Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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A great deal has been written about the long rifle and the part it played in turning the tide of many engagements. The cavalry and the rifle companies stir the imagination, but we should not forget that the bulk of the heavy fighting in the Revolution was done by the common soldier equipped with his smoothbore musket. The Revolutionary musket was far from being an instrument of precision. At about a hundred yards only some four shots in ten would hit the mark, and even then a good deal of luck was involved. Since the armies fired in ranks and in volleys, however, accuracy did not matter so much. The musket was a cumbersome affair, weighing thirteen pounds or better with a bayonet. It might have a barrel length up to 46 inches, with a caliber range from .69 on French muskets to .80 and over on some of the Hessian arms.

The name commonly applied to the British musket, Brown Bess, stems from Queen Elizabeth, who ordered musket barrels browned artificially to prevent rusting. The Brown Bess was used on both sides in the Revolution. It has the stock held to the barrel by sliding pins. Various marks occur on the lockplate, including TOWER, DUBLIN CASTLE, occasionally the name of a private maker, and during the reign of the first three Georges the initials G. R. and a crown. Beneath the nashpan on the lockplate is a broad arrow, denoting government ownership.

During the period of the Revolution the form of the Brown Bess changed very little, except for the length of the barrel. In the earlier models this was 46 inches, then about 1760 or somewhat before it was shortened to 42, and finally in the mid-1770's to 39. The later type saw limited if any war service, but the first two types were used extensively, especially that with the 42-inch barrel.

Probably the most sought after and the least understood of all Revolutionary arms is the Committee of Safety musket. These muskets were made under contract for the Committees of Safety by known gunsmiths, but very few of them marked their guns, doubtless for fear of British reprisals in case the Colonies lost the war. Some did put on their mark, however, and even added the date. It is from the few remaining examples, and from the specifications of the various Colonies, that we have learned the little we know about these typically American guns.

One of the most important Revolutionary guns was the French musket, model 1763, which later served as the pattern for the first regulation U.S. musket, the Model 1795. In its day, the French musket was considered the finest known. France sent us 100,000 stand of arms after the Battle of Saratoga. Since most of them were made in the armory at Charleville, these guns are known to collectors as "Charleville muskets." They are also referred to as "Lafayette muskets," because the General brought a number over with him when he came. The French musket differs from the British in that the barrel is held to the stock by iron bands. It is a much sturdier piece, and has a more modern appearance. Its distinguishing markings are CHARLEVILLE in script on the lockplate, surmounted by a D. The barrel is 44 inches long, and the piece 59 1/2 inches overall. Its caliber is .69.

A gun about which very little is known is the Dutch musket. Early in the Revolution, when there was a great scarcity of serviceable arms, the Colonists imported a quantity of arms from Holland, but it is not known exactly when the muskets were received. The barrel of the Dutch musket is 41 inches long, and the whole piece has an over-all measurement of 55 inches. It is characterized by a series of brass barrel bands, the upper one double.

The muskets of the Hessian mercenaries who came to America are beginning to interest the student of early firearms. In the series of tiny states which constituted the Germany of Frederick the Great there was little or no standardization of arms. Moreover, many of the guns brought to America had probably seen European service for the preceding thirty or forty years. It appears that Hessian muskets followed both the basic types, the pinned and the banded barrel. The banded Hessian guns which I have examined have brass bands like the Dutch. In view of the fact that so many Hessian soldiers served in America, it is strange that so few of their muskets are known today. A number have come down to us from General Burgoyne's army, but many of the Hessian muskets must have been destroyed or returned to Germany.

Gradually those interested in the early arms of our country are finding out more about them. Only within the last few years, for instance, the salient features of the British Brown Bess have been listed and described. Many other arms remain to be studied in detail. At some time during the Revolution, particularly in the early years, every known type of musket probably saw service. First came the old fowling pieces used at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and then the other types of guns mentioned above. Let us not forget the part they all played in the early history of the United States.