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.

Sunday, January 29, 2017



Note: And now for something completely different. I've been digging through the "archives" (shoe boxes) recently and finding all sorts of forgotten stuff. Before moving to the mountains of Montana, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota was my thing. Yes, I do enjoy nature, almost as much as the guns I use to kill it. Anyway, here's an old story, my first published magazine article, about the time in hiked the Border Route Trail back in 1992; I went to Montana the following summer. My writing style back then was rather sappy and verbose, and I thought about posting this with some current smart-ass commentary, but decided to leave the whole thing as it was with the exception of tossing in some old photos of the expedition that I unearthed. Gun Nut Bawb will return soon.

Autumn Ramble
          On a bright, crisp October morning I found myself at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Little John Lake and the eastern terminus of the Border Route Hiking Trail. Hiking the trail was an adventure I had awaited for months. Almost everyone who knows of the Boundary Waters thinks of canoeing, and I’ve taken numerous canoe trips there myself, but every now and then I like to get off all by myself on a solo trip. For me, a backpack is much more easily managed by one person than a canoe.

           From the secluded trailhead I watched the friend who had driven me there disappear in his truck. My own car waited at the far end of the Border Route Trail, some thirty two miles distant, and the only way to get to it was with my own two feet.
          The beautiful silence of wilderness settled in around me as the dust cleared. I shouldered my rucksack and set out, gloriously alone. The day was perfect for a good hike, with the golden disk of the sun shining high overhead and the air cool and crisp with the unmistakable aura of autumn.
          The trail itself started out rather inauspiciously, as great things often do, marked only by a faded wooden signpost along a rutted gravel road. The first section of trail was well-maintained through open woods and I had hardly worked up a good sweat by the time I reached the first scenic overlook above John Lake.
          Pausing above the high, rocky bluff, I stood with my feet planted wide to savor the view and the clean, chill air. It was a glorious view of rich, sparkling blue water with golden aspen in the foreground stretching away to the greener hump-backed ridges in the distance. I was fresh and eager, wondering what the next bend in the trail held in store for me, and soon set off again.

          Winding along the contours of the hills towards East Pike Lake, I walked in shadowed stillness on a crisp, colorful carpet of fallen leaves. More leaves followed the gusts of wind in the treetops, raining down around me in a glittering, rustling shower of color. I caught one from the air in front of me for luck.
          Small gray juncos flitted through the undergrowth and downy woodpeckers bounced in flight from one tree trunk to the next. A pair of ravens cruised past the treetops, calling hoarsely. Tiny red squirrels chattered angrily at me as I passed, scolding from the safety of their high perches, and chipmunks scooted across the pine duff of the trail ahead of me. I saw my first ruffed grouse of the trip, the dun bird nestled on the soft pine needles in a warm halo of sunlight that filtered down from the branches above.
          I strode along briskly, taking deep breaths of that wonderful autumn air and stretching my leg muscles. The clear, shining mornings of early autumn always bring to me a feeling of restlessness.
          Where the trail intersected the East Pike to Pine Lake Portage, it turned sharply to turn up a steep grade. I forged up the hill to where the trail once more branched off on its own, pausing for a few swigs of water from my canteen and a pinch of Copenhagen.
          I continued onward. Ruffed grouse were plentiful here, found basking on the sun-warmed, south-facing rock slopes overlooking Pine Lake. It is no wonder that one of old Native American names for the grouse is “Thunder Wing.” When one decided to take flight, it would come blasting out of cover and take off like a feathered F-4 Phantom on afterburner. More than once these birds gave me a start, and more than once I wished I had brought my shotgun.

 Grouse for supper. Back in the day I used to decapitate them with my .44 Magnum. Now I use a Ruger .22 and am grateful if I can make a body shot.

