Three Centuries of American Wars
American colonists were barely 12 years removed from the French and Indian wars (1754-1763), but close enough to a new conflict to begin thinking about the necessity for building a store of weapons. Those who served in militias in that earlier war had furnished their own weapons. The guns would have been muskets, fowling pieces or no weapon at all. They brought and carried their own provisions. Although the musket would be carried over to the new war, some weapons had seen its zenith in the old conflict. The matchlock musket was obsolete by 1775, but still retained by some families as a useful, but cumbersome to fire, weapon.
British military had always been a security blanket in the colonials’ lives. However, at the conclusion of the French and Indian war, most of the "red coats" were redeployed to England. The American colonists were on their own except for pockets of British troops clustered in urban areas, and in a few scattered outposts on the frontier.
The colonists were aware that North America still held the potential for danger. The frontier and the Indian populations were only several days ride from coastal towns.The existence of militia for self defense was an answer to potential danger.
The colonials had a history of self help. Going back to the Jamestown settlement and Puritan Plymouth, they organized supervised military training to meet threats. Captains James Smith and Myles Standish were paid to impart their military experience to the settlers. As early as 1607, Jamestown settlers were receiving military instruction.
"And how weary soever your soldiers be, let them never trust the country people with the carriage of their weapons; for if they run from you with your shott,(sic) which they only fear, they will easily kill them all with their arrows. And whensoever any of yours shoots before them, be sure they may be chosen out of your best marksmen; for if they see your learners miss what they aim at, they will think the weapon not so terrible, and thereby will be bould (sic) to assault you".
Why the need for a militia? Population in early colonial times was sparse and society could ill afford the loss of manpower that would be required to maintain a standing army. These lessons were ingrained in the colonial psyche, and thus an easy transition to the militia system fully dependent on the full time farmer, artisan or tradesman.
In 1775, the colonies were a politically mature society, capable of local self government, and according to one historian, actually had “de facto independence”. The weight of repressive taxes would challenge that assumption, and then conflict with the British appeared possible. They understood their vulnerability, and their first line of defense was the militia.
Local governments maintained limited arsenals and powder supplies to support their militias that were trending more to voluntary membership than to proscribed conscription. The militia companies were known as trainbands. They would be the first to taste war, and that war was increasingly imminent. It was their local supply of gun powder that prompted the British march on Lexington and Concord in their search and destroy mission to uncover militia military supplies.
At the outset of the war, British armed presence in the colonies was negligible. Their strength lie in a very few population centers and in a few remote outposts. Nevertheless, colonists were aware that reinforcement from England could be anticipated, and with them would come their trove of potential weapons to tempt their rebellious appetites.
The new colonial Continental Congress was navigating in strange waters that even confounded more mature nations.
Assembling men, material and weapons were critical issues on a large scale particularly for a national rebellion.
An initial requirement was missing in their army chain of command. There was no training in supply logistics.
There was no quartermaster corps. Learning on the fly during a hot war was a serious drawback. Field officers, with more immediate problems, were ordered to handle the supply of ordnance.
By 1776, replacing arms and materials sustained in the colonials Northern Department were an overwhelming pressure on poorly trained supply officers.
The Continental Congress quickly recognized the problem of supply and the shortages of arms. They appointed committees to survey their troops to obtain feedback and identify bottle necks. Their Secret Committee had been operating for almost two years prior to the armed conflict and struggled to solve the problems inherent in the supply chain. Their mission also extended to foreign aid deemed necessary to solve the supply problem. The new government was experiencing a severe credit crunch.
The Congressional investigation concluded that their nascent efforts had been almost totally ineffective. In 1777, they proceeded to establish a Commerce Department to procure supplies and seek foreign aid. Effectively, they created the first governmental department with executive authority.
In addition to grappling with the logistics of assembling supplies and weapons, they faced the problem of delivery. They had to overcome a primitive road system that barely supported a single horse and cart. People rarely traveled, and roads often corresponded with old Indian trails that were barely improved.
The method of arms production had changed little. Small groups of craftsmen were the sole source of domestic supply. Foundries were small and production of metals was limited. War with the British further complicated shortages. Muskets, gun powder and cannon were in short supply.
The congress acted again and appointed a Cannon Committee to increase supply. There was a growing evolution on the part of government--- part of an upward learning curve------to meet the exigencies of an expanding war. Their next move was the establishment of the War Board with broad authority over accounts, ordnance and supplies. Fourteen months later the Board was abolished in favor of the new authority vested in the government by the Articles of Confederation in 1777. As a result, a War Office was formed that granted the new government the power to regulate war. However, the colonies jealously guarded their rights of home rule and the Articles reflected this mind set. The new Articles established a central authority without powers of enforcement. The document was not even fully ratified until 1781, and became an afterthought in the wake of the Constitution.
