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article number 262
article date 08-20-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Owe Some of Our Freedom to the Pennsylvania Rifle, 1776. Ours Were the Best.
by Roger Burlingame
   

From the 1942 book, March of the Iron Men, A Social History of Union through Invention.

§ 1

WHAT WON the War of Independence for America? What indeed wins any war? Tolstoy says it is X, the unknown factor, the human factor, the spirit of the army. It will reverse the longest plans of great generals; a little, unexpected thing will fix or alter it—the failure, in a crisis, of a single gun or heart. The turning of one Austrian’s stomach at the sudden sight of a glaring Frenchman may have lost the Battle of Austerlitz.

But as we study the American Revolution there seems to be an endless chain of such failures; in fact, looking at it across the progress of invention in the intervening years, the whole affair seems so disparate and chaotic that we find it difficult to think of it as a war at all.

A vast array of evidence has been collected. The patrioteer mythology has been exploded and our adult view need no longer be deflected by the conviction that all colonials were heroes and all Britons cowards or rascals. But the more we know, the more miraculous the victory becomes.

   

We know, for instance, that the loyalty of American troops was haphazard to say the least, that many of them were bribed to fight, that they deserted in wholesale lots, that they were, at the start at least, independent units, casual toward discipline and toward their officers (whom they elected themselves), more interested in agriculture than in their cause and, on the whole, vague as to what that cause was.

We know further that there was no recognized central political authority, that the Continental Congress was at odds with the provincial congresses, that supplies failed at almost every point, that farmers and merchants seized every opportunity for profit at the expense of the troops, that most of the troops were starved and nearly naked and that both troops and civilians in their bitter suffering were continually tempted by the enemy propaganda of the “Loyalists.”

The Loyalists or Tories were everywhere. They were given silent support by organized masses of conscientious objectors. For the first year, the troops were uncertain what they were fighting for. Many thought they were fighting for a bonus or “bounty” as it was called.

The army changed its personnel every few months when the short enlistments ran out or the harvest called. No sooner was a man trained for service than he bade his officers a genial farewell and went back to the farm. Even officers resigned from time to time, sometimes on the eve of battle.

Meanwhile, in the camps, the specters of malaria, smallpox, dysentery, scurvy, pneumonia, stalked continually. The wounded died of their gangrene on the field rather than prolong life in a fetid hospital that was half morgue. On the roads supplies failed in the mud, meat and bread putrified in forgotten dumps, emergency food was held up by price-jacking farmers, shoes and clothing remained on paper in the journals of Congress.

Soldiers on forced marches bound their bare feet in strips of blanket and left red trails in the snow. When men entered a town, the women and children turned away from their indecent nakedness, Tories and enemy soldiers jeered at their filth and lice. Yet, evidently, they won.

   

Historians differ as to the reason for the miracle. Was it the uncanny genius of their general? Was it his magnetism, drawing into the hollow of his hand the frayed particles of his army whenever he touched them? Was it his cold, tactical plotting or his certainty, at every instant, of his enemy’s temper? Was it the inadaptability of the redcoats to a stone-wall and rail-fence warfare?

Was it their numerical inferiority, not compensated by their better discipline? Was the cause lost in England where it was demonstrably unpopular? Was the war, perhaps, won on the sea where the hope of tangible wealth from privateer plunder was a surer inducement to the Yankee sailors than the bonuses of Continental money offered their soldier countrymen? Was it the late aid of Lafayette or the stern “system” of Steuben?

There are many schools. No doubt there were many reasons.

For us the most interesting is a technical one; the application of science in an American invention. It may be too much to say that this alone was responsible for the winning of the war. But there is, scattered among the records, so much evidence of its importance that, when all is gathered together, we can plausibly wonder if the victory could have been gained without it.

The rifling of firearms was not an American invention. The Pennsylvania rifle was. It was the truest kind of American invention, the certain product of an American culture. It had been forced upon its inventors by a primary necessity: The need to live, remotely, in a wilderness. It had been peculiarly adapted through trial, error and skill until it had become a new thing. There was nothing like it in the world.

