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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could have imagined a gun that could hit anything past five yards, or be reloaded quickly; the second amendment is out of date and needs to be repealed!”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.

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    • Nah, not for me.

      I want the fully automatic AR equipped with a missile launcher that DiFi was touting we all had.

        • That’s strange; you didn’t get your complementary missile launcher attachment with purchase? If you spend over $20 at my local gun store you get a choice of complementary missile launcher or hat, and the hats are always gone! I just have all these missile launchers sitting around that I don’t know what to do with.

    • Exactly right! Its hard to not get excited once we start talking about the brown bess, krags and a trapdoor.

      • Thank you both, I don’t get to talk history very often anymore so writing this up was pretty fun for me.

  1. Sure, they’ll let you keep your black powder musket. They just won’t let you have black powder, because that could be used to make bombs.

    • The silver lining might be that people don’t know you can still get black powder. I was explaining how muzzle loaders worked to a friend and he tilts his head, long pause, then “like in The Patriot? You can still do that?”

  2. Thank you. I constantly cringe at the ‘ weapons of the battlefield’ argument… as if every major advancement in technology for firearms doesn’t have it’s roots in military technology. The anti’s argument is incremental, and giving an inch more now will be a mile later.

    • Glad you liked it. They didn’t make a distinction at the time, and it certainly wasn’t because all the weapons of the time were harmless past room distance.

  3. Good read. Whenever sometime brings up the idea that the framers couldn’t have foreseen AR-15s and other modern weaponry, I like to remind them that some of the framers (Jefferson, Franklin) were men of science both with several inventions to their names. And Washington was a general; someone who used weapons for a living. Sure, they didn’t know the specifics (removable mags, blowback operation, direct impingement, etc.) But it’s absurd to think that these men never once considered “weapons of the future will be more effective than the weapons of today”

    • Thank you. For some reason some people must think that Jules Verne or George Orwell had the original idea of thinking about the future. Many of the founders, Washington in particular, wrote about how they consciously acted to establish good precedent for how the new nation would be governed with future generations in mind.

  4. Nic pic. Where is it from?

    And question for the editors at TTAG. Are the writers/contestants picking there pics, the staff at TTAG, or some combo of both?

    • Just click on the pic, it will show you where home is. The staff picked this one for me and I think they did a good job; I can’t speak for any of the other entries.

  5. Yes. Good stuff. In combat, muskets were barely accurate out to 100 yards, thus the invention of the “volley”. Honestly, even combat veterans could barely get off 1 shot every minute.

    • Thank you. I think they could do better than a shot a minute, but of course no one is shooting at me so I have no experience, I’m sure under fire it would be entirely different. I know that after battles in the Civil War, they would pick up rifles that had been loaded three or four times and never shot, it’s hard to say what you would do.

  6. The power of the musket, and even more the rifled musket of .69 caliber used in the Civil War, is testament to the firepower the weapon brings to the battlefield. Go to Antietam, down into Bloody Lane. Put yourself into the Union line of advance, marching over one swale, dropping into a depression, then marching over another swale and coming face to face with the entrenched enemy down in the road, standing there shoulder to shoulder with your friends. Those men were unimaginably brave.

    • I always tell people to go see Antietam; I think it’s the best preserved battlefield in North America. It’s as close to “as it was,” as you’re going to get and you really get a sense of how it was, the lay of the land is as it was. Most places can’t claim that. The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have toured Waterloo years after the battle and complained about how the Belgians “ruined” his battlefield by putting this huge mound with a Belgian war memorial right in the middle of the field. At Antietam you really can see that they were unimaginably brave, they were right on top of each other.

  7. Really nice article. I’d quibble with the assertion that most of the British regulars were convicts or men grabbed out of bars. The British Army our forefathers fought was an extremely capable, well led, adaptable foe. We won the Revolution due to (among other things) luck, perseverance, good leadership, and the ability of the Continental Army to become proficient at using the same tactics as the Brits. The Militia also became more effective as its ranks were filled by Continental veterans. Most of all we won because Washington grew into his job as the war went on and he was able to keep a creditable force in the field throughout the war.
    There are several excellent books about the British Army in the Revolution such as “With Swords and Bayonets Only” and “The Men Who Lost America” that make interesting reading.

    • Bot to take anything away from Washington or the militia, but the real reason we won the revolution was because the Brits had a 3000 mile supply line. The militia were so good at killing foragers that the redcoats couldn’t even get local cattle, but had to ship them over from Britain. About the only thing local they could get reliably was water; I don’t know about beer.

