The Evolution of Muskets in America: From the 16th Century to the Civil War
Large numbers of Charleville Model 1763 and 1766 muskets were imported into the United States from France during the American Revolution, due in large part to the influence of Marquis de Lafayette. The Charleville 1766 heavily influenced the design of the Springfield Musket of 1795.
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Many muskets were produced locally by various gunsmiths in the colonies, often reusing parts from other weapons. These are known as "Committee of Safety" muskets, as they were funded by the fledgling local government. Because of the need to produce as many weapons as quickly as possible, and also out of fear of prosecution by the British government, many of the muskets did not bear a maker's mark. Some were simply marked as property of a state, or "US," or U:STATES," or "UNITED STATES," or "U.S.A."
Long rifles were an American design of the 18th century, produced by individual German gunsmiths in Pennsylvania. Based on the Jäger rifle, these long rifles, known as "Pennsylvania Rifles", were used by snipers and light infantry throughout the Revolutionary War. The grooved barrel increased the range and accuracy by spinning a snugly fitted ball, giving an accurate range of 300 yards compared to 100 yards for smoothbore muskets. Drawbacks included the low rate of fire due to the complicated reloading process, the impossibility to fit it with a bayonet, the high cost, and lack of standardization that required extensive training with a particular rifle for a soldier to realize the weapon's full potential. Due to the drawbacks, George Washington argued for a limited role of rifles in the Colonial military, while Congress was more enthusiastic and authorized the raising of several companies of riflemen. Long rifles played a significant part in the battle of Saratoga, where rifle units picked off officers to disrupt British command and control but required support by units armed with smoothbore muskets or by artillery to prevent the riflemen from being overrun.
The bayonet was a crucial weapon because of the limited range and accuracy and long loading time of the muskets. Bayonets were fixed on the ends of the guns and were a fearsome weapon in hand-to-hand combat in which one or both sides charged the other; with the bayonet leading the charge. The triangular shape of the bayonet created a deep, easily infected puncture wound. Continental Army and militia units, both loyalists and patriots, frequently were not equipped with bayonets. Regular British infantrymen, however, had a bayonet as part of their standard gear, stored in a side pouch.
The Ferguson rifle is the first breech-loading rifle to be adopted by the military. It had a much faster fire rate than muskets, and was one of only a very few rifles that could be reloaded while in the prone position. The cost was much higher than any other rifle used by the British military. It had an accurate range of approximately 100 yards with a 3- to 4-inch inaccuracy. The creator of this rifle, Major Patrick Ferguson, used approximately 100 of them for his rifle corps; however, when the Major was mortally wounded the rifle production ended and Ferguson's unit was disbanded. Only two military examples of Ferguson rifles are known to exist today, along with a few civilian models and modern reproductions.
The American republic was born in war. While statesmen asserted the independence of the United States in an eloquent declaration, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors converged on New York to subdue the rebellion by force. Revolutionaries armed with muskets and swords had to wage an eight-year war to free the new nation from British rule and ensure that the promise of independence would be fulfilled.
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The main weapon on any Revolutionary War battlefield was the smoothbore flintlock musket. These muskets were around five feet long and weighed around ten pounds. There were a few different styles that were used, and usually depended on where they were made. The primary British musket was the second model short land Brown Bess musket and the primary French musket was the Charleville musket. American soldiers would often have a combination of Brown Besses or Charlevilles. Many of the militias had Brown Besses from when they were part of the British Empire and the Congress imported numerous French muskets during the war. There also were some locally made muskets that were usually made before the war as hunting fowlers.
In addition to smoothbore muskets, both sides also employed rifles. These were flintlock muskets that had grooves carved inside the barrel that allowed the musket balls to spin when exiting the rifle. The spinning balls were much more deadly at long range. Americans had numerous long rifles that were accurate at 250 yards. However, rifles were very slow to reload. Soldiers often needed a minute or two to reload a rifle, since the grooves made it take longer to ram the ball to the breech. Rifles were often also built for hunting and were not capable of attaching a bayonet to them. Thus, while the rifles were effective at long range, if the enemy charged with bayonets, riflemen had to give way. Although, the American Army soon developed a way where riflemen would fire until the British charged at them, and they would fall back behind American regulars who were equipped with muskets and bayonets for protection.
