Rifles of the American War of Independence



The most accurate firearm of the day, rifles were used by rangers and sharpshooters in both armies; the rifle was loaded with a measure of black powder poured into the barrel, followed by a lead ball pushed in with a wooden starter and forced all the way down with a ramrod.

A rifle differed from a musket in that a rifle (also called a rifled musket) had grooves cut in a spiral configuration down the length of its barrel that, when the weapon was discharged, imparted spin to the projectile. This spin was enough to stabilize the projectile’s flight and give it both a longer range and greater accuracy. The barrels of muskets, by contrast, were smooth (hence the term ‘‘smooth-bore’’) and, when the weapon was fired, imparted no spin to the projectile. Where a musket might have some accuracy out to about sixty yards (although they were not intended for aimed fire), rifles could reach two to three hundred yards with some hope that the projectile would hit the target at which it was aimed.

The rifle’s advantage in accuracy and range was well known in Europe from the sixteenth century. Hunters and early gunsmiths had found that wrapping the marble-shaped projectile in a greased patch of cloth or leather enabled it better to grip the rifling, and had the added advantage of loosening incompletely combusted gunpowder from the barrels’ interior with each round. By the time of the Revolution, all armies placed a few such weapons in the hands of specialized marksmen. But the rifle’s great drawback, which greatly limited its use as a military weapon, was the time, effort, and precision required to reload it. Moreover, because of the difficulties of reloading, the rifle could not be fitted with a socket bayonet. The musket, again in contrast, was much less of a precision weapon. It could take rough handling by a raw recruit who could learn by rote the physical motions he needed to load and fire the weapon in a way that maximized its capacity for high volumes of unaimed volley fire.

German immigrants brought the skills of rifle construction to America beginning about 1720, and by 1760 gunsmiths in the backcountry of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas had evolved a unique American firearm. Typically, the American long rifle, as its name indicates, had a long barrel (forty inches or more, to allow for more complete combustion of the powder charge and a steadier aim), a smaller bore (to reduce the weight of the weapon and the projectiles, although at the cost of reduced stopping power), and a higher ratio of powder to projectile (to increase the distance the round would travel). In the hands of a well-practiced shooter who knew the characteristics of his particular weapon, the long rifle was a formidable firearm, and made the men who carried it into battle formidable light infantry troops. Exaggerated stories of prowess in marksmanship and reloading made them seem even more formidable. It was reported that, to the amazement of British regulars, an American frontiersman not only could deliver a reasonably high rate of fire (perhaps two, even three, rounds per minute) but also could reload on the run.

The Continental Congress had such a high opinion of the long rifle that its first important military decision (14 June 1775) was to authorize the raising of ‘‘six companies of expert riflemen’’ in Pennsylvania, along with two each in Maryland and Virginia. The response in Pennsylvania was so great that Congress raised this state’s authorization to eight companies (22 June); they were subsequently organized as Colonel William Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion. Men in the Valley of Virginia were just as enthusiastic. Daniel Morgan, a veteran of both the final French and Indian war and Dunmore’s War, raised a company of 96 men in Frederick county, 40 percent more than his authorized strength, and marched 600 miles to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 21 days (15 July– 6 August)—an average of 28½ miles a day—without losing a man from fatigue or illness. This feat allegedly moved Washington to tears. Although Morgan got the most publicity (most of the achievements of riflemen with the main army are associated with him), other rifle company commanders, like Michael Cresap and Hugh Stephenson, demonstrated comparable leadership skills.

The rifled gun was unknown in New England at this time, and the riflemen were as much of a curiosity around Boston as they would have been around London. John Adams, for example, wrote to his wife (17 June 1775) about ‘‘a peculiar kind of musket, called a rifle.’’ The frontiersmen dazzled the Boston army with their marksmanship, but they soon became a disciplinary problem because of their rowdy, frontier ways. In the most serious incident, the so-called mutiny on Prospect Hill on 10 September 1775, some Pennsylvania ‘‘shirtmen’’ (as riflemen were called because of the hunting shirts they wore) tried to liberate a sergeant from confinement for neglect of duty and precipitated a confrontation with Washington, Charles Lee, Nathanael Greene, and an armed regiment of Rhode Islanders.

Several rifle-armed units served with the main army at New York City in 1776, including the First Continental Regiment (formerly Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion), Colonel Samuel Miles’s Pennsylvania State Rifle Regiment, and Colonel Hugh Stephenson’s Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment; the first two saw hard fighting on Long Island, and Stephenson’s was captured at Fort Washington, where Stephenson himself was killed. Service around New York highlighted the disadvantages of the rifle on a battlefield dominated by linear tactics. The man with the smoothbore musket—capable of putting out a higher volume of fire, accurate enough for the tactics of the day, and armed with a bayonet—was the man who won or lost battles. When Maryland offered to send a rifle company to Philadelphia for the Continental Army in October 1776, the secretary of the Board of War indicated his gratitude. However, the secretary wrote that ‘‘if muskets were given them instead of rifles the service would be more benefitted, as there is a superabundance of riflemen in the Army. Were it in the power of Congress to supply musketts they would speedily reduce the number of rifles and replace them with the former, as they are more easily kept in order, can be fired oftener and have the advantage of Bayonetts.’’

