View Full Version : Weapons of American Revolution - research

March 14, 2012, 04:27 PM
Help. Doing history fair with my son. Are there any interesting facts about the weapons that Washington had vs the weapons that Cornwallis used during the Battle of Princeton? We know that the rifles were about the same but the British soldiers had bayonets. We also know the Americans put cloth on the cannon wheels to approach silently.

Just looking for interesting anecdotal facts to present.

March 14, 2012, 05:31 PM
I would think that the majority of British small arms were the various patterns of Brown Bess muskets. I suspect the majority of Continentals had French made Charleville muskets.

March 14, 2012, 05:45 PM
I would expect the British troops to be uniformly armed, while the Continental forces would have had a mishmash of muskets, rifles, shotguns, etc. The standard for American forces was the .69" musket, since that was the standard for French arms, but militas could be armed with just about anything. I was reading the blurb on wikipedia about Princeton, and saw this interesting tidbit: "Brigadier General Hugh Mercer of the Continental Army, clashed with two regiments." I think Mercer was an ancestor of Gen. George Patton.

March 14, 2012, 11:45 PM
The Battle of Princeton was fought on January 3, 1777 long before the French Alliance. As noted, the British would have carried the Brown Bess, the 42" Short Land Pattern, the Continentals a "mishmash" -F&I Brown Besses, Committee of Safety muskets which were usually copies of the Brown Bess, whatever was brought from home.
The requirement for most militias was that the individual's musket could not be "bastard bore", i.e. had to be .75 or so. Probably so it could take a bayonet.
I live very close to Princeton, am pretty familiar with the battlefield and its history. Hugh Mercer-who died of his wounds on January 12, 1777- was an ancestor of Patton. In the Clarke house which is the museum there they have an excellent collection of period firearms including-Believe It Or Not-a Nock Volley Gun. Shades of Richard Widmark in The Alamo!

March 15, 2012, 08:05 AM
I am actually from Princeton, in Mercer County, only not that Princeton and not that Mercer County. I'm from the one in West Virginia, but at least that's where the name comes from. That must be another West Virginia-New Jersey connection.

Hugh Mercer was originally from Scotland and was present at the battle of Culloden on the Jacobite side. James Wolfe was also present at that battle. He came to this country (So did Flora MacDonald) and settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The composer and songwriter Johnny Mercer was also related to Hugh Mercer. Hugh Mercer's grandson, Hugh Weeden Mercer, built the house in Savannah that was featured in the movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," but never lived there.

Rifles in the 18th Century were for specialist troops and were used on both sides. They were however, slow to reload and a better tactic at the time was to fire a volley and charge. It supposedly resulted in fewer casualties and a quicker decision than just standing there and blasting at one another. When everyone had rifles that could be fired as fast as a smoothbore musket, casualties soared.

One of the eye openers of visiting a museum is seeing the huge variety of weapons in use, though it will give you a skewed idea of the relative numbers. Besides, the rich man's sporting weapons will be the ones that are best preserved, not the private soldier's musket. Weapons were in short supply during revolution, as they always are in all wars, and units from some of the states were poorly supplied compared with those from other states.

March 15, 2012, 08:16 AM
Lot of good reading material available on the subject. And very interesting as well. I suggest it would be more fun than getting replies here. But responses so far have been good.
And, do note, riflemen used rifles.
As did the German (mercenary) Hessians hired by the English. Only they had problems and were no match for our American Riflemen.

March 15, 2012, 08:23 AM
The first shipment of 37,000 Charleville muskets arrived in the spring of 1777. That would have been too late for Princeton.

44 AMP
March 15, 2012, 10:12 PM
When the milita was called up to fight, it was all the men of like mind, and the physical ability to fight. They showed up with whatever they had. Could be a musket of some type, could be a rifle (not nearly as common) or it could be a "fowling piece" of some type (much more common than usually thought).

Organized militias tried to be "well regulated", which in the parlance of the day meant that each member showed up with his arm, a specified quantity of shot and powder, and his basic camping gear. And that he also knew the rudiments of military manuever. Common caliber arms were encouraged, but seldom achieved until later in the war.

Militia members with their personal arms were at a disadvantage in the traditional European "line up and face each other" tactics, (where unit commanders aimed the fire of the unit, rather than each man aiming individually) where is was 2, or 3, or 4 volleys, and then close with cold steel.

Rifles and fowling pieces, unable to take a bayonet (even if evey 4th or 5th gun could have a bayonet), put us at a distinct disadvantage when ALL the other guys had bayonets and were running at you. One seldom wins fighting on the enemy's terms.

Look and see who (meaning units) was at Princeton. That will tell you which general arms they used. Early on, Colonial units were not as standardized as they were later able to become. Regular British units? Hessians? Local Militia? Contental Army? The precise arms used by each varies a lot with the time and place, although the standard for any formed unit was usually some class of musket. Rodger's Rangers and Dan Morgan's riflemen excepted.