§ 2

The principle of the rifle was very old. The ancient makers of the crossbow had found that a missile could be hurled further and straighter if it revolved around an axis parallel to its line of flight making its final result a spiral—if, so to speak, it were screwed into the air.

In the fifteenth century, the great Leonardo recurred to the principle for firearms yet it can no more be said that Leonardo invented the rifle than that he invented the airplane, also pictured in his note books. A Viennese, Gaspard Kollner, in 1500, actually worked the idea into the bore of a gun.

There is an unsupported belief that he did it by accident. He is said to have made grooves in his barrel to make his ball fit better and thus save the gases from the explosion. They were straight grooves; the lead ball being larger than the bore, it was squashed into the grooves and so took the exact shape of the grooved barrel, leaving no room for gas to pass it and thus the ball took the full force of the explosion.

According to the unlikely story, this skilled gunsmith made a mistake one day and got his grooves twisted. The public for some reason often feels that the romantic value of an invention is enhanced if it comes about by accident rather than design.

   

At any rate, the new gun worked. The trajectory of the ball was flatter, the ball went further, it came nearer hitting the target than balls shot out of smooth or straight-grooved guns.

From a study of firearms in 1500 we may assume that if Kollner’s new gun hit a Viennese barn door at fifty paces, a triumph had been scored. At any rate his rifle became celebrated and its fame spread to Germany and Switzerland; by the seventeenth century there were rifles in both these countries. By the eighteenth century there were in Germany military corps of riflemen called Jaegers of which, later, we shall have something to say.

If the reader will now look in any good encyclopedia under the word Ballistics, he will find a formidable array of mathematical formulas derived from long experiment by the scientific method with projected bodies. He will see that a rifle-maker is now able to plot his grooving, its curve and its depth as well as the shape of the projectile and all these things in relation to the charge to a great nicety and that under ordinary conditions, his finished rifle will perform almost exactly as he expects it to.

Equally obvious will be the immense gap between this science worked into a gun by modern machinery (also scientifically plotted) and the hit or miss gun-smithery of sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Germany. Add to this, the difficulty of making steel and we can guess that effective rifles were uncommon things.

They were, in fact, largely confined to the soldiery and soldiers were paid professionals in those days and not a high order of humanity. There was not great demand for improvement.

Battles were fought at close grips and the rifles of the Jaegers were, perhaps, a trifle better from their inaccurate grooving than the smooth-bore pieces of the adversary. Under these conditions, there was scarcely any improvement in rifles from the days of Kollner to the opening years of the eighteenth century.

§ 3

In those opening years a large number of Swiss and Palatine Germans came to America to escape the miseries of religious persecution and political oppression. Most of them settled in Pennsylvania where their descendants are known today through some odd perversion of language as “Germans Dutch.” Many of them were artisans, some were gunsmiths.

The best of the gunsmiths helped settle the town of Lancaster and nearby villages. They must have been great men. We have their names—some of them—Leman, Terree, Struzel, Allbright, Tolecht, Lefevre and Henry, but the records of their lives, like so much in the wild lands, seem to have been lost along with the trees. It is a pity. Our nation is a monument of the skill of their patient hands.

We have glimpses of a few: one of the Rossers who made a .40 caliber piece in 1739, and a William Henry whose son carried his “firelock” to Quebec and immortalized the family in his diary. But the gunsmiths had no thought of winning American freedom. They made their guns so that their fellows might eat.

Lancaster was close to the frontier. A frontier makes men restless and at the same time reduces them to the most primitive means of subsistence—hunting their food. Game was plentiful and most of the men hunted it. They hunted and explored at the same time. Their long wanderings made special demands for equipment.

Powder and shot had to be carried by the hunter. He must carry enough to keep him on his journey. As the length of wandering increased, more shot had to be carried. It was necessary, therefore, that it be as light as possible and that it be not wasted. For the ball to be light, the bore of the gun must be small.

To conserve the balls, the gun must be accurate. Every shot must make a hit. As the game was small, the demand for an accurate weapon was great.

