The firearms of the American Colonial militia, pre-1776

rev-volonist1

Today when we think of the modern and mighty US military safeguarding these United States, it may be hard to imagine that close to 250 years ago a very different looking armed force protected a country in a very different place. Before 1776 the United States did not even exist, rather it was a series of 13 colonies all in allegiance to the British throne. But there were then, as there are now, American soldiers. Moreover, they were usually at war.

Militia madness

Going back as far as the 16th century there were the English muster laws under Queen Elizabeth I. In the 1570s these edicts organized all able-bodied men into what we would recognize today as town militias. This law was brought to America from England and the Massachusetts Bay Colonial Militia was founded on December 13, 1636. Explicitly, every man was to have access to a musket or fowling piece (what we would think of today as a shotgun) and a supply of ball and powder. The militia law ordered all men to appear with, “a Gun, fit for service, a Cartouch Box, and a Sword, Cutlass, or Hanger, and at least Twelve Charges of Powder and Ball, or Swan Shot, and Six Spare Flints” when called upon by authorities.

New England Style Fowler Musket

New England Style Fowler Musket, mid 1600s

While most units used their personal weapons, a few arms were issued to the towns by the colonies. These muskets were held by the town and issued to men who did not have a firearm whenever the militia “mustered” on the town green. The most common weapon for many of these men was the New England style fowler, which used a British made lock, mounted on a locally made barrel and stock. Long weapons, they often had a 46 inch barrel, which gave a total length of over 5 feet. Smoothbore in design they could be loaded with shot for hunting or a single large bullet for military service.

Each colony was obligated to hold drills regularly (after Sunday church service!) and, starting in 1702, one-third of each town’s unit formed a group of ‘snow-shoe men.’ These units were meant to muster and march out to the frontier to defend the colony from attacks from Native Americans. They also engaged in the frequent small wars with neighboring French colonies in what is now Canada.

Speaking of…

French and Indians

George Washington at Fort Necessity in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

George Washington at Fort Necessity in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, 1754. This engagement would mark the future General’s only military surrender.

Events in Europe led to the Seven Years War between France and Great Britain. This war, (which actually lasted about nine years from 1754-1763) spilled over into the New World and soon the British army, with their Colonial American allies alongside them, found themselves heavily engaged in fighting with the French and their Native allies in what we now call the French and Indian War. By 1754, the 13 colonies held a population of less than two million persons, which translated into some 300,000 militiamen spread across the hundreds of villages and towns from Maine to Georgia. While the vast majority of the militia was both unable and unwilling to leave their homes and go out into the wilderness to fight the French, several thousand volunteered to serve in provisional units that would be the first American army units. These included nine companies of Roger’s Rangers, the Virginia Regiment (led by Colonel George Washington), and the New Hampshire Regiment.

Arms of the Colonials

While town militia usually only had their personal weapons, of local, “cottage” make, and Roger’s Rangers often carried rifles, also of local make, the arms of those soldiers of the new provisional regiments fighting the French were decidedly British. It was established that each soldier of the Virginia Regiment, for example, be issued a “Sea Service or a Commercial Contract Long Land Type musket with flash guard, hammer cap (hammerstall), bayonet and scabbard.” This musket is best known as the Brown Bess.

Brown Bess

A commercial contract long land type musket (or simply Brown Bess)

The Brown Bess was the standard British Army long arm from 1722-1838, a span which is one of the longest in military history. Over 10 pounds in weight, it was about 60 inches long with either a 42-or 46 inch long smoothbore barrel. This made it something almost akin to the goose guns of modern day. The flintlock snapped down into a baluster-shaped breech pinned to a walnut stock, the curved banana-shaped lock bearing a single (internal) bridle to ignite the powder.

Although the barrel’s caliber was .75-caliber, it was standard practice to fire a .71-caliber ball because about half of the load in any given charge of black powder never left the barrel. This of course meant that without any rifling and inconsistent propellant the Brown Bess was inaccurate past about 100 yards. A trained soldier could fire the flintlock three to four times per minute and would carry a nine or 12 round “belly” cartridge box on their belt to speed up reloading.

However, when used against the most common enemy long arm of the day, the French Model 1746 Flintlock Musket it was an effective gun.

These guns today

A number of reproduction New England Fowler/Milita Muskets are produced for sale today using modern manufacturing techniques. The Brown Bess, in production for nearly 150 years around the world, often appear in collectable gun auctions for thousands. IMA acquired several hundred of these old war dogs in Nepal years ago and has been selling them gradually. New production replicas of the Bess sell for anywhere from $400-$700.

Legacy

Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Regiment.

Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Regiment, 1772.

While the war with France ended in 1763 and the first American army units were disbanded, reverting to town militia, the skills and arms they used were not forgotten. At the outbreak of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord in 1775, former members of Roger’s Rangers were among the Minutemen firing on the British and many officers and soldiers of the Virginia and New Hampshire regiments, Washington included, went on to lead the Continental Army. Today the Massachusetts Bay Colonial Militia is considered the beginning of the National Guard while the US Army’s Ranger Regiment still claims Roger’s Rangers as their grandfather.

Just don’t mention they used British guns…