British Military Flintlock Rifles 1740-1840

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Philip S
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Tue Feb 05, 2013 5:06 pm

“British Military Flintlock Rifles 1740-1940,” DeWitt Bailey, Ph.D., Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 2002

This is a fascinating account of an important but rather obscure area of British arms history. The book is of necessity technical with a number of illustrations of related firearms. Much of the information is surprising to me. The British army made much more use of rifles during the American Revolution than I knew. Contrary to most histories, the British were not very impressed by American riflemen considering them unruly and not very accurate shots. The British responded with German rifleman and British soldiers armed with German type rifles of a relatively large bore. British gunmakers copied the German rifles as well as developed their own varients. Surprisingly, they also made copies of PA German long rifles (KY rifles) for Indian allies. This is an explanation for the occasional appearance of a KY rifle with British proof marks.

The famous Ferguson breech loading rifle is discussed at length. It turns out that previously a very similar rifle had been tested and rejected by the Army. The Ferguson itself was far from the wonder weapon many have claimed. It ultimately failed due to the common flaws of almost all pre cartridge rifles of black powder fouling, complexity, and fragility.

There are a number of references to rifles being used by cavalry. Most seem to have been Dragoons and there is some confusion as to whether they were mounted or not.

“The cavalry rifles which were issued to various mounted units of and in British service from the 1790's to the 1820's were all part of the never-ending search for the ideal weaponry for mounted troops. The question was first raised with the invention of the self-contained wheellock lock mechanism in the sixteenth century and remained unsolved until the adoption of motorized units in place of horse-mounted soldiers. The very role mounted troops should play was at the heart of the question...” (p. 121)
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Tue Feb 05, 2013 10:47 pm

Philip S wrote:“British Military Flintlock Rifles 1740-1940,” DeWitt Bailey, Ph.D., Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 2002

This is a fascinating account of an important but rather obscure area of British arms history. The book is of necessity technical with a number of illustrations of related firearms. Much of the information is surprising to me. The British army made much more use of rifles during the American Revolution than I knew. Contrary to most histories, the British were not very impressed by American riflemen considering them unruly and not very accurate shots. The British responded with German rifleman and British soldiers armed with German type rifles of a relatively large bore. British gunmakers copied the German rifles as well as developed their own varients. Surprisingly, they also made copies of PA German long rifles (KY rifles) for Indian allies. This is an explanation for the occasional appearance of a KY rifle with British proof marks.

The famous Ferguson breech loading rifle is discussed at length. It turns out that previously a very similar rifle had been tested and rejected by the Army. The Ferguson itself was far from the wonder weapon many have claimed. It ultimately failed due to the common flaws of almost all pre cartridge rifles of black powder fouling, complexity, and fragility.

There are a number of references to rifles being used by cavalry. Most seem to have been Dragoons and there is some confusion as to whether they were mounted or not.

“The cavalry rifles which were issued to various mounted units of and in British service from the 1790's to the 1820's were all part of the never-ending search for the ideal weaponry for mounted troops. The question was first raised with the invention of the self-contained wheellock lock mechanism in the sixteenth century and remained unsolved until the adoption of motorized units in place of horse-mounted soldiers. The very role mounted troops should play was at the heart of the question...” (p. 121)
I've read that the large bore German rifles proved to be less than adequate, in comparison to the Pennsylvania rifles, for American conditions. Does the author disagree?
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Wed Feb 06, 2013 2:32 pm

The author does not comment on that. However, I am not sure that they would be inadequate. American longrifles of the period were generally of quite small caliber shooting balls at a high velocity. This was perfectly adequate for the relatively small game in the east. They would have been fine for sniping but inadequate for stopping a cavalry charge. European rifles of German military design used a much larger ball which would be adequate for sniping at all but the longest ranges and also stop a horse.
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 8:58 am

I have attached a sample page illustrating a British made copy of an American longrifle. It is of the same pattern as a typical Lancaster County rifle of the period (most were not the ornate versions seen in museums). It does, however, have an unusually large calliber of .54-.63 (difficult to measure and perhaps influenced by funnelling at the muzzle).
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 9:23 am

Philip S wrote:I have attached a sample page illustrating a British made copy of an American longrifle. It is of the same pattern as a typical Lancaster County rifle of the period (most were not the ornate versions seen in museums). It does, however, have an unusually large calliber of .54-.63 (difficult to measure and perhaps influenced by funnelling at the muzzle).