   

The gunsmiths set to work. By patient experiment, they decreased the bore, lengthened the barrel and made the spiral rifling more and more effective. By 1739, one of the Rossers of Lancaster had made a rifle whose statistics are interesting. It fired a round ball .32 inches in diameter weighing 49 grains. The charge was 22 grains of black powder. The average velocity over 53 feet was 1305 feet per second.

The muzzle velocity was 1483 feet—something under a quarter mile—per second. The muzzle energy was 239 foot pounds. At 100 yards, the velocity dropped to 850 feet per second and the energy to 79 foot pounds. Whelen tells us that “they were about as accurate as our ordinary rifles of today, up to 100 yards.”

The range, we see, was still very low, though comparison with smooth-bore guns of a much later time will show how long it was for the period. The patient development went on. The rifle moved out of Pennsylvania to the frontiers of New York and Virginia.

By the time of the Revolution, it had got occasionally, into the hands of the “Green Mountain Boys” of Vermont. It could be found almost anywhere in the Allegheny foothills. It was used in warfare against Louisburg. The English could have seen it there and experimented with it but the English were conservative.

Yet all this time, it seems not to have reached the coast of the colonies. In any case, it was unknown in Massachusetts where the war began. The minute men of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill were still using the smooth-bore musket; the “Brown Bess” imported from England, a short, heavy, clumsy, hard- kicking, short-ranged, enormous-bored piece, or they used the indifferent and varying copies of it made by their local gun-smiths.

Let us leave the frontiersmen, then, for a moment and inspect the firearms of the Massachusetts volunteers and of their antagonists, the regulars from England.

§ 4

The musket had a flintlock or, as it was commonly and even officially called, a “firelock” mechanism. The lock holding a flint was pulled back in cocking; in firing, it descended on the steel “battery” causing a spark to ignite the priming powder in the “pan” and the priming ignited the charge which had been rammed in the barrel.

The invention of the “cartridge” (probably French) had somewhat simplified the loading. The cartridge was a paper roll, tied at the ends, containing powder and ball. The soldier bit off the tied end of the cartridge, sprinkled powder on his pan, poured the rest down the barrel with the ball on top of it; then rammed the cartridge paper down with a hickory ramrod to hold the load in and confine it.

When bayonets had been fixed, the ramming was a difficult and perilous job. Ordinarily, a good soldier could load and fire four or five times a minute. The ball did not fit the bore. Only the cartridge wad kept it from rolling about.

   

Another glance at Ballistics will give an idea of the accuracy of such a weapon with such a projectile. The ball tended to spin in a plane parallel to that of the trajectory instead of with the screwing motion of the rifle bullet. These guns were not sighted; they were hardly aimed. A hit at 60 yards was an accident.

The British were trained to march in close ranks as near as possible to the enemy and fire a volley. At Bunker Hill these ranks marched again and again up to the American earthworks with amazing discipline and courage. The earthworks protected the reloading of the American muskets. Nothing protected the British.

There are stories told of the great marksmanship of the Americans at Bunker Hill. Perhaps these have been confused with the later stories of riflemen. The Americans at Bunker Hill could hardly have been good marksmen with the weapons they had. It was probable they were better than the British.

The British depended on a volley to hit something. Americans were more accustomed to individual shooting. But much can be said for the earthworks which covered the Americans until their targets had come very close. The British won a complete victory at Bunker Hill but their enormous losses encouraged the colonials.

§ 5

Colonel George Washington was, at this time, already a veteran soldier. He was, also, a Virginian. He was, incidentally, a surveyor and explorer. He knew the frontier. He had seen the mountain boys; the men who lived at the edge of the world in Virginia and Pennsylvania. He had seen them at their hunting. He had fired their rifles.

When it became apparent that he was to be given high command, he knew at once that it was on these people he must rely. He sent to the frontier towns to recruit them. In a contemporary newspaper, we may read of their eagerness:

   

“A correspondent informs us that one of the gentlemen appointed to command a company of riflemen, to be raised in one of the frontier counties of Pennsylvania, had so many applications from the people in his neighborhood, to be enrolled for the service, that a greater number presented than his instructions permitted him to engage, and being unwilling to give offence to any, thought of the following expedient.”

