Saturday, March 25, 2017


Remember back in the day when you sent letters and packages via snail mail and they took an inexplicably long time to ever get there or simply disappeared altogether? I used to imagine them ending up on some desert island with Tom Hanks and a soccer ball. Now, thanks to the wonder of the internet and tracking numbers, I can see what really happened.

On March 16th I sent Ben a package 1st Class mail from my hometown in Montana to his in Iowa. From there it went, as usual, to Billings and then on to Des Moines, who sent it back to Billings, who promptly sent it straight back to Des Moines, who then sent it to Denver. Now, on the 25th, it is for some reason in Cheyenne, WY. That little package is getting one hell of a tour of the country and I'm not even trying to predict where it will go from there.

Only good ol' could possibly attempt to prove that the shortest distance between two points is a tetrahedron.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Yet another reminder that I’m rapidly approaching Old Fart status is the fact that when I took a Police Firearms training course in college, we were still using the old Smith & Wesson Model 10 “Barney Fife Special” and I learned how to properly use speed-loaders with said revolver.
          Training with double-action revolvers later did come in handy since I moved to Montana. With very few rather expensive exceptions, semi-automatic auto-loaders just don’t come in calibers sufficient to deal with a grizzly bear. So, since we live, hunt and recreate in grizzly country, both my wife and I pack a S&W .44 Magnum revolver when we’re out and about. I used to reload my own special anti-griz ammo, but now we’ve taken a real shine to Montana’s own HSM Ammunition and their .44 Mag Bear Loads. They launch a 305-grain hardcast flat-nosed “Keith”-type bullet at good velocity but cost less than half the price of the Federal or Buffalo Bore bear loads. Naturally, we still practice all the bear country precautions to avoid the need to use a gun in the first place but for reasons I'll detail in a separate post we don't rely on mere pepper spray.
Back when I had vision in both eyes, and 20/15 in the good one, I used to decapitate occasional mountain grouse for supper with my 6-inch Model 29 during my travels. In the summer, especially when fishing along the Yellowstone or the Missouri, we also have to contend with rattlesnakes. At the ranges involved, .44 Mag CCI shot loads full of #9 splatter ‘em good. We also use these shot loads around the yard so we can whack gophers in the vicinity of the rock retaining wall without worrying about ricochets.
          For spare ammunition, we used to carry six-round HKS speed-loaders in a double belt pouch. Over the years, I found these to be both heavy and bulky to carry on the belt; after all, they are the same size as the revolver’s cylinder. In addition, they were designed for law enforcement officers back in the day when revolvers were standard issue so that, in a gunfight, if a policeman emptied his gun, he could rapidly reload all six rounds at once. On my own, in the woods, I’ve never actually emptied my revolver nor needed a combat reload. I think that if I lived in a place where I had to routinely administer some critter six 305-grain .44 Mag slugs and still needed another six immediate follow-ups, I would probably just move back to Iowa.
          Almost without exception, when I actually do use my revolver I never fire more than one or two rounds, say to finish off an already downed game animal or take care of a rattler in the vicinity of my feet. In such cases, especially since I save my brass, speed-loaders are more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to replacing only one or two rounds in the cylinder.
          So I recalled the old drop pouches used in the really old pre-speed-loader days. With nothing more than the idea rattling around in my head, I began experimenting. The goats have long since outgrown the training soft packs I made for them out of some old Army surplus gas mask cases, so I had plenty of stout canvas and nylon material to work with.
          The old gas mask carriers also yielded Velcro I could re-use to keep the top flap down. I had a bunch of Swiss surplus OD green nylon cargo straps, so I sacrificed a couple to make cartridge and belt loops. I sewed it all together with my C.A. Myers “Awl for All”, which I actually get a whole lot of use out of for my various projects…goat soft packs, rifle stock shell holders, made-to-fit belt pouches for odd-sized objects like a range-finder.
The beauty of this design is that it requires nothing more elaborate than a simple rectangle of material, folded roughly in thirds, to start with. I folded over a little less than a quarter of an inch of material and hemmed it with the awl on the top and bottom edge to prevent fraying. I did the same with the sides after I completed the shell loops, sewing down the seam through the ends of the cartridge loop straps. Then I sewed on Velcro strips to hold the top flap and voila, I had a drop pouch. Later, I treated the fabric with a spray-on water-resistant shield.

The Mark I pouch with the cartridge loops sewn directly to the canvas was simple, functional and compact.
On the first example, I simply sewed the nylon strap into loops around empty cartridge cases directly to the canvas of the drop pouch. This worked, and made for the lightest and most compact “model” but tended to curve and bunch the material a bit. Plus, once I get to tinkering, it’s hard to stop. Afterwards, I took to cutting a piece of leather from an old rifle sling and sewing to shell loops to that while simultaneously attaching both to the canvas backing. This may or may not be necessary, it’s more a matter of personal preference. One modification I did really like was the attachment of a small tab on the top flap to make for easier and quicker opening. 
Just playing around, I backed the cartridge loops up with a piece of leather and made a big 12-shot version. The little tab for opening the top flap actually was a pretty nice addition.
Various attempts were also made for belt loops, the most simple and effective being simply a length of webbing or nylon strap formed into a circle and sewn to the back of the case. When I used the thinner nylon material for the body, I also backed the points where I sewed on the belt loops on the interior with small square pieces of strap for reinforcement. With nylon strap material, the cut edges should be melted with a lighter to keep them from fraying.  

Belt loops were easily made with a loop of webbing or strap sewn on. I put ALICE clips on the big 12-shot model so I could put it on the LBE that I wear hunting and hiking.

For the fun of it, I made Ben a 5-shot model for his puny .357, using some old .38 Special cases I had to get the size of the loops right.

          Once complete, the drop pouch goes on your belt in front of the revolver holster. When folded up, the cartridges are actually upside down. When it comes time to reload, you simply pull open the top flap, the flap holding the ammunition drops down, and you can pluck out one, two or three rounds; whatever is necessary. I use my index finger to push upwards on the tip of the bullet from below while grasping the rim of the case with my other fingers. I've carried them around on my belt during the day and they've stayed shut and the ammo remains secure. Nothing fancy or revolutionary but it works. I'll keep a couple for myself, let my wife chose one, and give the rest to my hunting buddies who carry hoglegs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


 The type of country I hunted near White Sulphur Springs.

