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.