Wednesday, March 13, 2019



 "My, that's a big one."

At the time of the American Revolution and afterwards, small cannon mounted on swivels that could traverse and elevate, primarily used on small boats and fortifications, were known as swivel guns. Between swivel guns and conventional small arms there also existed gigantic flintlock muskets that the French, who classified them as light artillery, called amusettes. A later British classification was demi-gun. Also known as boat, wall, or rampart guns, these fully stocked mega-muskets could weigh as much as fifty pounds and were barreled for solid shot weighing as much as four-ounces and could be sized up to 1.25 inches in diameter. One of the largest individual wall guns I could find reference to was an Austrian flintlock model from 1734, which had a 1-inch bore diameter in a barrel some 7 feet 6-1/2-inches long, giving it an overall length of 9 feet 1 inch. There are examples of French rampart guns with the caliber given as 1.74-inches. A metal swivel was attached to the stock and had a single mounting rod on the bottom which could be slipped into holes bored into a boat’s gunwales or the top of a fortification’s log wall. Prior to 1776, all wall guns seem to have been smoothbores.
On February 4, 1776, Fielding Lewis, Commissioner of Virginia’s Fredericksburg Manufactory, wrote to his brother-in-law, George Washington: "I propose making a Rifle next week to carry a quarter of a pound ball. If it answers my expectation, a few of them will keep off ships of war for out narrow rivers, and be useful in the beginning of an engagement by land. ..."
General Washington and the Continental Congress approved of the idea since manufacture of rampart rifles was begun. If any were produced by the Fredericksburg Manufactory, no examples exist today, but there are a few surviving rampart rifles manufactured by James Hunter, whose Hunter Iron Works was located directly across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. An example held in the Springfield Armory Museum has a 1.25-inch caliber octagon barrel 45-1/4 inches long, giving it an overall length of 62-3/8 inches (well over 5 feet), and a weight of just under fifty pounds. Manufactured in 1778, the gigantic lock mechanism is marked “RAPA FORGE” and this example has only a fixed V-notched bar-type rear sight and a brass blade front sight. Some later rampart rifles were noted for having much more elaborate “Swiss”-type rear sights fully adjustable for windage and elevation. Some rampart rifles were later made at Harper’s Ferry Arsenal and a US Army Ordnance inventory of 1802 indicated some 465 of these wall rifles were available in American arsenals. This figure did not include those being used at forts and garrisons around the country.

 Hunter 1.25-caliber rampart rifle from 1778.