We had some unusual weather this year that made for pretty poor elk hunting during general season. First, fall rains saturated the back-country two-tracks and generated a second growth of grass that had the high country as green as spring. Then we didn’t get any real snowfall or cold temperatures during rifle season. So, there was really no reason for the elk to come down out of the high country and a great many tags went unfilled.
          Fortunately, Fish, Wildlife and Parks had an extended “shoulder season” for cow elk on private land in the hunting districts up around White Sulphur Springs that ran until February 15th. Some private land not ordinarily huntable was opened up on a limited reserve basis as well. Even so, it was no easy hunt. FWP was receiving 600 calls per day about the hunt at the start of the shoulder season! I suspect many of those interested were hoping for something like a damage control hunt where they could just park at a hay stackyard and shoot one out the window of the pickup; when they found out real hunting was involved a good percentage suddenly cooled their jets. Nevertheless, I usually encountered multiple other die-hards out hunting even when I went up there in the middle of the week.
          We got a few real blizzards and considerable snowfalls, always attended by drifting, in January and early February. Many of the seasonal local gravel roads accessing much of the country were of little use to hunters. Due to our winter winds they were often interspersed with deep, impassable snow drifts in low and sheltered areas while they were blown clean down to bare gravel in exposed open areas, making it impossible to use either wheeled vehicles or snow machines.
Of course, mere walking starts to become quite a chore when the snow gets over eight or ten inches deep on the flats and the drifts in the draws and on the lee slopes leave you “post-holing” up to your crotch with every step.
          Two ways to beat such conditions are snowshoes and skis. You can learn to use snowshoes quickly and easily and they are handier in thick timber and brush, but they are slow and still require considerable physical effort just to move around on them. As I once explained to my wife, “Cross-country skiing is a sport; snowshoeing is merely an ordeal.”
          Take it from me, if you do decide to try cross-country skiing, do yourself a huge favor and go take a couple of lessons from a real instructor right off the bat. I spent two long, hard winters teaching myself before I got to the point where I ceased to crash and burn on every downhill. Later, my wife and I did a 5-day winter trip to Yellowstone National Park. One afternoon we took cross-country ski lessons and it was well worth the effort. Even though I am reaching curmudgeon status and our instructor was a “kid” barely over 20, he was a pretty good teacher and I learned quite a few tips and techniques that were of great benefit to me in my back-country ski adventures.
          I ski as much for fitness and pleasure as anything. Once upon a time I was actually a marathon-level runner, but then a guy earning his 4th DUI hit me head-on at 70+ mph and now the vertebrae in my neck are so, to use a technical medical term, “buggered up” that I just can’t take the pounding of a run. Cross-country skiing became my low-impact substitute to running, at least for part of the year.
          When I finally got decent at it, I combined x-country skiing with hunting, mostly for coyote but sometimes for deer and elk if we got some decent snow during general season. I regularly skied some old logging roads and skid trails in the Crazy Mountains that were off-limits to snow mobiles for two years and every single time I saw pine marten tracks. The next year I spent two weeks running a trapline up there and never cut a single track; just like all the old books say, marten can simply vanish from an area entirely for no discernable reason. But I still enjoyed the experience and got plenty of exercise out it.
          If the snow is not very deep and/or there are two-tracks or snow machine trails to run on I take my modern lightweight “skinny skis”, waxless Karhu Widetraks that are slightly wider than straight cross-country trail skis and have steel edges. Breaking trail in deep snow with them, however, is exhausting and in the sagebrush, which always includes drifting, I often find myself having to stop and kick the ski tips back up and above the snow and brush every few strides. Lastly, even on a packed trail, I don’t get much glide at all on the moderate downhills with these waxless skinny skis.
          When it comes to deep powder, unbroken routes, drifts, and sagebrush, I revert to my big clunky old school Swiss Army surplus skis. They are fiberglass with steel edges, ridiculously heavy, and built solid enough that you could probably construct an emergency bridge sufficient to carry the weight of a duce-and-a-half out of them. Despite their weight, their 3-1/8 inch width distributes my own weight much better and I can slog through a couple of feet of powder without sinking all the way down in. Negotiating sagebrush and its ever-present associated snowdrifts, the Swiss monsters keep me afloat better, often riding atop a crust rather than crashing through it, and I don’t have much issue with the tips getting bogged under either. Plus you can get a little rest while coasting down even moderate slopes.
          The Swiss skis require waxing, which isn’t as big a pain in the ass as I thought it was going to be. When I prepare them ahead of time at home, I scrape the surface down bare and clean it with a little rubbing alcohol on a rag. Then I apply the wax, melt it on with an old electric iron I bought at a thrift store for just this purpose, and cork it smooth. This base layer of wax is the cold temperature stuff. If you need to you can throw softer wax on top of it. The Swiss ski poles are also old school, the metal ring of the basket attached with leather straps. If I’m expecting heavy, wet snow conditions I spray these with unscented Pam cooking oil to keep the snow from clumping up on them. The same treatment can also help on the bottom of a sled.
          In the field, I carry two or three different cans of Swix wax rated for different temperatures. If I start slipping and back-sliding, I just take my skis off and smear on some of the appropriate wax and then keep going, allowing the snow and travel to smooth it out. Sometimes under difficult snow conditions or a particularly steep uphill, I’ll throw on a fast, temporary smear of hot wax just on the “kick pockets” of the skis under the bindings to get better footing.
          I’m sure there are now nice lightweight modern Telemark skis on the market that would work better, but I’m too set in my ways to do the research and too cheap to buy new. Even with the Swiss slabs I can cover eight or even ten miles in a hunt now. The nicest part is that since the return trip is usually downhill and often in my own ski tracks, it generally requires less than half the time it took to go in to come back out.
          Skis are still just a means of transportation to get where I want to hunt. When I actually begin a stalk, I remove my skis and go afoot. For this reason, and for safety, I don’t feel the need to carry my rifle cocked and locked and ready to rock. I don’t even chamber a round until the time comes to stalk. I simply carry it on a conventional sling, slung over one shoulder and carried diagonally across my back. Although I always put a small piece of black electrical tape over the muzzle of my rifles in the field, especially in the snow, I also carry mine in a Rapid Rifle Cover. This is a Montana-made product consisting of a neoprene sleeve with elastic lining around the open end. It stretches from the muzzle of the rifle to the rear bell of the scope, protecting both quite well even if you take a spill in the snow. 

    Years ago at the Bozeman gun show I "discovered" the Montana-made Rapid Rifle Cover. I highly recommend one for protecting your muzzle and optics when hunting in the snow. 