Most of the heavy armament used in European wars was inappropriate for the rough terrain in the colonies. The great cavalry charges, so much a part of European warfare, could not be utilized in the heavily forested regions. Light cavalry was limited to screening or reconnaissance. The dragoon was the hybrid that combined fighting on horseback and on the ground and increased the significance of infantry. The American dragoon, like his European counterpart, wielded a saber and carried a shortened musket.
It fell to the infantry, the foot soldier, as the instrument that fostered the means for increasing the kill rate.Thus equipping this soldier with the best technology available was essential for both armies.
The tool of choice to raise the death rate was the newer flintlock musket that had replaced the older matchlock musket. "Newer" compared to the matchlock, but had seen service for over 100 years and would, in turn, become obsolete by the mid 1800's when it was replaced by the technology of percussion.
The flintlock was the first line of offense or defense in the arsenal of revolutionary war weapons. Both armies depended on this weapon. The British relied heavily on their “Brown Bess” which often found its way into American hands. Its lack of accuracy was minimized by its mass utilization in line formations firing simultaneous, rotating volleys. That same line could present a wall of bayonets, attached to the gun barrel, and on the order to charge, moved forward against a wall of opposing fire. Survival was purely a matter of luck.
Later in the war, the Americans utilized the French Charleville musket. Probably no more accurate than the British weapon, but more accessible when supplied by their French ally.
The weapon was loaded through the muzzle---front loaded. The metal ball, 2/4 inch in diameter, weighed about 1 ounce, and was contained in a paper cartridge. The powder was stored in a horn shaped object. When the ball struck the human body at a high velocity it tore a large hole in the victim.
The older matchlock would misfire in half of its shots. The flintlock was no great improvement in accuracy, but its newer technology considerably reduced the misfires. Loading speed could determine life or death. The flint lock musket could be loaded in 30 seconds by scraping flint against steel. The flint was imbedded in the hammer, and when depressed, created the spark that set off the gun powder that ejected the ball-- primitively comparable to the discharge of the modern bullet. The older, matchlock alternative required lighting a match to ignite the priming powder. This took two minutes---and possibly not at all in the rain. Note the flint suspended in the hammer below.
Evolving Flint Design
Herein lies the military rationale for the line formations that is referred to through out this Revolutionary War review. Battles in the 18th century took place on open plains. The brave, or not so brave, souls faced each others like gladiators across the field. Their muskets had minimal accuracy up to 100 yards. The time that was required to load meant that, at best, each shooter could fire 3 times without a fixed target other than shooting generally at a charging line of fixed bayonets.
Because of the loading time factor, the shooters would be overwhelmed by a hard charging enemy line before another reload could be accomplished. Thus, the solution required 2 lines of rotating shooters.
The front line would fire on bent knees. The line of soldiers behind would stand upright ready and loaded to fire, without any delay created by the kneeling soldiers preparing to reload their muskets.
This required pouring the gun powder into the barrel; then inserting the ball in its paper cartridge into the muzzle and employing a ramrod to push the load down the barrel.
In short, revolutionary war weapons and their employment were quite primitive when measured against later centuries, but an evident advancement in fire power over the prior fifty years.
The drill manual used by the British emphasizing the line techniques had been used by the Americans. This changed when the Prussian von Steuben arrived at George Washington's headquarters. He brought new ideas to accomplish the same result and also brought to the common soldier an understanding of the strategies utilized in battle. While both methods aimed at inculcating instantaneous discipline, the British methodology was delivered through harsh, unrelenting instruction. Mistakes in drill would subject their soldiers to flogging. That was all but eliminated under the Steuben tutelage. Additionally, he adjusted the line drill to accommodate battles in woodlands. As the war progressed, this approach paid military dividends both for offensive and defensive actions.
Additional domestic sources were required to build their stock of weapons. Necessity and a ready buyer provided a path. The number of manufacturing locations expanded. A premier flintlock with a smooth bore was produced in Pennsylvania initially by German settlers who were hereditary gunsmiths. They came to the colonies from the old country with skills that had produced the Jaeger (hunter) rifle with its rifled or tooled bore, and consequently greater accuracy. Later the tooled bore musket was incongruously called the Kentucky long rifle.
The 200 yard accuracy of the tooled bore rifle was a huge departure from the traditional flintlock. Newer technology produced a longer barrel that burned the powder more efficiently and increased the velocity of the projectile. The more efficient use of the powder was most important to an army whose munitions were always in short supply.
The “Kentucky”, however great that it was on the frontier, did not pass muster on the open battlefield. It took more than twice as long to load than the traditional flintlock, and was not equipped with a bayonet. This accurate weapon was restricted to small companies, and not utilized by the line formations in which opposing forces faced off across an open space. When this rifle was employed by snipers from behind walls or trees, it had deadly effect in picking off British officers behind their own lines.
The infantryman carried about 60 pounds of equipment. The musket weighed 14 pounds. Add to that the bayonet, cartridge pouch, water bottle, knapsack, 60 rounds of ammunition. Each soldier was a mobile storehouse of revolutionary war weapons.
