mounted and equipped riflemen after an overnight thirty mile march. The Tories fought well and bravely, repelling the riflemen by several bayonet charges, but the result was inevitable. Completely surrounded by expert marksmen, and with the death of most of their officers — including Major Ferguson, who was hit by seven bullets —they surrendered after one hour and ten minutes of intense fire. Estimates of Tory losses vary from 425 to 800 killed and wounded, compared to less than 100 of the mountaineers.

Long rifles were used effectively after the Revolution, notably at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. It is probable that the long rifles received the name "Kentucky" rifles in this battle, indicating the men who used them, not the Pennsylvania gunsmiths who made most of them. Pennsylvania historians and gun collectors have always resented the terminology.

Bibliography:

CLINE, WALTER M.; The Muzzle Loading Rifle; Standard Printing and Publishing Co., Huntington, WV, 1942.

HOGG, IAN V. and BATCHELOR, JOHN H.; Armies of the American Revolution, Prentice-Hall Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1975.

DILLON, JOHN D. W.; The Kentucky Rifle, Ludlum & Beebe, New York, NY, 1946.

KETCHUM, RICHARD M.; The Revolution, The American Heritage Publishing Co. New York, NY, 1958.

LOSSING, B. J.; Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, Harper & Brothers, New York NY, 1850.

PETERSON, HAROLD L.; The Treasury of the Gun, The Ridge Press, Inc., New York. NY, 1962.

WINSOR, JUSTIN; The American Revolution; Land's End Press, New York, NY, 1972.

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