By Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute
July 1-2, 2000, National Review Online. Also by Kopel: A Second Passover. Toasting America on the Fourth of July. National Review Online. July 3, 2002.
Shortly after the Constitution was sent to the people for ratification, anti-federalists warned that the Constitution would make the federal government too strong in relation to the people. Not so, replied the Federalists. Tench Coxe — an ally of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton who would later serve in the Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison administrations — explained:
The power of the sword, say the minority of Pennsylvania, is in the hands of Congress. My friends and countrymen, it is not so, for the powers of the sword are in the hands of the yeomanry from sixteen to sixty. The militia of these free commonwealths, entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared with any possible army, must be tremendous and irresistible.
Who are the militia? are they not ourselves. Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American. What clause in the state or [federal] constitution hath given away that important right. . . . [T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the foederal or state governments, but where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.
[A Pennsylvanian, To The People of the United States, Philadelphia Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.]
What were those weapons, so recently used in the American Revolution, which Coxe and rest considered "the birthright of an American"?
At the start of the war, the most common musket, in both Patriot and Redcoat hands, was the Brown Bess, an iron-barreled musket which fired a .75 caliber ball. The "Brown" part of the name may have come from the walnut stock, or from the barrel's color, once it had been rust-proofed. "Bess" was probably chosen because it sounded good with "Brown," and because fighting men have often given their weapons female nicknames.
When the French intervened on America's side in 1778, they brought their Charleville Muskets — named for the town near Belgium which hosted the Royal Manufactory of Arms. The French model fired a slightly smaller ball: .70. It was distributed copiously to the Americans, and later became the pattern for the federal army's Springfield Musket of 1795.
Muskets took a while to reload, so army formations typically deployed musket-men in two or three lines. The first line would fire in unison, then drop to their knees to reload, while the lines behind them fired.
Muskets were not accurate, and musketmen were not even expected to aim at particular targets. Rather, the objective was to deliver a mass of musketballs into the enemy line. The muskets were an ideal weapon for the kind of fighting man that the British used.
Life in any European standing army was brutal. Soldiers were drilled and disciplined until they could no longer think. They were expected to obey unquestioningly, and to move in precise lock-step formations. Only people who had no other choice joined the army, and the army was composed of "the dregs of society" rounded up from gin mills and gaols. The British troops were drilled and drilled until they could perform coolly and automatically in the heat of combat, and did not question whether orders made sense. Several volleys of disciplined musket fire, followed by a screaming bayonet charge (the Brown Bess had a 17-inch bayonet), were often sufficient to carry the day for the British — as at Lexington, Manhattan or Camden.
Muskets (like today's shotguns) have smooth barrels. In contrast, rifles have twisting grooves in the barrel, which give the bullet its spin. This stabilizing spin helps the rifle bullet travel much further, and more accurately, than does the musket ball. It was the rifle — which utilized the American virtue of individual initiative, which would become the quintessentially American weapon of the Revolution. America's first great rifle-makers were Germans who settled in Pennsylvania (the "Pennsylvania Dutch"). Around 1720, the Germans began adapting their German rifle designs to American conditions, by lengthening the barrel to 40-45 inches (producing longer-range accuracy), and using Maplewood stocks. The typical caliber was .60.
Like the muskets, all these rifles were flintlocks, meaning that the gunpowder was ignited by a spark from metal striking flint. All of the guns used loose gunpowder made from salt-peter ("blackpowder"); modern smokeless powder did not come until the latter part of the nineteenth century.
During the Revolution, there was neither the time nor the inclination to decorate the rifles with the kind of engraving that was often seen on later versions, including today's replicas.
The Pennsylvania Rifle had a shattering effect against British Redcoats. The British musketeers could fire and reload three times as fast as the American rifleman, and knew how to march in disciplined linear formations in open terrain. Although there were plenty of open-terrain battles during the war, there were also plenty of guerilla actions, in which Patriots hid behind rocks and trees and sniped at small enemy patrols.
While muskets were easy to use, the Kentucky rifle was effective only in the hands of a skilled marksman, who could hit a target the size of a man's head from 200 yards away. A lucky shot could travel 400 yards. Whether in open combat or in a guerilla context, the American riflemen specialized in sniping at the British officers, causing them considerable apprehension, and distracting them from command.
(Some of the gunmakers of the Pennsylvania Rifles eventually moved to Ohio, Tennessee, and other parts. After the rifles figured prominently in the great American victory at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, at the end of the War of 1812, the rifles became universally known as "Kentucky Rifles," since the popular song celebrating the great battle was "The Hunters of Kentucky." As the song exulted: "For Jackson he was wide awake, and not afraid of trifles; for well he knew what aim we'd take with our Kentucky Rifles.")
The superior range of the Pennsylvania Rifle had allowed the Americans to engage the Redcoats beyond musket range during the first part of the Revolutionary War. But at the battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, the British deployed a special 100-man company firing a new rifle invented by Scotsman Andrew Ferguson. The innovative breech-loading design (as opposed to muzzle-loading, in which the gun is loaded by ramming the bullet down the muzzle, and through the full length of the barrel) allowed the Ferguson rifles to fire 4-5 shots per minute, and the gun could even be reloaded while a soldier marched towards the enemy.
Although the British won at Brandywine, and captured Philadelphia as a result, Ferguson was wounded, and the British Army foolishly lost interest in rifles for the rest of the war. Not until 1819 would a nation adopt a breechloader as its standard military weapon, when the United States chose the Hall Carbine.
While some people believe that handguns did not exist when the Patriots were fighting for their right to arms, handguns were actually hundreds of years old by then. Handguns had grown common enough in the early sixteenth century that legislation was proposed as early as 1518 (by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian) to address them; and by the latter part of the 1500s, handguns were standard cavalry weapons. When the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791, state militia laws requiring most men to supply their own firearms required officers to supply their own pistols.
The Revolutionary War handguns were mostly very large .50-caliber single-shot pistols, often built by the same gunsmiths who made the Pennsylvania Rifles. Colonel Samuel Colt's multiple-shot revolver lay decades in the future — although there were predecessors available, such as "pepperbox," which used revolving barrels, each containing its own bullet.
Today, only two of Ferguson's breechloading rifles are still in existence, and the pepperbox proto-revolvers are found only in museums or the homes of wealthy collectors. But the kinds of muskets and rifles with which the American Revolution was fought are still in common use. Many hobbyists build old-fashioned rifles or muskets from kits, and many others buy manufactured blackpowder arms, to take advantage of the special blackpowder-only hunting seasons in many states. Some of these guns incorporate new technology (such as in-line loading), while others are remarkably faithful to the old designs.
Whether you're shooting an old-fashioned replica of a Brown Bess, or a high-tech polymer pistol from Glock, you're exercising the freedoms that great Patriots such as "the Swamp Fox," Francis Marion, helped win for us two centuries ago. To celebrate Independence Day, why not exercise the right you still have (and which the Redcoats' descendants don't) by taking a niece or a neighbor to a target range, or by buying your first gun, or by sending an extra contribution to one of the groups who are continuing humanity's long-running battle against tyranny and disarmament?