The Kentucky long rifle helped win two wars and opened the West. It still outshoots some modern firearms....
When the Society of Massachusetts Arms Collectors decided to give Elizabeth II a coronation gift fit for a queen, they presented her with an antique Kentucky long rifle akin to those used in the Revolutionary War against her country's soldiers.
In due course, John S. du Mont, of Greenfield, Massachusetts, president of the society, received a formal acknowledgment from the Lord Chamberlain: “By the Queen's Command, I am writing to express Her Majesty's gratitude for the kind gift of a Kentucky rifle, which you have made. Her Majesty is most interested in the Rifle and has directed that it shall be preserved at Her Tower Armouries. She also values your kind expression in making the gift.”
The queen's ladylike handling of the masculine gift of a gun was exactly what du Mont and his fellow collectors hoped for. Ever since a 1948 visit to the Tower of London to do research in its vast weapons collection, du Mont had known that Sir James Mann, Master of the Armouries, wished an early Kentucky rifle to pair off with its Revolutionary contemporary, the Ferguson breech-loader flintlock rifle used by a few hundred redcoat marksmen.
The British Embassy's capacious diplomatic pouch not being able to accommodate a weapon with a barrel three and a half feet long, the coronation gift was shipped by express from Boston. Thus for the second time in 178 years, the British Crown obtained a genuine Kentucky rifle from Boston. On the previous occasion, at was a lot harder to get. The Minute Men, armed mostly with smoothbore guns of European pattern, had chased the redcoats into Boston and the newly rallied Revolutionary Army was besieging the place. What most annoyed the British general was the way certain uncouth American frontiersmen who wore their shirttails hanging out down to their knees picked off his sentries and officers at outlandishly long ranges. Forthwith, the general ordered the capture of one specimen each of the marksman and his gun. A raiding party dragged back Cpl. Walter Crouse, of York County, Pennsylvania, with is long rifle.
At that point, the British, totally unversed in what is now known as the war of nerves, made a psychological blunder. They shipped their specimen rifleman to London, to the very Tower which houses the queen's coronation gift. Crouse, commanded to demonstrate his remarkable gun in public, daily hit targets at 200 yards-four times the practical range of the smoothbore military flintlock of the day. Enlistments faded away, so the story goes, and King George III hurriedly hired Hessian rifle companies to fight marksmanship with marksmanship.
Riflemen were as scarce on both sides of the Atlantic in those days as rocket experts are today. Of 30,000 Hessian mercenaries who served in America, only about 600 were sharpshooters armed with rifles. Luckily for these imported marksmen, they never had to shoot it out man to man with American riflemen. For they were armed with a stubby, relatively obsolete weapon which might be termed the European great-uncle of the Kentucky. It resembled the earliest rifled guns in America, brought over by German and Swiss settlers from the Rhineland region where that type of firearm originated. Unlike the more common smoothbore, so-called because the bore, or inside, of the barrel was smooth, the rifle barrel contained twisted grooves. Where the smoothbore bullet pushed through the air somewhat like a modern basketball, the rifle gave its bullet a twist that sent it spiraling like a football. Thus it went farther and more accurately. The Hessians' rifles fired a fat lead ball which literally had to be hammered down into the barrel. The tight fit was essential to prevent the explosive force of the powder behind the bullet from escaping through the grooves. Thumping down an oversized bullet filled the grooves, but it distorted the bullet and made loading slow work. Extra-heavy barrels with muzzles belled out somewhat like a modified blunderbuss were necessary to receive the big bullets and stand the strain of hammering with a mallet.
The slim, elegant Kentuckies, by contrast, could be loaded faster and with far less effort through what might have been termed a Yankee trick, but more probably was a Pennsylvania German one: The greased patch of cloth or buckskin. This was placed on the gun muzzle, greasy side down, and the bullet was pushed down on top of it and rammed home with the ramrod. The greased patch filled the grooves, eased the bullet down, and partly cleaned the barrel when fired out of it.
The simple innovation of he patch – it can hardly be called an invention – led to the development of the first distinctively American firearm, the long rifle. As it was not necessary to make the gun sturdy enough to withstand hammering, a long, slender barrel, usually forty inches or more, became possible without increased weight. The longer barrel helped the bullet to pick up more speed before leaving the gun. Hence a smaller bullet delivered about the same wallop as the slower, bigger ones then in use. Instead of a ball of about .75 caliber, or three-quarters of an inch in diameter, the slim Kentuckies fired one of approximately .45 caliber-so far in advance of their time that the United States Army did not get around to using a bullet that small a diameter until 125 years later in 1873. The smaller bullet required only about a fourth as much lead to make, and half as much powder to shoot, both precious savings in the backwoods.