      The Brits were also hamstrung by ego. The battle of Saratoga was lost because the three generals involved were so damned jealous of each other. Burgoyne worked up the plan and forbid the Canadian general from crossing the border under any circumstances, and when Burgoyne yelled for help, the Canadian touted his orders and stayed at home. The third general, Clinton or Howe or Gage, I forget which, went off in a huff to capture Philadelphia and conveniently wasn’t around when Burgoyne called for help.

      Yorktown was lost partly because the British admiral was too busy carting booty from the Caribbean back to Britain to roust the French. And he was the nest they could get, with everyone else to timid to fight unless they outnumbered the French 2:1; the Royal Navy only got him by paying his gambling debts so he could leave Paris (when the Brits were at war with France!) and come back to Britain without being hounded by the casinos.

      As to the quality of soldiers, I know little, but they had so much trouble recruiting home grown soldiers that they had to hire thousands of Hessians to do their fighting for them. Quality is a mystery to me, but not quantity.

      Without Washington, I believe the Brits would still have lost just from the supply problems and egos.

      • You’re right that ego and logistics played a big part in our victory. The British 1777 campaign was perfect on paper; it fell apart due to ego as you say. Howe came up with the idea of marching up from New York and down from Canada and meeting at Albany, but he wanted Clinton to command the Canadian force, not Burgoyne. When the British Prime Minister put Burgoyne in the role, Howe washed his hands of the plan and went for Philadelphia. After the war Howe said that he wrote Burgoyne and that Burgoyne knew that he was operating on his own from the start, Burgoyne always said that he only heard from Howe well after his campaign started and that Howe was the cause of the surrender.

    • Thank you, and I would completely agree that the British were extremely capable, I would say that the British army had very capable NCOs (and generally officers) and that made them such a formidable foe. I’ve read “The Men Who Lost America” and enjoyed it, I’ll have to look for “With Swords and Bayonets Only.”

  8. The multi-shot thing bothers me. We all have “wouldn’t it be cool if…” sessions. I really doubt some poor bastard in the ranks, swinging this huge, unwieldy beast of a rifle around every 15-30 seconds to reload, did not at least once think to himself, “Well chap, wouldn’t it be tip top if I could fire… twice without swinging this ghastly thing around?” or however they’d say it back then. So no, it does not require a grand leap of logic.

    • The first thing I would complain about would be the wool uniform I’d have to wear year long. At the battle of Monmouth (in June) men died from heatstroke because they had to stay in uniform.

  9. “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.”

    It is true but not the sole reason. Musket lines originated in pike formations. At the end of the Medieval period, the best defense against the heavily armored mounted knight was an armored pike formation. Even better, add a few matchlocks to punch through the knight’s armor and you have the “pike and shot” tactic that lasted until muskets combined both roles into a single weapon.

    • Yep, that’s why the original muzzle loading rifles were referred to as rifled muskets. The powers that be wanted the new rifles to match the muskets in length for mainly 2 reasons. With the extra old style length the 2 rank infantry formation common at the time could still be safely used with the rear rank firing over the front rank. Their muzzles stuck out far enough to not worry about shooting their own men. And with fixed bayonets the new rifled muskets had the reach to serve as pikemen against cavalry. The new rifled muskets were still single shot muzzle loaders after all.

      • You’re both right. The battle of Pavia, (1520s) where the French king and his knights lost to an army of mixed pikemen and arquebusiers of the Holy Roman Empire started the trend, which worked towards more shot and less pike as time went on. Volley fire came out of the 80 years’ war around the end of the century. The Dutch worked out that 9 to 12 rows of men was the ideal, the first row would shoot a volley and head to the back of the formation, by the time they worked their way back to the front they would already be reloaded so the fire was continuous. Pretty quickly after that the Swedes had the first row lie down, the second take a knee, and the third stand to maximize firepower at contact, which is what people probably think of in popular culture.

  10. Another answer to the same question (especially when the opposition says they don’t want to confiscate/ban guns, except AWB) is to point out that a musket is a single shot. Of the ~30,000 killed by guns each year, 20,000 are from suicide.
    How many shots did those people use? (never mind hi-capacity magazines over 10)

    Of the remaining 10,000, how many involved multiple shots being fired? (or vise-verses , single shot encounters). Half?. So ~80% were killed with a single bullet?

    So of 30,000. A total ban on ALL guns holding more than one bullet (leaving basicly only 1776 type weapons) would only reduce potential deaths by about 20%. i.e. it would have no real effect.

    • I did have a friend who committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a .22 rifle. He took two shots to do it. The first one didn’t kill him, so he tried again. The second shot did the job. So don’t be too sure that all suicides use only one shot.