March 16, 2012, 05:25 AM
It helps to keep in mind that there where laws at that time that mandated that people had to own and keep up a musket type weapons and the trappings that went with it. But as most laws on the control and order of weapons for the public it did not work out that well.

If you look at the records from King Williams war most of the called up troops had match locks vs the common flint lock as they could buy them cheep and that caused a total ban on match lock guns.

So in 1775-6 they were called up and expected to have the standard musket and bayo but a lot had the 11 bore fowling guns. Looks like a land pattern gun and shoots the same ammo but wont take a bayonet and why the Brits took Breeds Hill with cold steel.

March 16, 2012, 08:59 AM
There are militias and there are well regulated militias...

Yes. In the parlance of the time "regulated" meant 'equiped'.

March 16, 2012, 09:41 AM
No, sir! Well-regulated meant subject to the government. The last thing the founders of the republic wanted was private armies.

The militias of the time were state troops and they existed well before the revolution, there of course being no national government. Even the first Continental Congress convened without the existance of a national government. Many of the officers and men of the revolutionary armies got their first experiences in battle with state troops in the French & Indian War.

It would please me for everyone here to understand that the purpose of the militia was and is not to enable people overthrow the government but quite the opposite.

March 16, 2012, 10:46 AM
Actually, BlueTrain, I believe that you are referring to what was called a "select militia", which was closer in concept to our current National Guard. My understanding of "well regulated" meant well-drilled, though I suppose that would include being properly equipped.

March 16, 2012, 04:53 PM
We seem to be drifiting into an RKBA/Meaning of the 2nd Amendment thread.
The salient point is that the militiaman provided his own firelock, it was HIS private property. In fact he provided most of his own equipment.

March 18, 2012, 12:05 PM
The militias of the time were state troops

While technically true, I believe this statement is misleading.

I'm sure there are folks on here that can correct my failings here, but I believe the following is generally correct -


The Whig intellectual tradition than generated our Founders had an extreme fear of standing professional armies. Standing armies were, they believed, inimical to the preservation of liberty.

Now, when I first heard that (on here, come to think of it - around ten years ago. :eek: ) - I'd just assumed that was meant in the "a soldier on every street corner isn't good for liberty" sense - or even "the taxes you have to maintain a large professional army are so large as to oppress a people."

The more of our Founders actual writings I've read since however, the shallower I see that conception was.

The real answer goes back - as with so much else - to the Romans. More particularly, Gaius Marius, at the tail end of the second century BC.

It's common knowledge that Julius Caesar was the hingepoint on which it's generally considered the Roman Republic to have collapsed, and the Empire to have risen in it's place.

Without Gaius Marius however, there could have been no Julius Caesar.


Once upon a time, the Roman Republic practiced a system fairly common across the Hellenic world. If you were a proper soldier on the lines, you were a citizen. A free, land holding citizen. You had obligations back home, a farm back home, and you didn't need some general promising you booty in order to feed your family.

The problem was as the wars kept grinding on - and those free soldiers were kept on campaign away from their home obligations - the number of free citizens available kept declining as Rome's military requirements kept growing.

Eventually, Gaius Marius just cut the Gordian knot - he simply abolished the citizenship requirement. Now anyone could be recruited - and promised whatever their general could arrange after service was complete.

This professionalizing of the army had two unintended(?) consequences, both of which were disastrous for the Republic. The first and most important was that it removed the greatest barriers to frequent, long-term campaigns. If a legionary is getting his pay whether he's encamped on the misty fringes of Britannia or marching all over the Middle East, most of the political pressure to stay out of a constant state of war is lessened. Remove the fear of a levy from the citizenry, and then it all but vanishes. The second effect - and this is the one I think BlueTrain is referencing - is that it made those troops dependent on their generals for their future prospects. This ultimately led to a tribalizing of the army under competing ambitious generals, and eventually recurring civil war.

And that is why so many of our Founders recoiled at the idea of a professional army, and why even as necessary as the Continental Line was for the United States to win their independence, it was quickly demobilized to skeleton levels. Standing armies of state troops lead inevitably to a mindset of "us and them." That can be good - usually is at first. It prevents undue hardship on the civilian population. But if there's one thing most of the Founders were realistic to the point of pessimism about, it was the eternal fallibility of man. Monopoly of force - like any monopoly of power - would lead inevitably to abuse.

This awareness extended all the way down to the soldiers on the Continental Line itself. Joseph Plumb Martin, a young veteran of the Revolutionary War, reflects in his memoirs in the difference of condition between himself and the Hessians he finds himself fighting. In fact, in the years between his own service in the Revolution and the time of his writing, some New England militia would actively refuse to enter Canada during the War of 1812, so resistant to expeditionary duty was the nature of militia.

