Monday, January 16, 2017


(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 3)

The embattled farmer really did know his muzzle from his buttplate.

       Considering the accuracy, or rather lack thereof, the smoothbore musket was physically capable of, the modern shooter might be inclined to think, "Why bother?" when it comes to marksmanship with such weapon. Although this series is on rifles and riflemen in the Revolution, it should be noted that even with muskets marksmanship still mattered.
      In the past, some authors over-stated or exaggerated the case for American marksmanship in the American Revolution, but it really was of considerable value in the early battles of 1775. While not every butcher, baker and candlestick-maker in the Colonial Militia was some eagle-eyed Dan’l Boone with a rifle-gun, marksmanship was a contributing factor to American success in numerous battles and even the average musket-armed village militiaman was equal or superior to the average British infantryman when it came to use of his firelock. Farmers, in particular, made use of their firearms in controlling predators and pests as well as filling the larder, and even among the townsmen there was an interest in hunting and fowling, in that era as much to put meat on the table as for sporting purposes.
          Conversely, back in England during the same period, all wild game and the privilege of hunting it belonged strictly to royalty and the landed aristocracy; less than one percent of the population as a whole was entitled to said sport. To keep the common people from poaching the King’s deer or snaring the King’s hare, Royal gamekeepers were empowered to search a man’s home, confiscate guns, dogs, or any other hunting gear, and were immune from prosecution if they killed a poacher. Punishment for poaching could include fines, lashing, imprisonment and penal deportation. In 1723, the English Parliament passed the Black Act, under which more than fifty criminal acts…including such offenses as fishing, cutting down a tree, or merely be armed or “disguised” in a forest…became punishable by death.
          In America, Quaker William Penn had noted the abundance of game found in the New World in 1682: “The food, the woods yield, is your elk, deer, raccoons, beaver, rabbets, turkeys, pheasants, hearth-birds, pidgeons, and partridge innumerably; we need no setting dogs to ketch, they run by droves into the house in cold weather.”  In addition, the seas, rivers and lakes teemed with a wide and plentiful variety of fresh and saltwater fish. Lobsters were caught in New York Bay and low tides along the coast revealed oyster beds that might stretch for a mile.
As a matter of necessity the early colonists soon learned to take full advantage of the forests filled with game, estuaries teeming with waterfowl, and waters rich in fish. Lacking effective means of preserving fresh foods, especially meat, domestic livestock were usually slaughtered only in the late fall, usually November. During the rest of the year, wild game was substituted, with many rural families subsisting on venison for as much as nine months out of the year. Hunting would soon become considered a basic right and the concept that fish, game animals and birds belonged to the people as a whole took shape. In William Penn’s 1663 Frame of Government for the Pennsylvania Colony, also known as the Charter of Privileges, he made sure to include the, “liberty to fowl and hunt upon the lands they hold, and all other levels therein not enclosed (and) to fish in all waters in the said land.”

Hunting in Colonial days was more necessity than sport.

 Flocks of wild turkey might exceed a hundred in number and the fat birds could weigh as much as sixty pounds, although thirty to forty pounds was the norm. From Maine to Georgia flocks of passenger pigeons literally darkened the sky at times and broke the limbs of their roosting trees with their combined weight. Especially during the spring and fall migrations, waterfowl were present in breathtaking numbers. Large game was also plentiful, at least initially, in the form of black bear, deer, and elk, although the latter was quickly hunted out. In the mid 1700’s, an Indian or white hunter could sell a deer in Georgia for sixpence or trade one in Albany, NY for a knife, a kettle or a few iron nails, leading to the common expression of something being worth a “buck.” When it came to small game, rabbits and fox and gray squirrels were so numerous and consumed so much cultivated grain that they were considered little more than pests. In 1749, Pennsylvania offered a bounty of three pence for a squirrel head; hunters nearly broke the treasury by bringing in some 600,000 of them. Particularly in the South, hunting “varmints” (raccoons and opossums) at night by torchlight was quite popular; Thomas Jefferson said it was Meriwether Lewis’s favorite sport.
Wild predators were also considered a pest to be killed and destroyed; wolves, in particular, were a threat to domestic livestock. In 1779, the town of Norfolk, Connecticut voted to pay a bounty of 6 pounds for any “woolf or painter” killed in or around the community. Seen as a threat to poultry especially, the destruction of wild cats and foxes was also encouraged by bounties in some areas. Black bears were another threat to livestock but those settlers who did not have access to domestic pigs preferred to wait until fall to shoot bears; fattened up for their annual hibernation, autumn-killed bears provided a winter’s supply of lard.
          Thus, even in the settled and civilized portions of New England, virtually every household had and was familiar with the gun, sometimes a fowling piece but most often the humble musket. Said gun might only be used occasionally to harvest ducks or geese or to keep a fox from raiding the henhouse, but there was familiarity with it and it was maintained in good working order.
A British historian later wrote, “The New England gun was a family utensil, kept handy in the house-place somewhere, loaded, ready for immediate use. It was very frequently taken out to replenish the larder, and was affectionately regarded as ranking even above the kettle in the hierarchy of domestic utensils…the New England farmer’s weapon was of the sort known to the British troops as Brown Bess, to the American colonists as the Queen’s Arm.” 

