18th Century firearms


December 21, 2010, 12:56 AM
Was there any common musket in the Colonies prior to and during the revolution? If you were your every day militia man back then what would be leaning against your door? Musket or rifle....did they even have rifles then? Does anyone make reproductions of these guns now a days?

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December 21, 2010, 02:35 AM
It would depend on where you lived and who you were. The American Gun manufacturing of the time was something of a cottage industry ranging from master artisans who built incredible Germanic influenced rifles; to typical trade muskets being assembled from mostly British parts, and everything in between. What we today call the Brown Bess is actually a family or evolution of British arms; the original Kings Arm or Kings Musket, the Long Land Pattern musket, would have certainly been common in America - Whether purchased complete as a trade gun, or assembled by said cottage industry, many muskets in American homes would have been 1st Pattern Besses. Another reason for the prevalence of the Bess in American hands is that in America's rush to gain arms we raided many of the King's armories. This 1st model Brown Bess would have given way to more French designs as the war progressed due to compliance with foreign aid. Rifles were, at the time, not seen as serious military tools due to the long amount of time it took to reload. That would soon change as many countries would arm skirmishers w/ rifles. But to answer your original question: there could be a brown bess, a charleville, a rifle, or a fowler propped against your door when the call rang out. While it may not have made the commanders happy (they would have preferred everyone own a musket); it was 'run what ya brung" Check out the book, Red Coat and Brown Bess by Darling. Cheers

Loyalist Dave
December 21, 2010, 03:39 PM
You may be looking at the 13 Colonies as much more similar than they actually were. They were, and thought themselves to be, 13 different, governmental entities, which later each became a "country" or "state", that then bound themselves together. This is important to remember because the answer to your question depends upon which colony that you choose. Virginia was a commonwealth and had a royal governor, New Jersey was a royal colony and Ben Franklin's bastard son was the last royal governor there, while Maryland was a proprietary colony, so had a governor appointed by Lord Calvert, and so the governor wasn't a "royal governor". PA was proprietary colony, run by the Penn family, and was heavily Quaker. Four colonies, four different ways of doing government.

So to be precise, (iirc) 12 of the 13 colonies had militias. "Minutemen" were formed from Colonial Militias, but did not exist in every colony. So every Minuteman was in the militia, but not every militiaman was a minuteman.

As an example, the colony of Pennsylvania, for most of its existence, did not have standing militia regulations, due to Quaker influence, so no standing militia there.

The Minutemen that most folks refer to, are a New England idea, and the ones that fought at Lexington and Concord were from Massachusetts. Not all of the colonials who fought against the British at those battles were "minutemen", for by the time that the British reached Concord, enough time had elapsed for more than the minute companies to form in the town. (Minutemen were only 1/4 of the actual militia)

So regarding your firearms question..., depending on the colony, the eligible male might have to provide his own weapon, or as in Maryland, sometimes he would be issued a musket and a bayonet and cartridge box, sometimes not. The muskets owned by colonial governments were older models of the King's Musket, and were kept in colonial armories. They were not owned by the crown. (In fact the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, was chased out of VA when he got caught with British Marines trying to steal the colony's property..., the powder supply in the powder magazine in Williamsburg.)

Sometimes the eligible male had to provide his own gun, and that was most often a fowler (no bayonet capability), smooth bore. It was much rarer for a man in 1775 to "own" an actual King's Musket, than most folks realize. To get one you either had to have purchased one from the colony IF the colony actually owned some and would sell it, or the musket at one time was awarded to a soldier who mustered out of the regular british army to become a colonist, and was given the musket as a partial benefit of taking that offer. Not a very common thing.

Rifles, for the most part, were a PA, Western MD, and VA gun at the start of the war. That's where the riflemakers were, and rifles were quite expensive at the time.

So a "safe" answer is that without picking an actual colony, most men that owned a gun, owned a fowler. IF instead they were armed with an actual musket, it would've been a variation of what is called today, "The First Model Brown Bess". Several companies make very serviceable copies of either type of firelock.


December 21, 2010, 04:40 PM
The French provided many thousands of Charleville muskets.

December 21, 2010, 04:53 PM
True, but only after the American Revolution got started.

December 21, 2010, 04:54 PM
Those French muskets took quite a while to get to the colonies due to the difficulties in procuring and shipping. I believe they did not arrive until several years after Bunker Hill.