          Of course, as hard as it was to find elk on huntable ground and finally put one down this year, the real work starts once you fill the tag; getting it back to the truck is the real trick. For that, I use a cargo sled. On a morning hunt, unless the snow conditions make it too noisy, I just pull the empty sled along behind me. At other times, I have to return to the truck to retrieve it, but the extra trip on skis is nowhere near as exhausting as post-holing and in the process you break and pack a decent trail for the sled to ride in.
          All sleds, of course, are not created equal. The thin plastic children’s toy sleds from Wally World are cheap, brittle in extreme cold, and quickly disintegrate under the load of a dead elk. There are a number of different of cargo, utility or multi-purpose sleds on the market which are made of heavy duty plastic or fiberglass and are advertised for use in ice fishing, winter camping, etc., some designed to be pulled by ATVs or snowmobiles. Look for one with a fairly large surface area to better float on soft snow, fairly high sides to keep it from taking on snow, plenty of attachment points for straps, webbing or cordage, and molded ribs or runners on the bottom to allow the sled to “track” in your ski trail. On one hunt, my wife and I even ran into one hunter who had inexpensively procured a beat-up old plastic kayak from a river guide service that he was using as a sled to haul out game.
Developed in the Scandinavian countries, the boat-shaped cargo sled known as an ahkio or pulk was designed to carry heavy loads in deep snow. The fiberglass US Army surplus ahkios are fairly inexpensive these days; I’ve seen them advertised between $150 and $200. Such ahkios are rated for a 200-pound load and are built like a tank; they’re almost indestructible and will last a lifetime. This durability, however, comes at the price of weight. An empty one still weighs 36 pounds by itself, which was more weight than I wanted to drag behind me all day.

 Ahkio cargo sleds are built like tanks just in case, like these Finnish Winter War troops, you need to tote your 100-pound Lathi 20-mm anti-tank rifle around.

When loading your sled, be sure to keep the heaviest weight on the very bottom, to keep the sled from becoming top-heavy and prone to tipping, and slightly to the rear of center to keep the nose from digging in when it is pulled forward. An antelope or deer can be easily enough pulled out whole, but even a cow elk is a damn big animal, so I quarter mine up.
Most sleds come equipped with a tow rope of some kind. When used with skis, you also need tow boars. My “tow bars” are in fact a pair of broom handles with holes drilled in each end. I use parachute cord (plastic zip ties get brittle in extreme cold) to attach one end to the tow fittings on the front of the sled. The other end has a loop of p-cord with a carabineer which in turn snaps into another loop of cord attached to my pistol belt.

My cargo sled bears no markings of any kind. It was an Army surplus bargain I picked up many years ago. Unlike an ahkio, it weighs only 7 pounds so I don't mind dragging it around empty.

Since my neck injury also prevents me for carrying a conventional backpack, I’ve taken to wearing an old Army-surplus ALICE-type LBE (Load Bearing Equipment). In addition to a fanny pack with some survival gear I carry two canteens, one of which is a double-walled Thermos-like Arctic canteen. In the morning I pre-heat it with hot water, then fill it with boiling tea, and it stays warm for most of the day. Hydration is every bit as important in the winter as it is in the summer, but sometimes when you’re chilly you just don’t want a big gulp of ice-cold water so hot tea encourages one to drink. 
The real trick to pulling a sled is that once you get it in motion you never give up any of that momentum, even when moving at a literal snail’s pace. Keeping the sled going, even slowly, is much easier than getting a stationary sled started again. And again and again.
          With proper technique and/or good waxing, on moderate terrain I have little trouble pulling a loaded sled while on skis. It is still a real work-out in the long run, but remains a great deal more pleasant than post-holing slowly forward one step and tug at a time afoot. Frequently I find post-holing even takes an extra step, i.e. wallow and stagger a little to get your foot up enough to take a step, take that step forward, put weight on foot, punch through the surface crust and sink in to your thigh, yank the sled forward a few inches, then repeat with the other foot.
          Instead equipped with skis, I gave the late season shoulder hunt no less than six tries. Four times I hunted standard Block Management Areas. Once I was lucky enough to get in on a private ranch that allowed two parties per day in to hunt the late season. Each and every time I went, I saw elk, on that particular occasion nearly five hundred of them. But, although some of them were within ten yards of one, every last elk I saw was on the wrong side of a section fence for me to be able to hunt them. There was plenty of fresh sign indicating they had indeed traveled through and fed in the areas I did hunt, but I always managed to be a day late and a dollar short on the deal.
          Still, when we had another nice dump of snow in early February, I decided to go out and give it one last hurrah. I was pleasantly surprised to actually glass elk from the road and, although three parties of guys were hunting the limited-access private ground across the highway, no one else was hunting the regular BMA on my side.
          The elk were in low, rolling hill country with no handy terrain features to hide behind and no cover taller than a sagebrush. To get within range, I had to ski a zig-zagging three mile course along the very bottoms of the dry draws and water courses. Near the end, less than a half a mile from the elk, I ran out of cover entirely. I put the hood up on my snow cammo parka, bent over as much as I could, and skied the lowest point across the open area. I was able to get behind a flat-topped hill without them spooking.
          Ascending through snow drifted two or more feet deep amidst the sagebrush, I cached my skis and sled near the top of the reverse slope. With just my rifle and ski poles, which still come in handy when walking in deep snow, I headed to the top of the hill where the wind had blown away most of the snow and only an inch or two remained. I wound up crawling on hands and knees using individual sagebrush for cover to close the range.
          By then, of course, the weather had turned quickly and decisively to shit. The skiing and post-holing had left me sweating so hard that I could not keep my glasses from fogging up. A wet snow had also begun to fall and it was growing in severity with each passing minute, making it difficult to keep my optics clear, even though I have a lens cloth attached to the binos. The falling snow also kept me from getting a reading with the range-finder. The bulls had not lost their antlers yet and there were raghorns and spikes in the bunch I was sneaking up on so I had to make sure I zeroed in on a bald-headed one.
          I kept closing the range. Finally, two cow elk emerged atop the small ridgeline I was following to feed where the snow had been blown clear of the grass and I was able to get a direct reading on them of 325 yards. On a hillside in a comfortable sitting position, with at least one elbow braced by a knee, I drove the tips of my ski pole bipod into the snow firmly and rested the synthetic forearm of my sporterized large-ring 98 Mauser across the leather straps.

 By looping the wrist straps across the handle of the opposite pole you can make a pretty steady bipod out of your ski poles.

