Thursday, January 05, 2017


(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 2)

     The rifle was not an American invention; the concept had been known for hundreds of years. The ancient Greeks had known that giving a spin to an arrow gave it a stabilizing spin in flight that increased range and accuracy, but the name of the individual who first put such a spin on a firearm projectile has been lost to history. Gun barrels with spiral grooves on the interior seem to have originated in the Alps somewhere around 1450 and they would take their name from the German word riffeln, cut or groove. Early rifles were extremely tedious to load; using a projectile that fit the bore tightly enough to engage the rifling required that it be literally hammered all the way down barrel. Target shooting competitions known as Schutzenfests had also been very popular in the major cities of Central Europe since the days of the bow and crossbow. In 1472 the Swiss were believed to have held the very first all-gun Schutzenfest, and a rifle seems to have made its appearance at one such shooting match in Leipzig as early as 1498. Hapsburg King Maximilian I wrote of hunting chamois with a rifle as early as1499. Eventually, the weapon evolved into the traditional Jäger (Hunter) rifle, which is examined later. 

 Central European Jager rifle, ancestor of the American Long Rifle.

Nor was the American Revolution the first time the rifle was military service. The Germanic States fielded small groups of specially-trained rifle-armed skirmishers known as Jägers. The Kingdom of Denmark acquired rifles for similar skirmishers and the French Royal Horse Guards began to issue rifle-barreled carbines to the best marksmen in each troop. Norwegian ski troops acquired rifles and Sweden adopted the Model 1761 flintlock rifle, complete with bayonet, for its skirmishers in that same year. In the grand scheme of military things, however, the rifle really counted for very little.
          Fortunately for the American Colonies, beginning around 1710 the first trickle of Palatine German and Swiss emigrants, fleeing religious persecution and seemingly endless generation European wars, began arriving in North America and settling mainly in William Penn’s Colony. This initial trickle of immigration quickly swelled to a series of waves, and within these waves were individuals who brought with them to the New World their trusty traditional Jäger rifles and, more importantly, some experienced gunsmiths who knew how to make them.
  While little more than a trading post and a small huddle of cabins at the turn of the century, Lancaster, PA was a gateway between the more settled and agrarian coastal colonies and the seemingly endless wilderness forests further west. In addition, the area’s natural resources included deposits of iron ore in easily-accessed seams near ground surface as well as stands of fine timber. Within a generation, Lancaster County would become the heart of American gun-making and development, especially when it came to the rifle.
One of the first and most influential gunsmiths to settle in Lancaster was the Swiss emigrant Martin Meylan, who built a workshop with a “boring mill” for rifling gun barrels in 1719. In 1721 another Swiss gun-maker, Peter Leman, set up shop a few miles away in a settlement that would become known as Leman Place. They were soon followed by other leading gunsmiths such as Le Fevre, Henry Albrecht, and John Vondersmith. Fifteen-year-old William Henry became an apprentice to the German-born Lancaster rifle-maker Matthew Roeser in 1744. In 1750, he went into business on his own and for one hundred fifty years Henry’s son, grandson and great-grandson continued the family gun-making tradition in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
In the beginning, these gunsmiths created only copies of the typical Central European Jäger rifle. Although there were significant variations, generally speaking the “typical” Jäger rifle ranged from .60 to nearly musket bore (.75-caliber), with an octagon barrel averaging around 30 inches long, giving it an overall length of roughly 45 inches and a weight of between nine and ten pounds. For the average German, Swiss or Austrian hunter pursuing chamois or ibex high in the Alps or stag and boar in the Black Forest, the Jäger served its purpose, for the hunter did not have to travel far, seldom needed to fire more than one or two shots, and returned to his own house or a mountain cabin every night. It was soon found, however, to be a rather poor choice for the radically different environment of the New World.

 American frontiersmen like Davy Crockett (above) and "Long Hunters" like Daniel Boone might roam the wilderness for months on end, so every ounce of gear they carried was important.