 "The New England gun was a family utensil."

          Charles Lee would become an American major general; he was considered a military expert since he had fought as an officer in the British, Portuguese and Polish armies in both North America and Europe. His radical Whig political views led him to move from England to the American Colonies where he became an ardent early advocate of the Patriot cause. In November of 1774 he published his quite popular Pamphlet, Entitled, A friendly Address to all reasonable Americans on the Subject of our Political Confusions in which he did much to allay the fears most Colonists had of the fighting skills of the vaunted British Army regulars.
          “Upon the whole, it is most certain that men may be smartly dressed, keep their arms bright, be called regulars, be expert in all the anticks of a review, and yet be very unfit for real action. It is equally certain, that a militia, by confining themselves to essentials, by a simplification of the necessary manoeuvers, may become, in a very few months, a most formidable infantry. The yeomanry of America have, besides infinite advantages over the peasantry of other countries; they are accustomed from their infancy to fire arms ; they are expert in the use of them : whereas the lower and middle people of England, are, by the tyranny of certain laws, almost as ignorant in the use of a musquet, as they are of the ancient catapulta.”
            Writing to Giovanni Fabbroni in June of 1778, Thomas Jefferson explained why in battle the British forces tended to suffer much greater casualties (Jefferson claimed two-to-one at the time; later writers give the a ratio of three-to-five). “This difference is ascribed to our superiority in taking aim when we fire; every soldier in our army having been intimate with his gun from infancy.”
Well over a century and a quarter after the Revolution, Theodore Roosevelt, while writing about the era, still believed hunting prepared young men well for war. “No form of labor is harder than the chase, and none is so fascinating nor so excellent as a training school for war. The successful still-hunter of necessity possessed skill in hiding and in creeping noiselessly upon the wary quarry, as well as in imitating the notes and calls of the different beasts and birds; skill in the use of the rifle and in throwing the tomahawk he already had; and he perforce acquired keenness of eye, thorough acquaintance with woodcraft, and the power of standing the severest strains of fatigue, hardship, and exposure.”
Some of these lessons did indeed translate well into the role of the infantryman. Lieutenant Enoch Anderson of the Haslet’s Delaware battalion recalled his unit’s baptism of fire near Brooklyn in 1776, saying, “I saw one man tumble from his horse—never did I take better aim at a bird—yet I know not that I killed any or touched any.” Private Joseph Martin, a musket-armed Connecticut militia man turned Continental regular, remembered, “I singled out a man and took my aim directly between his shoulders (they were divested of their packs); he was a good mark, being a broad-shouldered fellow, but what became of him I know not; the fire and smoke hid him from my sight. One thing I know…I took as deliberate aim at him as ever I did at any game in my life.”
          Which brings us to an aside concerning blackpowder small arms that modern shooters often forget; the cloud of acrid gray smoke that belched from the muzzle quite often momentarily obscured the firer’s view. The combined smoke of massed musket volleys and cannon fire could quickly blanket the entire battlefield if there were no wind present.
          Every able-bodied male in the Colonies was also subject to militia duty and, in Connecticut, Maryland and Massachusetts, was required by law to provide and maintain his own “firelock.” Maryland militia law stipulated that every householder should have a “good & sufficient armes” for every adult male in the house, including servants. The 1650 Connecticut militia code stipulated that every male over sixteen years “shall have” a “muskitt” or “gunn” fit for service.
          With the French & Indian War now more than a decade in the past, in many towns the New England militia system temporarily devolved into a “boys’ day out” mentality in which military training took a back seat to socializing and musters might only be conducted a few times per year. Still, as John R. Galvin noted in The Minute Men, “...even when the level of training reached its lowest ebb, late in the 1760s, the militia troops still practiced their marksmanship, and handling of weapons remained important. There developed an easy-going familiarity with weapons, something that can be best described as the Rogers influence: care of the weapon and marksmanship received attention, and sham battles (Rogers’ favorite training) took place at every muster, but orthodox drill was made a burlesque…”
          As tensions escalated in the autumn of 1774, New England militia training again became important and was conducted with ever-increasing frequency and seriousness. The famous town of Concord, for instance, went from a lackadaisical four musters per year to militia training twice per week. Many company officers were veterans of the French & Indian Wars, and drew their tactics from that experience.