Exact records of what was used are near impossible to come by. It's very likely that most of the muskets in the early years were little more than fowling pieces brought from home.

Rifles were rare, as indicated by the novelty of the concept of riflemen in this letter of Adams:

They have voted ten companies of riflemen to be sent from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, to join the army before Boston. These are an excellent species of light infantry. They use a peculiar kind of musket, called a rifle. It has circular grooves within the barrel, and carries a ball with great exactness to great distances

John Adams to Abigail, 17 June 1775

Riflemen were given special privileges and held in great esteem. This is because their weapons and their skills were not common during the 18th century. Your average militia soldier would have something to shoot bullets out of, but that's about it. The Hollywood idea that the Americans were legions of riflemen is not correct.

As far as what kind of *rifles* were in use, from what I know that's a very controversial subject. We know a good deal about the long rifles that emerged after the war, and we know a good deal about the Germanic style of "Jaeger" rifles that dominated in the mid century. What they used in the Revolution were probably some transitional form between the stumpy, big bore German rifles and the very long, small caliber hunting rifles that dominated later. They would have been hand crafted probably in the mid-Atlantic colonies and would have been much more expensive than a fowler or musket.

Does anyone make reproductions of these guns now a days?

Yes, absolutely. Both smoothbore and rifled. They range from home-built kit guns to firearms so fine they constitute high art. IMHO the best examples of this art among contemporary makers is to the typical mass produced modern rifle what the finest katana is to a cold steel blade.

Best of all is to fire one! The traditional firelocks are the most enjoyable arms to shoot that exist, excepting a cannon. I'm eagerly awaiting a final shipment of parts from Track of the Wolf to complete a .40 cal "poor boy" style mountain rifle this weekend.

December 21, 2010, 05:00 PM
French muskets were relatively common spoils of war after the siege of Louisbourg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Louisbourg_%281758%29) and other events in the F&I war(s).

4v50 Gary
December 21, 2010, 10:33 PM
There were old Brown Bess muskets. Some Charlevilles (early models) were left over as trophys from the French & Indian War. There was a lot of fowlers (smooth bore shotguns). There was no set pattern. When the revolution started, various state Committee of Public Safety had guns produced to their pattern, which wasn't necessarily like the next state over. Finally, there was a very active cottage industry producing rifles. These were predominantly in the south (south being Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and farther south).

December 22, 2010, 12:23 AM
I can't give an answer for other colonies, but I can of sorts for the Lower South: North & South Carolina & Georgia (Florida was also a British colony at this time, but did not create a revolutionary government). This included the "overmountain" lands known as Tennessee and Kentucky which were not separate from the seaboard colonies but were rather subject to claims by several of them, as well as claims of Indians. The militia there fought long and hard in a two-front war against British and Tories, and Tories and Indians. One of my 4-great grandfathers was a North Carolinian who had moved to the Georgia frontier where he and a brother bought land in 1773. They both became captains in the Georgia militia and when the British moved south they were forced to take their families "overmountain" then they fought on in the Carolinas as what was known as "refugee captains" till they could eventually return and take back Georgia. The 1779 battle at Kettle Creek actually took place on the brother's farm, and though it was an extremely decisive defeat of the Tory and Indian force, it was still quite awhile yet till Georgia was returned to patriot control.

Anyway, my point is this... the militiamen of these colonies were by and large riflemen. I won't say that there were no smoothbore fowling pieces among them, but in general they were armed with rifles. This on one hand gave them accuracy and experience in marksmanship. On the other hand, though, it gave them limited ability to reload and fire again against massed regular troops in battle formation, and they had no ability to close and decide a battle with the bayonet, because their rifles were not equipped with bayonets. The also had no standard/interchangeable ammunition. Their arms were their personal hunting/personal defense weapons. Patriot General Daniel Morgan melded their strengths and compensated for their weaknesses by extremely clever use of militia together with Continental regulars to destroy Bannastre Tarreyton's forces at the Cowpens, and the "overmountain" men took it upon themselves to move east and destroy Patrick Ferguson's army at King's Mountain... an all-militia affair, in which besides anihilating his force they killed Ferguson, inventor of the breech loading Ferguson Rifle.