“He, with a piece of chalk, drew on a board the figure of a nose of the common size, which he placed at the distance of one hundred and fifty yards, declaring that those who should come nearest the mark should be enlisted. Sixty odd hit the object.—General Gage, take care of your nose.”

General Gage was at Boston at the moment, commanding British regulars. We have no record that he read the Gazette’s warning. To him the colonials were still contemptible as indeed they were to all good British soldiers.

Their Brown Bess was designed to kill men; they knew nothing of a firearm designed to kill a jumping squirrel on a treetop—no doubt they would have laughed at such an invention had they heard of it. But the Pennsylvania riflemen were already on the march to Cambridge.

Washington took command of the army there. They must have been a strange, random looking lot with their farmers’ clothes, their muskets snatched from the fireplaces different in size and shape, each bearing the mark of a proud village artisan—a few, perhaps, heirloom weapons from England.

But geographically, these troops were well arranged. They held the town of Boston, where British headquarters were, in a state of siege. Washington waited.

There were rumors abroad. John Adams had written to his wife of the vote of the Second Continental Congress to raise ten companies of Southern riflemen and Adams had to explain—”a peculiar kind of musket called a rifle.”

They came in August. Washington held a review of his troops on Cambridge Common. It was a gala parade. Farmers, their wives and children came from the surrounding country to see the show. British spies crept out from Boston to watch it. Some of them were recognized. Washington gave quiet orders to let them in—the more the better.

   

There were some fourteen hundred riflemen there; spare, rangy lads we may imagine with the independent manners of the western wilderness. Uncouth they were, no doubt, in their long fringed hunting shirts; their small-clothes tight round their legs under leather leggings.

They stood, their gunstocks resting on the ground, one hand round the longest barrel anyone in Cambridge had ever seen. We may imagine the small boys in the edge of the crowd pointing at these strange, long, slender—incredibly slender barrels; the farmers laughing and spitting with Yankee scorn.

A sergeant, far out in the Common, drove into the ground a line of poles seven inches in diameter. He then paced away from the poles. A few of the crowd understood what he was doing, they told the others and the people began to count. Fifty—now he would stop. . . No! A hundred.

No gun in the world could hit a seven-inch pole at a hundred yards unless by accident. But the sergeant was going on. A hundred and fifty. Two hundred. The farmers were openly laughing. The sergeant stopped at two hundred and fifty paces and the boys with the hunting shirts slouched negligently out to where he stood.

We may suppose that orders were given and indifferently obeyed. The new recruits were raw enough in discipline; perhaps, coming from the wild lands they were defiant, choosing their own way of handling their weapons. The crowd watched them uproarious, it was an amusing game; the sergeant had made a mistake, the boys would bluff it out. No gun ever dreamed of could carry two hundred and fifty paces.

It is doubtful if the shots rang out in unison. The riflemen aimed, probably, and took their time over it. There was no command “aim!” in the manual. But the shots hit the poles; they were destroyed before the firing stopped.

If there is a record of what the generals in Boston said when the British spies got back; we have not encountered it. We know that Howe wrote home, later, about the “terrible guns of the rebels.” We are told that Howe presently offered a reward for the capture of a rifleman “complete with shooting iron.”

Rumors of this offer spread among the British forces. The rifleman was captured at Quebec. His name was Merchant, “a tall and handsome Virginian. In a few days, he, hunting-shirt and all, was sent to England, probably as a finished specimen of the rifleman of the colonies.”

Merchant gave exhibitions in England. They were intended to show the English what formidable antagonists the British Army in America was up against and so to stimulate recruiting.

They had precisely the opposite effect. There was already doubt in England as to the desirability of this colonial war. Englishmen had little enough desire to save these recalcitrant and stubborn colonies three thousand miles away; when they saw the possibility of being killed at two hundred and fifty yards by a hidden marksman they soon lost the rest.