          I’m a firm believer in the late, great Colonel Jeff Cooper’s two KISS simple rules for making a hunting shot. “If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier.” Although the ballistic reticle on my scope has hold-overs out to 500 yards and I actually do practice out to that range from field firing positions every year, in a lifetime of big game hunting I can count the times I’ve actually taken a shot over 300 yards on the fingers of one hand. Excluding a few occasional what-the-hell Hail Mary shots at coyotes now and then, of course.
          I dialed the variable power Leupold Rifleman scope up to 9x. The two cows looked to be identical in size, so I singled out the nearest one which also presented the best shot. I took a breath and examined the steadiness of the crosshairs on the target. I was satisfied I was steady enough and there was no wind to contend with. So I settled in, let out half a breath, and squeezed one off. The shot certainly “felt” good and I was immediately rewarded with the sound of the kugelschlag; leave it to the Germans to actually have a word for the wet, meaty slap of a bullet striking solidly home. Working the bolt, I got back on target and thought I saw the cow’s ears and head go down rather unnaturally just over the top of the ridge.
          Although I had glassed the place intensively from every possible vantage point on my way in, I had not seen more than fifty elk total. At the sound of my shot, however, they started to swarm out of every draw and coulee until there were well over two hundred of them. Within five minutes, every last one of them had jumped the section fence into “out of bounds” private land where they herded up and watched me.
          Other than checking the nearest departing group of elk with the binos looking for a wounded one, just in case, I didn’t pay the rest of them much attention. I was pretty convinced my hit had been a solid one. Sure enough, just below the crest of the hill where I couldn’t see her until I was right on her, there was my elk. As usual, my trusty 180-grain Sierra GameKing had done its job well; she lay sprawled on her side perhaps 12 yards from where she had stood when I shot her.

 I'm a firm believer in heavier bullets for elk, and the .308-dia 180-grain Sierra GameKing has never failed me.

          I tagged her and took a couple of quick photos; with the growing storm darkness was descending fast and the snowfall was rapidly intensifying. As I started field dressing the cow, I was surprised to still find several fat, swollen wood ticks in the thin belly hair around her udder. Although the cow hadn’t looked that big through the scope, she was considerably larger in the body than the nice fat 4-point mulie buck my wife had shot during general season. Even with the small Gerber survival hatchet I carry to cut quickly through the ribs and pelvis, field dressing still look a bit longer than a deer would have.
          By the time I was done, it was full dark and snowing hard. Before leaving home, I had zoomed in on a point forecast for the exact area I was going to hunt on the National Weather Service site. It had called for a 40% chance of snow with accumulation of less than a half an inch.
          As much as I hated to, I knew I would have to finish the job first thing in the morning. I stuffed snow in the body cavity, then put the sled over the elk and shoveled more snow over top of everything with my skis, hoping that would be enough to keep the coyotes from finding her during the next few hours. Although I felt I had the position marked well in my mind, I hung a piece of flagging from the tallest sagebrush available.
          Even though the skiing was good and I picked up my trail less than halfway back, it still took me over an hour to make it back to the truck. For almost half an hour I was within sight of Highway 89 and only a single vehicle passed that whole time. At the parking area, there was already a good two inches of fresh snow and it was coming down harder than ever. I kept the truck in 4x4 and limped towards home at only 45 mph; the snow was coming down so heavily that I could not use my high beams.
          The next morning at 0900, not wanting to chase off the elk and ruin somebody else’s hunt by going in at first light, I clipped on my skis and headed for my elk. An old ranch two-track free of sagebrush gave me quick, easy and direct access to a dry reservoir bed. From there I simply skied up the draws in my own partially covered tracks from the previous evening.
          I had no trouble finding the elk. Overnight we had gone from blizzard to Chinook and the snow was melting fast everywhere with surprising speed. A couple of ravens and some magpies had found the gut pile, but fortunately the local coyote population hadn’t. As I was quartering up the cow, however, two different packs showed up and started giving me hell from the far sides of the draws, safely out of range as usual, the little bastards. The backstraps, tenderloins, rib and neck meat went into a garbage bag, then it and the four quarters were strapped down securely into the sled.  
          Pulling the elk out wasn’t bad at all at first. The snow was still pretty firm in the draws, I had a packed ski trail that the sled tracked well in, and the course was generally down gentle slopes.
          Then the sun came out and temps rose even more. The snow got very wet and sticky and tacky, clinging to the sled and even to the baskets on the ski poles, and not even a treatment of red klister wax gained me much traction on the skis. The last half mile was clear running on the two-track down a moderate slope and I still had to pull for each foot.
          Still, I was back to the truck by about 1300. I got ‘er done. Now I just have to kill six and a half months until next bow season.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 5) 

Once open conflict had broken out between Great Britain and the American Colonies in April of 1775, the need for a single, unified American Continental Army, as opposed to ad hoc combined forces consisting of various, separate Colonial Militias became apparent. Although all of the Colonies were in rebellion, the army surrounding Boston consisted entirely of militia units from New England.  Numerous political and military leaders, including George Washington himself, heartily endorsed the concept of raising units of frontier riflemen for said army.
Major General Charles Lee, for instance, wrote, “The frontier riflemen will make fine soldiers…their amazing hardihood, their methods of living so long in the woods without carrying provisions with them, the exceeding quickness with which they can march to distant parts, and, above all, the dexterity to which they have arrived in the use of the rifle gun. There is not one of these men who wish a distance less than 200 yards or greater object than an orange. Every shot is fatal.”
Such testimonies as well as the talk of his fellow Congressional delegates from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia led Massachusetts’ John Hancock, who’d never fired a rifle in his life, to exclaim to Joseph Warren, “These are the finest Marksmen in the world. They do Execution with their Rifle Guns at an Amazing Distance…they kill with great Exactness at 200 yards Distance.”
Consequently, on 14 June 1775, the Second Continental Congress: “Resolved, That six Companies of expert Riflemen be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia; that each Company consists of a Captain, three Lieutenants, four Sergeants, four Corporals, a Drummer or Trumpeter, and sixty-eight Privates.”
The following day, congress appointed George Washington as the chief officer of what would become the Continental Army. This is significantly considered the “birthday” of the United States Army.
If the embattled farmers turned militiamen from Massachusetts and Connecticut were familiar and proficient with their muskets, the back-country riflemen of the frontier were intimate and expert with their long rifles.

 A Captain at the beginning of the American Revolution and often described as eccentric, George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, was one of the British Army's few true experts on the rifle during this period. He wrote many detailed descriptions of what he encountered on the receiving end of the Pennsylvania long rifle. 