Charles Winthrop Sawyer explained the benefits of such weapons. “In building a frontier fort if a strategical position was not already in the midst of a large open area, all trees, bushes, and bowlders that might offer cover to the savages were cleared away for a distance exceeding ordinary rifle range. These rampart rifles, with accurate range about double that of shoulder rifles, therefore gave the defenders of the fort considerable advantage.”
Although wall guns seem to have been used very little during the Revolutionary War, their effectiveness was attested to by General Charles Lee, who wrote from Williamsburg in 1776: "I am likewise furnishing myself with four-ounced rifle-amusettes, which will carry an infernal distance; the two-ounced hit a half sheet of paper 500 yards distance." A later British author said the Rampart Rifle was capable of, “…throwing two-ounce leaden balls, to from 400 to 800 paces, with great precision…”
The range and precision, great or otherwise, a particular rampart rifle might be technically capable of was, of course, hobbled by the limits of the human eye and the open iron sights of the era. Charles Willson Peale, much better known for his famous portraits of George Washington and other Revolutionary War leaders, was also a soldier, scientist and inventor who attempted to create a telescopic rifle sight…(“…a Riffle with a Tellescope to it.” Per his diary)…in early January 1776. In this endeavor, he enlisted the aid of David Rittenhouse, an astronomer who also built telescopes, and a local gunsmith by the name of Palmer.
In early February he spent four days in a row shooting and trying to zero his telescopically-sighted rifle which led, on February 9th, to Peale creating a, “piece with springs to prevent the Eye being hurt by the kicking of the Gun.” Optical technology of the day being what it was, eye relief was extremely short by today’s standards, and one had to place the eye quite close to the ocular lens of a telescope to see clearly through it. This meant, in turn, that a telescope mounted to a rifle could be driven back into the eye by the recoil when the weapon was fired. Peale may have been the first rifleman to get “scoped” and the project was eventually discontinued for lack of success.
Since the big rampart rifles were few in number to begin with, there are not very many accounts to be found of them being used. One, however, exists and stands out as an early example of what today would be considered a Heavy Sniper Rifle. It may have lacked optics and its ballistic coefficient would be laughable to modern snipers, but it got the job done.
In North Carolina, Welch-born immigrant Colonel Thomas Bloodworth had been a member of the Wilmington Committee of Safety in 1775 and was later a militia leader; his family manufactured swords, pikes, pistols and rifles. With the Whigs temporarily beaten back by the British….
Bloodworth built himself, “…a huge rifle of uncommon caliber & length…” which threw a 2-ounce ball. This equates to 8 balls to the pound, or 8-bore, approximately .835-caliber. Tradition has it that Colonel Bloodworth named his wall rifle “Old Bess”. The colonel painted a man-sized target on a barn door and practiced at the range he intended to shoot at until he worked up a load that delivered the best accuracy.
          Where the two forks of the Cape Fear River combined there was a point of land known as Negrohead Point. Rumored to have once been a hideout for bandits, in 1871 it remained wild swampland, a forest of cypress trees with a thick understory of loblolly, rattan and bamboo briars. The bald cypress is a slow-growing and long-lived tree that can reach extraordinary proportions; Wilmington still boasts the tallest bald cypress tree at 145 feet. Dominating Negrohead Point was a particularly large cypress with a trunk some seven feet in diameter which appeared solid from the exterior but was in fact hollow on the interior.
          Years before the war, Colonel Bloodworth had been on a fox hunt and the chase led him and his hounds to Negrohead Point. Arriving there, Bloodworth could hear the dogs baying but could not see them anywhere. He eventually found where his hounds had dug into a small cavern in the earth, just large enough for a man to crawl through, and followed it to find his dogs and the dead fox inside the large hollow cypress trunk. Remembering this tree, which was situated across the water almost a quarter of a mile away from the Wilmington city dock, Colonel Bloodworth decided to use it as a sniping post to strike back at the British and Tories in the town.
Accompanied by his son Tim and another local boy by the name of Jim Paget, Colonel Bloodworth and his big rampart rifle infiltrated Negrohead Point by canoe under cover of darkness. They brought with them rations and jugs of water sufficient for several days and some hand tools. Inside the hollow tree, they erected a scaffolding to perch on and, with an auger, bored some holes through the tree trunk on the side facing Wilmington. Here they set up Old Bess where the rampart rifle could be fired from a good vantage point.
The next morning, said to have been the Fourth of July in at least one account, Colonel Bloodworth readied Old Bess and took aim at a group of British soldiers and sailors standing in front of the liquor store on Market Wharf. He took his shot and one of the men crumbled to the cobblestones and was carried inside the store by his mates. Reloading the rampart rifle, Colonel Bloodworth waited patiently for another shot. He soon fired again, cutting down another redcoat, who was also carried into the store while, according to one colorful local account:
“Utter consternation seemed to prevail on the wharf, men running to & fro’ some pointing one way, and some another, but no one suspecting the secret source of their annoyance. The drums beat to arms, the fifes to squeal, muskets & bayonets gleaming thru the streets, all uproar tumult and confusion; but all in vain! They were struck down by an unknown and invisible hand.”
Apparently, the big gun was fired from within the hollow tree cavity without the muzzle protruding in order to conceal the tell-tale cloud of blackpowder smoke and deaden the sound of the muzzle report. With his knowledge of the local area, the cagey colonel knew that during the summer months by mid-morning the wind would generally blow straight north up the river and last until sundown. He only fired under these conditions, so that the breeze could disperse and blow the remnants of the powder smoke back into the cypress swamp behind them as well as help to deaden and confuse the origin of the gunshot. These well-laid plans seem to have paid off since the British had great difficulty in locating the sniper hide. The extreme range also led the enemy to initially discount Negrohead Point as the source of the fire. One early account claimed that the distance to have been 400-500 yards, while one more recent author believes the range was more like 350 yards. Whatever the actual distance, it was well beyond musket range and extreme range for even the best Pennsylvania rifle sharpshooter.
The snipers fired only three shots the first day, claiming three hits, then remained silent. Firing only one or two carefully chosen shots per day, the three rebels reportedly continued their sniping for the better part of a week, and hit a man with nearly every shot. Foot patrols of British soldiers and Tory militia combed the shoreline and small boats rowed up and down the river in search of the firing point without success.
Eventually it was claimed that a local Tory heard rumors of Colonel Bloodworth’s rampart rifle and deduced Negrohead Point to be the sniper’s location. A party of twenty British and Tory soldiers came ashore on the point in boats and began clearing away the trees and undergrowth. During the night, the three rebels were able to slip away from their hide, retrieve their hidden canoe in the swamp, and escape unharmed. The next day the enemy detail began cutting into the trunk of the giant cypress and discovered the empty hide. 
The rifle-bore amusette had the potential to be something akin to the .50-BMG caliber heavy sniper rifles or special application rifles so in vogue with military snipers and Special Forces today. During the Revolutionary period, however, there were no precision high-tech targets to deliberately target and destroy, and the lack of telescopic sights severely limited the useful range and precision of rampart rifles. Other than Colonel Bloodworth’s unique feat, if there were other instances of rampart rifles playing a role in the conflict, these accounts have been lost to history.