Wednesday, March 6, 2013

History of the American Rifle - I

When we first studied the concepts of rifling many months ago, we mentioned that this was known to German speaking people and the names, Gaspard Kollner of Vienna and Augustus Kotter of Nuremberg were mentioned as pioneers in the 1500s. In 17th and 18th century Europe, the German Palatinate region (in south-western Germany) and part of Switzerland were devastated by frequent warring, such as the Nine Year War, the War of Spanish Succession and several invasions by the French military. Between May and November 1709, about 13,000 refugees from this region came over to England to settle down. The English tried to settle some of them in the New World, in exchange for producing stores for the British Navy (tar, wood etc.) and acting as a security buffer between the settlements and the Native American tribes.

Some of these Germans and Swiss were settled in the Pennsylvania area in 1683 and were known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (even though they spoke German rather than Dutch!). Among them were a few experienced gun-makers. The original rifles that they introduced were what they were used to in Europe. These were short, heavy rifles with large bores of approximately an inch. As can be expected of such a large bore firearm, the recoil was terrific. The lead ball was required to be loaded with the aid of a mallet and an iron ramrod. The fouling in the barrel was so bad that after firing the first shot, the user would have to spend several minutes cleaning the barrel before they could reload. This is because the rifle in Europe was a weapon of war mainly and the only people who hunted animals for sport in settled European villages were members of the aristocracy, who didn't have to care too much about missing a shot. However, in America, the settlers soon found themselves living in the wilderness and depending on their rifles for their survival. So they began modifying their weapons to suit their new environment.

The first requirement was that the firearm must be accurate. The second requirement was that the weapon should not waste any of its powder charge, because of powder supply problems. Hence, this led to the lengthening of the barrel so that accuracy was improved and the entire powder charge that was placed in it would burn before the bullet left the barrel. Since many of the settlers often went on hunting expeditions for several days travelling by themselves, carrying larger heavy bullets meant that they would have to carry less of other useful supplies. Hence, they began to reduce the bore of their rifles so that the bullets would be smaller and weigh less. Smaller bullets and powder charges also meant less recoil from the rifle, thereby improving the accuracy of it. The ability to reload quickly was essential in life and death situations, hence the invention of the greased patch by some unknown settler. The sound of the rifle firing could attract the attention of unfriendly Native American tribes in the area, hence the settlers modified their rifles to have heavier barrels so that the sound produced by a firing rifle was minimized. Finally, since the barrel was heavier, someone came up with the idea of using light hickory wood instead of iron for the ram-rod, so that the overall weight of the rifle was not excessive.

Several of the gun-smiths met and discussed their innovations with each other and the first truly American frontiersman rifle which contained all the above features was born around 1738 or 1739 in Pennsylvania.

Early American Flintlock from 1739, made by Matthew Roesser of Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Weight: 8 lbs, caliber: 0.40 inches. Public domain image.

A typical frontiersman rifle consisted of a muzzle-loading firearm with a  flintlock firing mechanism, fired a lead ball of anything between 1/2 oz. to 1 oz. in weight, on the side of the stock was a small box where the user could keep extra greased patches and small cleaning tools. The barrel was heavy and rifled. The powder was stored in a powder horn, which was usually made from cattle horn, hollowed out and decorated.

To reload such a firearm, the user would pour some powder from the powder horn into a measuring flask, or even the palm of their hand, then this powder was poured down the barrel of the firearm. Next a greased patch made of leather or linen cloth was placed on top of the muzzle and a bullet was placed on top of it. Next, the user would pull the light hickory ramrod out from under the rifle barrel and use it to push the patch and ball down the barrel. Since the patch was greased, it took less effort to do this. Then the ramrod was returned back to its storage under the barrel and the pan was carefully primed with a few grains of powder and the flintlock mechanism was cocked and the rifle was ready to shoot. An experienced hunter could do all of this in about 30 seconds and some of them were so skillful that they could do it while running. These rifles were accurate up to around 100 yards or so and a good hunter could keep his shots inside a 1.5 inch diameter circle at this distance.

In our next post, we will study more about the development of the American rifle.

1 comment:

  1. Quick language note, "Pennsylvania Dutch" came from a mispronunciation of Deutsche, or German, since they tended to call themselves Penn-Deutsche.