Probably the most unusual feature of the Kentuckies also resulted from the use of the patch. This was the hinged brass patchbox built into the side of the stock to hold hard grease for the patches. Much artistry went into designing and decorating these.
Although the American long rifle was developed before 1750, it was not widely used in the Revolution a quarter century later. Most of the Continental Line, or regular army, carried the smoothbore musket, which was easier to make and could be loaded faster. Contrary to claims that the rifle won the Battle of Bunker Hill, a contemporary account states: “The provincials (Americans) have not a rifleman among them...nor have they any rifle guns. They only have common muskets.”
George Washington favored the long rifle from his frontier experiences. When a few Revolutionary sharpshooters were armed with extra-long-range Kentuckies, Washington wrote delightedly that they “hit a sheet of note paper (then eight by ten inches) three out of five shots” at a quarter of a mile.
Twelve special companies of riflemen from the Appalachian foothills and mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia sniped at the redcoats so successfully that British hatred of “the shirt-tail men with their cursed twisted guns” is recorded in history. The American knack of picking off British officers was regarded as especially vicious and depraved. Under European rules of warfare, observed with some etiquette, well-drilled soldiers simply pointed their guns impersonally in the general direction of the enemy and hit perchance an officer, an enlisted man or a cow in the next pasture. The British, outraged at the methodical sniping of American marksmen, termed them “murderers.” In vain, they threatened hanging. A rifleman named Timothy Murphy drilled a British general and thereby cinched an American victory at Stillwater, near Saratoga, New York. Rifle companies under Daniel Morgan's command helped to win the Battle of Cowpens, in South Carolina.
Yet the vaunted long rifle was the principal weapon in only one American victory, at Kings Mountain, on the boundary between the Carolinas, in 1780. There, oddly enough, both sides consisted almost entirely of Americans. Maj. Patrick Ferguson, foremost British exponent of the rifle over the smoothbore musket, commanded 1100 Loyalist militia and rangers, at least a tenth of them armed with breech-loading rifles patented by Ferguson. Nine hundred patriot riflemen from the Carolinas and Tennessee attacked the British encampment and killed eight men for every one they lost. Ferguson, the great believer in the accuracy of the rifle, exposed himself in an attempt to turn the tide and died pierced by seven rifle bullets.
Not until the close of the War of 1812, however, did the Kentucky really make history. The British sent one of their largest expeditions, 10,000 men including a brigade of victorious veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns under Lt. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, “the hero of Salamanca,” to seize New Orleans and with it permanent control of the Mississippi Valley, whose commerce funneled through the port. Andrew Jackson defended the place from behind cotton bales and cypress logs with a motley force of local militia, Gulf Coast pirates, a few hundred United States Army regulars armed with smoothbores, and about 2000 Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen with little formal military discipline. Jackson's men were outnumbered more that two to one.
Across the level, swampy ground against this “pickup team” marched the solid red ranks of the most formidable fighting machine of the day. American cannon raked the British, but could not break the charge. Then the 2000 Kentuckians and Tennesseans, standing four deep, began taking turns with their long rifles. Jackson's orders to his unmilitary riflemen are said to have been superbly simple: Aim preferably at officers, fire whenever the British come in range, and reload while the other three men fire in turn.
At less than 200 yards, the advancing redcoat ranks melted away. The commander, General Pakenham, was hit repeatedly and finally killed. So were most other senior officers. The highest one left on the field to order a retreat was a mere major. The British lost more than 2000 killed and wounded; the Americans, eight killed and thirteen wounded. Scarcely ever have battle losses been more lopsided. Historians attributed it to the cotton bales and cypress logs. An anonymous ballad composer of the period proved more nearly right. He gave full credit for the remarkable victory to “the Kentucky rifle” in an eight-verse broadside entitled, The Hunters of Kentucky, or the Battle of New Orleans. Part of the fifth stanza went:
But Jackson he was wide awake,
The Americans had lost almost every land engagement of the war, even abandoning Washington, D.C., to be partly burned by the British. Here at the very end-a peace pact was already signed when the Battle of New Orleans was fought early in 1815-came a glorious success quickly set to popular music.
From that day to this, the long rifle has been identified as “the Kentucky rifle.” As almost any Pennsylvanian will now tell you, that is its one big inaccuracy. For the so-called Kentucky rifle originated in Pennsylvania and was used by numerous Pennsylvanians before there were and Kentuckians. Probably three fourths of the guns, including most of the finest, were made in Southeastern and Southern Pennsylvania. So few were manufactured in Kentucky that a recent firearms catalogue made a special selling point of the fact that “here is a very rare Kentucky-one that was actually made in Kentucky.”
J O EK I N D I GR I F L E S
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