So yes - militia were "state troops" in the sense that they were organized by the respective states. However, they were not "state troops" in the modern sense, because membership was nearly universal. If you were a male citizen of fighting age, you were in the militia.

That was very much by design. At every step, the Founders were trying to ensure the power of the sword was held not by a single class accountable only to a minority, but was broadly held. An armed cadre of "state troops" unchecked by a populace capable of asserting their own rights - such as was the case in much of Europe - was seen as a horror.

So - the militia were "state troops"

Yes and no. :)

March 18, 2012, 07:34 PM
"Well regulated" in the parlance of the day meant trained and disciplined.

March 19, 2012, 07:07 AM
Well, actually, Kaylee (nice post), my thinking was not so elevated nor so thorough. I do find it interesting that you brought up the Romans. We often hear references to Ancient Greece in connection to both democracy and military service. Yet in the 18th and 19th centuries, I believe it was really Rome that was the basic reference point.

At any rate, all I meant by the militias being state troops was that they could only be state (and colonial) troops because there was national government. When the regular units were raised, they were recruited from the militia, among other sources. But I wouldn't say service was universal. Far from it. You had to be free, white, male, and of a certain age. Hardly universal. While service in the militia was theoretically compulsive, I don't know what the circumstances were regarding joining a regular unit. However, in addition to being all of the above, you obviously couldn't be a loyalist. Sounds sort of ironic, doesn't it?

The biggest drawback of the militia system was that it simply produced poor soldiers, or at least, poor fighting units. Other early US units after the regular army was re-established were really very efficient. Some state troops were also stationed along the frontier, piece-meal fashion, because of troubles with the savages. But after the defeat of the Indians in Ohio, the troubles ceased along the Allegheny Front, the frontier moved west a couple hundred miles and "the land was flooded with speculators." Some things haven't changed.

While we have the quaint idea that every able-bodied (free white) man could show up on muster day with his firelock and pouch to be drilled by the local squire, the reality was something short of that. Don't forget by the way that these militia bodies were arms of local government. They did not arise out of thin air. Arms, whatever they might have been, were a problem. Of course in wartime, everything in always in short supply, especially weapons. So some arms were produced or acquired by the government. Those were known as the Committee of Safety muskets.

March 19, 2012, 07:40 AM
The British were armed with muskets that weren't even equipped with sights. They fired in volleys, and their effective range was very short. Not exactly a good Turkey gun. The command was simply "fire"---there was no "aim". The smoke created cover for them to maneuver and the bayonet was considered the main weapon in many of their battles. Considering the British order of battle, the musket suited their purposes. Fire from ranks, maneuver on command, large caliber, slow, heavy ball.

The Militia were armed, as least to a large extent, with the Kentucky Rifle. Also known as the Pennsylvania Rifle. It was accurate and deadly for much longer distances. It's drawback was that it needed to be cleaned more frequently and that became a significant factor during extended battles with lots of firing and reloading. The Kentucky rifle was also more delicate and less rugged.

Militia rifles were, essentially, hunting rifles used for securing food, and represented the familily's firearm. Maybe their only one.

We know from documents that George Washington was unhappy with Militia who reported for duty without their own weapons, but it's easy to understand the unwillingness of a militiaman to leave his family on their farm unprotected and unable to hunt.

But that's a whole other subject.

The British also had the advantage, as mentioned, of that big long bayonet that represented a serious physcological factor. The Hessian mercenaries, fighting for the British, understood the fear factor well, and their highly polished bayonets glistened in the sun. More than one unseasoned bunch of Militia were put to flight as a result.

The Continental Army,that commanded the Militia, was most dangerous when it was on the run. Many of it's pursuers were ambushed or picked off by a good rifleman, well outside the range of any British musket.

It would be a while before the Americans learned to maneuver on command, and gain confidence in battle--thanks to intensive drilling by a Prussian officer named Baron Friedrich von Steuben at Valley Forge. This greatly improved moral and taught the Continental Army discipline.

March 20, 2012, 12:05 PM
I was just looking over the Wikipedia entry for the Battle of Princeton. For whatever was used, casualties were certainly light and apparently a little uncertain. The maximum number listed as killed was 100 on the British side.

I had been trying to find the title of a book probably published in the 1950s about (I think) Revolutionary war weapons, probably from the Stackpole Company. I'll keep looking but there are a lot of current books about the subject. That isn't to say they'll be in the local library, however.

Aux armes citoyens; Formez vox batallions!

March 20, 2012, 12:09 PM
Harold Peterson was the man I was trying to remember. I backed into the name because I recalled he also wrote a book about Sylvan Hart. The book I was trying to remember was "Arms and Armor in Colonial America." However, I've never read any of his books.

4V50 Gary
March 20, 2012, 12:22 PM
There are reenactors down in Southern Illinois. They meet near that reconstructed fort that is across the river from Paducah, KY. You might also want to visit the rangers at Vincennes. They know all about the war and may let you use their library. It is quite good.