          Further down the trail, I stopped for a breather where it intersected the West Pike portage. I leaned my rucksack and walking stick against the trail  marking sign as I paused to munch on chunks of cheddar cheese and slices of summer sausage washed down with lukewarm lake water from my canteen.
          Leaning back against my ruck, I soaked in the sun, listening to the soft music of the wind in the boughs, letting it dry the sweat on my back. Reluctantly, I decided I had better press on to make it to the first campsite on Gogebic Lake by nightfall, as I had made a very late start that morning.
          A sunny rock ridge gave me a bright vista of West Pike Lake stretched away to the west. Back in the timber, a deadfall balsam obscured the trail beyond the cliffs and I mistakenly took a game trail that soon petered out. I wasted some valuable daylight casting about in the woods until I picked up the trail again.
          Back on the trail above West Pike, I kept an anxious eye on the setting sun beyond the treetops. I pressed on, imagining a cozy campfire with cowboy coffee at the campsite on Gogebic. Finally, I caught sight of the small lake below me and picked up the pace.
          Crossing a small stream and marsh atop the jumbled gray sticks of an old beaver dam, I forged along the banks of Gogebic Lake and headed for the comfort of that nice campsite. It was growing dark fast, with the sun already down beyond the trees to the west, but I figured I would have just enough time to set up camp and gather some firewood. The weight of my pack was no longer so comfortable.
          Across the narrow inlet on the edge of Gogebic, I stopped short. Had I heard voices? I slipped down to the lakeshore rocks. Voices and decidedly unnatural splashes of color came to me through the trees. The campsite, the only campsite, was most definitely occupied, tents pitched and a fire burning. I reversed my course and plodded back up the darkening trail.
          As the dusk turned inky, I veered off the trail along the lake and found a relatively flat spot near a small spruce. It was almost big enough for my tent and provided me a comfy bed consisting of rocks and tree roots. It wasn’t the best campsite I’d ever found, but I had neither the time nor daylight to find anything better.
          Camping off the designated campsites is allowed along the Border Route Trail, with some restrictions, for cases like mine. One must use a stove, not a fire, stay for only one night, and camp more than a hundred feet from the trail.
          I slept late the next day, judging by the sun. I never take a timepiece with me into the wilderness. I much prefer to go by Boonie Standard Time.
          My neighbors were already gone by the time I packed up and hiked through the campsite down the trail. I was pleased to be all alone again, but it was not for long. I soon saw two people in a canoe fishing Gogebic. I slunk away into the woods like a wild animal. On down the trail, I soon regained my sense of solitude with each passing step.
          A wooden foot bridge spanned the brook that flowed out of Clearwater Lake, then the trail climbed back into the hills. I walked through stands of stately pines and thick-boled aspens, feeling fresh and enjoying myself.
          Climbing up from Clearwater, I surprised a bedded-down moose. Perhaps I was the one who was surprised. At any rate, I was swinging briskly along when a huge, dark body emerged to my left, less than ten yards away, only to quickly disappear with a crashing of sticks and a few heavy footfalls.
          Above Mountain Lake, I was treated to yet another spectacular panorama of water, sky, clouds, cliffs and timber.

          Beyond that, the trail curved back above itself to afford me a fine view of the Clearwater Palisades to the south. The ridge above Clearwater was sheltered from the wind and faced south to soak up the warmth of the fall sunshine. The weather and the flora were a shining example of the perfect Indian Summer day.
          Approaching the Watap Cliffs, the trail became brushy and indistinct. Blue blaze ribbons in the trees and cairns of stones helped mark its path, but I was bee-bopping along looking at birds, flowers, trees, and rocks and found myself far from any hint of the trail. I pulled out my compass and busted brush straight north to pick up the trail again at the edge of the cliffs.
          The Watap Cliffs are one of my favorite places in the Boundary Waters. I decided to have lunch there, to rest and to scribble my thoughts and observations in a notepad.
          What is it that draws mankind to the high places? To the mountains, cliffs and bluffs? To those tall, windswept places where the world stretches away far below?
          As I sat perched comfortably on the dizzying edge of the cliffs, basking in the beauty and glory around me, I still could not answer my own inquiry. Some claim to climb the mountains of the world simply because they are there. Certainly I could understand this type of motive. Hadn’t I set out to tackle this 32-mile trail simply because it was there? Yet I knew this could not be all there was to it.
          There is always the view, of course, and what a view I was being afforded. Far below me the lakes stretched away, Watap and Rose. The water, so distant yet somehow almost close enough to touch, gleamed with a pristine blue, darker and richer than the sky they were reflecting. I could see down into the watery depths near shore, the boulders like pebbles from my lofty vantage point.
          Across the lake, the pines wore their dark green coats as the marched up the slopes. The blue-green corpses of the balsams, bare limbs coated with shaggy beard lichen, hugged the shorelines. Intermingles with and dominating the conifers were the aspen and birch, clad in their brilliant fall costumes. Bright golden yellow leaves were predominant, with hints of orange and rust cropping up here and there. Some of the aspen had not yet fully turned and they faded to a pleasing lime green. The forest painted the ridges far into the distance, stretching for many miles into Canada. Over my left shoulder, the Clearwater Palisades were visible, their stony faces shadowed purple, dark giants brooding over the waters of the lake. 