That's very interesting.

I'm under the impression that the British commercial firms came out with some trade and sporting rifles of large caliber that would somewhat forecast what was later made in the US as the "Plain's Rifle". That is, large caliber (.50 and up) and half stocked, but before the Plain's style rifle so associated with Hawkins. Is that correct?
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 1:33 pm

Its a very good book. Not too surprisingly, DeWitt is a friend of mine and I work with the publisher, so I am quite familiar with his point of view. The critical issue is that, unlike virtually all previous "gun writers" DeWitt is a genuine academic with an abiding interest in the subject and the technical knowledge to asses it objectively.

About 99% of the inherited "lore" of the rifle in America at the time of the Revolution borders on rubbish. The German, and British-made, German style rifles had virtually equivelent range and much greater stopping power than American rifles. They probably didn't shot as "flat", but their proper use simply involved training and familiarity. There is no substantive quality difference which shouldn't surprise us as all of the locks of American rifles were imported and British mastery of iron working was such that it is doubtful that an American-made barrel would be any better... more likely it was not as good as the British version. It is a total fallacy to think the British weren't familiar with rifles. They were made and sold in the British market long before the war albeit as a specialized arm, mostly used to hunt in deer parts etc. There was no "big game" in Britain and no cohort of civilian hunters, thus there was relatively little demand for rifles.

But, it was British officers who developed light infantry tactics and the British Army in the field was amazingly flexible in changing its operating techniques during the war. The stodgy, staid and ignorant British officer standing out in the open while the canny Americans shot his men down is a fictional creation, largely of a group of 19th century American historians who called themselves the "101% Americans."

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Thu Feb 07, 2013 2:45 pm

I'm under the impression that the British commercial firms came out with some trade and sporting rifles of large caliber that would somewhat forecast what was later made in the US as the "Plain's Rifle". That is, large caliber (.50 and up) and half stocked, but before the Plain's style rifle so associated with Hawkins. Is that correct?Pat
That is correct. The justly famed Hawkins is basically a simplified and more rugged version of a contemporary British sporting rifle. American gunsmiths were quite familiar with British guns which were commonly carried by British gentlemen in the West. There was a very sophisticated American percussion half stock rifle style which combined features of the British rifle with the American longrifle.They are rarely written about but commonly show up on internet auction sites. The best source of information about them is
The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle by Ned H. Roberts. The five volume series The New York State Firearms Trade and California Gunsmiths 1846-1900 have numerous illustrations of the type too.
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 3:04 pm

This is developing as a really great thread, and I hope people won't mind additional questions. Some really great information here.
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 8:34 pm

Philip S wrote:
I'm under the impression that the British commercial firms came out with some trade and sporting rifles of large caliber that would somewhat forecast what was later made in the US as the "Plain's Rifle". That is, large caliber (.50 and up) and half stocked, but before the Plain's style rifle so associated with Hawkins. Is that correct?Pat
That is correct. The justly famed Hawkins is basically a simplified and more rugged version of a contemporary British sporting rifle. American gunsmiths were quite familiar with British guns which were commonly carried by British gentlemen in the West. There was a very sophisticated American percussion half stock rifle style which combined features of the British rifle with the American longrifle.They are rarely written about but commonly show up on internet auction sites. The best source of information about them is
The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle by Ned H. Roberts. The five volume series The New York State Firearms Trade and California Gunsmiths 1846-1900 have numerous illustrations of the type too.

