By the mid-1700’s, the American long rifle had acquired an almost supernatural reputation. To the British troops who were unfortunate enough to come up against it in combat during the Revolutionary War, the rifle was more an affliction than a weapon. And the men who used it against them seemed to have a demonic talent for shooting—they never seemed to miss.
Evolution of the American Long Rifle
The ancestor of the weapon used during the war was brought to William Penn’s colony in North America by German and Swiss immigrants. The original rifles were fairly heavy and of very large caliber, ranging from .45- to .60-caliber. As they were taken to other colonies, including the backwoods of Virginia and Kentucky, the old country rifle evolved into something lighter and smaller, between .40- and .45-caliber. This new hybrid was easier to carry in the field and used less powder than its more cumbersome ancestor.
By about 1750, the rifle that had been developed was light and deadly accurate. It was long—between five and six feet in length—but graceful and well-balanced. Because the weapon had been modified over the years in a number of places, it was called by a variety of names: the Kentucky rifle, the Tennessee rifle, and the Pennsylvania rifle. Because it was such a hybrid, changed and modified by many so people in so many different places, it was most accurately called the American long rifle.
Accuracy Over Volume of Fire
In the frontier territory of Kentucky or Pennsylvania, a rifle was vitally important for survival, and every man became proficient in shooting at an early age. Rifles were used by settlers to supply meat for the table, as well as to defend themselves against Indians and robbers. Boys were taught how to load and aim a rifle as soon as they were old enough to carry one. An entire population of American backwoodsmen grew up with rifles, and marksmanship had become second nature to them. They also used their weapons for entertainment—there were frequent turkey shoots, beef shoots, and target matches. A few American “specialists” were employed by British units during the French and Indian War, and made quite an impression. These men were used to living and fighting in the wilderness, and the accuracy of their firearms left British soldiers goggle-eyed.
The basic infantry weapon of the 18th century, in Europe as well as the militia groups of the 13 American colonies, was the smoothbore musket. For the warfare of the day, it was considered an excellent weapon. The musket was not very accurate, even at short ranges, but it did not have to be. Infantry tactics of that time called for a fast-loading weapon that could produce a volume of fire, and the musket provided exactly this—volume without much accuracy. The line of battle was the basic infantry formation of the 1700s, two or three rows of men standing side by side, with one row behind the other. Infantrymen stood shoulder-to-shoulder and fired volleys at the enemy lines. Individual soldiers did not aim at specific targets. The idea was for each line of infantry to spray as many musket balls at the enemy as possible, hoping that enough of them would hit the advancing enemy line and stop it.
In the hands of a trained infantryman, the Brown Bess musket, which was the standard British infantry weapon of the mid-18th century, could be fired and reloaded about four times per minute. A regiment of infantry, consisting of as many as 500 men might fire all together, in one large volley at a range of 100 yards. More common would have been volleys fired by platoons, 20 or more men firing together, with the platoons firing rapidly in sequence, one after the other. This would create a running volley fire with no lull in the firing. This firing by platoons would go on until the enemy either retreated or closed in hand-to-hand fighting. If the enemy had not been stopped by the sheer volume of musket fire, the next step was the bayonet.
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For the riflemen, however, accuracy was their primary goal, if not their obsession. In the wilderness, a man had to make his first shot count—he might not get a second one. A frontier rifleman not only had an entirely different weapon than the ordinary infantryman, but a completely different way of thinking, as well. He could not afford to depend upon massed volleys to make up for his weapon’s deficiencies, or his own. The rifle took longer to load than the smoothbore musket, but the man who fired it knew that he was going to hit what he was aiming at.