“Bemis Heights (Saratoga) 7 Oct., 1777” by H. Charles McBarron; Courtesy of the Army Art Collection, U.S. Army Center of Military History
On the morning of Oct. 7, 1777, Timothy Murphy, a Continental Army sergeant and master sniper, loaded a lead ball into his American longrifle while perched in a tree on the edge of the Second Battle of Saratoga in upstate New York. His target was a man on a horse 300 yards distant.
British troops under the command of Simon Fraser, a Scottish aristocrat and British brigadier general, were rallying on the battlefield for what seemed to be an imminent victory over Colonial troops, a triumph that could put an end to the American Revolution.
Spotting the British general’s success at marshalling his troops for a final attack, Gen. Benedict Arnold, then considered the finest officer in the American army and George Washington’s anointed favorite general, called out to Daniel Morgan, commander of an elite brigade of Virginia riflemen: “That man on the grey horse is a host unto himself and must be disposed of—direct the attention of some of the sharpshooters amongst your riflemen to him!”
Colonel Morgan then said to Murphy, one of his finest marksmen, “That gallant officer is General Fraser. I admire him, but it is necessary that he should die. Do your duty.”
From his shooting perch in a tree, Murphy pointed his flintlock longrifle at the general, riding on a hill some 300 yards away, and squeezed the trigger.
As the rifle’s hammer dropped, the firearm’s surprisingly slow process of ignition unfolded, a fragile, complex procedure that on a flintlock rifle is nowhere near as fast as the firing of a modern cartridge arm.
When I first fired a vintage, blackpowder flintlock longrifle, I was amazed by two things. As a U.S. Navy SEAL, I was used to handling arms weighing 20 pounds and 40 pounds or more. But the typical American longrifle was around 9 pounds, a sleek, surprisingly lightweight gun, more like a precision combat surgical instrument than a battlefield tool.
And second, the process of firing the gun is incredibly slow. You line up your shot through the superb sighting system, and pull the trigger. Sparks shower as the flint strikes the frizzen. There’s a quick flash as the sparks ignite the powder in the pan, and a delayed sensation of contact in the gun. A little bit of smoke escapes from the pan as it ignites. A flash of flame passes through a hole into the breech of the barrel, which kicks off the powder charge behind the patched lead ball. Then a big puff of grayish smoke blasts out of the end of the barrel and the smoke fills the shooter’s whole field of vision. The rifle is so light that, rather than a sharp rap, the recoil feels more like a push against the shoulder.
If the wind was right, and if he’d used enough blackpowder for the ball to travel faster than sound, Murphy might have heard dull cracks from sonic reflections echoing back as the projectile passed the nearby trees. Meanwhile, the bullet continued toward the British general.
Throughout the war, British officers were horrified to see American riflemen like Murphy intentionally aiming at enemy officers as a way of decapitating the opposing leadership, as well as aiming at other strategic targets of opportunity such as Native American guides and British artillerymen. In the earlier combat at Saratoga, rebel riflemen hiding in and around trees had shredded the lines of stunned British officers.
For the American riflemen, the tactics of hit-and-run, concealment, ambush and surprise, and targeted killings were simply smart guerilla tactics. To the Brits, they were war crimes, pure and simple.
The commanding British general at the battle, Gen. John Burgoyne, who was the boss of Brig. Gen. Fraser at the Battle of Saratoga, later wrote of the sudden deadly impact of the American riflemen: “The enemy had with their army great numbers of marksmen, armed with rifle-barrel pieces; these, during an engagement, hovered upon the flanks in small detachments, and were very expert in securing themselves, and in shifting their ground. In this action many placed themselves in high trees in the rear of their own line, and there was seldom a minute’s interval of smoke, in any part of our line without officers being taken off by a single shot.”
The British feared the Colonial riflemen so much they called them “widow-makers.” Indeed the best picture of American riflemen comes from the unfortunate British troops who had to face them in battle. British Capt. Henry Beaufoy wrote that his combat-hardened troops, “when they understood they were opposed by riflemen ... felt a degree of terror never inspired by general action, from the idea that a rifleman always singled out an individual, who was almost certain of being killed or wounded.” He explained that the Americans “were in the habit of forming themselves into small bands often of twelve, who, accustomed to shooting in hunting parties, went out in a sort of predatory warfare, each carrying his ammunition and provisions and returning when he was exhausted. From the incessant attacks of these bodies, their opponents could never be prepared: as the first knowledge of a patrol in the neighbourhood was generally given by a volley of well-directed fire, that perhaps killed or wounded the greater part.”
Col. George Hanger, a British officer who served in South Carolina, was so impressed by the American’s deadly skill he wrote to the folks back home: “I never in my life saw better rifles (or men who shot better) than those made in America.” Another British officer reported that an expert rifleman could hit the head of a man at 200 yards, and if he “were to get perfect aim at 300 yards at me, standing still, he would most undoubtedly hit me unless it were a very windy day.”
The British had never heard of such behavior as the deliberate targeting of officers, and they were totally shocked. To them it seemed repulsive, very un-European and a tactic born of sheer cowardice. But their leaders like Fraser had not fully absorbed the implications of the tactic, and on this day on the battlefield at Saratoga, Fraser was a sitting duck, out in the open, and he had fallen into the gun-sight picture of Timothy Murphy’s eye.
The British general could actually see Murphy in his distant sniper post in the tree, but at 300 yards away he probably felt in little danger. His own troops, for example, were armed mainly with British Army regulation .75-cal. “Brown Bess” muskets, which—because of their quicker-loading smooth bores—usually couldn’t hit much past 80 yards on purpose.
Murphy’s bullet missed. Instead of hitting Gen. Fraser, it lightly nicked his horse. Murphy, who reportedly was armed with a rare handmade double-barreled rifle, would have pulled a catch to flip up the pre-loaded bottom barrel. He would have performed a quick series of complex mental calculations, trying to adjust his aim for wind, elevation, and for the inevitable vertical and lateral drift of the bullet, which at that far distance could be severe.
The American sniper fired again. The second bullet missed, again clipping the general’s horse. At that point, Murphy either would have paused to begin the time-consuming process of reloading his flintlock longrifle, which even for a crack shot like Murphy could have taken as long as 30 seconds, or more likely, someone would have passed him up another, pre-loaded longrifle.
In any event, Sgt. Timothy Murphy lined up his target for his third attempt. The fate of the United States of America hung in the balance. He squeezed the trigger. The bullet flew.
The guns used by Sgt. Murphy were uniquely American. In fact, I would argue the American longrifle is the arm that made the United States of America. It opened up the frontier, penetrated the wilderness, served as an engine of American commerce and family life, conquered human and natural enemies, and helped enable European settlers to overthrow the shackles of tyranny and establish the beginnings of a great nation in a vast, rugged and often hostile land.
Like the country itself, American longrifles were the heirs of a long tradition of European knowhow. And yet they were also uniquely transformed for use in the rugged New World frontier.
The new nation of America was forged by rugged settlers, trappers, and soldiers often armed with American longrifles, which were first produced by European-born gunsmiths in the 1620s and adapted from the shorter-barreled, larger-caliber Swiss-German Jaeger hunting rifle used in the forests of central Europe.