Trifling with Rifles

Symbolizing American ingenuity and adaptability, the rifle epitomized the spirit of the American frontiersman. How the colonists changed to suit the conditions of the North American continent manifests itself in the American rifle. Why did this weapon, which made the colonists Americans, fail the rebels in their fight to maintain that identity? The inaccurate musket became the most prevalent weapon in the American Revolution despite the American long rifle’s effectiveness in its native environment. In the nascence of the revolution, Congress called for six companies of skilled riflemen; they received nine as volunteers were bountiful. Yet slowly the numbers of riflemen waned throughout the war till barely any existed. George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, spouted the virtues of the rifle in the beginning, but his enthusiasm shriveled as the war dragged on. Is the rifle to blame or perhaps the military leaders who utilized the rifle units? Blame can not be placed upon the inadequacies of the rifle alone for the musket had its own faults. The stagnation of the rifle’s use in the American Revolution stemmed from the inabilities of the American military leaders to implement this weapon to their advantage due to previous experiences with the rifle, the tactics utilized, and the landscape in which the war was fought.

A frontiersman with a rifle. Image from the State Historical Society of Missouri website.

To understand the flaws of the rifle during the revolution, we must understand the evolution of the rifle in the colonies and how it compares to the more common musket. Originating in Germany, the rifle came into its own in North America as immigrated German gunsmiths crafted the rifle to excel in its new habitat. The superiority of the rifle in accuracy and range made this the preferred firearm of the frontiersmen. The docent at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum said the gyroscopic groove within the barrel allowed the bullet to spin, thus gaining accuracy and range of fire. Gunsmiths improved the rifle’s accuracy by elongating the barrel and making the rifle lighter. A rifle could hit a man from three hundred yards away while a musket could barely sink a hit from forty or fifty yards away. The rifle exchanged speed in loading for range and accuracy because the bullet, in order to get maximum propulsion and spin, must fit tightly in the barrel. To create this snug fit, more time became necessary to load the firearm. As displayed in the Continental Army reenactment camp at Yorktown, a trained man could fire a musket three times per minute while a rifle took minutes to load one shot. The very nature of the rifle lay in its individuality: a gunsmith tailored each rifle to a single owner. Thus the rifle lacked the lose standardization of the musket, which became vital in the war. Gunsmiths required more time and money to craft the rifle compared to the musket. The lack of a bayonet on a rifle became a defining factor in the preference for muskets in the American Revolution. Yet this can’t be attributed as a fault of the rifle because “rifles could easily be adapted to take bayonets.” (York 306) So do one’s advantages outweigh the other’s? “Neither the rifle nor the smooth bore[musket] was the better arm in every case, whether for hunting or for war.” (Grangsay 60)  Analyzing the rifle compared to the musket doesn’t reveal one’s superiority over the other but their differences in functionality.

A painting of the Indian ambush that defeated Braddock despite being outnumbered.
Deming, Edwin W. Braddock’s Defeat. 2009. Wisconsin Historical Society Museum, Madison. Web. 31 July 2014.

If both the musket and rifle each had its merits, why did the musket prevail? The answer partially lies in American veterans’ remembrance of the Seven Year’s War. Many veterans of the French and Indian War became the leading officers and commanders of the militias and the Continental Army. Their memories of those battles influenced their expectations of riflemen in the American Revolution for better or for worse. “George Washington thought they[riflemen] would make excellent soldiers. Remembering his experiences with Braddock and the limitations of regulars in forest warfare, he looked to independent-minded riflemen, expecting them to form the core of a Continental Army.” (York 306) Braddock’s defeat defined Washington’s perception of the rifle and the men who wielded them. Yet he failed to understand why the riflemen had succeeded where the regulars did not. The conditions of the French and Indian War did not even correlate with those of the American Revolution. While fought on the same continent, the French and Indian War took place mainly in the frontier, and the American Revolution ensued in open fields, cities, and towns. The French and Indian War created respect for the rifle among its veterans, but they couldn’t effectively apply the rifle to the landscape and tactics of the American Revolution.

The full potential of the rifle couldn’t be realized because the officers of the Continental Army tried to implement the rifle in adverse conditions instead of manipulating the conditions to  suit the rifle. Washington and other veterans of the French and Indian War learned to adapt to their environment, but they failed to grasp the idea of molding the conditions in which they fought to suit their strengths. “The ultimate lesson of the colonial wars, then, was that European and American tactics each had a place; either could be decisive where conditions were best suited to its use.” (Stewart 39) During the War of Independence, the patriot commanders mirrored the European tactics of the British. The European style of warfare involved linear tactics of lines of men facing each other at point blank range in open fields with no cover. The musket, perfect for linear tactics and clear spaces, created this seemingly suicidal strategy. The militia didn’t fall into this trap of adapting to the English way of warfare. “Still, because of their predilection for hit-and-run tactics, militia fought in a way making the unmodified rifle useful to them. Continentals dressed, drilled, and fought much like their British foes.” (York 321) This mobile style contributed to the success of the rifle within the militia. Washington could have better employed the rifle units by utilizing them in ambushes in heavily wooded areas or even opening a European style battle with a volley of fire from rifles out of range of a musket. Yet Washington and his officers can’t bear all the blame since they didn’t have total control over the situations in which the Continental Army fought. Prodded into reflecting British warfare, the Continental Army didn’t change the conditions to facilitate the rifle.

This engraving shows the linear formations used in the American Revolution.
Rogers, C. Washington Taking Command of the American Army at Cambridge. 1775. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. Web. 31 July 2014.

Revered early in the war, rifles ultimately fell short of expectations not due to any inherent weaknesses but to the conditions that exacerbated the rifle’s flaws and diminished its prowess. Washington and his men knew how to adapt to their situation but not how to adapt the situation to their advantage. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”  (Frankl 116) This quote, I believe, can be reversed. Sometimes necessity requires us to adjust to the situation around us, but when possible we must manipulate our environment to play to our strengths.


Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon, 2006. Print.

Grancsay, Stephen Vincent. Craft of the Early American Gunsmith. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1947. Web.

Stewart, Richard W. “Chapter 2.” American Military History. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1989. 19-43. Print.

York, Neil L. Pennsylvania Rifle: Revolutionary Weapon in a Conventional War? Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol.103, issue 3, july 1979. Web.

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