In the American Colonies, both powder and shot were precious and expensive commodities and the vast stretches of wilderness meant that a “long hunter” might range afoot for weeks or even months at a time. Under such conditions, the weight of a backwoodsman’s weapon and supplies needed to be as light as possible. By around 1725, the German and Swiss gunsmiths of Lancaster were beginning to make increasingly dramatic design changes towards creating a unique rifle perfectly suited for the frontier. The American Long Rifle, sometimes called the Pennsylvania or Kentucky Long Rifle, would become an icon of the new nation.
Colonel George Hanger was one of a select few British Army officers considered an expert on the rifle; he had once commanded a unit of German Jägers and had his own collection for shooting and hunting. He was suitably impressed with the qualities of the Pennsylvania rifle: “I never in my life saw better rifles (or men who shot better) than those made in America. They are chiefly made in Lancaster, and two or three neighbouring towns in that vicinity, in Pensylvania. The barrels weigh about six pounds two or three ounces, and carry a ball no larger than thirty-six to the pound, at least I never saw one of a larger caliber, and I have seen many hundreds and hundreds.”
Pennsylvania-made rifle calibers soon shrank to between .40 and .54-caliber, with .45 becoming the most common. At the time, caliber was often expressed in balls to the pound, i.e. how many bullets could be produced per pound of lead. For the standard British Brown Bess musket, a pound of lead would yield only sixteen .71-caliber balls, yet the same weight of lead could provide as many as 48 balls to feed a .45-caliber Pennsylvania Rifle. Thus the new rifle enabled the hunter or explorer to get three times as many bullets from each pound of lead, which, like the black powder needed to propel it, required a potentially long trip to a village or trading post to obtain. On expeditions into the wilderness that might last the better part of a year, every pound of weight a man had to carry became critical.

 The Kentucky or Pennsylvania Rifle

The rifle itself began to take on a long, slender and elegant form; barrel lengths of 40 or even 48 inches became common. These long barrels were the heart of the weapon, and could weigh as much as six pounds by themselves. The longer barrels allowed the exploding black powder charge to fully combust within the rifle, boosting the rifle ball to higher velocities and enabling the frontiersman to get “more bang for the buck” from his precious powder supply. The length served to balance the weapon itself for better handling and the longer barrels produced a quieter report or muzzle blast that did not carry as far through the virgin forests where it could be heard by unfriendly ears. A long barrel also allowed for a greater distance between the front and rear sights, and the resulting long sight plane translated into greater aiming precision and thus increased accuracy. Compared to muskets of the era, which had a reputation for kicking like mules, the long rifle produced very little recoil.
Overall length of the rifle could reach 60 inches or more, yet weights were kept to roughly 7 to 9 pounds. The wooden forestock of oak or maple ran the length of the long barrel to just behind the muzzle. For muzzle loading, a wooden ramrod, usually of hickory, was secured in a track beneath the barrel. A graceful buttstock with a pronounced droop gave the shooter a solid cheek-to-stock weld that put his eye right behind the sights. A brass patch box with a hinged cover, often embellished with scrollwork, was inset into the stock near the butt of the weapon. This arrangement was much more durable and weatherproof and not prone to loss compared to the sliding wooden-covered patch box found on the original Jäger rifles.
Greased linen patches were used to wrap the rifle ball before it was rammed home down the barrel atop the powder charge. The use of such patches was another European discovery dating perhaps as far back as 1600, but the practice was not widespread until almost universally adopted in Colonial America. These patches helped to keep the rifling and bore cleaner from burned black powder residue and also served to form a “gas seal” to boost the projectile’s velocity when fired. A well-made Pennsylvania rifle of the era could easily achieve a muzzle velocity of around 1,600 feet per second with a .45-caliber ball weighing around 200 grains. In modern tests fired over a chronometer, a few exceptionally well-made Pennsylvania rifles built in the mid 1700’s by some of the most famous Lancaster gun-makers produced muzzle velocities as high as 2,400 to 2,500 feet per second. By comparison, the modern Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle’s 7.62x39mm cartridge fires a 123-grain bullet at 2,421 fps.
Of course the Kentucky rifle used only a simple round lead ball that lacked the stream-lined aerodynamic qualities of modern spitzer bullets and it lost its velocity comparatively quickly as distance increased. With the smoothbore musket the standard weapon, most European military authorities of the Revolutionary War era insisted that a large, heavy ball was necessary and this is reflected in the .60 to .75-caliber muskets of the day. However, greatly increased velocity enabled the much smaller .45-caliber rifle ball to still retain considerable lethality or “stopping power”.
As George Hanger explained, “…what the smaller ball loses by its want of weight, is most astonishingly compensated for, by the triple velocity given to it, from the great increase of the powder. But this I presume to say whether you be wounded by a rifle shot, either two, three, four or five hundred yards distant, the ball weighing twenty, or thirty, to the pound, it is immaterial. Either of them will kill you, or send you to the hospital, and that is sufficient.” (P140)
Most rifles were fitted with a fixed V-notch rear sight several inches in front of the breech plug and a silver or brass front blade-type sight near the very end of the barrel, both fitted into dove-tails filed into the top barrel flat. This provided a long sight radius of nearly three feet, which was a great boon to accurate aiming. The sights were low to the top of the barrel, usually rising no more than 1/8 of an inch above it. This helped protect the sights from damage, prevented the rifleman from “drawing too much bead” on the front sight and thus over-shooting (to this day a common error in combat firing), and, when under fire, allowed the marksman to take aim around the side of a tree while exposing the minimum of his own head as a target for the enemy. Both sights were beveled to a keen edge so that, especially on small or partially concealed targets, a man could take fine aim.
A well-made long rifle could be sighted in at 100 yards. Zeroed in such a manner, it might shoot a half inch or a little more above the point of aim at mid-range (50-60) yards and would strike about the same amount under point of aim at 125 yards. Such a trajectory meant a good rifleman could hit a target the size of a squirrel out to the latter range. At longer ranges, the rifleman had to practice “hold-over” and/or “Kentucky windage.” To hit a man at 300 yards, he could simply aim at his head. Modern rifle accuracy standards are expressed in Minute of Angle (MOA), an angular measurement of 1/60th of a degree, which translates into just slightly over an inch (1.047”) at 100 yards. Good Pennsylvania rifles could attain around 2 Minutes of Angle accuracy at 100 yards; that is they could put a 3-shot group within 2 inches of the point of aim.
George Hanger, of course, weighed in on the subject, once again quite accurately, regarding the range capabilities of the American long rifle.
I have many times asked the American backwoodsmen what was the most their best marksmen could do; and they have constantly told me that an expert rifleman, provided he can draw good and true sight (they mean by this expression, when they can distinctly see the object aimed at in a direct line with the two sights on the rifle), can hit the head of a man at 200 yards. I am certain provided an American rifleman was to get a perfect aim at 300 yards at me, he would most undoubtedly would hit me, unless if was a very windy day, so much so as to occasion the ball considerably to deflect.”

