Allthingsliberty.com recently posted a compelling article dispelling a myth surrounding British infantry training and tactics. Did British soldiers aim their muskets? (spoiler alert! Yes. Yes they did. They practiced firing them too).
Revolutionary War myths pass down through generations of Americans and stubbornly clung to life despite the lack of historical evidence. None perhaps more so than myth that Americans won the war by using American long rifles, guerrilla tactics and training derived solely from hunting and wilderness living. These tactics, technologies and acquired skills had an impact to be sure, but they were not the primary factors that led to victory for the Americans.
What part did Rifles play in the American Victory?
The grooved bore of a rifle improved distance and accuracy to be sure, but this advantage was counterbalanced by an increased loading time. During any battle involving firearms, reloading time is essential to combat effectiveness.
Militiaman armed with rifles often found themselves desperately reloading while a disciplined line of bayonet wielding soldiers rapidly approached. The militiaman were forced to make a decision— flee, or face cold sharp steel.
Since the American long rifle was primarily a hunting weapon and not a military one, it was not built to fit a bayonet. This unfortunate reality placed the rifleman at a distinct disadvantage during melee combat. Few militiamen were outfitted with spontoon or other melee weapon that could match a charging infantryman holding what was essentially a long pole.
Added to this disadvantage was the somewhat brittle construction of the rifle, which had a tendency to break apart if its user was forced to wield it as a club.
As the Revolution progressed, rifles took a back seat to formally trained American Continentals and their standard issue French Charleville smoothbore musket or British Brown Bess.
Yet like many myths, wipe away the grime and you will find a kernel of truth. The range and accuracy of the American long rifle gave the militiaman the ability to snipe British officers during battles. It could be argued that this practice of singling out officers (thought to be a war crime by the British) played a significant role in victories at the battles of Saratoga, Kings Mountain and other partisan battles in the South. In battles so closely contested, rifles could quite possibly tilt the scales.
The American Revolution was essentially an 18th century war. Victory during this period depended upon technology and tactics that had gradually evolved over multiple decades of military innovation. This fact cannot be understated as we look back at the war through the lens of our own period of rapid technological, societal and martial change. Rifles did not suddenly appear and tilt the scales toward the Americans.
Throughout the ages, achieving military victory requires taking the field from the enemy. Armies armed almost exclusively with rifles could not hope to hold a field of battle for long against infantry armed with muskets and bayonets. But why hold territory you say? Why not just exclusively use guerrilla tactics? Part two of ‘Myths of The Revolution’ will cover this topic.
Would love to get thoughts from readers about what other battles of the Revolution that rifles had a particular influence (other than Saratoga). I know of Daniel Morgan’s riflemen, but am not well versed in all the battles.
Immortan joe said:
The best example one of many is morgans riflemen vs Major General charles grey on his advance to whitemarsh along limekiln road which by reports the riflemen continually retreated our of range and hit the british soldiers with accurate fire from outside the brown bess effective range. Though grey heavily outnumbered them he retreated in the end unsure of what was happening you can real alot of examples in higgenbottoms book Daniel Morgan: The Revolutionary Rifleman
Mike Schellhammer said:
It’s possible that riflemen began to take a psychological effect even during the Revolution. During the campaign of 1779, part of the British moves included raiding ports on the Connecticut shore. On the morning of July 5, 1779, General William Tryon landed with 4,500 king’s soldiers at New Haven, Connecticut. As landing boats laden with soldiers approached the shore on the east side New Haven harbor and Connecticut militiamen took position on the shore. A Loyalist officer of the King’s American Regiment stood in the bow of one boat and shouted, “Disperse, ye Rebels!” A militia sharpshooter killed him with a single shot. The Royal Navy commander at the landing, Commodore George Collier, reported that the landing was opposed by “some companies of riflemen,” (riflemen in italics in his account), who “concealed themselves in the bushes.” Reading Collier’s account, you can see that he gave some distinction to the riflemen – whether it was fear, respect, or disdain, I’m not sure. Of course this was not a decisive use of riflemen, but I think it may point to some effect they may have had on British troops at the time.
Thanks for checking the post out Mike! Great comments. Love the story.
Exploring the psychological effect of the rifle would be a fascinating topic.The British feared and loathed the snipers that is for sure. Another topic would be the most influential rifle moments of the war. See, now you are giving me all these ideas!
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