Very interesting, thanks. I've seen a few photos of those rifles and have often thought that while they make the story of the Plains Rifle no less important, they do make it less unique. And the overall story is all the more interesting!
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 8:36 pm

JV Puleo wrote:The German, and British-made, German style rifles had virtually equivelent range and much greater stopping power than American rifles
Are these rifles basically Jaeger Rifles in designation, and in reality? That is, would German Jaeger formations of that day have been equipped with them, and would actual Jaegers, i.e., hunters, have been using them.

Put another way, were these game rifles, like the American ones, placed into a military use?
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 8:42 pm

JV Puleo wrote:But, it was British officers who developed light infantry tactics and the British Army in the field was amazingly flexible in changing its operating techniques during the war. The stodgy, staid and ignorant British officer standing out in the open while the canny Americans shot his men down is a fictional creation, largely of a group of 19th century American historians who called themselves the "101% Americans."
Indeed, it's my belief, based upon what I've read, that Washington basically disliked rifle units in the American Army and they decreased during the war, while the British increased them in their army during the war. Is that correct?

On Washington, and noting the comment above, while it's not a popular view, I've often thought that he was comparatively extremely conventional in comparison with his opponent. Moreover, as unpopular of view as it will be, I don't think he was really that good of general. He doesn't seem to have any real flexibility of military thought. His thinking seems to have been limited to infantry and stationary artillery. He didn't like rifle formations, and he didn't like cavalry.

All in all, he wasn't all that successful either. But he does seem to have inspired loyalty in his troops for some reason. In that fashion, he might be be compared to McClellan, who wasn't all that great of general but whom the troops liked, the difference being that he was relieved of command. He did persevere and at the end of the day the tide turned against he British for reason that didn't have too much to do with his generalship.
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 9:41 pm

I will have to respectively disagree. George Washington was a remarkable man. He did indeed make mistakes but he also learned from them. It is hard to imagine how respected Washington was after the war by Europeans. He had accomplished the impossible. Puleo's comments on how well the British fought and adapted to conditions only strengthens how difficult a task it was. You have to separate the man from the myth.
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Fri Feb 08, 2013 5:32 am

I think its reasonable to say that Washington had a very conservative notion of how an army ought to function. In a sense, he was a throwback to his own early years during the Seven Years War. This shouldn't surprise us but its a great irony that this tag is usually applied to the British while it is probably more properly applied to Washington. That said, if he had a problem with riflemen it was more likely do to discipline problems and their lack of bayonets (which prevented them from taking a place in the line). While they were useful in special situations, they were useless in others. The Continental Army was never very large so I wonder if many officers didn't question the wisdom maintaining specialized units with limited usefullness. Aside from "long range" shooting, riflemen did nothing that wasn't intended for light infantrymen and there was a Continental Corps of Light Infantry...with bayonets.

(The "long range" part is also important. The ranges that American riflemen were accurate at has been grossly exaggerated, almost since the day the war ended. Watching some riflemen practice on Boston Common, John Adams was amazed at their accuracy... They were regularly hitting a plate, perhaps 8" in diameter, at 25 yards. I'd be surprised if they were capable of regular accuracy, hitting a man-size target, beyond 100 or 150 yards, effectively the same range as a musket with a bit more accuracy.)

To my mind, Washington had two over riding talents. He was very good at the strategic retreat, generally believed to be the most difficult operation in 18th century warfare, and he was a very capable diplomat, able to keep both the Army and the Congress more or less on topic when the Congress was as fractious and incompetent then as some might say it is today. He didn't have to be a great field commander. He had to hold his army together until Britain became convinced the war was unwinnable. These are great talents, just not those usually associated with generals. We should ask ourselves how the WWII alliance would have worked had either Patton or Montgomery been in charge. Both were great generals and both had egos that would likely have caused very serious problems, if not a complete breakdown. Eisenhower may not have been a great field commander but he was a brilliant military diplomat and that was what was needed most at the time.