          Beyond the wondrous view, though, the world somehow took on a different perspective from that high vantage point. The wind whispered in the boughs behind me, yet it rushed and roared against the cliff beneath me. Way up there, the wind seemed even crisper and cleaner than ever, so that one could almost taste it. The colors of the lakes and woods seemed to have taken on much richer and more vibrant hues. I was afforded the unique sensation of gazing down upon the back of a broad-winged hawk as it sailed effortlessly beneath me. I felt a soaring, weightless sensation. I wanted to reach out and touch the vast landscape, to somehow embrace all the intangible of the place that so enchanted me.
          Yet I could not grasp that lure, the unidentified notion that had brought me there. I could not put a name to what I was experiencing. Perhaps it is best that the emotion remain nameless.
          Reluctantly, I packed up my lunch scraps and prepared to move on. I was at peace with myself, yet somehow restless at the same rime. I still could not identify my feelings, the siren’s song that had brought me there, but I knew it was as real as stone and wood. Once again, sooner or later, those intangibles would bring me back to the wild and lonely places. They would call, and I would obey. In the end, I knew it did matter why I do these things, simply that I do them.
          Beyond the cliffs the trail, which had once been a nightmare of deadfalls and obstructions, was a simple pleasure to walk again. Hard-working volunteers from local hiking clubs had done an absolutely wonderful job clearing the trail the summer of 1992. I silently thanked them as I hiked along.
          The trail merged with the Long Portage from Daniels to Rose Lake. I made my way through the tall pines past an empty beaver pond. The trail and portage followed an old lumber grade here, and the going was swift and easy. The rotting remnants of old railroad ties were visible underfoot in places.
          I flushed a young bull moose with a rich black coat from the stream that followed the portage. The ungainly-looking beast slogged to shore where he took on an amazing grace and agility for such a large creature and ghosted into the woods like a cat.
          Light was again failing me as I branched away from the Long Portage and back onto the Border Route proper. A last, lone loon called hauntingly across the dark, wind-swept waters of the lake. Nearly all the loons had departed south by then and I took the bird’s beautiful, eerie, melancholy music as a sign. I made camp at the first site.
          I savored my supper and rolled hot coffee on my tongue as I squatted by the cheery yellow flickering of my campfire later on. The light had quickly departed from the increasingly overcast skies. The wind pushed the waters against the rocky shore with soft gurgling and slapping sounds. The cliffs across the lake were dark and brooding silhouettes against the gray night clouds. I listened to the wind in the pines, tasted its cleanness and caught the husky scent of woodsmoke from my fire until my eyelids grew heavy. I drowned the dying fire and turned in for the night.
          I awoke to a drab, heavily overcast morning and had my same old oatmeal breakfast before packing up and moving on. The trail followed the windy shores of Rose Lake for a short distance before climbing the ridge amidst the thick boles of ancient red and white pines and the smaller but still massive cedars. The ground was buried deep in a soft, silent carpet of pine duff. The still air beneath the towering pines was milky and cool, an almost holy atmosphere reminding me of the dim silence of the great stone cathedrals of Europe. The scaly trunks of the forest giants were far too wide for me to get my arms halfway around. I was enthralled by the reverent atmosphere and became quiet myself as I made my way through the huge pines. Here, rather than in the family pew, I suddenly felt very close to God.
          As I finally emerged to the ridge above, small songbirds flitted in the underbrush along the path. Nuthatches bobbed headfirst down tree trunks. A flight of ducks sailed past in a ragged, airborne V high above. I climbed steadily, the silence now broken by bird calls, the chatter of squirrels, and the muted mutter of far-off thunder.
          I paused at Stairway Portage to watch the tumbling white plume of the waterfall dashing itself into misty spray on the rocks below. A lone herring gull raced along beneath scudding gray clouds above. I crossed the narrow wooden footbridge and continued on.
          Past the portage, I clawed my way through and even under tangles of windfall balsams. I paused atop a cliff for lunch and basked in the glorious view off toward the Arrow River Bluffs.