The best target rifle in the world is not accurate if it has poor sights. The Brown Bess, Charleville and other muskets of the period have no sights at all. The Brown Bess does have a bayonet lug to secure the bayonet. The bayonet lug is not an ideal sight but it is on the top of the barrel; so we will consider that a front sight.
Comparing muskets with rifles of the day is akin to assault rifles to anti-material rifles of today. Rifles of the 18th century are heavy, unbalanced, clumsy affairs that are very slow to reload. Great for hunting, or a well planned ambush (that is, you have one good volley), but that is about it.
Before the matchlock, guns were fired by holding a burning wick to a "touch hole" in the barrel igniting the powder inside. A shooter uses one hand for firing, and a prop to steady the gun.The first device, or "lock," for mechanically firing a gun is the matchlock. Powder is held in a "flash pan," and ignited by a wick, or match, in a movable clamp. Both hands remain on the gun, vastly improving aim. Early matchlock guns are extremely rare. The matchlock shown here was made around 1640, and is typical of the muskets used by militia in Colonial America.
Gunmaking was considered an extremely skilled craft in the 18th century, and firearms, including pistols and muskets, were all constructed by hand. In this way, every gun was a one-of-a-kind possession, and a gun broken could not be easily repaired. At the very least, the process was time consuming and expensive, as the gun had to be brought to a craftsman and repaired to order.
Whitney proved to be an effective businessman and manager, dividing labor efficiently among his largely unskilled work force and building precision equipment that enabled the production of large numbers of identical parts quickly and at a relatively low cost. The last of the 10,000 muskets that Whitney had promised in his original contract came in eight years late, but were judged to be of superior quality, and he produced 15,000 more within the next four years.
Though Indians continued to use bows and arrows, hatchets and clubs alongside muskets, they could not mistake that warriors with guns routinely won victories over those without them. The intensity of intertribal rivalry meant that those who failed to build up their arsenals would suffer at the hands of those who did. For this reason, the opening of colonial markets set off Indian arms races throughout Native America.
In all, more than seven million Charleville muskets were produced by the time flintlock production halted in 1820. Percussion cap Charlevilles were made until 1840 and some saw service in the Crimean War in 1853-55. Gunsmiths in Liege made copies of the 1777 Model into the 20th century. They were used as trade guns in the Belgian Congo.
During the Revolutionary War, both armies in the conflict were armed with muzzleloading smoothbore muskets, but at this state of military firearms development, all of these weapons were flintlocks. A small piece of actual flint was held in the jaws of the musket hammer and when tripped and forced to strike the steel frizzen, a shower of sparks then fell into the pan holding the priming charge of gunpowder. The ignition of this explosive was channeled to the main powder charge in the barrel. Water and exposed black powder do not mix, especially if the object is to propel a musket ball to a target.
Gage thought that many Bostonians still had guns, and he refused to allow the Bostonians to leave. Indeed, a large proportion of the surrendered guns were "training arms"--large muskets with bayonets, that would be difficult to hide. After several months, food shortages in Boston convinced Gage to allow easier emigration from the city.
When the British navy showed up at what was then known as Falmouth, Massachusetts (today's Portland, Maine), the town attempted to negotiate. The townspeople gave up eight muskets, which was hardly sufficient, and so Falmouth was destroyed by naval bombardment.
The serpent side plate seen here on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016 appears on a smoothbore musket sold by the Hudson's Bay Company in the late 19th century and now held in the collections of the Alaska State Museum. The serpent motif first appeared on Dutch muskets sold to American Indians in New England during the early 17th century, but it stayed emblazoned on trade muskets sold to Natives and Indians in North America for almost 300 years.
The U.S. Musket Model 1795, the principle small arm used by the Army in the War of 1812, was a copy of the caliber .69, French Model 1763 Infantry Musket. These muskets were made at the armories at both Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harper's Ferry, Virginia. The Model 1795 Muskets produced by Eli Whitney incorporate all of the latest technological features such as a rounded hammer face and slanted pan. Whitney delivered 10,000 muskets to the Army under a July 1812 contract. Muskets manufactured under this contract are marked "N. Haven" on the lock plate.