So, while Continental troops used Charlevilles and Land Pattern large bore muskets and bayonets, in the lower South, the militia was armed predominantly with rifles. These were not altogether of Pennsylvania origin or Germanic configuration. There were separate schools of riflemaking style stemming from Virginia and Maryland and its thought that rifles were being made in North Carolina by the time of the Revolution (there were definitely several schools of riflemaking prospering in North Carolina not long after the Revolution) although the expert on the subject has not yet found a surviving example dating to the Revolution. But, in any case, they were distinctly American, not imports.

Replicas of these general sorts of rifles are made and available today, including kits that can be put together at home. There are a number of makers, Tennessee Valley Muzzleloading being, I believe the largest... but there are others. Google terms such as: "Southern Rifle" and "Southern Poor Boy rifle" in conjunction with "muzzleloader" and/or "black powder".

December 22, 2010, 01:06 AM
That's an interesting chapter of the war 303. I was recently reading that King's Mountain is one of the few major battles where the Patriot militia had primarily riflemen--not just riflemen in special supporting units. There was an ongoing debate within the American forces about whether they should favor the frontier rifle fighting which relied on smaller better trained units or favor instead the massed infantry techniques of European warfare. The militias certainly seemed to fare best when not used in massed formations.

Unfortunately the higher ups were very much enamored of the European methods of small arms action--particularly the emphasis on bayonet charges. In his charge of the redoubt at Yorktown, Alexander Hamilton apparently ordered his men to go in with muskets unloaded and rely solely on bayonets. Thankfully it turned out well enough, but after the war the lessons learned by the world's first rifle units were mostly forgotten by the organized military. Even poor Lewis & Clark were forced to pack along a full complement of muskets, though I get the sense they would have liked to chuck them all in favor of more rifles.

It was the backwoodsmen and long hunters who remembered the rifle's utility, and again they played a key role in the Battle of New Orleans a generation after the Revolution. It's notable that the success of the mixed rifle & musket units at that conflict contrasts with the trouncing our more traditional militias received on the east coast when the Red Coats burned Washington DC.

I wonder what the rifles at King's Mountain looked like. Probably something like transitional pieces I suspect but likely with some of that elongation present, albeit not as long and thin as the later pieces. I wish someone had at least noted the ball sizes being supplied.

Whatever it looked like at particular periods, there's no doubt that the long rifle of the middle south and hill country is *the* quintessential American firearm, though. It evolved here and played a central role in peace and war from its origin in the 18th century right through the Civil War. By the time Winchester's more famous mass-produced arms came into play the frontier had really already been won and the last of the major conflicts on this continent fought.

December 25, 2010, 12:50 PM
I would say that you need to zero in on a region, even a state. The likelihood of there being a single rifle at Bunker Hill (Breed's Hill) was small - all the Brits had muskets, and rifles were very uncommon in Massachusetts at the time. As noted above, at King's mountain, a bunch of pissed-off Overmountain Men from Indian country carried rifles. You pretty much have to look at the locale, and the year(s) of interest, to determine the type of firelock that would have been most common, or at least not unusual.

Refer to the Shumway books for a start - they are filled with proper photos - meaning you can take measurements from them. They are all black and white, but his method of lighting was terrific, and he shot them from a distance/angle that you can correctly scale from it if you ever get interested in building one.

December 25, 2010, 02:06 PM
I had a chance to handle an old rifle that's still in the family from the Revolutionary War period. It was tucked away in an attic in the old family farmhouse in what is now West Virginia, right across the mountains from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. It apparently started life as a Pennsylvania long rifle, based on the design of the buttstock and the silver star inlays on the grip, but over the years it was converted from flintlock to percussion, the forestock was shortened, and I think the barrel was rebored and rerifled at least once to a larger calibre as it got shot out. I'd guess it was in use from the late 1700s up until around the Civil War period, when cartridge rifles became common. It was stuck away in the attic and forgotten until my cousin took posession of the house and remodeled and modernized it in the 1970s. It's still hanging over the mantel of the fireplace there, as far as I know, and it looks right at home. Several family members were Revolutionary War veterans, and as Virginians, served under George Washington, according to the old pension records. There's no family documentation whether or not this particular rifle ever served in combat, though, or whether it just stayed at home to provide food and security to the family left behind.

December 27, 2010, 10:48 PM
The first of the Angstadt clan opened a gun shop making rifles in the 1740's in Rockland Township, Berks County, PA.

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