The Continental Marine Corps served aboard American ships of the line or armed merchant vessels. When their services were required, either in defense or as boarding parties, close quarters dictated the character of the weapon. They used a shorter British or French musket, a carbine, that was specially fitted with brass and with a tin barrel and lock, to prevent sea and salt corrosion.
The infantry regiment was the prevalent fighting force in both armies. We noted the diversity in the rifle/musket dependent on venue and terrain (land, sea,region). The grenadiers, also infantrymen, had special functions. They were usually chosen for size and strength with the intention to intimidate the enemy. One of their duties was throwing a hollow metal ball with a lit fuse connected to an interior powder charge. Shades of grenade technology to come.
The British infantry sword worn, depending on the regiment, was known as the “Infantry Hanger”. It was forged with either a straight or slightly curved blade and was shorter than the cavalry sword. The infantry companies equipped with these weapons were an alternative to the bayonet. The Hessian sword was similarly constructed.
Officers in both armies, and the cavalrymen, carried the highly inaccurate flint lock pistol in addition to their swords. Infantry officers used a lighter version with a straight blade which required training in the techniques of thrust and parry. The heavier, longer curved saber was constructed for slashing from horseback as was the shorter, single edged cutlass utilized by boarding parties in naval engagements. "Boarders away" was a call for hand to hand battle on the enemy vessel. The quality of British steel was considerably better than that produced by the Americans.
The incidental instruments of war were more personal than the gun. It required face to face interaction with the enemy. If the definition suggested is accurate, the bayonet, ax and tomahawk were highly personal. The latter was almost 2 foot long, and its head could run well over a pound. The boarding ax was also a formidable weapon.
In 1775, the colonies had a dearth of foundries. Some small mills existed and none were forging cannon. The Continental Congress understood that their military position was untenable without big field guns, and small mill owners were pressed to forge steel to manufacture cannon. Bronze was also used but proved to be weaker than steel. The stronger steel produced greater range. It helped when the foundry was in close proximity to iron mines. Cannon was the optimum ordnance of Revolutionary War weapons.
Primitive Hopewell Equipment
Producing Revolutionary War Weapons
In the years that followed the opening shots in Massachusetts, they received help from their French ally whose mature metal industries produced heavy guns. Some domestic mills began to produce on an increasingly larger scale. Paul Revere, famed for his warning ride as his art as a silversmith, operated one such mill. In order for the American forces to be competitive with the British, foundries sought to fill artillery requirements with more field guns without the ornamental ostentation of the English guns.
British weapons manufacturers had centuries of experience compared to the nascent American industrial forges.
Cannon - 3 pounder to 42 pounder - - description based on the weight of the shot with ranges up to 2 miles.
Howitzer fired solid or grape shot at high angles-- range over 2,000 yards.
Mortar fired at highest angles --range of 1300 yards.
Metal balls and grape shot had a one mile plus range capable of inflicting death.
grapeshot loaded with metal balls and wrapped before loaded.
The Continental Army was innovating. The mobility of the big guns, heretofore, required fix emplacements on the battlefield or behind fortified walls. The new American army had found methods to build lighter gun carriages. Cannon could then be rapidly moved as fortunes on the field dictated.
In June 1775, General Washington arrived at Boston to direct the siege of the city to eject the British forces. On inspection rounds, he was impressed with siege lines engineered by a young officer, Henry Knox. Subsequently, Knox presented a plan to recover and move the big guns from Fort Ticonderoga which had recently been captured by militias led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. After some opinions to the contrary, Washington gave the green light to attempt to move large weapons over rough terrain in the deadly northern winter. Knox left in December prepared to meet heavy snows and ice on the shores of Lake Champlain in upper New York. He built sleds to transport the heavy loads over frozen rivers, snow underfoot and over mountainous terrain. He returned to Boston in six weeks with 78 cannon, 2 howitzers, 8 mortars, thousands of cannon balls, 18,000 pounds of musket balls, and 30,000 flints. When these weapons were implaced on the Dorchester heights in Cambridge overlooking Boston, the British commander, Lt. General Howe, reportedly was stunned at the sight. He ordered his forces to abandon Boston and left a goodbye gift, a trove of British cannon. The victorious American siege of Boston had ended on March 17, 1776
Two years later (March 2, 1778), the American Commodore Hopkins sailed into a British stronghold in Nassau, Bahamas. He forced the surrender of two forts. He seized 78 cannons, 15 mortars, 16,000 shells and balls, 20 barrels of gun powder. The high seas became a store house for American war resources
A new nation was being built on the spoils of war, but that could not take the place of a reliable supply chain. By 1781, General Washington was thoroughly frustrated with empty arsenals, and hat in hand, having to request supplies from the several states instead of already in the hands of his quartermaster. Fortunately supplies to the British enemy also had bumps. In addition to the interruption caused by an active Continental navy, the strategies planned in London were widely wrong on the supply side. Possibly cost may have influenced their decisions. In any event, the needs of their army in America were constantly underestimated.
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