          With droplets of rain misting down through the bare canopy of some very young aspen woods, I made my way to Rat Bluff. I stood atop the stone monolith in the cold wind, the rain fogging my glasses. The rain began to soak through my shirt and I moved on again.
          The trail became a nightmare. A windstorm had felled numerous trees across the trail, the trunks skewed atop one another forming nearly impenetrable masses. I was reduced to crawling in places. The sharp, brittle sticks of the balsams reached out to snag my clothes, my pack, my flesh.
          I took a breather on the shores of Partridge Lake, a worthwhile detour. The campsite there nestled in the bosom of more towering pines and was peaceful and still. I watched a red squirrel scampering about, caching pine cones in holes under the roots. A blue-belted kingfisher twittered above the turquoise waters of the lake. Another grouse flushed.
          Returning to the main trail, I heard a soft noise ahead and froze. I watched breathlessly as the sinuous form of a pine marten moved through the rainy woods towards me. The sleek little mammal flowed rather than walked, moving like smoke, twisting and gliding as it twined around tree trunks to sniff at squirrel holes and hollows. I watched in fascination until the marten finally disappeared down a fallen tree trunk in a few graceful hops.
          The rain grew heavier as the day progressed. The so-called trail grew even more impenetrable. At times I felt I was doing more crawling than walking. I took a wrong turn to what I thought was Sock Lake, and for the next half hour I slogged through knee-deep mud, clawed through tangled windfalls and followed beaver runs looking for a campsite that did not exist. I banged my shins, scraped my arms and broke my trusty walking stick. My language became colorful enough to send every forest creature with a hundred meters fleeing for its life.  
          Finally admitting defeat, I clawed my way back up the hill and found a branch trail to a campsite on South Lake. I set up camp by flashlight beneath a sky black with dark, angry storm clouds. I shoulder have know better than to believe that Duluth weatherman’s extended forecast of sunshine and temps in the upper forties all week.
          I slept late again, trying to give that darn weather-guesser the benefit of the doubt, but the weather got no better in the morning. Eventually, I saddled up and headed out in the now familiar drizzle, passing some nice little vistas between Sock and Topper Lakes. I crossed the beaver dam below Topper. A few struggling hawkweeds were still bravely in bloom. The trail cleared up nicely along Crab Lake, now able to qualify as an unmaintained dirt road if it wished to, and I enjoyed the easy pace.
          Clumps of white common yarrow and some bulbous blue flowers still gave color along the trail. Boardwalks made of treated 2x8s spanned some sections of swamp. After all the tangled deadfalls of the past few days, I felt as if I were hiking I-35. The rain slackened a little as I saw the last grouse of the trip sail into the woods to my left.

          After Crab Lake, I knew my journey was almost at an end. Finally I saw a powerline cut in the woods and trotted down the final hill to the Loon Lake parking area, western terminus of the Border Route Trail.
          Triumphantly, I dropped my heavy pack beside my Mustang and had to grab the door handle to keep from suddenly floating away. I piled myself and my gear into the car and fired up the motor. He muted rumble of an internal combustion engine never sounded so good. The Ford Motor Company could do all the work for awhile.

  Traffic congestion on the Gunflint Trail.

          By the time I reached the Lake Superior town of Grand Marais an hour later, the sore muscles, scratches, blisters and cold rain were already a cloying memory. As I sat down to a steaming deep dish pizza and a cold beer in a frosty mug, I was already pondering new adventures and trails yet to hike.
          The wilderness was already calling in the back of my mind. The long and rugged Kekekabic Trail had still not seen my passage, all forty odd miles of it from Snowbank Lake to the Gunflint Trail. Perhaps that will be the next lone trail I tackle, I thought to myself.
          But first, waitress, another beer please.

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.

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.”