37. The Bayonet

As you may recall, I strongly hinted in a previous post that I would be writing about the use of bayonets in the Revolution. So let’s get right to the point (in a manner of speaking).

What Was It?

The socket bayonet was invented in the late seventeenth century by the noted French military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707), who was engaged in the service of Louis XIV for more than fifty years and in the process revolutionized the art of siege warfare and defensive fortifications. Vauban’s pointed triangular blade came with a flat side facing the muzzle of a musket and two outer fluted sides that were about fifteen inches long. It attached to the muzzle by a collar that slipped around the barrel.

How Was It Used?

Notwithstanding its limited firing range, British troops relied on the same Brown Bess musket that was carried by American soldiers in units that were not rifle companies, because (unlike the long rifle) it facilitated the redcoats’ use of their favorite tactic—the bayonet charge. The sight of cold steel could have a fearsome effect on an enemy soldier, no matter how experienced he might be, and often struck terror in the hearts of inexperienced citizen-soldiers among the Continental Army’s rank-and-file. The latter were all-too aware of the lethal repercussions from a well-aimed bayonet thrust. With the full force of a lunging soldier’s body behind it, the blade could lacerate tissue, arteries, and bones in a most injurious and painful manner. The swiftness, energy, and furor of a redcoat bayonet assault was often enough by itself to unnerve all but the best American units. (The British military worked hard to educate its soldiery in the advantages of bayonet usage in order to overcome one’s natural reluctance to slay an opponent up-close rather than at a distance where killing is more impersonal.)

The bayonet’s salient role in British infantry tactics—having primacy over firepower—was predicated on the belief that well-disciplined soldiers could outrun the range of a musket during the time required for their adversary to reload. British musket fire on Revolutionary War battlefields most commonly took the form of general volleys followed immediately by a bayonet charge. His Majesty’s troops typically sought to close with the Americans as rapidly as possible, absorbing casualties until they could launch their dreaded charge. Bayonets probably accounted for most of the combat deaths among Patriot soldiers during the conflict. Because musket fire was largely inaccurate and inflicted relatively few casualties, even when used against dense formations of troops advancing at a deliberate pace, the bayonet charge made good tactical sense in open-field combat against an opponent who was not well-entrenched. Typically the British advance over an open field would accelerate from a trot or jog into a run, and the onrushing redcoats would cheer repeatedly and menacingly to intimidate a wavering enemy. For most of the war, they made their attacks in this manner.

Night attacks were particularly well-suited to the use of bayonets, as they entailed stealthy maneuvers designed to maintain silence and the element of surprise—difficult to do if one were relying on the use of firearms. In addition, deploying bayonets rather than shooting at the enemy reduced the risk of so-called friendly fire where one encountered poor visibility or lacked situational awareness on the battlefield. (I’m still not sure what’s friendly about “friendly fire” – would prefer the term “misdirected fire.”)

Over time, the Continental Army became more proficient in the use of bayonets and better equipped so that enough of its soldiers had them to be a factor in combat. However, I think it’s fair to say that the story of this weapon in the war for independence was written largely by the British infantryman. (It was, you might say, thrust into prominence by the latter.)


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.

31. The Brown Bess

You might say this firearm was the workhorse weapon for both sides in the War for Independence. In thinking about how to frame this discussion, I thought my best shot (forget I said that) would be to rely on the following excerpts from my last book, John Haslet’s World.

Flintlock muskets and pistols were used globally during the Revolutionary War era, and the Brown Bess, which dated from the beginning of the eighteenth century, provided the template for most other flintlock muskets then in use. It was the best-known of these weapons—a smooth-bore, muzzle-loading gun that discharged a lead ball along an uncertain path. This firearm had an unwieldy length of almost five feet and weighed about eleven pounds if equipped with a bayonet. At a time when the average soldier’s height was five-and-a-half-feet, handling the Brown Bess represented a physical challenge to many.

Getting off a single shot involved a hurried series of actions under intense battlefield conditions: first pulling a paper cartridge from a black leather cartridge box, then biting open the end, dribbling some powder grains into the musket’s flash pan, and pouring the remaining amount—nearly half an ounce—down the muzzle, followed by the musket ball and cartridge wadding, which were forced down the barrel by use of a steel ramrod….Pulling the trigger caused flint in the falling hammer to strike a glancing blow against the steel frizzen—an L-shaped piece of steel hinged at the front and held in one of two positions, opened or closed, by a leaf spring. This in turn created a sprinkle of sparks to ignite powder in the flash pan, setting off the main charge through a touchhole in the side of the breech or back part of the musket. Then a yellow flame sprang from the muzzle, accompanied by a bang and belching smoke, and a heavy lead slug was unleashed at the speed of a thousand feet per second. Ideally, that projectile would head in the general direction of the enemy.

The Crown’s men relied on the same Brown Bess musket that was carried by many American soldiers in units other than rifle companies. Although it was highly unreliable because of its limited range, deployment of this weapon facilitated the use of the bayonet charge, the redcoats’ favorite tactic, which was certain to have a fearsome effect on their foe, however experienced they might be. Indeed, their generals fully appreciated the extent to which an assault with these blades induced terror in the rebel soldiers, especially the militia, and were convinced they would flee at the sight of glinting steel. 

The lead ball discharged by a Brown Bess—about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and weighing just over an ounce—was able to smash and penetrate human bones, organs, and tissue. This firearm could kill or injure at distances of up to three hundred yards; however, because of inherent inaccuracy and unreliable loading, its effective range was limited to between fifty and eighty yards, and shooting at anything more than a hundred yards away was a waste of ammunition. Given the limitations on its useful distance, a soldier who was wounded by a musket at a range significantly beyond a hundred yards was considered to be most unfortunate. In addition, the guns failed to fire in rain or damp conditions. Ultimately, only five percent of all musket balls fired at another soldier hit their mark. But those that did could bring down a charging bull. In contrast with the smaller rifle bullet that tended to pass through its target, a musket ball generally remained inside the body—enveloped by the torn flesh or organs that halted its momentum.

The smooth-bore musket had certain advantages and disadvantages relative to its small-arms counterpart that featured a rifled barrel (one with spiral grooves) and which was known as, well, a rifle. But that’s for another blog post, and hopefully this one will (here it comes) trigger your interest in that. That’s my aim, anyway.