Revolutionary Firepower

Battle of Bunker Hill

As July Fourth approaches, and Americans everywhere prepare to celebrate our independence, some of us take the time to look back at the stories and legends that helped shape our future as a nation. When British forces invaded the United States to try to take back control, the Continental Army and its various militias were waiting with an array of weapons, anxious to send a message to King George. In this post, we are going to look at the weapons of the time, and some of the legends that go along with these almost ancient tools of war.

Standard Issue

Flintlock Mechanism

One of the most prevalent long guns of the era was the Brown Bess. This was a smooth-bore musket designed for ranges between 50-100 yards. This would later prove to be problematic, since American sharpshooters had rifles that were effective up to 250 yards. The  .75 caliber, muzzle-loading flintlock-design Bess, allowed an experienced soldier to fire between three and four rounds per minute. As required by law, most American Colony male citizens  owned arms and ammunition for militia duty. The Long Land Pattern Brown Bess was a common firearm in use by both sides in the American Revolutionary War. Field tests of smooth-bore muskets in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reported widely reliable expectations of accuracy and speed of fire. Estimations of rate of fire ranged from “1 shot every 15 seconds” (4 shots per minute) with highly trained troops, to “2 to 2.5 shots per minute” (1 shot every 24 seconds) for inexperienced recruits. Loading a Brown Bess was cumbersome at best, especially compared to modern-day firearms. The standard military loading procedure from prepared paper cartridges containing ball and gunpowder in an elongated envelope is:

  • Tear cartridge with teeth and prime the pan directly from the cartridge;
  • Stand the musket and pour the bulk of the powder down the barrel;
  • Reverse the cartridge and use the ramrod to seat the ball and paper envelop onto the powder charge.

Standard European targets included strips of cloth 50 yards long to represent an opposing line of infantry, with the target height being 6 feet for infantry and 8 feet, 3 inches for cavalry. Estimations of hit probability at 175 yards could be as high as 75% in volley fire. This, however, was without allowances for the gaps between the soldiers in an opposing line, for overly tall targets, or the confusing and distracting realities of the battlefield. Modern testers shooting from rigid rests, using optimum loads and fast priming powder, report groups of circa five inches at 50 yards (Cumpston 2008).

Long Distance Precision

Colonists developed the Pennsylvania Rifle (and its many variations) during the early eighteenth century. The Long Rifle was the one of the first completely American designs. The rifle had a somewhat elegant look, due mostly to the stock of the gun, which gracefully bends at the stock. It had an unusually long barrel, sometimes more than four feet. The barrel of the Pennsylvania featured rifling, allowing much greater accuracy. This accuracy came at a price however; the rifle could take up to a full minute to load. To conserve materials, the weapon was often made in smaller calibers, ranging from about .36 to .45 caliber.

In 1778, a British officer, stuck his head out from behind a tree, and was shot through the forehead by Daniel Boone. Both sides later confirmed the shot to be at a distance of 250 yards, well beyond the effective range of the Brown Bess.

Up Close and Personal

One of the most gruesome weapons of the war was the bayonet. A soldier who only had one shot tended to feel a bit better when his rifle doubled as a stabbing weapon.

Armies of the time often routed when facing a well-timed bayonet charge from the enemy.

The Americans in particular had a difficult time facing off with British regulars, who often had trained for years in bayonet combat.

Recent advances in technology had resulted in the plug bayonet. This design allowed the gun to fire with the bayonet still attached to the end of the barrel. The triangular cross section of the bayonet made wounds particularly difficult to repair, which later led to the international banning of this type of blade.

Death from Above

Known as the queen of the battlefield, the cannon often stood supreme. With varying ranges, a well-placed array of cannons could potentially hold off an entire regiment of soldiers. Militiamen in often did not have cannons of their own which resulted in a large number of British victories early in the war.

Cannons of the time could fire either solid or grape shot. Grape shot consisted of an iron ball, filled with black powder, and fitted with a fuse. These projectiles would often detonate above the heads of the opposing forces, causing heavy casualties.

Solid shot, on the other hand, was devastating to stationary targets as well as units that lined up in open field. With an effective range of up to 800 yards, solid shot was the advanced artillery of the time.

Tactics Win Wars

Weapons do not always decide the outcome of a conflict. This is a lesson that the United States has re-learned in recent decades. Invariably, a guerrilla force operating on its own turf, can wreak havoc on an occupying army, far away from its supply lines. The Continental Army, at first, could not hope to defeat the largest army in the world in the open field. As a result, an ingenious combination of unconventional weapons, spy networks, and yes, a little help from the French, ended up turning the tides in the favor of the America revolutionaries.

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Comments (7)

  1. Nice article, but a couple problems. First, the Plug Bayonet was the earliest form with a handle that plugged into the barrel like a cork and prevented loading and firing of the musket. The Socket Bayonet is the later, 18th century, development where the attachment end of the bayonet was cylindrical in form and slid over the muzzle of the musket allowing the arm to be loaded and fired with the bayonet in place. Second, there were three major types of artillery rounds: Solid, Shell & Canister or Grape Shot. Solid was solid round ball of bore diameter, usually fired individually. The shot was aimed at the ground in front of the assembly so the shot would bound and bounce through striking multiple individual. Shell was a hollow sphere of bore diameter filled with powder and affixed with a fuse. The fuse was trimmed to length so that it would cause the shell to explode just over the heads of the opposing army sending pieces of hot, sharp metal through the assembly. Canister or Grape Shot were a number of smaller solid spheres contained in either a cylindrical container made from thin metal or a fabric bag. When fired the container would burst sending the small balls out in a spray. Essentially turning the cannon into a big shot gun.

    1. Nice call on the “plug” bayonet error. But, I feel the artillery ammo description you gave needs some tweaking. Canister and grapeshot are not the same or “either or” as your comment suggests, or at least could be taken that way. They are two and distinctly different munitions.
      Canister is the can filled with balls. Grapeshot is bagged. In the larger calibers, grapeshot could have been larger iron balls soft wired to a central wooden column attached to a wooden base with layers of wood between rows of grape with the whole combined into a cloth wrapper or “bag.” During the Civil War, “grapeshot” was largely restricted to naval and siege ordinance and canister only (of the two) used by field arty. Canister also was “fixed” ammunition. That is, the powder bag was tied to the can with the whole loaded at one time. To double shot a gun, the powder bag was struck off the canister.

  2. Ditto Artillery as far as I have known has always been called the King of Battle. Retired Red Leg.

  3. Guys- A couple of things, great choice to illustrate your article. That painting of Bunker (breed’s) Hill is one of my favorite, so thanks for that.Secondly, as a long-time “Red-Leg” , Artillery is not known as the Queen of Battle, bu the King of Battle. Think of it in chess terms, Can move only one square at a time, but can have a enormous impact on the outcome.

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