The virtues of riflemen, when given tasks appropriate to their abilities, were on display in the 1777 campaign. Daniel Morgan returned to active duty in early June, when Washington ordered him to assemble a Corps of Rangers from among Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania riflemen who had already enlisted in the army. (Bored by inaction at the siege of Boston, he volunteered for Benedict Arnold’s march to Quebec, was captured at Quebec City on 31 December 1775, and was exchanged in January 1777.) Before it was disbanded at the end of 1778, Morgan’s corps of riflemen would become the most famous rifle-armed unit in the Continental Army. For two months, the riflemen screened the main army against British maneuvers in northern New Jersey, and then were sent to the Northern Army in mid-August to help counter the white and Indian skirmishers supporting Burgoyne’s invasion. According to Washington, Morgan’s men were all ‘‘well acquainted with the use of rifles, and with that mode of fighting which is necessary to make them a good counterpoise to the Indians.’’ They had great success in turning the tables, intimidating enemy skirmishers in the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys and preventing Burgoyne from understanding the size and location of the American forces arrayed against him. On both occasions when Burgoyne tried to break through the American barrier on Bemis Heights (19 September and 7 October), Horatio Gates sent Morgan out into the rolling, wooded terrain to blunt the British advance. The key to the American success was the fact that Gates paired the riflemen with a composite battalion of light infantrymen, led by Major Henry Dearborn and armed with bayonet-bearing, smooth-bore muskets. Whenever British troops launched a bayonet charge across a clearing in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of the galling, longer-range fire of the riflemen, they were met on the other side by Dearborn’s bayonets. The two American units worked together to create a lethal battlefield puzzle that the British at Saratoga did not solve.

When the Americans failed to coordinate the rifle with the bayonet, there were many talented British and Hessian leaders of light infantry who would make them pay dearly. Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, who, as commander of the Queen’s Rangers, faced American skirmishers in many encounters in New Jersey and Virginia, thought that American riflemen ‘‘were by no means the most formidable of the rebel troops; their not being armed with bayonets permitted their opponents to take liberties with them’’ (Peterson, pp. 200–201). Major George Hanger, who commanded both Hessian jägers and the cavalry of Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion, wrote:

Riflemen as riflemen only, are a very feeble foe and not to be trusted alone any distance from camp; and at the outposts they must ever be supported by regulars, or they will constantly be beaten in, and compelled to retire. . . . When Morgan’s riflemen came down to Pennsylvania from Canada [on 18 November 1777], flushed with success gained over Burgoyne’s army, they marched to attack our light infantry, under Colonel [Robert] Abercrombie. The moment they appeared before him he ordered his troops to charge them with the bayonet; not one man out of four, had time to fire, and those that did had no time given them to load again; the light infantry not only dispersed them instantly but drove them for miles over the country. They never attacked, or even looked at, our light infantry again, without a regular force to support them. (Peterson, Arms and Armor, pp. 201 and 202, quoting Hanger, To All Sportsmen and Particularly to Farmers, and Gamekeepers [London, 1814], pp. 199 and 200).

Presumably the action Hanger described took place at Whitemarsh on 5–8 December, or at Matson’s Ford on 11 December 1777. By that time, Morgan’s riflemen may not have been at their best after months of hard campaigning; when Nathanael Greene had attempted to reinforce Fort Mercer, one of the Delaware River forts, in early November, only 170 riflemen had shoes stout enough so that they could accompany him. Washington himself understood the need for bayonets. When the riflemen went north to stop Burgoyne in 1777, Washington replaced them with a corps of bayonet-armed light infantry. He embodied a corps of light infantry for the campaigning season in each of the four succeeding years.

The war in the south in 1780 and 1781 also provided evidence of the value of rifles. Both Morgan at Cowpens (17 January 1781) and Greene at Guilford Courthouse (15 March 1781) deployed rifle-armed militiamen where they would not have to stand unsupported against British bayonets. The earlier action at Kings Mountain, South Carolina (7 October 1780), demonstrated a different lesson, that rifle-armed frontiersmen could beat a smaller number of bayonet-armed Loyalists on steep and heavily wooded terrain utterly unsuited to any version of linear tactics. It is ironical that this victory was won over Major Patrick Ferguson, Britain’s foremost exponent of the rifle. Ferguson had invented an advanced breech-loading rifle, a hundred examples of which were issued to a corps of picked marksmen during the Brandywine campaign. These weapons, which were withdrawn from service when Ferguson was wounded and the corps disbanded, supplemented the thousand Pattern 1776 muzzle-loading rifles, with twenty-eight-inch barrels, issued in 1777 to light infantry companies and a few Loyalist units to counter the American long rifle. An estimated four thousand short-barreled rifles were available to the jägers who came to America as part of the German mercenary contingents; some were personal weapons, others were standard military models.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Higginbotham, Don. Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961. Neumann, George C. Battle Weapons of the American Revolution. Texarkana, Tex.: Surlock Publishing Company, 1998. Peterson, Harold L. Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526–1783. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1956. Smith, Paul H. et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. Vol. 1: August 1774–August 1775. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976. Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. Vol. 10: June–August 1777. Edited by Philander D. Chase et al. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *