The following is a very brief overview into the development of the American Longrifle and the American Rifleman. This brief history encompasses the development of this rifle and the men that used it from it's beginning up to and including the American War of Independence (The American Revolution). It is not meant to be a concise and detailed history or a definitive work, (there are far more proficient historians than I ) but more meant to enlighten the unfamiliar with this piece of unique American History. It is, I hope, in a format that can be easily understood and followed by one who is not familiar with these sort of firearms and is searching for some information to give them a better understanding of our history. It was originally assembled to lend assistance to an 8th grader request of information for her school project. I hope it was helpful: and it can help you also.
During the time of the American Revolution the most popular firearm that was in use by the main armies of the world was the "flintlock musket". The flintlock musket of the period was a long, heavy, somewhat cumbersome weapon. Simple to use and when properly handled, very reliable for the common soldier. It's barrel was "smooth bored", meaning the inside of the barrel was smooth as a pipe, which made it easy to load and to clean. It was a "muzzleloading" weapon as were most weapons at the time. The powder and projectile had to be loaded down the barrel from the front with the help of a wood or metal "ramrod". It could only fire one shot, a large round lead ball, before it had to be reloaded. The size of the ball was upwards of about three quarters of an inch in diameter ( .75 inch). It's firing mechanism was a "flintlock" , in which pulling the trigger of the gun caused the "cock ( modern term -hammer)" which holds a piece of "flint", to fall against a piece of hardened steel, the "steel ( modern term-frizzen)". This in turn produced sparks which fell into a small amount of priming powder that was in the "pan" of the flintlock to take fire and ignite the main charge that was in the barrel, by way of a small hole in the barrel's breech called a "touchhole".
The main use of the Flintlock musket was to provide "volley fire" by the soldiers: that is a large amount of soldiers stood in a line next to each other and fired their weapons at once on command. This could produce a devastating effect if the enemy was within the useable range of under 100 yards, more often 80 yards. Beyond 100 yards the musket was very inaccurate and probably would miss its target by a wide margin. This was due to the fact that its barrel interior was smooth and the ball that was loaded was not a tight fit in the barrel ( use of an undersized diameter ball made loading fast). This cause the ball to wobble a bit when it left the gun and accuracy suffered. However because it could be loaded in as little as 15 seconds ( by trained troops) it was fast and formidable in battle. They were seldom aimed but mostly pointed in the general direction of the enemy. They had no real sights.
In Europe around the first half of the 18th century ( 1700 -1750) there was in use in Germany a type of weapon in which the German "yeagers" ( hunters) were using to hunt in the European woodland. It was heavy, but shorter in length then the musket. It still was a flintlock and fired one shot before it had to be reloaded. It fired a similar sized or slightly smaller ball as was used in the musket, but the inside of the barrel instead of being smooth, was cut with grooves that spiraled down the barrel. Instead of a under size ball being dropped down the barrel to load it , the ball for this gun was the same size or slightly larger that the "bore" of the barrel. The yeager had to force the ball down the barrel and this pressed the lead ball against the side of the "rifleing", the grooved interior of the barrel. When the gun was fired the ball didn't wobble. It spun on its axis and came out of the muzzle straight due to this spinning action ( you see this when a quarterback throws a "bullet pass" in football ). Now by aiming the gun using "sights" the yeager knew where the bullet would hit. This spinning action of the ball kept it most times on a reliable couse. The range of these weapons were still short, about 150 yards, because the barrels were shorter and they still used a heavy lead ball, the "velocity" or speed of the projectile was still only slightly better that the musket's, but this was perfect for hunting in Europe. Loading it was far slower than the musket but since it was used for hunting that was not a big draw back.
When people from Europe started settling in the New World they brought with them some of these "rifled guns" but due to the fact that travel in America was not always on improved roads, such as they had in Europe, traveling through the forest of this continent proved difficult. Their guns were heavy and since they shot a large size lead ball, they were limited to the number bullets they could carry, so it limited the amount of times that the gun could be used.
