Monday, March 11, 2013

History of the American Rifle - II

In our last post, we left off at the beginnings of a rifle designed for American frontiersmen. We will continue our study in this post.

As was mentioned in our last post, the first true rifle designed for the American frontier came out of Pennsylvania around 1738-1739. The area around Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, is regarded as the birth-place of such firearms and for a long time, it was the Pennsylvania Germans (also called the "Pennsylvania Dutch", even though they didn't speak Dutch!) who dominated the manufacturing of rifles in America. From them, the knowledge spread to the frontiersmen of New York, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina and by 1750, it was widespread among all the frontier areas of the Allegheny Mountain range.

It is commonly believed that these rifles were first used in war during the American revolution, but this is not the case. The first time they were used in war was by Pennsylvania frontiersmen against the French fort of Louisburg, on Cape Breton Island.

In New England, these rifles were practically unknown until two groups of men from Pennsylvania and Virginia arrived at the siege of Boston, during the American revolution. The first troops raised by Continental Congress was six companies of men from Pennsylvania, two companies from Maryland and two from Virginia. These men all brought their own firearms along with them. In fact, it wasn't until much later that the United States Government officially started manufacturing rifles for its army. These rifles were popularly known as the Kentucky rifle, even though the design was originally from Pennsylvania.

Soon after the American revolution, the Rev. Alexander Forsyth invented the percussion lock system over in England. It took a while for the mechanism to reach American shores, but once it got here in around 1835 or so, it was quickly adopted here in America. It was also around this time (1840s or so) when the exploration of the American West started.

American long rifles. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License from Wikipedia.
The top rifle is a percussion lock and the bottom is a flintlock.

This created two forms of the American long rifle. For the Eastern frontiersman, the Kentucky rifle design called for a smaller bore weapon, because the Eastern rifleman normally carried his ammunition in his own backpack and usually made his long journeys on foot. These rifles were sometimes called "pea rifles" because they fired .32 to .38 caliber balls, about the size of a pea. Usually, these rifles started out as .32 caliber and as they got older and wore down, they would be taken back to a gunsmith to be rebored and that would increase their caliber. The barrel was long and heavy and the total weight of the rifle was around 12-15 pounds or so. The butt-plate and patch box were made of brass and usually engraved.

In contrast, a person hunting or exploring in the Western United States demanded a different kind of firearm. For one, they needed something of bigger bore to hunt larger animals like moose, elk, buffalo, grizzly bear etc.  Also, the Western hunter found long barrels somewhat more inconvenient to use on horse back. Finally,  the weight of ammunition was not a problem because the Westerner carried his ammunition boxes on his mule rather than on his back. So they used .40 to .60 caliber ammunition and a shorter barrel, the other features of the rifle being retained from the Kentucky rifle design.

We will study more in subsequent posts.

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.