Rifles and Groove-bored Muskets in the American Revolutionary War

Hessian Jaeger. German huntsmen carrying grove bored rifles. Often used as skirmishers.

“I never in my life saw better rifles, or men who shot better, than those in America.” This was written by Lt. Colonel George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, who fought in the American Revolutionary War. He served with Hessian Jaegers, German huntsmen who all carried rifles, and later with Banastre Tarleton’s Legion. He was considered one of the finest marksmen in all of Europe.

Battle of Saratoga, Oct. 17, 1777. Gen. Arnold is wounded leading the attack. Note riflemen among his troops.

At the Battle of Saratoga, wilderness settler and rifleman, Tim Murphy, was ordered specifically by Benedict Arnold to target an officer vigorously directing and supporting troops.  Spotting General Simon Fraser of the Twenty-fourth Foot, Murphy lifted his ‘grove bore’ rifle and mortally wounded Fraser at three hundred yards in an incredible display of marksmanship, this in a day when the average ‘smooth bore’ musket was fortunate to hit its intended target at sixty yards.

During the colonial period, settlers and pioneers became trained sharpshooters. They had to learn the skill in order to protect their families and provide food and clothing from the hides of animals. Their weapon of choice was designed so that a marksman could effectively kill a squirrel jumping out of a tree at three hundred yards or better. Because of its remarkable craftsmanship and accuracy this weapon, or rifle, soon became known throughout the world.  Though thousands of muskets and rifles were made in Europe, the Kentucky Rifle, custom made in American, developed a reputation as the finest rifle made, and the premier firearm for over a century.

Colonel Daniel Morgan’s riflemen. Painting by Don Troiani.

The Kentucky Rifle was made in, of all places, Pennsylvania. Settlers who moved west of the Cumberland Mountains and east of the Mississippi River took  their chosen weapon, the rifle, with them into what was known as the Kentucky wilderness; hence its name. Immigrant gunsmiths and those of German and Swiss descent settled in Lancaster County, making it the rifle-making center of the colonies. These men soon became some of the most versatile artisans in the area.

European riflemen

Though the American gun-smith was an amazing craftsman, keep in mind that he learned his skill from European masters who had spent years in apprenticeship. German and Swiss firearms were considered superior, and the American rifle was derived and enhanced from these weapons. The European rifle was developed as a sporting piece for aristocrats and noble huntsmen before the military took an interest. Among the first to develop rifle companies were the Hessians, particularly Jaegers, who carried short, large-bore rifled guns, which were far different from the highly effective American rifle with its longer barrel and smaller caliber which made them more deadly accurate.

At first, scholars believed the Kentucky rifle was modeled after the short, heavy German rifle with bore of about .75 caliber which was crafted for hunting wild boar and antlered deer. Further research has determined its true ancestor to be a rifle that is more slender with a long barrel and smaller bore, similar to the Kentucky Rifle’s actual construction.  An example of this design was that made by Johann Sebastian Hauschika, a court gunsmith in Wolfenbittel, Germany around 1729.  It was streamlined fifty-five inches long and weighed only eight pounds. A smaller caliber of .61, the stock was elaborately carved and the lock was finely engraved. Very similar masterpieces began showing up in American gunsmiths’ shops at about the same time.

Iron mounted rifle by Phillip Sheetz of Virginia. Prior to and during the American Revolution, Sheetz was contracted to make guns by the Committee of Safety of Maryland. Photo Credit Aspen Shade Ltd.

Some of the finer gunsmiths of rifle are listed: N. Beyer of Lebanon, Samuel Pannabecker of Allentown, Phillip Sheetz of Shepherdstown Virginia, S. Bieg, Christian Durr, and George Schroyer of Reading, Henry Albright of Lancaster, and outside Pennsylvania – Silas Allen of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

Beautifully crafted stock.

These fine craftsmen made rifle barrels of soft iron welding a few inches at a time around an iron core. They then assembled wrought locks with springs of well-tempered steel, adhering to the highest mechanical technology of the time. Well balanced gunstocks were carved of maple, upon which additional carved designs in relief were added that equaled those found on Philadelphia Chippendale furniture of the period. The wood was often polished with a finish that resembled tortoise shell and was enriched with inlays of brass and silver.

Note the Star of Bethlehem inlay.

Most interesting were these inlays that had talismanic significance.  Often the star of Bethlehem was seen placed on the checkpiece; or the crescent moon, the symbol of the virgin; or a bird representing the human soul, or the heart, with the lower tip twisted slightly – an ancient Christian symbol of the fifth wound of Christ. Additional elaborate decorations were reserved for the hinged brass patchbox cover that was characteristic of the Kentucky Rifle. The same engravers who were employed to ornament guns and pistols also worked for silversmiths.

What made the rifle so much more accurate than the smoothbore musket? The principal reason was the tight fit of the ball and the rotating motion given to it by spiral grooves cut into the barrel. The rifle was named for the German word riffein, meaning to groove. The spinning motion made the ball travel in a flatter trajectory than a musket ball which tumbled when shot. This action allowed the bullet to find its target more accurately and with greater velocity. This was not a new principal, as arrows were made to spin by feathers, and javelin throwers gave a twist of their hand when releasing the spear.

Since the ball was only slightly smaller than the barrel and was wrapped in a patch of greased linen or leather to make it fit more snugly in the tube, the rifle bullet had much greater gas pressure behind it than the loose fitting musket ball. Therefore, this increase of pressure along with the small caliber, resulted in a higher velocity and greater distance.

The length of American rifles ranged from fifty-one to sixty-six inches and weighed from seven to eleven pounds. Calibers varied from .37 to .61 with the usual grooves cut in the barrel numbering seven, some of which were straight, while others had a left or right twist.

Colonial rifleman

Also interesting, though rare, were double-barrel pieces. Some were constructed with a smoothbore barrel and a rifled barrel side by side. Others had two rifled barrels, each with its own flashpan and cover. They rotated on a central axis so after one was fired, the other could be rotated in place and immediately discharged.

Rifles  were best used undercover where the elements and terrain could hide the rifleman while he reloaded, or in an open field out of musket range. It lacked a bayonet and took much longer to load, since the powder had to be measured from a horn instead of using paper cartridges, which was common practice among muskets, where the powder was premeasured with ball. Also, the rifle ball had to be forced down a narrow barrel which became clogged with residue and had to be cleaned after half a dozen shots. In the heat of battle,, many soldiers urinated down the barrel to alleviate this condition.

Open field warfare of the eighteenth century favored muskets fired in mass volley, and where accuracy was not an issue. Muskets could stop and man cold, depending on volume and the weight of the musket ball. The ball stayed inside the body, tearing at flesh and organs until its momentum was spent.

Hessian pickets. Patinted by Pamela Patrick White (White Historic Art)

Despite shortcomings of time to reload, use in open field warfare, and lighter shot, Washington and his fellow officers knew the rifle’s value and effectiveness. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, John Adams wrote of “a peculiar kind of musket, called a rifle.” He went on to describe how Congress ordered that ten companies of riflemen were to be recruited from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Washington had first hand knowledge of the benefits attributed to the backwoodsman’s skill with the rifle. Englishmen who had escaped Braddocks’ defeat along the Monongahela in 1755, in which Washington was a colonel of Virginians, owed their lives to the riflemen.

The rifleman would show his worth throughout the Revolutionary War, turning the fortunes of a battle with their well placed and obstinate stand from behind barricades, while their enemy doggedly marched into its killing field.

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Dillin, John, The Kentucky Rifle, 1967, George Shumway, York PA

Grancsay, Stephen V. The Craft of the Early American Gunsmith.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Oct, 1947), pp. 54-61

Logusz, Michael O., With Musket & Tomohawk, The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777,  2010, Casemate Publishers, Havertown, PA

Minks, Benton & Louis, Revolutionary War, 2003, Infobase Publ. New York, NY

Schecter, Barnet, The Battle for New York, 2002, Walker, New York

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