          In an age when the professional European soldier trained to fire volleys and as many shots per minute as possible, warfare against the Native American tribes had led the American militias to stress individual marksmanship in training. Long before Major Robert Rogers and his Rangers became famous in the French & Indian Wars, Captain Benjamin Church had been commissioned by the governor of Plymouth Colony to raise, train a lead a company of rangers during King Philip’s War (1675-1678). Church would do the same during King William’s War (1688-1697) and Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). Published in 1716, Church’s Entertaining Passages related to Philip’s War was considered the first American military manual. In it, he urged militia officers to inspect their men carefully to, “see if their arms be good and they know how to use them in shooting right, at a mark…”
As early as 1679, Massachusetts ordered that militia officers, “…not onely traine theire souldiers in theire postures and motions but alsoe at shooting att Markes.” Shooting at marks—target practice—became the popular practice on muster days, with competition between the men to be the best shot. Thomas Jefferson’s memorandum noted he had, at age 25, come in second-place in a shooting contest held during a muster of the Albemarle County Militia Company to which he belonged at the time.
One period account noted: “But the favorite competition on training-days was in shooting at a mark for a silk handkerchief or other prize, or a wager. In New England in the seventeenth century this was directly connected with the military training; for they shot in cold blood at what appears to have been an image or outline of a man, and there were grave debates as to who had won the prize, the one who had shot the target in the neck or he who lodged a fatal ball in the bowels.”
          On the eve of war, the Acton, MA militia company that fought at North Bridge on April 19th was captained by the local gunsmith, Isaac Davis, who kept his men’s firelocks in good order and instructed them twice a week in shooting at the range behind his shop. Marksmanship training was considered important enough that even when Rhode Island Legislature found out how perilously low their public stock of gunpowder was in January of 1775, they forbade government or militia firing any guns, “excepting only for perfecting themselves as marksman, under the immediate direction of the commanding officers for the day.”
          Allen French, in his 1925 The Day of Concord and Lexington, was one of the first historians to disparage militia marksmanship…(“If every American who fired at the redcoats on that day had inflicted a serious wound, not one of either Smith’s or Percy’s men would have limped across Charlestown Neck that night.”)…but his reservations seem to revolve around the definition of “marksman”, with French equating the term to sharpshooter or expert.
          He noted: “And in the second place, only exceptional men are natural marksmen, while even they need frequent practice…A mere occasional field day, with a chance of ten or twenty shots at a target, can do no more than show a man the difficulty of the art.”
          Such marksmanship training was still head and shoulders above that given to the traditional European soldier. During the Napoleonic Wars, French Marshal Berthier decreed that recruits should, “fire a few rounds so that they would know which eye to use in aiming.” David Chandler’s Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars noted, “The new conscript might receive 2 or 3 weeks of basic instruction at the depot, but he would fire on average only 2 musket shots a year in practice.”
          These then were the average, ordinary New England militiamen who would start the war. Though not necessarily “intimate with his gun from infancy” the embattled farmer was at least familiar and proficient with his firelock, and, all else being equal, man-for-man a better shot than his opponent. As Richard Frothingham put it in his History of the Siege of Boston: “A martial spirit had been excited in the frequent training of the minutemen, while the habitual use of the fowling-piece made these raw militia superior to veteran troops in aiming the musket.”
          Most professional soldiers recruited from the large cities of Europe had never fired a gun before joining the army, and on that continent close ranks and volley firing was still the order of the day. Although he was endlessly drilled in the 29 official motions required to load and “make ready” his musket, the commands given to the rank-and-file infantryman in 1775 did not include the step “aim”; the redcoat merely “presented” his Brown Bess before “giving fire.” According to the British Army’s 1764 Manual Exercise in use at the time, at the command of, “Present!” the soldier was to, “Step back about six inches to the Rear with the Right Foot, bringing the left Toe to the Front; at the same Time the Butt end of the Firelock must be brought to an equal Height with your Shoulder, placing the left Hand on the Swell, and the Fore-Finger of the right Hand before the Tricker, sinking the muzzle a little.” Officers and NCOs only sought to ensure the formation’s muskets were, “well leveled.”
At the command to fire, manuals of the era advised the soldier to, “Pull the Tricker briskly” or “jerk the trigger smartly”, neither method conducive to accurate shooting. Prior to the Revolution, a few professional European military officers even recommended that the soldier close his eyes when firing and/or considered that deliberate aim by the soldier at another individual, especially an officer, was rather gauche and unsportsmanlike. Even when the individual soldier tried to aim his musket, he was hindered by the lack of sights; the best he could do was use the bayonet lug as a mark to roughly line the barrel up with the target.

