Brown Bess Meets the Pennsylvania Rifle

In the early 1700s, German gunsmiths began to emigrate to the Thirteen Colonies, and the first group landed in Pennsylvania. They brought with them the skills on how to make rifled barrels.

Before these gunsmiths emigrated, they manufactured two types of muskets – smoothbore weapons for the local army and rifled-muskets for the men who helped the landed gentry and nobility hunt. These men were called Jägers (pronounced yay gers) and settled in every colony.

Once in the Thirteen Colonies, they began to make weapons that met the needs of their customers, i.e., hunters. Back in the 18th Century, one couldn’t walk to the local supermarket and buy meat. You either butchered your cows and lost a source of milk or you went hunting.

What evolved goes by several names – American long rifle, Pennsylvania long rifle, or Kentucky rifle, its most popular moniker. These weapons had common features, i.e., long barrels 32 to 48 inches long, wood stocks, flint-lock firing mechanism, and weighed between seven and 10 pounds. The overall length of the gun was, depending on the length of the barrel,  between 48 and 70 inches. Calibers varied from .32 to .62, with .45 – .48 being the most common. And the steel barrels were rifled.

They also had another innovation we take for granted. The gunsmiths added a rear sight which the shooter could line up with the front sight before he pulled the trigger.

A soldier with a smoothbore musket would be lucky to consistently hit a target at 50 yards. It was a point-and-shoot weapon without sights and its effective range was 100 yards, although one could hit the side of a barn at 200 yards. If the ball didn’t hit anything, it could fly 1,200 yards

With the front and rear sights on a Pennsylvania rifle, the shooter could routinely hit targets at 200 yards. With practice, killing a deer at 300 yards was not out of the question.

When the American Revolution broke out, those who joined the Continental Army brought their own smoothbore and rifled muskets. These were supplemented by British Army Land Pattern muskets left over from the Seven Years War, a.k.a. in the U.S. as the French and Indian War.

Originally designed in 1722, the standard British Army musket was a proven weapon when the American Revolution began. It fired a .70 – .80 caliber round lead ball, weight 10.5 pounds, was 58.5 inches long, and one could attach a nasty looking 16.25 -inch bayonet.

Known as the Brown Bess, between 1722 and 1851, when the last variant was made, British gunmakers had built 4.5 million Land Pattern muskets. By contrast, only about 70,000 Pennsylvania rifles were made in roughly the same period.

In the Continental Army, those who could demonstrate their skill with their rifled muskets were formed into sharpshooter units used as scouts. In a battle, their orders were to kill British Army officers, which they did to great effect throughout the war. The most notable shot was fired by Timothy Murphy at the Battle of Saratoga when, from 300 yards, he mortally wounded British Army General Simon Fraser.

As Americans pushed westward, the Pennsylvania long rifle became known as the Kentucky Rifle. Equally, if not more important, is that the German Jäger tradition of hunting and marksmanship translated well to life in the Thirteen Colonies and the new United States. The Pennsylvania rifle helped spawn the tradition of the American rifleman, which has served us well in every war fought by the United States.

Top – John Spitzer Kentucky Rifle at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.

Bottom – British military short land pattern musket known as a Brown Bess. This firearm was used by Thomas F. Bates in the American Revolution and by his son, Edward Bates, in the War of 1812. Missouri History Museum.

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