German gunsmiths that settled in Pennsylvania near Lancaster started to see the need for these rifled guns to shoot a smaller size ball but that typically would limit the power they had. They finally came up with a rifled gun which would now have a long rifled barrel, sometimes approaching 48 to 52 inches in length, but the bore in the barrel would be smaller, closer to one half inch (.50 ) or smaller. The "stock" the wood that made up the gun, was light and slim and weighed much less than a musket. It ran the full length of the barrel as did the musket's. By making the barrel longer they increased the velocity of the ball, making the smaller ball hit harder thus not loosing any of the power of the large slower moving lead ball. Because the bullets were smaller, the man on the frontier could now carry more at any one time making extended stays in the wilderness possible without running out of bullets. They also produce this extra power with less powder, so this was a big improvement also. The nickname for this type of new weapon was the Pennsylvania Longrifle however they were produced in many areas after they became known and popular.
By the time of the American Revolution this type of firearm had been continually refined, and in the hands of the men who settled the frontiers, was a deadly accurate tool.
Although it was far more expensive to make then the musket, its ability to be aimed and hit with accuracy to 300 yards made it a personal favorite of these men , also because the cost of firing it was less; from not needing as much lead per shot and as much powder as the larger muskets. Those men grew up with these weapons and knew how to use them because they shot them each day to provide food for their families as well as protection. Living in the wilderness they also learned the way of the Indians and adopted their fighting habits. This knowledge of their weapon and wilderness battle tactics made them natural candidates to fight a war in America.
One of George Washington's first orders of business upon assuming command of the American forces at the start of the Revolution was to have Congress organize select "Companies of Riflemen" to help fight the British. Since George Washington fought in an earlier conflict of The French And Indian War 1753-1758 he saw how these riflemen could be used to advantage in a wilderness war. That is why he advised Congress to raise this type of soldier. The new United States did not have any formal army at the time so these rugged men were prime candidates to be used as the soldiers.
Unfortunately due to there lifestyle of living in the wilderness where they were their own boss, they did not grasp the concept of a formal army where they had to take orders. Many times this got them in trouble, since they did not always obey their commanders. The riflemen were primarily used as scouts in front of the main army or placed to their "flanks" or the sides, so to protect the musket carrying soldiers until a time when the musket men could form up and start to fire. Many times the riflemen were call upon to be used as snipers to pick off enemy officers at long distances. This made the British very angry because at the time it was considered cowardly to take cover and purposely aim and kill a soldier. You were required to meet your enemy face to face on the battlefield. Because of this the American Riflemen if captured were most times killed on the spot and never were taken prisoner. They were very much despised by most of the foreign soldiers and also somewhat feared because of their sneaky way of fighting. Even in England the newspapers of the day elevated them to boggemen and monsters, capable of killing officers at incredible ranges and for all officers coming to America to put their houses in order. I guess even the press in those days had a tendency to exagerate a bit!
The Rifleman's biggest major flaw beside there stubbornness in taking orders were the fact that the American rifle was slow to load : it could only be fired approximatly every minute and a half as verses the musket with 1 shot every 15 seconds. Also it could not have a "bayonet" a long sharpend blade attached to the muzzle.
The common practice in 18th century war was for the soldiers to line up: fire their muskets, reload, advance, fire. over and over until they were about 40 yd. apart. Then they would affix their bayonets on the ends of their muskets and charge their opponents to finish off the advance. The riflemen could not stand up to this and found themselves in much trouble when this took place. Many had to use their rifles like clubs, in vain. Some resorted to "tomahawks" small axes that hung from their belts, but still they were no match for the "Bayonet Charge". They had to run away to save their lives. This made them appear even more cowardly.
By the middle of the Revolution many of the Rifle Companies ended up as Continental Line Troops as George Washington started to phase out their usage in standard battles with the British. However a number of the Rifle Companies were retained because of the abilities and fame and as they started to behave like traditional soldiers of the time, they were used more and more for very specific duties while the American Continental Line Soldier did much of the bulk of the fighting.
They always were used in wilderness campaigns such as Saratoga, Oriskaney, Sullivan's March. Many of the later battles of the American Revolution that were fought in the South had large contingents of riflemen. One of the most famous rifle companies of the American Revolution was "Morgan's Riflemen"
It has been said that the Riflemen won the revolution but this is untrue. Yes, they did play a major role in it, especially during the early years, But it was not until the common American Soldier under the training of Baron Von Steuben, learned discipline, to fight in the European manor, take orders and stand fast during a battle without running away. Then the British realized that the American army was a true army, fighting strong for it's rights. Then the riflemen could be used were they were most needed, Scouting, reconnaissance and protecting the main army from surprised attacks.
© 1999 JWF / Live 18th Century
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