So who was the American rifleman? Was he some shadowy figure who came out of the woods when called? Was he a reluctant farmer who fought for his family’s freedom? Was he a rough mountain settler who only wanted to be left alone?
The answer is “all of the above”.
The riflemen of the American Revolution were truly America’s special soldiers. They were in the vanguard of Washington’s crossing the Delaware. At Throg’s Neck, NY (near the famed Strawberry Fields) a mere 25 riflemen temporarily held off a landing of 4,000 British. Later in March of 1777, Daniel Morgan formed his crack unit of rangers. Perhaps the most famous battle involving the riflemen occurred at Kings Mountain, South Carolina in October of 1780, where roughly 950 Patriot riflemen marched out to intercept 1,100 Tory soldiers led by British commander Major Patrick Ferguson.
The riflemen, or “yelling boys” as they were called, assaulted the mountaintop and shot Ferguson eight times before stripping and urinating on his body. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure there was a message in there….
Even with all of their strengths, their presence on the battlefield was not quite the deciding factor in the war. While efficient and effective, they were not armed with weapons capable of holding ground when faced with superior numbers or bayoneted muskets. Simply put, their ambush style tactics at longer range, coupled with their marksmanship, made them effective but limited to their unique roles. In the end, it was the colonists’ abilities to meet the British on an equal field of battle that turned the tide of the war.
Tobacco Chewing? Check. Whiskey drinking? Check. Tomahawks, knives, and custom rifles? Check, check, and check. The American rifleman of the Revolutionary War personifies it all. If the opening line sounded more like a Mission Support Site in a sandy land, that’s because the culture lives on today. Tobacco spitting marksmen who move seamlessly through enemy territory to strike fear into the hearts of their enemy remains an identity sought by many contemporary units, and it got its start during our own War of Independence.
Even so, their presence and reputations were both battlefield multipliers. Stories of the men who wore the fringed linen hunting shirts resonated throughout the colonies and across the pond. Those rough men with their wide-brimmed hats, linen hunting frocks, and long rifles struck fear into the British and their Tory allies. Two publishers from Philadelphia did not miss an opportunity to trash talk when they sent a letter to the London Chronicle that read “This province has raised 1,000 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.” Another London newspaper went on to describe the riflemen as the “shirt-tail men, with their cursed twisted guns, the most fatal widow-and-orphan makers in the world.”
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In Full Kit
Part of their ability as a fighting force to be reckoned with was dictated by their tactics and the kit they used to accentuate their abilities. Most of their clothing was civilian attire and life on the frontier usually meant a mix of contemporary goods and homespun equipment. On some occasions, they emulated native attire and mixed it into their “uniforms.” They knew something then that we seem to be relearning now; lightweight kit and mobility equal tactical flexibility and survival.
Their clothing often consisted of a linen hunting frock in drab brown or gray colors, along with woolen, linen or buckskin leggings. They often wore moccasins on their feet and a hat or cap of some sort to cover their heads. It was an ingenious uniform and became the hallmark trait of the marksmen. The tan, brown, and cream earth tones blended into the terrain brilliantly. Though camouflage was not quite an accepted fact of warfare just yet, they knew enough from their frontier lives to know that it had a place and made them a harder target.
The typical frontier rifle of the time ranged anywhere from a mid-.40’s caliber to .58 caliber. The rifles themselves traced their ancestry to shorter German Jaeger rifles, and gunsmiths quickly began merging the Swiss, German, and French styles into what would become the quintessential American long rifle. All of the guns were custom made, and each maker had his own distinct style.
Their bullets were patched lead balls and the gun took about 30 seconds to load. They had a maximum effective range of about 300 yards and required half the gunpowder and roughly 2/3 the amount of lead of a musket. The musket’s maximum range was only about 50-60 yards. The most obvious detriment to the early rifles was their inability to accept a bayonet. Later models of more specific military design were built with that capability. It would be another 90 years, at the end of the American Civil War, before the bayonet was finally rendered obsolete as an essential rifle accessory.
Their accouterments were also simple and utilitarian. They wore a simple sash (warbelt) that held their tomahawk or belt axe and sheath knife. They draped a simple leather hunting pouch across a shoulder along with a powder horn. Natural materials were all they had to work with, so think of the horn like you would plastic and leather like you would nylon. Linen and wool were the equivalents to the hard wearing NYCO ripstop of today.
So why are those men still relevant today? In many ways, the ideal of the American rifleman during the formative years of our country created a lore that has never been forgotten. The rough bearded, sharpshooting, tomahawk-carrying fighters are ingrained into the American fighting persona, a portion of which is even represented in the various modern infantry badges. They were, as one Virginian described them, “a boastful, bragging set of people, and think none are men or can fight but themselves.” Sounds pretty familiar today.
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