British Major George Hanger, of course, weighed in on the subject: “The American back-woodsman has a much greater field to exercise his talents by practice, from living in a country cultivated only around his own log-wood hut, for a very short extent; has woods extensive and swamps impenetrable to every soul but to those, who, by daily practice, are well acquainted with its dreary and swampy obstacles, which contain various animals, such as the wild pig, the wolf, the bear, the panther (which the Americans call painter), the deer, the fox, both grey and brown, the beaver, the raccoon [sp] and the opossum.
“Not only their own cattle are shot with the rifle, but, when they go to the hunting grounds to kill the wild cattle for their tallow and skins, they use no other gun. The wild turkey is shot with a rifle; nay, even birds and squirrels, from the very top of the loftiest trees in the woods. No smallshot gun, during my residence of seven years of the war in America, was ever kept in the house of a back-woodsman. You will often see a boy, not above ten years of age, driving the cattle home, but not without a rifle on his shoulder: they never stir, out, on any business, nor on a journey, without their rifle; practice, from their infancy, teaches them all distances.”
An American minister of the Church of England wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, “In this country, my lord, the boys, as soon as they can discharge a gun, frequently exercise themselves therewith, some a fowling and others a hunting. The great quantities of game, the many kinds and the great privileges of killing, making the Americans the best marksmen in the world, and thousands support their families principally by the same, particularly riflemen on the frontiers, whose objects are deer and turkeys. In marching through woods, one thousand of these riflemen would cut to pieces ten thousand of your best troops.”
Horace Kephart, who could perhaps be called our first “survivalist”, gave an eloquent if romanticized description of the backwoods riflemen, noting they were not just accustomed to hunting but also to frequent skirmishes with Native American tribes who quite naturally resented these white men encroaching into their homeland.
“But the men of the wilderness were always ready. Over every cabin door hung a well-made rifle, correctly sighted, and bright within from frequent wiping and oiling. Beside it were tomahawk and knife, a horn of good powder, and a pouch containing bullets, patches, spare flints, steel, tinder, whetstone, oil and tow for cleaning the rifle. A hunting-shirt, moccasins, and a blanket were near at hand. In case of alarm, the backwoodsman seized these things, put a few pounds of rockahominy and jerked venison into his wallet, and in five minutes was ready. It mattered not whether two men or two thousand were needed for war, they could assemble in a night, armed, accoutred, and provisioned for a campaign.”
“Incessant war with the Indians taught him to be his own general, to be ever on the alert, to keep his head and shoot straight under fire. Pitted against an enemy who gave no quarter, but tortured the living and scalped the dead, he became himself a stanch fighter who never surrendered. The wilderness bred men of iron, and probably contained a greater number of expert riflemen than could now be mustered in all America. It was the pick of these for which Congress asked.”
On the frontier, shooting matches were also popular forms of recreation and competition among the riflemen, and remained so until near the close of the 19th century. Daniel Boone, of course, was widely known from a fairly young age for his prowess in winning such shooting matches. Sometimes taverns would sponsor competitions and offer small prizes to attract customers while in a “beef shoot” marksmen paid a small fee to enter the match and the top scorer won a side of beef. Sometimes a few men met informally and shot for the fun of it and the “prize” of digging his opponents’ lead out of a tree stump to re-cast into new bullets.
The famous naturalist John James Audubon is most well known for his exquisitely detailed paintings of North American birds and wildlife. He was also a hunter who usually first shot and killed the subjects of his portraits so that he could examine them minutely and up close. In addition, he kept detailed journals of his travels, in which he included his observations on an afternoon spent squirrel hunting with Daniel Boone as well as the kind of marksmanship contests he observed in Kentucky in 1820.

 Frontier Long Hunters like Daniel Boone were famous for their marksmanship skills and often enjoyed competing against each other in shooting matches. 