Washington was so highly respected in Europe that Louis XVI pointedly put the Comte de Rochambeau under his command and ordered that he be treated with the protocol due a Marshall of France.
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Fri Feb 08, 2013 5:52 am

Pat... re the rifles
Yes, but with this qualification. The distinctively "military" rifle as opposed to the civilian "game" rifle was unknown at the time of the revolution. As a specialized military arm, the rifle had not developed far enough. German rifles are sturdy and plain but usually not any different functionally from civilian forms. Indeed, its difficult to identify military ones even though they were probably made to patterns.

The "military rifle" appears in the early 19th century. The American 1792 contract rifles are effectively identical to civilian forms while the M1803 is rather distinctive, quite unlike most conventional civilian patterns of the period... in Britain, the Pattern 1776 rifle is little different from a game keepers rifle of the same time while the M1800 "Baker" rifle is quite distinctive (and carried a bayonet).
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Fri Feb 08, 2013 7:00 am

JV Puleo wrote: To my mind, Washington had two over riding talents. He was very good at the strategic retreat, generally believed to be the most difficult operation in 18th century warfare, and he was a very capable diplomat, able to keep both the Army and the Congress more or less on topic when the Congress was as fractious and incompetent then as some might say it is today. He didn't have to be a great field commander. He had to hold his army together until Britain became convinced the war was unwinnable. These are great talents, just not those usually associated with generals. We should ask ourselves how the WWII alliance would have worked had either Patton or Montgomery been in charge. Both were great generals and both had egos that would likely have caused very serious problems, if not a complete breakdown. Eisenhower may not have been a great field commander but he was a brilliant military diplomat and that was what was needed most at the time.

Washington was so highly respected in Europe that Louis XVI pointedly put the Comte de Rochambeau under his command and ordered that he be treated with the protocol due a Marshall of France.
Excellent points by you and Phillip.

Talent in retreat is something I hadn't considered. It gets little attention, probably for obvious reasons, but it is a real talent to be sure.

Your reference to Montgomery and Patton lead me to note that I wonder, in very significant ways, if indeed Washington's talents weren't a lot like Eisenhowers. Eisenhower's talents included, perhaps principally, keeping a lot of difficult people on task. Perhaps Washington had the same talent at a time when there was nobody else who could have exercised it.
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Fri Feb 08, 2013 7:02 am

JV Puleo wrote:Pat... re the rifles
Yes, but with this qualification. The distinctively "military" rifle as opposed to the civilian "game" rifle was unknown at the time of the revolution. As a specialized military arm, the rifle had not developed far enough. German rifles are sturdy and plain but usually not any different functionally from civilian forms. Indeed, its difficult to identify military ones even though they were probably made to patterns.

The "military rifle" appears in the early 19th century. The American 1792 contract rifles are effectively identical to civilian forms while the M1803 is rather distinctive, quite unlike most conventional civilian patterns of the period... in Britain, the Pattern 1776 rifle is little different from a game keepers rifle of the same time while the M1800 "Baker" rifle is quite distinctive (and carried a bayonet).
That was what I thought, which leads me to this.

Its acknowledged by those who know about them that the German rifles were generally heavier calibers than the American rifles of the same period. Presumably this had its origin in the game fields. But why? I wouldn't think that the continental German hunter was facing game that was more substantial that the average Pennsylvanian or Kentuckian of that period.
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Fri Feb 08, 2013 11:23 am

Joe, I see where your governor had declared a state of emergency for the state. Are you guys getting hit pretty hard by the storm?
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Sat Feb 09, 2013 10:35 am

I imagine we are... but I'm out of the country. The last time we had this happen was just about this time of year, in 1978. Just about everyone under 30 is bored to death with stories of the "blizzard of 78" but I suppose now we'll all have to share their stories of the "blizzard of 13." It probably is an emergency (though the governor is a nitwit, desprate to make himself appear relevant). If I was there I wouldn't be terribly upset by it, except that I hate shoveling snow. In 78 we had to shovel out my parent's house, which had a driveway about 100 yards long. Mine is about 15 feet.