The result was that England was obliged to hire foreign mercenaries. As the likeliest troops to combat the riflemen, they hit upon the German Jaegers who had rifles of their own. So a quantity of these men were engaged and sent over. Their obsolete pieces were no match for the Pennsylvania weapon.

   
German Jaegers fighting for the British.

We know something of the quality of the men. Out of some thirty-thousand sent over, five thousand deserted. The bargain, as Greene says, was “quite unique in its infamy and degradation.” It profoundly damaged the English cause; the spirit of the American army was helped by American anger against it.

It is possible that mercenaries might have been engaged whether or not the Pennsylvania rifle had been invented. It is certain that fewer would have been sent in the early years and that fear of American marksmanship helped to determine the choice of the so-called Hessians.

§ 6

One of the most curious phenomena of the trial and error period of invention is a frequent reversal of what seems to us a natural and orderly progress of thought. The reason the phenomenon seems curious is because, in reconstructing the thought, we do so from a scientific approach. It is almost impossible for our minds to work otherwise.

We know that, for a rifle to be effective a bullet must be forced into the shape of the inside of the barrel; that only if the bullet metal can be squeezed to fit exactly in the grooves can the bullet be given its twist.

Obviously then, the bullet must be larger than the bore to begin with; it must be of soft metal; it must then be forced into the barrel so as to take the shape of the grooves. What forces it? Why, naturally, we answer, the explosion of the powder.

But after a moment’s thought, we know that this never occurred to the eighteenth-century gunsmith. His gun loaded from the muzzle; the rifleman must, therefore, force his bullet into the shape of the barrel before the explosion took place. It is hardly credible that thousands of riflemen, repeating this motion thousands of times, never thought to reverse it—that no one ever realized that by putting his bullet at the other end of the barrel, the explosion could be made to do all this work for him.

As guns were constructed, he could not actually do this but a slight spasm of the imagination ought to have revealed to him a possible opening at the barrel’s back end. Even more, it should have been revealed to the gunsmith who held the naked barrel in his hand before it was attached to the stock.

But his mind was as closed as the barrel. We must understand the force of tradition in a pre-scientific age. To the gunsmith, a gun was a tube with one end closed. The closed end was the backstop for the explosion. If the end of the barrel were open, the explosion would go back into the man’s face. He did not think of breech-loading because there was no breech.

Science has overthrown tradition so many times since then that nowadays anything seems possible so that our minds are open. But in the pre-scientific age it took the force of a powerful, transcendent imagination to go back to first principles. An eighteenth-century inventor needed more genius than his fellow of the twentieth.

Invention today is a science; then it was an art. That is why the tradition—perhaps unknown to the latest generation—of an inventor as a long-haired, wild-eyed, temperamental and absent-minded intuitive has come down to us. All this romance is gone from the modern inventor. He is calm, methodical, a student of books, a walking table of formulas; he works in concert with a dozen specialists in the rhythm of a vast, peopled laboratory; his clothes and his habits are as neat as his mind.

So, in history, the rifle which should have followed breech-loading actually preceded it—in practice at least. There are records of sporadic breech-loading inventions which have nothing to do with practice.

At the very moment when American riflemen were cursing at their ramrods, an Englishman of extended vision who had long practiced with the German rifle invented and made a breech-loading rifle. It was a good job.

Yet here again we find the interference of tradition. The manufacture of Ferguson’s rifles involved such new and difficult processes that only two hundred were produced. Before the end of the war, a few of these seem to have been used against the American riflemen. Its effect was negligible.

   
The Ferguson flintlock, breach-loading rifle of 1776.

In accuracy, it was inferior to the Pennsylvania rifle. This was because the breech-loading mechanism was applied to the imperfect German rifle. Had it been coupled with the perfected squirrel rifle of the frontiersmen it would have given a final solution to the rifleman’s most serious problem.

§ 7

This problem was the loading of his piece. We have already seen what the musket-man had to do before he could fire. The rifleman’s job was more difficult and slower.