“Having resided some years in Kentucky and having more than once been witness of rifle sport, I shall present you with the results of my observation, leaving you to judge how far rifle-shooting is understood in that State.
          “Several individuals who conceive themselves in the management of the gun are often seen to meet for the purpose of displaying their skill, and betting a trifling sum, put up a target, in the centre of which a common-sized nail is hammered for about two-thirds of its length. The marksmen make choice of what they consider a proper distance, which may be forty paces. Each man cleans the interior of his tube, which is called wiping it, places a ball in the palm of his hand, pouring as much powder from his horn upon it as will cover it. This quantity is supposed to be sufficient for any distance within a hundred yards. A shot which comes very close to the nail is
considered as that of an indifferent marksman; the bending of the nail is, of course, somewhat better; but nothing less than hitting it right on the head is satisfactory. Well, kind reader, one out of three shots generally hits the nail, and should the shooters amount to half a dozen, two nails are frequently needed before each can have a shot. Those who drive the nail have a further trial amongst themselves, and the two best shots out of these generally settle the affair, when all the sportsmen adjourn to some house, and spend an hour or two in friendly intercourse, appointing, before they part, a day for another trial. This is technically termed driving the nail.”
The snuffing of a candle with a ball, I first had an opportunity of seeing near the banks of Green River, not far from a large Pigeon-roost to which I had previously made a visit. I heard many reports of guns during the early part of a dark night, and knowing them to be those of rifles, I went towards the spot to ascertain the cause. On reaching the place, I was welcomed by a dozen of tall stout men, who told me they were exercising, for the purpose of enabling them to shoot under night at the reflected light from the eyes of a Deer or Wolf, by torch light, of which I shall give you an account somewhere else. A fire was blazing near, the smoke of which rose curling among the thick foliage of the trees. At a distance which rendered it scarcely distinguishable, stood a burning candle, as if intended for an offering to the goddess of night, but which in reality was only fifty yards from the spot on which we all stood. One man was within a few yards of it, to watch the effects of the shots, as well as to light the candle should it chance to go out, or to replace it should the shot cut it across. Each marksman shot in his turn. Some never hit either the snuff or the candle, and were congratulated with a loud laugh; while others actually snuffed the candle without putting it out, and were recompensed for their dexterity by numerous hurrahs. One of them, who was particularly expert, was very fortunate, and snuffed the candle three times out of seven, whilst all the other shots either put out the candle or cut it immediately under by the light.
“Of the feats performed by the Kentuckians with the rifle, I could say more than might be expedient on the present occasion. In every thinly peopled portion of the State, it is rare to meet one without a gun of that description, as well as a tomahawk. By way of recreation, they often cut off a piece of the bark of a tree, make a target of it, using a little powder wetted with water or saliva, for the bull’s-eye, and shoot into the mark all the balls they have about them, picking them out of the wood again.
“After what I have said, imagine with what ease a Kentuckian procures game, or despatches an enemy, more especially when I tell you that every one in the State is accustomed to handle the rifle from the time when he is first able to shoulder it until near the close of his career. That murderous weapon is the means of procuring them subsistence during all their wild and extensive rambles, and is the source of their principal sports and pleasures.”
As word of the congressional resolution to raise rifle companies spread through the countryside in June of 1775, many frontier riflemen flocked to the colors. Some of the company captains were so flooded with volunteers that they had to hold impromptu shooting matches to determine which riflemen were the most proficient and “qualified” marksmen. A teacher at a plantation school on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia observed how one captain tried to determine which men were qualified to join his company.
“He took a board of a foot square and with chalk drew the shape of a moderate nose in the center and nailed it up to a tree at one hundred and fifty yards distance, and those who came nighest the mark with a single ball was to go. But by the first forty or fifty that fired, the nose was all blown out of the board, and by the time his company was up, the board shared the same fate.” In reporting this incident, a correspondent for the Virginia Gazette concluded the article with the admonition, “General Gage, take care of your nose!”
Pennsylvania, in particular, was swamped by the sheer number of volunteer riflemen pouring into the counties along the Susquehanna River, so much so that on June 22nd, Congress raised that colony’s quota from six companies of riflemen to eight. By July 11th, they were informed that Lancaster County had raised two full companies of riflemen rather than one, so yet another company was added. These were to be formed into the independent Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment, under the command of Colonel William Thompson.
The frontier riflemen could indeed travel hard, light and fast. At the time, of course, there were few roads, and many of them were only rough wagon tracks through the forest. There were even fewer bridges beyond the borders of New England, and streams and rivers had to be forded as the riflemen marched, some of them for hundreds of miles, through the muggy mid-summer heat.
Even so, only four days after Congress issued its resolution the first company of frontier riflemen, Nagel’s Birks County “Dutchmen”, arrived in Cambridge. The Pennsylvanian Rifle Company from Cumberland County traveled 441 miles in twenty six days. From Frederick County in Maryland, Captain Michael Cresap’s company of riflemen arrived in Boston by 9 August 1775, their march covering 550 miles in 22 days. Winchester, Virginia lay some 600 miles away from Boston, and it was there that big, burly Captain Daniel Morgan quickly raised his company. “In a few days,” he later wrote, “I raised ninety-six men, and set out for Boston, reached that place in twenty one days from the time I marched, bad weather included, nor did I leave a man behind.” Within sixty days of the Congressional resolution asking for 810 riflemen, some 1,430 frontiersmen had answered the call and arrived in Boston.

 Captain Daniel Morgan raised a company of Virginia riflemen; you will see his name again.

The accuracy and range the frontiersmen were capable of with their vaunted rifle-guns amazed the local New Englanders who knew only the smoothbore musket and fowling piece. Captain Cresap’s Marylanders, in particular, stopped to give public demonstrations of their shooting prowess in Fredericktown, Maryland and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Numerous accounts and letters exist of their marksmanship feats; many such narratives were run in local newspapers, and later reprinted in others. Typical of the accounts of the frontier riflemen and their skill is this description from an unknown author to a friend in Philadelphia.
"A clapboard, with a mark the size of a dollar, was put up; they began to fire off-hand, and the bystanders were surprised, few shots being made that were not close to or in the paper. When they had shot for a time in this way, some lay on their backs, some on their breast or side, others ran twenty or thirty steps, and firing, appeared to be equally certain of the mark. With this performance the company were more than satisfied, when a young man took up the board in his hand, not by the end, but by the side, and holding it up, his brother walked to the distance, and very coolly shot into the white; laying down his rifle, he took the board, and holding it as it was held before, the second brother shot as the former had done. By this exercise I was more astonished than pleased. But will you believe me, when I tell you that one of the men took the board, and placing it between his legs, stood with his back to the tree while another drove the center. What would a regular army of considerable strength in the forest of America do with one thousand of these men, who want nothing to preserve their health and courage but water from the spring, with a little parched corn, with what they can easily procure in hunting; and who, wrapped in their blankets, in the damp of night, would choose the shade of a tree for their covering, and the earth for their bed."
Others commented upon the hardihood of the riflemen, Washington’s chief medical officer Dr. James Thacher noting, “They are remarkably stout and hardy men; many of them exceeding six feet in height.” A correspondent for the Pennsylvania Packet who met Captain Cresap’s “active, brave young fellows” in Lancaster wrote, “They bear in their bodies visible marks of their prowess, and show scars and wounds which would do honor to Homer’s Iliad, etc…These men have been bred in the woods to hardships and danger from their infancy. They appear as if they were entirely unacquainted with, and had never felt, the passion of fear. With their rifles in their hands they assume a kind of omnipotence.”
Many people were also impressed by the clothes of the backwoodsmen: “Their whole dress is very singular, and not very materially different from that of the Indians; being a hunting shirt, somewhat resembling a waggoner’s frock, ornamented with a great many fringes, tied round the middle with a broad belt, much decorated also, in which is fastened a tomahawk, an instrument that serves every purpose of defence and convenience; being a hammer at one side and a sharp hatchet at the other; the shot-bag and powder horn, carved with a variety of whimsical figures and devices, hang from their necks over one shoulder; and on their heads a flapped hat, of a reddish hue, proceeding from the intensely hot beams of the sun.”

 Artist Don Troiani's painting of a Revolutionary rifleman shows his hunting shirt and accoutrements in great detail.

