Muskets on the battlefield, like their forerunners, spears and arrows, were used en masse, forcing attackers to advance through a wall of projectiles, behind which the infantry would advance to close with the enemy, usually in brutal and very bloody close combat. A good medieval archer could send a war arrow up to 400 yds. and would have been perfectly capable of hitting a man-size target out to 300 yds. But such tactics were for the target butts and competitions, not for war. The success of the English archers at Agincourt and Crecy was based around the principle of hundreds of archers, shooting as fast as they could loose their arrows, putting thousands of projectiles into the sky and creating a blizzard of steel-tipped death.
The introduction of the firearm to the battlefield in the 14th century did not radically change this tactic as early handgonnes were large, crude, inaccurate and were used as much for creating fear and mayhem as for inflicting physical damage. Nonetheless, the firearm became ever more efficient and, by the 17th century, had become the predominant arm on the battlefield.
Even then, battles were of the linear type, whereby opposing sides faced each other at relatively close ranges, and musketeers loaded and fired as fast as possible—about four shots per minute—until they closed, when eventually one side broke and ran. By the English Civil War (1642-1651), pikes and swords were reserved purely for the last desperate melee as the opposing sides clashed. By the 18th century, the numbers of guns present on the battlefield had increased to the point where they had replaced almost all other infantry arms. This was primarily due to advances in manufacturing technology that had begun in the very early 18th century, using water, steam power and machinery to manufacture barrels and flintlocks. This was a precursor of what we regard today as mass production. Muskets were generally smoothbore, and the relatively crude arsenal-manufactured guns were capable of hitting a target at no more than 80 yds. Indeed, it was commonly said that, “No man was ever hit by a soldier aiming at him above two hundred paces distance.” For the purposes of linear warfare this was quite acceptable, and firing by volley produced devastating levels of casualties. The tactics worked, therefore accuracy was not regarded as a prerequisite for a soldier or his arm.
Neither pattern was ideally suited to the demands of frontier life, so the gunsmiths in the New World began to adapt them to designs that were more practical. The German military rifles were quite advanced for their time, being of smaller caliber than the common musket, and this trait was followed by the German immigrant gunsmiths who had settled along the East Coast of America. These new American rifles involved a mix of styles, sometimes copying the scrolled trigger guards of the Jäeger rifles to improve grip as well as adopting their brass or steel patch boxes but retaining the English form of full-length stocking and longer barrels. Barrel lengths began to shrink as well, from the 46" of a British Long Land Pattern musket, to around 40". Whereas a typical military musket was of .76 caliber, by the late 1770s, American-manufactured rifles were typically to be found in calibers between .45 and .60, although there were wide regional variations to be found.
The British simply had no concept of the use of rifles, nor any idea about how to deal with the deadly aimed fire that the riflemen used against them. One description from a British officer, observing with a group of others during the Battle for New Orleans, is illuminating. “The figure of a tall man standing on the breastworks, dressed in linsey-woolsey, with buckskin leggings and a broad brimmed hat that fell around his face almost concealing his features. At last he moved, threw back his hat rim … and raised his rifle and took aim at our group. But the distance was so great we looked at each other and smiled. We saw the rifle flash. My right-hand companion … fell from his saddle. When again the rifle flashed, another of our party dropped to the earth.” Echoing the feelings of later generations of soldiers who faced sniper fire, the writer also commented: “The cannon and thousands of musket balls … we cared nothing for, for there was a chance of escaping them. But to know every time a rifle was levelled towards us … that the messenger of death drove unerringly to its goal, to know this and still march on was awful.” It is interesting to ponder on the fact that so novel was this experience that at no time did he or his companions feel it worthwhile moving out of range! Britain never really managed to respond effectively to the use of riflemen during the war, despite belatedly raising a company of its own under the command of Maj. Patrick Ferguson. The men were equipped with Ferguson’s own improved version of the French Chaumette-inspired screw-breech rifle. After Ferguson’s untimely and ironic death at the hands of American riflemen during the battle for King’s Mountain in October 1780, the British riflemen mysteriously faded from sight. It was to be two decades before rifles were again issued to British soldiers.
Although it cannot be claimed that these riflemen changed the course of American history, perhaps it is fair to say that they did, on occasion, nudge it in a different direction. Private Timothy Murphy famously killed Gen. Simon Fraser, which halted the British counterattack at Saratoga (Oct. 7, 1777), and Cdr. Perry’s use of shipboard riflemen during the Battle for Lake Erie in 1813—whose fire swept the British marines from the decks of their own vessels—contributed to Perry’s eventual victory. But the overall effect of riflemen on the battlefield was a minor one. Perhaps their greatest achievement was in demonstrating to the wider world that the days of the common musket were numbered, although it was to be a slowly learned lesson. Development of the rifle continued after the wars, mostly in the commercial marketplace, where demand for accurate longarms for hunting and self-defense continued to grow. This is not to say that the old smoothbores disappeared from use, for they were eminently adaptable, able to take charges of small shot for hunting small game, ball for larger quarry, or a mix of ball and buckshot, which was deadly for close-range defense.
But it was the invention in the early 1820s of a small copper cap containing a priming compound that was about to revolutionize shooting. The introduction of the percussion cap meant that for the first time, a firearm could be carried loaded and primed, ready for instantaneous use. No longer did a shooter have to consider the vagaries of the weather, where heavy rain or high winds could render a flintlock unusable. Neither was there the danger of moisture seeping in through an open touch-hole, reducing the main powder charge to useless mush. Nor was the shooter prone to flinch as he was blinded temporarily by the flash and smoke from the priming charge.
If the U.S. military hadn’t quite caught up with rifle technology, the sports and hunting fraternity certainly had, as an engineer and shooter named N. Bosworth presciently wrote in his book A Treatise on Rifle, Musket, Pistol and Fowling Pieces in 1846. “The rifle in the hands of one who has studied its properties, will throw a ball with an accuracy that would surprise a large portion of those who are in the habit of using it. What we seriously want is more knowledge among the soldiery, both of guns and gunpowder.” In other words, Bosworth believed soldiers should be taught to shoot. Belatedly, as a stopgap measure, the U.S. Ordnance Dept. decided to adopt the U.S. Model 1841 rifle, which had seen considerable use in the Mexican War (1846-1848) and gained much praise. “The unerring aim of our Mississippi rifles, acting in concert, cast terror and dismay among the cowardly and unprincipled foe.” If the U.S. Ordnance Dept. was lacking in its desire to produce a viable, modern rifle musket for its army, there were other areas involving accurate shooting in which the United States was excelling.
It was not a moment too soon, either, for war was looming.