33. The Long Rifle

This is a follow-up to blog post no. 31 that discussed the Brown Bess musket, wherein I suggested the need for a post focusing on its counterpart, the long rifle used by rifle units in the Continental Army, and the advantages and disadvantages of that weapon relative to muskets. So I’m taking this opportunity to do that, lest anyone (ahem) be up in arms if I did not.

What Was It?

The deadly rifle used by units such as the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment became a source of terror to the British and Hessians early in the Revolutionary War. These backcountry soldiers were noteworthy for their utility, as they could operate effectively in a variety of tactical circumstances—as snipers, on scouting patrols, in joint operations with regular troops, and in the same manner as light infantry in European armies.

The singular nature of this instrument was recognized by the Continental Congress when it established the Continental Army in June 1775 in support of New England’s uprising against the British troops in Boston. Rifles were in scant supply in the colonies, popular in the more rural areas but largely unknown around Boston. John Adams was clearly enthused about them, informing his wife Abigail that his fellow congressmen were “really in earnest in defending the Country. They have voted ten companies of Rifle Men to be sent from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, to join the Army before Boston. These are an excellent Species of Light Infantry.” He explained that they “use a peculiar kind of Musket call’d a Rifle” that “carries a Ball, with great Exactness to great Distances,” and hailed these sharpshooters as “the most accurate Marksmen in the World.”

The 1st Pennsylvania sharpshooters initially demonstrated during the 1776 New York campaign what their long rifles could do in the face of a much larger enemy force. On October 12, General Howe landed four thousand troops at Throg’s Neck above Manhattan in an effort to trap Washington’s army on the New York island by cutting off the main route to the mainland. A small detachment of the Pennsylvanians held off the British while another 1,500 American infantry hurried to their support, Historian Christopher Ward described how the riflemen tore up the planking of the bridge connecting Throg’s Neck to the mainland and hid behind a long pile of cord wood near its western end, then turned back the enemy advance with “a sudden, well-aimed fire blazed in their faces.” As he put it, some twenty-five “American riflemen behind a wood-pile had stopped the British army.” Their resistance forced the redcoats to look for a better place to land, which they did at Pell’s Point a few days later but too late to prevent Washington’s escape from Manhattan.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Anecdotal information about the rifle’s accuracy spread widely throughout the colonies before and in the very early stages of the war. American riflemen loved to give demonstrations, in which they took aim at a small mark the size of a man’s eye or the tip of his nose, and hit it repeatedly from 250 yards away. A British spy with the Continental Army outside Boston in the summer of 1775 reported to General William Howe, the British Army’s commander, on the threat posed by rifle companies from Pennsylvania and Virginia, advising that there was “scarcely a regiment in Camp but can produce men that can best them at shooting.” These formidable weapons were made mostly in Pennsylvania and used there and in the Chesapeake colonies by men who hunted for much of their fresh meat. Their distinctive long barrel was etched or “rifled” with seven or eight internal grooves, unlike the smooth-bore muskets, and the effect was to make it accurate at a range of about two hundred and perhaps even three hundred yards, i.e., several times that of a musket.

Despite the rifle’s far greater range over the musket, there were certain disadvantages to its use. It took longer to reload than the latter because the shot had to be forcefully rammed into the barrel for a snug fit. Furthermore, the rifle was designed for hunting rather than fighting and as such had no bayonet mount, which rendered a rifleman defenseless in close-quarter combat. Hence riflemen had to be escorted by soldiers with muskets; and, notwithstanding the increased role played by the rifle throughout the war, the musket remained the small-arms workhorse of the American soldier.

The Other Side

His Majesty’s army never adapted to the use of rifles in the war for independence. To the British command, the amount of time needed to load and fire a rifle and its failure to accommodate a bayonet were critical shortcomings. Reflecting the methods of warfare utilized by most European armies in the eighteenth century, in which regiments fired in blocks rather than aiming individually, many officers regarded rifles as an unnecessary and wasteful expense. Instead, the British relied on the same Brown Bess musket carried by American soldiers in units other than rifle companies.

Although the British eschewed the use of rifles, some among the German troops fighting with them did not; however, their firearm differed from the one used by American riflemen. The jägers were a numerically small but elite element among the Crown’s forces, perhaps about six hundred in total, who functioned in a manner similar to the British light infantry and were equipped with short, heavy, large-bore rifles that carried no bayonets. The jägers were recruited from hunters, gamekeepers, and other marksmen in their homeland and known for their skills as riflemen and skirmishers, as well as for discipline and bravery under difficult combat conditions.

What’s Next

Perhaps a post on bayonets? I’ll probably take a stab at it.