“Thus habited and accoutred, with his rifle on his shoulder, or in his hand, a back-wood’s man is completely equipped for visiting, courtship, travel, hunting or war. According to the number and variety of the fringes on his hunting shirt, and the decorations on his powder horn, belt, and rifle, he estimates his finery. Their hunting or rifle shirts, they have also died in a variety of colours, some yellow, others red, some brown, and many wear them quite white.”
Teddy Roosevelt would later call, “…the fringed hunting-shirt, of homespun or buckskin, the most picturesque and distinctively national dress ever worn in America. It was a loose smock or tunic, reaching nearly to the knees, and held in at the waist by a broad belt, from which hung the tomahawk and scalping-knife.”
The new commanding officer of the Continental Army, General George Washington, very much liked the hunting shirt as well and wished to make it part of the American soldier’s uniform. At his headquarters in Cambridge, he wrote that he sought a, “Species of uniform both cheap & convenient” that would also, “have a happier Tendency to unite the Men, & abolish those Provincial Distinctions which lead to Jealousy &; Dissatisfaction.”
To the Continental Congress he wrote, “No Dress can be had cheaper, nor more convenient, as the Wearer may be cool in warm weather, and warm in cool weather by putting on under-Cloaths which will not change the outward dress, Winter or Summer—Besides which it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.” Like just about everything else he requested from the Continental Congress, from gunpowder to rations, Washington would find the supply of hunting shirts to be long on promise and short on towcloth.
Regardless, the riflemen had arrived and it was time to unleash them upon the British occupiers of Boston.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 4)

Lexington Green, April 19, 1775. To this day no one really knows for sure who fired the very first "shot heard 'round the world."

 When the American Revolution burst into open warfare on April 19, 1775, there had previously been some uneasy confrontations between armed soldiers and patriots that had ended without bloodshed. Both the British Army and the American Militia commanders were understandably hesitant to fire the first shot that would spark an actual shooting war.
The skirmish at Lexington Green began as another face-off, with both sides hoping a mere show of force and determination would prove sufficient. American Captain John Parker placed the 77 militiamen of his company in parade ground formation on Lexington Green, in the open but blocking the road to Concord. History credits him with the orders, “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” The British advance guard, consisting of companies of light infantry and marines totaling around 240 men, arrived in town. The commanding officer, Major John Pitcairn, rode forward on his horse with sword drawn and ordered the militia to disperse.
Captain Parker actually did order his men to disperse and go home, but he had tuberculosis and his command voice did not carry well in the confusion. Exactly who fired the first shot is still debated today. Both sides blamed the other; the shot may have even come from the crowd of as many as a hundred on-lookers who had gathered. No matter who fired the shot, under such tense conditions it triggered an apparently unordered volley from the front rank of British soldiers, soon followed by a bayonet charge. With eight men killed and ten wounded, the surviving militia fled the field.
After getting the soldiers and marines back into ranks and under control, the British then proceeded to the main objective, Concord, where they intended to seize and destroy military stores reportedly gathered there by the rebels. Around 250 local militia had gathered in Concord but, seeing the British main column out-numbered them by 3-to-1, their commander Colonel James Barrett prudently withdrew across the North Bridge to a ridge where he could observe the area. The British searched Concord and found some old dismounted cannon barrels, but the bulk of the American supplies had already been removed. Seven companies crossed the North Bridge and searched James Barrett’s farm; one company was left to secure the bridge and two others were positioned nearby. The whole time Minutemen and militia from Concord, Lincoln, Acton and Bedford continued to arrive, quickly swelling Barrett’s ranks to over 400 men.
Aware of the gunfire at Lexington and seeing smoke rising from Concord, Colonel Barrett formed up his men with orders not to fire unless fired upon and marched in them in column back down towards the North Bridge. The three British light infantry companies, in total just under a hundred men under the command of an inexperienced young captain named Walter Laurie, gathered together and fell back across the bridge. As the Yankee militia approached the bridge, a British soldier fired without orders, which in turn triggered a ragged volley from the first rank which killed two and wounded four American militia.  
Near the head of the militia column, Major John Buttrick of Concord yelled, “Fire, for God's sake, fellow soldiers, fire!” The opposing sides were only fifty yards apart as the first few ranks of militia opened fire on the tightly packed British formation. The American musketry knocked down half of the eight British officers and NCOs present, and killed three and wounded nine enlisted men. Momentarily leaderless, the remaining British infantry broke and ran back towards Concord. The militiamen, stunned by their own success, milled indecisively for a bit, then backed off and took up defensive positions behind a stone wall and on a hilltop.
Now neither side fired a shot as the four British light infantry companies returned from Barrett’s Farm and were met by two companies of grenadiers coming from Concord. The British returned to that town where the entire column re-consolidated and began its return march towards Boston at noon. All the while, more militia poured in from the surrounding communities and countryside.

Militia tactics included "skulking" and swarming all along the road back to Boston.

 The actual “battle” was essentially one long, running ambush…a British officer later noted they were surrounded by a “dispersed though adhering” ring of irregulars that moved with them…and the Yankees’ actions were remarkably similar to the “swarming” technique used by some modern-day insurgents. Using the so-called “skulking” tactics of the Indians in hiding behind stone walls, trees, and buildings, they were able to pour musket fire at the column of British regulars on the road while exposing little of themselves as targets for return fire.
As British Lieutenant John Barker saw the action: “We were fired on from all sides, but mostly from the rear, where people had hid themselves in houses till we passed and then fired. The country was an amazing strong one, full of hills, woods, stone walls, etc., which the rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with people who kept an incessant fire upon us, as we did too upon them, but not with the same advantage, for they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them. In this way, we marched…miles, their numbers increasing from all parts, while our was reducing by deaths, wounds, and fatigue; and we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it’s impossible to conceive; our ammunition was likely near expended.”
The dispersed British light infantry flankers constantly strove to drive the rebels back from the main column with ball and bayonet, and inflicted the lion’s share of American casualties, but the traditional European volley fire from the main column itself proved ineffective. An American militiaman recalled, “…they faced about suddenly and fired a volley of musketry upon us. They overshot; and no one to my knowledge was injured by the fire. The fire was immediately returned by the Americans, and two British soldiers fell dead at a little distance from each other in the road near the brook.” One British officer assessed that the ineffectiveness of the regulars’ volley fire only served to encourage the rebels. “This [fire] gave the rebels more confidence as they soon found that notwithstanding there was so much, they suffered but little from it.”
By the end of the battle, a thousand-man British relief column with two pieces of artillery rushed out from Boston to bring in the battered remnants of the original Lexington column, which had suffered the most casualties and was almost out of ammunition. Without these reinforcements, they might have been decimated entirely. As it was, the British reported losses of 73 men killed, 174 wounded, and 53 missing (with a high percentage of the casualties being officers) while the Americans lost 49 men killed, 39 wounded, and 5 missing.
Beginning with Christopher Ward’s 1952 War of the Revolution, in which he stated that, “only one bullet out of 300 found it mark,” it became popular for historians to belittle the “myth” of American marksmanship at Concord and pronounce the militia to be terrible shots. Even assuming Ward’s numbers are correct, as we saw in Part 1, in traditional European battles of the period it was a rule of thumb that a man’s body weight in lead had to be fired for every casualty inflicted, with French and Prussian generals estimating that anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 musket balls needing to be fired for every man hit. Viewed in such light, the militia’s shooting on April 19th doesn’t look bad at all.
Even French concluded: “Nor need it be supposed that there was criticism of the provincial fire at the time. Measured by the European standard of those days, it was above the average, and there was not a veteran in that flight who complained that the American fire was not sufficiently hot. Lieutenant Carter called it a ‘heavy and well-directed fire.’ Mackenzie, Barker, De Berniere, held it in respect. Percy wrote of the ‘incessant fire, which like a moving circle surrounded & fold us wherever we went.’ By every standard of those days, the American fire was formidable. Certainly no one who experienced it asked to have it bettered. It was the preparation for the fire of Bunker Hill, which for deadliness exceeded anything previously known in warfare.”
After Concord, a stalemate ensued as the British forces dug in around Boston while the American forces surrounded the town and did likewise. Almost two months passed before the Americans made the next move, occupying and digging in on Breed’s Hill (rather than the intended objective of Bunker Hill) under cover of darkness on the night of June 16, 1775.
The British reacted aggressively to push the Americans from the hill before they could become solidly entrenched, but it was late afternoon on June 17th before the first assault actually went in. There were in total some three thousand regulars, including the more elite light infantry and grenadier companies as assault troops, led by General William Howe himself. These professional soldiers exuded confidence and were certain that the Colonial “untrained rabble” could never stand against British regulars.
A force of 1,200 American militiamen from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island awaited entrenched atop Breed’s Hill. They were nominaly under the overall command of Massachusetts Colonel William Prescott, but in practice the entire American chain of command was rather muddled. Fortunately unknown to the British, the Americans were also suffering from a severe army-wide shortage of gunpowder; some Colonial troops were issued only fifteen rounds worth of powder and shot before the battle. Conversely, British soldiers were issued 36 paper-wrapped cartridges for the day, and even that total would grow quickly as the war progressed. Despite their shortcomings, the militiamen dug in and waited.