In the old German rifles, the lead ball had to be hammered into the barrel with an iron ramrod and a mallet. The Pennsylvanians improved on this method with the greased patch. After the powder had been poured in from the palm of the hand (where it had been measured from the powder horn) a round greased patch of cloth was placed over the muzzle. The bullet was placed over this and pushed into the muzzle by the thumb. It was then pushed down by the hickory ramrod which had a concave end to fit the bullet. The grease from the patch made this easier.

When the bullet rested on the powder it was hit with the ramrod—the word was “wang”—until it fitted the grooves. Major Whelen says that this could be done by a skilful rifleman in thirty seconds. This was more than twice the time it took a skilful musketman to load his piece.

So we should be led to believe that the superior range and accuracy of the rifle must have been nullified by the difficulty of loading it. But we are counting without the ingenuity of the frontiers-man who, in his necessity, invented a new kind of war.

If the European tactics had been followed, no doubt the rifleman would have been beaten. In the early skirmishes, the enemy was upon him with bayonets before he could reload. So the rifleman invented sniping; shooting from distant cover—trees, bushes, walls, ambushes.

   

His guerrilla warfare became the despair of the disciplined, methodical redcoat. He frequently complained of the “savage” methods of the colonials. As he marched along a road in fine military order and cadence, it must have been horrible to him to have a half-naked enemy in his long frayed hunting shirt, his breeches probably long since torn to shreds, loom up behind an unexpected bush out of reach of Brown Bess and fire his deadly bullet.

By the time an order to charge him could be given and executed, he had vanished; somewhere in the underbrush he was quietly reloading and he would reappear presently in another quarter to pick his man again.

The British learned such horror of these apparitions that Washington decided to clothe all his army in hunting shirts. “The General,” reads the order, “. . . earnestly encourages the use of Hunting Shirts, with long Breeches, made of the same Cloth . . . it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy who think every such person a complete Marksman.”

§ 8

So it was very largely this terror which brought the Revolution to an end victorious to America. The British had better soldiers in the time-honored tradition of war. They were as courageous as the colonials and their discipline was far superior.

The rifle and the rifleman’s kind of war broke down their spirit—the unknown factor, Tolstoi’s X, the spirit of an army. There were enough other matters to wear down the spirit of the colonials. But they had Washington and they had numbers.

They had, too, a cause, individually felt and by the time the tide turned, universally understood. Their cause, of course, was the cause of freedom.

But it was the cause, also, of the frontier, won by the rifle, cherished inch by inch as it was gained by the rifleman. He had already stood at its outposts, seen the immensity of its horizons. There he could invent a new world. The awe of it was deep and secret in his heart.

   
Rifling a barrel with a very early rifling machine. Redrawn from material furnished by Capt. John W. Dillin.

The tide turned at Trenton. The persistence of Washington’s idea in conflict with storm and ice and night, the march of exhausted men into blinding sleet—”in good order” it is insistently proved against all reason—is no part of this narrative.

It is one of those thoroughly mysterious miracles which punctuate the history of all war and caused Tolstoi to reduce military science to a set of “unknowns.” But that the troops finally captured a town of drunken Hessians is, indeed, part of the story of the rifle. The homesick Germans can hardly be blamed for their Christmas indiscretion; their guns, for which they were bought, had long since failed.

When at last the war was over, the Americans were faced with a need for invention greater, perhaps, than that which had ever confronted a new nation of independent people.

* * *

   
From the Laidacker Collection of Rifles;
1. 61 ½ inches over all. Weight 11 ½ pounds.
2. 77 inches over all. Weight 11 ½ pounds. (Known as “Long Tom the Indian Killer”)
3. 71 inches over all. Weight 10 ½ pounds.
4. 68 inches over all. Weight 7 ½ pounds.
Courtesy of Captain John W. Dillin
   
Rifling guide and index 1. Index fingers. 2. Stationary index mounted on bench. 3. Spiral guide which turns the rifling rod. 4. Frame which follows slide on bench and controls this guide. Courtesy of Captain John W. Dillin.
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