  11. I always thought of it this way, during the revolution the professional soldiers had muskets that fired 3 rounds per minute and the militia brought their own rifles that were more accurate but only capable of about 1 round per minute. Today the military had 3 shot burst and full auto capability and the militia (citizens) have semi-autos. A fully auto AR can buzz through a 30 round magazine in about 3 seconds, most people could buzz through the same magazine in semi-auto in about 9 seconds. Shooting semi-auto is more accurate than shooting fully auto. Seems like a very similar situation as existed in 1776.

  12. Great article.

    The specs for an M16A2 stated accuracy to 550 yards on a point target and 800 yards on an area target using M855 ammo. The USMC qualification course used to be from 200-500 yards, and I remember enjoying the 500 yard hits on a calm day. The AK, and especially the AR, can definitely reach out well past 300 yards.

    With that being said, the 600 yard shot with a muzzle loader is awesome. So were the 250-300 yard hits. Those would be great stories by a campfire with a good scotch. I feel that our nation loses greatness with the passage of each of these generations.

    • You’re absolutely right; the A2 can definitely reach out. I was going for the oft mentioned WW2 German study that concluded that combat distances were within 300 yards and that shorter rifle rounds should be adopted and the general shift from the big rifle rounds after the war. I sold the A2 short as a result.
      I agree with you about the nation losing greatness, I always hope that I can turn out to be half the man my grandfathers were. I also think that the World War Two version of “might as well throw it at them” is already starting. In December an anti explained to me that the difference between a “good hunting round like 30-06” and a “bad military round like 5.56” was that the military had discovered hydrostatic shock and incorporated it into the design of 5.56, and that made 5.56 too dangerous to have a legitimate purpose. Apparently we only won because so many Germans and Japanese died from the embarrassment of not shrugging off 30-06.

  13. You wrote a convincing development of the theme. I enjoyed it. The guns were in the hands of flesh-and-blood men no different than you and I, and the most important metric of their guns was “what did the enemy have in their hands?” And so things we have today must evolve evaluated by the same metric. Thanks for mentioning the Pennsylvania Rifle. Laugh.

    • Thank you. There really is a disconnect in understanding that the people who fought the revolution were just flesh and blood like anyone today. Exaggerating just a bit from my high school education, you would think that they had a long backpacking trip only marred when Washington forgot the packed lunches for Valley Forge.

  14. “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!” . . .

    That’s not only a smoke screen, it’s a non-sequitur.

    My answer to that is, A2 doesn’t say, “the right of the people to keep and bear muskets shall not be infringed.”

    • Very true, and they didn’t qualify it with “unless they invent some shoulder thing that goes up, that would scary.”

  15. I dont know if it was a musket but I heard about a firearm which had a octagonal ( or hexagonal) barrel(from the inside) and bullets. The idea was that since the inner shape of the barrel was the same shape as the bullets. It would stabilize it well. Last I heard they were used as some sort of sniper rifle.

    • The Whitworth rifle. A very accurate british muzzle loader. The boys in gray during the American civil war loved them.

      • There is a good story about Southerners with their Whitworth rifles. In 1864 at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House a Union general, John Sedgwick, and his staff are 1,000 yards away from Southern positions, scouting locations for artillery batteries to provide support for Union troops that are going to assault the Confederate positions later in the day. Sedgwick sees that his staff and the artillerymen are taking cover because of fire they’re receiving from the confederates 1,000 yards away. Sedgwick rides out and tells them that he is ashamed of them for dodging, and that they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance. He doesn’t finish saying distance before a Southerner drops him dead.

  16. I recently read “1776” a very good book. At one point during the siege of Boston GW let the Pennsylvanian militia (rifle welding red necks) have free rain for a little while to harass the Red Coats. They were making shots from 3 to 500 yards. So the Framers knew the potential for long range weapons. Also around this time a British man was experimenting with breach loading rifles.

    • You’re thinking of the Ferguson rifle. Ferguson was a British officer who apparently was also a tinkerer. He formed a special command of men armed with his rifle. There’s a good story that in 1777 Ferguson had an American officer in his sights, whose identity is unknown but some think was Washington himself, and that he decided not to shoot because it wasn’t sporting for one officer to shoot another. Ferguson died in the war and basically interest in his design died with him.

  17. “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!”

    The First Amendment concerns freedom of the speech and the press. When the Constitution was written, “the press” was just that–pages printed on a printing press. The framers could never have imagined electronic methods of transmitting information or speech. Therefore, there is no constitutional right of TV, radio, Internet or any other means of information transmission other than through the printing press on paper.

    Fair for the goose…?

  18. Like I always say, the Brown Bess was the “assault” rifle of the day back in 1776.

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