The professional military method of the era: "Present" firelock "well-leveled" and "jerk the trigger smartly."

The commander-in-chief of British forces in North America in 1775 was Major General Thomas Gage, a veteran of the French & Indian Wars who had himself unsuccessfully used standard European tactics at General Edward Braddock’s disastrous defeat on the Monongahela. Later in that conflict, he studied the tactics of Roger’s Rangers and incorporated the lessons he’d learned into creating his own light infantry regiment, specially equipped and trained for skirmishing and woods fighting in North America. Although his record in the previous war was less than spectacular, Gage remained a light infantry advocate.
In Boston, on June, 14, 1775 Gage issued general orders that the “Recruits and Drafts” his regiments received should be well-trained to include, “teaching them to fire ball; proper marksmen to instruct them in taking aim, and the position in which they ought to stand in firing.” Of course, as anyone who has served in the military knows, such requirements made on paper are sometimes satisfied solely on paper as well. A bit more of an elite than regular line infantry and expected to act as skirmishers, the light infantry companies in Boston had began to conduct more frequent live-fire target practice. Lieutenant Robert MacKenzie recorded that his company regularly fired at man-sized targets bobbing up and down on small floats in Boston Harbor, six shots per man per practice session, with pay premiums awarded to the best shots.
While these were indeed positive steps, even those British soldiers who became crack shots were still hindered by the musket’s inherent inaccuracy at any distance much beyond 75 or 80 yards. Good individual marksmanship practice was also restricted mainly to the light infantry; for many years, the standard heavy line infantryman was allotted a grand total of two live practice rounds per year. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British Army developed an enviable reputation for its superior musketry; by then, however, the allotment for live-fire practice ammunition had risen to 30 rounds for regular infantrymen, 50 for light infantry, and 60 for the Rifle Regiment.
General Gage also accurately predicted how the Americans would fight if war broke out: “The most natural and most eligible mode of attack on the part of the people is that of detached parties of Bushmen who from their adroitness in the habitual use of the Firelock suppose themselves sure of their mark at a distance of 200 rods. Should hostilities unhappily commence, the first opposition would be irregular, impetuous and incessant from the numerous Bodys that would swarm to the place of action, and all actuated by an enthusiasm wild and ungovernable.”
 This was, essentially, what the militia did on April 19, 1775.

No comments: