Hunter vs. Soldier

What triggered the America revolution
What triggered the America revolution
What triggered the America revolution
Brown Bess .70 caliber bore
Brown Bess .75 caliber bore

It is popular to attribute the victory in the American Revolution to the citizen snipers armed with rifles. Historic reenactors are quick to point out that this isn’t so, but the popular perception of rifles as superior to smoothbores remains. The topic often comes up when people compare government enforcers with short-range submachine guns to hunters with longer-range weapons and good camouflage skills. Let’s look at the accuracy of that perception.

A typical British “Brown Bess” musket threw a 545-grain .69-caliber ball at 1000fps. Trained troops could fire three shots per minute. The cost of that ballistic splendor was limited number of shots carried (usually 24) and abysmal accuracy. Hitting a man-sized target beyond 50 yards was very unlikely. On the plus side, the gun had enormous stopping power due to the sheer size of the musket ball. Moreover, the main casualty-producing factor was usually the formidable bayonet.

Rifle bore
Rifle bore
Musket shot
Musket shot

The hardy frontier rifleman operates the weapons optimized for hunting rather than for close combat. Depending on the rifle, the caliber varied from .36 to .45, providing initial muzzle velocity of 1200-1300fps with ball as light as 65 grains and as heavy as 125 grains. For comparison, a single 000 buck pellet is as fast at the muzzle, weights about 70 grains and its lead has additives for improved hardness. The initially higher muzzle velocity dropped off considerably quicker with round ball ammunition than with modern conical bullets, so even the spin-stabilized .36 caliber rifle bullet had unimpressive terminal performance at extreme range. Depending on the skill of the shooter, the extreme range was from 100 to 200 yards. The trouble with the flintlock rifle was the slow rate of fire, a single shot every minute at best. Despite the lighter weight, rifles were also physically strenuous to shoot, as the soldier had to stuff the tight-fitting bullet down the rifled bore with arms raised high. Loading a musket was physically easier and quicker, but muskets had stronger recoil. The rifles of the American volunteers seldom had bayonet mounts, so they could fire one or two shots only before British regulars could walk up to them and retaliate with bayonets. The few occasions where rifles gave considerable advantage to the Americans were when the British infantry couldn’t reach their foes on foot and had to shoot it out from long range. Without artillery or the opportunity to deploy cavalry, they were at a disadvantage.

Flintlock ignition sequence
Flintlock ignition sequence
Anticipation of the upflash from the pan
Anticipation of the upflash from the pan

The main factor limiting the effectiveness of musket fire was not its inherent inaccuracy. One problem came from the vast amounts of gray smoke covering the battlefield. Another, more serious issue was the nature of the flintlock ignition. After the trigger pull, the shooter had to wait up to 1/15 of a second for the priming charge to ignite the main main powder charge. In that time, burning powder grains and hot fragments of flint and frizzen sparks flew dangerously close to the shooter’s eyes. No wonder most soldiers preferred to turn away from this hazard! Flintlocks have a high rate of misfires under the best conditions. In wet weather, the bayonet becomes a more reliable tool than the firelock. Therefore, while a single hunter armed with a long-range rifle can successfully ambush a single regular with either a musket or a submachine gun, a trained small unit can usually maneuver by fire and get the civilian defenders in range for automatic fire, grenades, or bayonets. When getting close is impossible, artillery often does the trick. Because of those considerations, the American forces of the 1770s eventually adopted the conventional tactics and armaments of the British and won as much on the field of battle as by skilled diplomacy. The long rifles of Pennsylvania were a factor in the victory, but hardly the paramount reason for the success of the secession.

Why do were view rifles as so superior to the smoothbores in combat? My guess is that perception has more to do with the observations of the Crimean War and the American Civil war. In both conflicts, soldiers used flintlock smoothbores against percussion rifles loaded with Minié balls. A percussion rifle is quicker to load, easier to shoot (no upflash!). Undersized hollow-base conical Minié balls load as rapidly as a round ball, and they can expand to seal the bore on firing to retain velocity much further downrange. However, a .58 caliber Enfield rifled musket of 1853 is not the same as the humble .36 caliber squirrel rifle of 1775 the Americans pressed into use for killing redcoats.

About the Author:

Oleg Volk

Oleg Volk is a creative director working mainly in firearms advertising. A great fan of America and the right to bear arms, he uses his photography to support the right of every individual to self-determination and independence. To that end, he is also a big fan of firearms.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (19)

  1. I suspect the real reason for Washington’s dismissive attitude toward rifles and riflemen stemmed from the independence they demanded on the battlefield. Muskets were used in volley fire on command. The rifle’s accuracy virtually demanded a different type of deployment with virtually no direct control by officers. This would have been an anathema in the armies of the time.

    1. Washington realised early on that riflemen were no match for the rapid volley fire of trained line troops. Attempts by riflemen to engage British regulars had proved disastrous with high casualties. Nevertheless he retained several companies of riflemen for the specific task of shooting British officers while protected by Continental Line troops. In fact one rifleman shot and killed a British officer at slightly over 300 yards.

  2. The photo of the Brit reenactor is rediculous! If one bothers to read the 1764 manual of arms, it clearly states that the soldier is to take aim when presenting to fire. Other writers such as Cuthbertson elaborate more on the subject and explain just how they are to aim and hold on target using the tang screw and the bayonet lug as sights. Further more, British orderly books of the period are full of references to the cycling the men through target practice. Sometimes it was at stationary targets and sometimes at barrels in a harbor.
    So much for that silly myth….

    1. First of all. No line troops on either side were trained to aim at an individual enemy soldier! When the line was ordered to take aim and fire, the direction and elevation was all that was given! It was not considered proper conduct to actually aim at the opposing enemy. But rather by the sustained rate of volley fire the opposing line would break and falter as the lines marched toward each other. That is when the command “Fix bayonets ” was given and the lines changed! The use of the bayonet lug when aligned with the tang screw came into use by independent citizens equipped with military muskets and modern day reenactors in actual competitions or using them to hunt with like I do.

  3. Am I the only one who remembers that rifling was initially developed on cannons to help keep them from fowling?

    I own a replica flintlock rifle and I can say for damn sure I could get more than two rounds off a minute if I had the motivation of a sea of red coats in front of me. Know the real reason armies didn’t use rifles for so long? They are a lot more expensive to make, compared to a musket. They really are a superior weapon in everything except rate of fire, which you should know is not the most important factor in shooting. You cant miss fast enough to win.

  4. Not mentioned above is that muzzle-loading rifle calibers in the Eastern U.S. were steadily shrinking through to the end of the 19th century but started in the .60s and worked their way down to the .36 and .32s in the 1890s. I have read several studies where the average caliber at the time of the Revolution was reckoned to be closer to .50, i.e. .45-.49. There is some dispute on this because many of the period guns had been “freshened” or rebored and re-rifled thus enlarging their calibers to .50-.54 due to bore wear.

    On the other hand Jeremiah Johnson started with a .36 rifle because that was all he could get and survived out west with grizzly bears and such using that gun.

  5. I think you’ll find that the rifle was in fact easier to use in the hands of those most familiar with them. The loading times were definitely not as slow as you are stating, and it is a certainty that a rifleman didn’t wait for a line of british infantry to walk up and bayonet him. These men were the same that fought in various indian wars and were quite familiar with guerrilla tactics. As for the delicacy of such a rifle, it had to survive the hardships of backwoods living. It wasn’t the club that the brown bess was, but it wasn’t meant to be.

    Read up on the Battle of King’s Mountain for a perfect example of why the rifle had such an outstanding reputation.

  6. Jason, you might have a point, as the rifling provides extra space for the powder residue. European match rifles which required a mallet for loading full-size unpatched ball were a good deal slower than that frontier hunting rifles.

  7. Hello,
    It’s me in the above pictures with my wife, my musket and my rifle. I disagree with the above statement posted by docjim505, he states “the rifle of the period was a relatively delicate, slow-firing weapon subject to such levels of powder fouling as to become useless after a a short period of use.”

    The rifle of the 18th century (and the reproduction rifles made today) were not delicate and weren’t that much slower than a musket, and they do not become over fouled after a short period of use. A rifleman in the 18th century could get off 2-4 shots per minute, while a soldier with a musket was in the range of 3 to 6. The reason for the increased speed of the musket is directly based on the looser fitting projectile, the Brown Bess is a .75 smoothbore but it was firing .69 round ball wrapped in cartridge paper. The size difference is what makes the loading easier/faster.

    You could load a rifle with a smaller ball and achieve a faster rate but you would lose the accuracy the rifling imparts on the projectile.

    As far as the fouling goes, I regularly shoot my rifle in matches requiring 20 to 30 shots and do not have to clean my gun until after the match is over. I don’t use any modern greases on my patches, either spit or deer tallow. I would say that 20 to 30 shots is more than would be firing during a typical engagement of the time period.

  8. As I’ve heard it, excluding sniping, the Americans did utilize the rifle one other way: hit and run. The Riflemen would advance to firing position on the British ahead of a skirmish line. The British would advance, eventually closing to an overrun position. The riflemen would then fall back as if routed, leading the advancing British into a ready troop of musketeers.

    By European terms, America was defeated in 1775. The British held every major city in the country during the entire war. The American economy was simply so decentralized that the army never could starve the populace enough to force a surrender. OTOH, the British could ill-afford to fund an all-hands war, especially with the French and Dutch taking advantage of the situation.

  9. The American ‘cult of the rifleman’ looks to culturally really take off I think sometime in the post-Revolution, pre-1812 era. Certainly that’s when American longrifles really started getting dolled up, and the rifleman’s frock seems to hang on between the wars as a fashion statement. (Something like bomber jackets in post-WWII era I’d think, or perhaps the green fatigue jacket after Viet Nam).

    Certainly by the 1820’s presidential campaign of Andy Jackson, it was in full swing.

    But Jackson he was wide awake,
    And was not scar’d at trifles,
    For well he knew what aim we take,
    With our Kentucky rifles:
    So he led us down by Cypress swamp,
    The ground was low and mucky;
    There stood John Bull in martial pomp,
    And here was old Kentucky.

    (Thanks Oleg!)

  10. “American forces of the 1770s eventually adopted the conventional tactics and armaments of the British and won as much on the field of battle as by skilled diplomacy. The long rifles of Pennsylvania were a factor in the victory, but hardly the paramount reason for the success of the secession.”

    I think that this is key. If we assume that Generals Washington, Greene, Morgan, Wayne, Gates, et al. were competent, then it speaks volumes that they created NOT an army of riflemen, but an army of musketmen (thank you, Baron von Steuben!).

    With the exception of a relative handful of purpose-built military models, the rifle of the period was a relatively delicate, slow-firing weapon subject to such levels of powder fouling as to become useless after a a short period of use. It was no more a suitable weapon for the regular infantryman of 1778 than an M-24 would be for an infantryman today.

    I wish to add that it is and has been almost since 1783 a commonly believed fallacy that well-armed citizens fighting for their rights are a good match for disciplined regulars. While there is no question that the partisan or guerilla can cause no end of trouble for regular troops, it is difficult for them to defeat such troops simply because they lack discipline to make their numbers felt in a decisive manner. British regulars routinely put colonial militia to flight even when the militia outnumbered them: though our noble ancestors had the courage to face the musket and bayonet, they lacked the training to fight in a coherent body and so were often brushed off by the tough, disciplined redcoats. A good example of this is the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781), in which the British force under Cornwallis defeated an American force over twice his size. Indeed, the inability of the militia to stand their ground during the war was a significant and costly weakness for the American army and a constant headache for Gen. Washington.

    1. It is somewhat overly apparent you have a disdain for the Militia as less than a worthy fighting force. Such IS IS not the case! It was the militia that hampered and cut to pieces the British regulars on their march from the battles of Trenton and Concord. It was the Militia that helped defend and drove off the British army and their Indian allies from the Schoharie Valley, NY. While the Militia was not the equivalent of the Regular Line troops on the open fields of combat, they made the British pay heavily in the type of warfare they learned best in the F&I War. As to the American rifle of that time. No it wasn’t meant to club an enemy soldier although it was used thar way as a last resort. But fragile, I think NOT! Better you take to the field with one from that time. You are to hunt, march, sleep, and compete with it in all weather conditions. And I mean USE IT as if your life depended on it! You may change your opinion!

  11. A friend who does living history (he and his wife are in the photos above) read this blog post and offered corrections:
    “I totally disagree with your statement about soldiers looking away when they shot. I believe that whole notion came about from movies where actors/extras had to shoot flintlocks without being familiar with them. I also doubt that you will find any historical precedence for that practice. A similarly incorrect statement would be to say that modern soldiers jump when firing their m4’s because they are so loud.

    I also disagree with your statement about the flintlock ignition being less reliable in inclement weather. People back then took much better care of their firearms than your typical reenactor who only uses it as a prop to fire blanks. A well maintained flintlock functions decent in inclement weather.

    In the 18th century if you owned a rifle, it was probably your most expensive possession, even costing more than a horse. If you were in the military and didn’t keep your musket armory bright you could face a lashing.”

    His web site is On the Trail living history magazine.

    1. With regard to your statement on soldiers I would ask “When did you ever stand in a line and volley fire a Brown Bess or Charelleville musket?” It was standard training for the soldier to turn his head away from the soldier on his left to avoid flash burns to his eyes from the pan discharge! Reenactors use flash guards on their muskets to direct the pan and vent discharge up and away from their eyes and the soldier to their right. Flash guards were NOT used in the 1700s. All Line troops used this tactic to protect their eyesight and face since individual enemy troops were not targeted. Volleys were fired in the direction of opposing enemy lines.

  12. A very interesting piece. I am something of a Revolutionary War history buff, but I have to admit, I fell victim to these misconceptions. Thanks for clearing up the matter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit exceeded. Please click the reload button and complete the captcha once again.

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.