In this article, we’ll be talking about speed vs. accuracy. Unbelievable as it is, many European soldiers of the day were not taught to aim. They counted on massed volley musket fire and the bayonet. That’s not the case with the Continentals, who aimed not just their muskets but their rifles — to deadly effect.
“This province has raised 1000 riflemen, the worst of whom will put a ball into a man’s head at the distance of 150 or 200 yards, therefore advise your officers who shall hereafter come out to America to settle their affairs in England before their departure.” (Letter to the London Chronicle from Philadelphia, c. August 17-19, 1775)
The American Revolution was the turning point in our country’s history, as it was the creation of the nation itself. Tired of the laws and taxes of our former British masters, the colonists took arms to fight. After many years of virtually impossible odds and bloody battle, we won our independence as free men.
“God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.”
More than just a remarkable story of simple peasants beating an empire, the American revolution stands as a historical lesson. The idea that common farmers, tradesmen and townspeople could take up arms and beat the most powerful army of its day is amazing in itself. The fact that they did it while outgunned and outmanned is even more impressive. One factor that likely contributed to their success is their superior understanding of accurate fire, and the ability to deliver it effectively.
While The British redcoats carried smoothbore “Brown Bess” muskets, many “Minute Men and colonial soldiers carried the rifles they already owned. The Colonial Army possessed a mix of personal, issued, and captured weapons, and the availability of ammuntion was a constant worry throughout the war. As early as 1774, with tensions rising and militias forming, requirements for the “Combat Load” were laid down.
Many of these pre-war militias mandated that volunteers muster with their own weapons and ammunition. This also meant they needed their own support gear as well, in form of powder, molds, flints, patches and small tools. This loadout was often what men already carried in their bags and gunny sacks to survive the wilds of the frontier. The men who reported to the first militias were a mixed bunch, but many had mastered their personal weapons and understood accuracy long before the first shots at Lexington and Concord.
The British soldier was regarded as the most professional of his era, and touted as the best trained. He carried his Brown Bess .75 caliber smoothbore musket and drilled constantly with it. His combat load on paper was around 30 rounds, but often in excess of 60 rounds were carried into battle. The Brown Bess was often fired en masse at 50 yards (46 m) to inflict the greatest damage upon the enemy.
Military tactics of this period stressed coordinated volleys and massed bayonet charges, instead of individual marksmanship. This stood opposite of the volunteers, most who had never stood in a company formation before, had no idea of “proper” tactics, and were accustomed to killing game for survival. While the Brits could achieve a devastating effect at 50 yard with volley fire, their effectiveness drastically dropped at distance. Their smooth bore weapons reloaded quicker than the colonists’ rifles, but limited their ability to hit at greater distance, particularly on individual targets.
The early Americans might not have been as well trained in infantry tactics, nor as well equipped, but they made up for it in grit and what Washington’s Von Steuben (a professional Prussian) admired as the American spirit. These were hard men, accustomed to a tough life in what was still a brave, dangerous new world. Outside the small towns and cities, they carried weapons as a way of life. Earlier engagements with the Native Americans, dangerous animals and highwaymen taught the universal lesson of self-protection.
The famous Pennsylvania Long rifle many carried offered superior accuracy to the Brown Bess, as far out as 300 yards. The Pennsylvania long rifle came in many calibers, styles and lengths, but all shared the lands and grooves cut into their bores. The rifle, not the smoothbore, allowed for greater accuracy but at the cost of reloading speed. Because of supply problems throughout the war, it was rare for our soldiers to be issued more than 30 rounds at any time, and many were forced to melt down lead or mismatched projectiles over campfires when they found it. This wide array of different calibers was a logistical nightmare, one that forced each man to solve it for himself.
Let’s look at the data from the colonists’ first clash with the British Army:
Let’s assume that every casualty inflicted during the battles of Lexington and Concord resulted from musket and rifle fire (obviously they all didn’t, as the bayonet, knife, tomahawk and rifle butt also were used). But for the sake of argument, or to validate this point, let’s just say it was only small arms fire. With only around 70 shooters at Lexington and around 1000 by the end of the engagement at Concord, these men fought approximately 1,800 redcoats. Only 15 out of every 100 rounds fired from the colonial militiamen found their target (inflicting about 15% casualties on the British or about 270 hits.) The British force, on the other hand, did worse despite their superior experience and training. Only 1 out of every 10 shots fired struck a colonial militiaman, which amounted to about 90 casualties. This is astounding to think about, considering it was the first conflict of the war!
“With their rifles in their hands they assume a kind of omnipotence over their enemies…Two brothers in the company took a piece of board, five inches broad, and seven inches long, with a bit of white paper, about the size of a dollar, nailed to the center, and while one of them supported this board perpendicularly between his knees, the other at the distance of upwards of sixty yards, and without any kind of rest, shot eight bullets successively through the board…Another of the company held a barrel stave perpendicularly in his hand, with one edge close to his side, while one of his comrades, at the same distance, and in the manner before mentioned, shot several bullets through it, without any apprehensions of danger on either side. The spectators appearing to be amazed at these feats, were told that there were upwards of fifty persons in the company who could do the same thing; and there was not one who could not plug 19 bullets out of 20 (as they termed it) within an inch of the head of a ten penny nail…” (Excerpt from a letter published in the Pennsylvania Packet, August 28 1775, describing ‘Captain Cresap’s Company of Riflemen’)
The rifle, with its greater accuracy and in the hands of hunters, woodsmen and those accustomed to the frontier can likely be thanked for the superior number of hits. But there is also another point: not everyone was a great marksman. The rifles were viewed as a drawback by many early officers, mostly due to the above-mentioned logistical reasons, but also because of the training issues that came with them. The country boys mostly did fine with them, but the new shooter did not. As the war continued, the colonists recruited all men that could fight. Unfortunately, not all of these soldiers were familiar with firearms, or were too young to have much experience with them.
These shortcomings and issues led George Washington to argue for a limited role of rifles in the Colonial military, as he was trying to build a modern force equal to the British. The reports of superior accuracy and effectiveness of rifles simultaneously reached the Congress, which remained more enthusiastic for the weapon and created specialized companies of pure riflemen. Later in the war, long rifles played a significant part in the battles of Saratoga and New Orleans, where rifleman units focused on engaging key targets, such as enemy officers. The extended range of their weapons allowed them to disrupt British command and control, much as modern snipers do. The comparison to modern Scout Snipers goes further: the riflemen required protective support by men armed with smoothbore muskets to keep from being overrun. They were deadly effective at distance, but the ability to rapidly reload remained the stuck thorn.
The American Revolution (or as it is called elsewhere, the “War of American Independence”) ended in our success, thanks to many factors. The superior notion of American accuracy and fighting spirit is undoubtably among those factors, and lives on today with our Second Amendment. Our modern military has some of the best snipers in the world, and our infantrymen are deadly even past 500 yards.
Our weapons continue to focus on accuracy, a trait we should never abandon.