By Kurt M.
One category of firearm has been under relentless attack since even before the latest push for gun control; I’m talking of course about black powder rifles. Oh sure, few want to ban them (yet), but they come up all the time in arguments for gun control. I’ll often hear something along these lines, “Well when the framers came up with the Second Amendment, they only had black powder muskets, they couldn’t hit anything with those, that’s why they only fired when they saw the whites of their eyes. The framers never could have imagined a gun that could hit anything past five yards, or be reloaded quickly; the second amendment is out of date and needs to be repealed!” . . .
Really the question they’re implying (and providing an answer for) is are the muskets and rifles of that period so fundamentally different from the rifles of today that a framer couldn’t have imagined what rifles are capable of today? Of course the kind of answers I’d hear to that were normally along the lines of, “Well, is the First Amendment limited to the technologies of 1776?”
Just for the sake of argument though, let’s address this line of argument head on and look at what Muskets were and weren’t in terms of accuracy, range, and capacity.
When thinking of the Revolutionary War, most people think of the musket, which is understandable as that is what most soldiers carried on both sides of the conflict. The most common was the British land pattern musket, better known as the Brown Bess, which was standard issue to British troops and commonly used by Americans as well, but other models were used during the war, especially by the American side which really used whatever they could get past the British naval blockade.
Muskets are by definition smooth bore, which means their barrels lack rifling and that does inherently limit their accuracy as compared to a rifle, which would as implied have a rifled barrel. Many people will cite Colonel George Hanger as to the accuracy of the muskets of the period. He was an officer in the British Southern Army (think Cornwallis) whose only real claim to fame was leading his men into an ambush at the battle of Charlotte which got many of them killed and others wounded, including himself, which effectively ended his military career.
Nevertheless, one can never underestimate the importance of being friends with the future King George IV, which allowed him to gain some social standing in England after the war. He wrote a book sometime after to defend his military record from detractors, yet I’m confident he has some personal knowledge as to the accuracy of muskets of the period, and knows what he is talking about.
Hanger wrote that a musket was accurate out to around 80 to 100 yards, but that those having a very unlucky day could be hit with aimed fire up to 150 yards. Anecdotally muskets were capable of reaching out further, supposedly during the famous 1842 British retreat from Kabul, in which the whole column was nearly wiped out and only one European reached the end destination of Jalalabad, Afghan tribesmen were credited with 500-800 yard shots. That said, let’s use within a 100 yards as the norm.
To keep that in perspective, the carbines commonly used today, be they AK- or AR-based, are designed to hit targets out to 300 yards. Yet the pump and semi-auto shotguns still issued by the US military have very similar accuracy to the muskets of 1776 — accuracy within 100 yards, no doubt because all shotguns are smoothbore. That the military would still issue weapons with the range and combat accuracy of muskets shows that, at least in those terms, a musket would still do the job today, and that a framer really wouldn’t be shocked by the range or accuracy of today’s commonly issued rifles and shotguns.
As an aside, the rifles of the period were capable of very accurate long range fire, but they were less common, so I’m not focusing on them. The American rifles tend to be all called Kentucky long rifles after the general style of rifle. General Daniel Morgan famously handpicked a group of riflemen based upon their being able to hit a 7-inch target at 250 yards. One of these riflemen, Timothy Murphy, is often credited with making a 300 yard shot at the battle of Saratoga, killing a British general, Simon Fraser, and convincing the British commander, General John Burgoyne, to surrender his command.
Less well known is that one of Murphy’s compatriots also managed to ventilate Burgoyne’s hat at a similar distance. After the war the British adopted their own rifle, the Baker rifle, and used it throughout the Napoleonic wars and after. In 1809 Thomas Plunkett managed to hit a French General at 600 yards with his Baker rifle in one shot at the battle of La Coruna. An impressive shot then and now.
The rate of fire for a musket varies based upon the experience someone has with them. An experienced soldier could safely shoot around 3 to 4 rounds a minute — in other words about 15 seconds to a shot. Although a modern rifle will shoot much faster, 15 seconds honestly isn’t a long time. I would be willing to bet that there are people reading this whose webpage loaded slower than that. I know many people who would suggest that a musket couldn’t hit someone across a room, but I seriously doubt any of those people would want to have a .69 caliber ball heading their direction every 15 seconds.
When talking about muskets and people’s perception of them, you have to talk about what they are not. The common image of troops lining up and shooting at each other in line is probably what serves as a mental block for most people to see a continuous connection between then and now. Most people think that the tactics of the Revolutionary War revolved around the musket itself and its limitations, when that’s actually not true.
Everyone knows the story of how the war of 1812 started because the British forced American sailors to serve on English vessels. Impressment was common then because people didn’t want to serve for many reasons, the most important perhaps being that being that the military didn’t pay well. The British navy had to be selective because they wanted people who knew how to work on a ship; the army wasn’t nearly as demanding. Most of the British infantry of the revolution were ex-convicts or men grabbed out of bars. Keeping everyone in formation made it easier to make sure that orders were followed, that formations would go from point A to point B relatively intact, and that people didn’t take a chance to slip away. The personal safety of troops didn’t take precedent over organizational cohesion.
Another matter is the magazine capacity of a musket. It is a one shot weapon; it doesn’t have a magazine like many modern guns will have. However, that doesn’t mean that a framer couldn’t picture a multi-shot capacity, or that the militaries of the time even wanted that ability.
Logistics played a more important role in military weapon design then, and now. Logistically speaking, the military was more concerned with soldiers wasting ammo than getting lots of rounds down range. This concern is timeless. General Custer and his command were armed with single shot Springfield trapdoors when they faced Sioux armed with Winchester lever actions with tube magazines.
US military rifles like the Krag and the 1903 Springfield had magazine cut-offs so that they could be used as a single shot rifle; the magazine was to be held in reserve for emergencies. Some people suggest that the Garand has an 8 round enbloc clip and not a 20 round magazine like the BAR for the same reason, they wanted to make sure that people weren’t wasting ammo. The AR family used today by the military was designed with full auto capability, but today only has a three round burst to be used in emergencies because after Vietnam the logisticians decided that a lot of ammo was wasted due to full auto fire, so they removed the option.
The first military issue rifle with a magazine (20 round tube magazine) was the Girandoni Air rifle adopted by the Austrian army in 1780, although the vast majority of Austrian troops were still armed with muskets. In this country, it’s famous as the air rifle that Lewis and Clark took west with them and was mentioned often in the journals that Lewis kept of the expedition. Of note is that the US never adopted the Girandoni. Lewis bought it privately in Philadelphia along with the other supplies the expedition took west. Volumes have been written about the Girandoni so I won’t elaborate further, I’ll just point out that the Girandoni did not come about in a vacuum, it’s just a famous example of technology that existed at the time, and which a framer likely would have been aware of.
The problem with the “might as well throw it at them” myth is that it trivializes the very real dangers people faced fighting in the Revolutionary War. Guns didn’t just become deadly in the last 50 years or so. That’s not to say that the military should drop the AR in favor of a “real gun” like the Brown Bess. Improvements have, of course, been made. Rather, its shows that the two really aren’t worlds apart as you might think at first glance. Period weapons were very capable. The framers were well aware of what guns were and still are capable of; their decision to include the 2nd Amendment was not made without that understanding.