 Popular legend attributed Colonel William Prescott with the instructions, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes."

To the surprise of many, the “untrained rabble” of the Colonial militia stood their ground against the well-trained professional soldiers. Legend has it that either Israel Putnam or William Prescott gave the famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Individual veterans recalled, probably more realistically, orders that included: “Fire low.” “Aim at their waistbands.” “Pick off the commanders.” “Aim at the handsome coats.” On the left flank, colorful Colonel John Stark, whose later toast of “Live Free or Die” would one day become New Hampshire’s state motto, was said to have driven in a stake roughly 120 feet (40 yards) in front of his line, then turned to his militiamen and said, “There! Don’t a man fire till the Redcoats come up to that stake. If he does, I’ll knock him down.”
 A few premature shots were discharged by nervous individuals, but for the most part the American militia hunkered down and waited until the lines of British infantry were at such close range that even musket fire would be accurate. From behind cover and resting their muskets, they took deliberate aim and delivered devastating close-range blasts of small arms fire that inflicted heavy casualties and broke up the first two British assaults.
The action was described by one of the British officers who took part:
“Our men advanced with great confidence, expecting an easy victory…
“As we approached, an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines. It seemed a continual sheet of fire for near thirty minutes. Our Light Infantry were served up in companies against the grass fence without being able to penetrate. Indeed, how could we penetrate? Most of our Grenadiers and Light Infantry, the moment of presenting themselves lost three-fourths and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight and nine men a company left, some only three, four and five.
“On the left, Pigot was staggered and actually retreated.”

Howard Pyle's iconic 1879 Battle of Bunker Hill has some inaccuracies (British infantry had adopted a two-rank open-order formation in North America prior to the end of the French & Indian Wars) but portrays well the discipline and bravery of the regulars...and the cost.

 New Hampshire Captain Henry Dearborn, who would one day retire as a major general after the War of 1812, commanded a small militia company on Breed’s Hill. He later wrote:
“Every platoon officer was engaged in discharging his own musket, and left his men to fire as they pleased, but never without a sure aim at some particular object, which was more destructive than any mode which could have been adopted with troops who were not inured to discipline, and never had been in battle, but were still familiar with the use of arms, from boyhood, and each having his peculiar manner of loading and firing, which had been practised upon for years, with the same gun ; any attempt to control them by uniformity and system, would have rendered their fires infinitely less fatal to the enemy.”
“Our men were intent on cutting down every officer they could distinguish in the British line. When any of them discovered one he would instantly exclaim, ‘there,’ ‘see that officer,’ ‘let us have a shot at him,’ when two or three would fire at the same moment ; and as our soldiers were excellent marksmen and rested their muskets over the fence, they were sure of their object.”
Dearborn also noted the ineffectiveness of the British volley fire. “The fire of the enemy was so badly directed, I should presume that forty-nine balls out of fifty passed from one to six feet over our heads, for I noticed an apple-tree, some paces in the rear, which had scarcely a ball in it from the ground as high as a man's head, while the trunk and branches above were literally cut to pieces.”
The third assault by the British finally carried the day as the Americans atop Breed’s Hill fired their last few shots and ran out of ammunition. As the British infantry broke into the trenches with fixed bayonets, the defenders, very few of whom had bayonets of their own, finally broke and fled from the breastworks. On the American left, the two hundred New Hampshire militiamen under Colonel Stark, who had been the last American reinforcements to arrive just prior to the battle, conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that allowed the remainder of the colonials to escape intact. Even British General John Burgoyne grudgingly admitted the retreat was, “…no flight; it was even conducted with bravery and military skill.”
The British took the hill and won the battle, but it was an extremely costly and Pyrrhic victory, the single most costly battle of the war in terms of British casualties. General Sir Henry Clinton, who had gathered up scattered British survivors and the walking wounded to personally lead the third, final assault, confided in his journal the battle was, “A dear brought victory, another such would have ruined us.”
Even though armed almost entirely with the same smoothbore muskets as their opponents, the militia’s close-range fire had been accurate and devastating. Once more a very high proportion of officers, 81 in all, had been singled out and shot down, with 19 of them killed and 62 wounded. Total British casualties exceeded a thousand, more than a third of the attacking force; 226 killed and 828 wounded. The Americans lost a total of around 450 casualties including 140 killed, 280 wounded, and 30 captured,  with most of these casualties inflicted during the retreat.
Even with muskets, marksmanship had made the difference and one has to wonder what the fate of the third assault might have been if the patriots had not been so woefully short on ammunition.