John Robertson, a long-time National Park Service interpretive guide at Cowpens National Battlefield, researched both period and modern sources to reach much the same conclusion as Hanger. He states that, “If an expert rifleman were firing at you with intent to kill:
They would have occasional lucky hits at 400 yards
They would hit you most of the time at 300 yards
They would rarely miss at 200 yards
They would be picking which eye they wanted to hit at 100 yards.”
Now recall that with the smoothbore Brown Bess musket that was the military standard of the period, even a good marksman had less than a 50/50 chance of hitting a man-sized target at 100 yards, and at 200 he might just as well shoot at the moon.
For all its strengths, the long rifle also had some weaknesses that told against its effective military use. It required a good deal more time to load its patched ball. Even the best rifleman might get off only two shots per minute at best, while the average British regular was trained to fire four rounds per minute with his Brown Bess. American rifles also lacked a bayonet or even the capability to mount one, leaving riflemen extremely vulnerable when it came to close combat. Each rifle having been essentially hand-made, all had slight differences that weighed against adoption of a standardized bayonet model or universal ammunition issue; virtually all American muskets could take a .69-caliber ball but a Pennsylvania rifle usually came with its own bullet mold to cast lead into the proper-sized balls.
Author John Dillon praised the Kentucky as, “A rifle which changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately freed our country of foreign domination. Light in weight; graceful in line; economical in consumption of powder and lead; fatally precise; distinctly American; it sprang into immediate popularity, and for a hundred years was a model often slightly varied but never radically changed.”
Although the rifle made a large contribution at the Battle of Saratoga, usually considered the turning point of the war, and proved particularly useful in the South and West, to say that the rifle won the Revolution goes considerably too far. Historian Neil L. York summed up the problems in an essay in which he called the Pennsylvania Rifle a “Revolutionary Weapon in a Conventional War.”
“…the rifle did not play as important a role as its protagonists once claimed. Nevertheless, it had a potential almost untapped during the war. Though by no means a superweapon, it could have been used more effectively…The rifle's peculiar wartime career can be traced to attitudinal and institutional restraints on technology in general and invention in particular in preindustrial America.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A good and informative article. I'm wearing an Appleseed T-shirt this very moment. 'Where marksmanship made history'.