Large caliber rifles... I have seen illustrations that suggest German hunters often worked in broken terrain where it was difficult and time consuming to reach downed animals and, therefore, needed them to go down and stay that way while they worked themselves over to where they were. Beyond that, I know very little about the subject but there are probably technical reasons why they continued to make larger caliber rifles. Actually, from surviving rifles I've seen, I'd say the differences at any given time were not all that great. One very confusing aspect is that all of the early students of the Kentucky rifle constantly miss-dated them as being too early. In fact, there are practically no surviving long rifles that can be reliably dated to the Revolution and for many for which the claim is made, the reasons are heavily based on conjecture. I've recently debunked a couple of them because they have Ketland locks... which weren't even available in America until the late 1790s.

There is at least one (which, oddly isn't actually rifled) in the Royal collection at Windsor, the gift of a returning officer. That is about as good a provenance as exists but the gun itself does not fit the conventional description most of us have seen. There are also a couple that are actually dated, but in almost every case the markings are open to dispute.
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Sun Feb 10, 2013 7:50 am

JV Puleo wrote:I imagine we are... but I'm out of the country. The last time we had this happen was just about this time of year, in 1978. Just about everyone under 30 is bored to death with stories of the "blizzard of 78" but I suppose now we'll all have to share their stories of the "blizzard of 13." It probably is an emergency (though the governor is a nitwit, desprate to make himself appear relevant). If I was there I wouldn't be terribly upset by it, except that I hate shoveling snow. In 78 we had to shovel out my parent's house, which had a driveway about 100 yards long. Mine is about 15 feet.
I've heard it stated that most people's weather memories are not very good, and of course there's a lot of people in their adult year snow who weren't around in 1978. The reason I mention that is that in recent years our winters have been extremely mild here. I don't think we've had a "real" winter here since about 1986 or so, although the year before last we did get a lot of snow. Anyhow, the weather reporting folks now report every storm like it's a massive disaster, when most of them are pretty minor really. It's odd.

And now that there's a weather channel that even names major winter storms, the press treats each storm like a disaster. I was amused the other day to see Al Roker outside reporting dressed in the most amusing manner, when they used to just have some reporter step outside with his trench coat and Fedora on.

Having said all of that, the Winter of 1948 was an event here like the Blizzard of 78 must have been there. As a kid, everyone adult I knew had stories about the Winter of 1948. Having seen photos of the region during it, I can see why.
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Sun Feb 10, 2013 7:55 am

JV Puleo wrote:Large caliber rifles... I have seen illustrations that suggest German hunters often worked in broken terrain where it was difficult and time consuming to reach downed animals and, therefore, needed them to go down and stay that way while they worked themselves over to where they were. Beyond that, I know very little about the subject but there are probably technical reasons why they continued to make larger caliber rifles.
That explanation makes a lot of sense to me. They may have wanted an arm that just put something down right right away.

On caliber size, I'm constantly amused when the completely ignorant try to discuss this topic. I heard a debate recently in a public forum where somebody got all confused about calibers when the size of Revolutionary War muskets was referenced. They were very large caliber, and it seemed that the speaker simply couldn't fathom that, as that must mean, he thought, that they were extremely long range, which isn't the case.

I suppose that's a lot like the current news speak when some talking head talks about "powerful cartridges" in things chambered in 5.56. I sincerely believe that a lot of news people really think 5.56 NATO is a powerful cartridge. The antithesis is true. A person can argue about whether or not that suits its military purpose, but it's hardly what the 7.62 NATO or what the .30-06 were.
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