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Myths of the Minutemen and Militia: Marksmanship along Battle Road


From an old book in my library..stirred to read again from a recent return trip to Lexington and Concord (+ 10 years).

Author Allen French clearly separated truth from fiction when he discussed the marksmanship potential and capabilities of the eastern Massachusetts militia on that day of consequence, 19 April, 1775. I have realigned the text and graphics somewhat for ease of reading.

The day of Concord and Lexington By Allen French. BOSTON, LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY, 1925

V Flintlocks And Marksmanship 27

"THE deficiency in powder has its bearing upon the important question of the marksmanship of the Americans. Every narrative of the fighting on the Nineteenth of April speaks of the superior shooting of the provincials, with the easy assumption that as a body they were marksmen. Study of the casualties of that long retreat shows that superior as they may have been to the British, marksmen they were not. If every American who fired at the redcoats on that day had inflicted a single serious wound, not one of either Smith's or Percy's men would have limped across Charlestown Neck that night. This will be shown when we come to a study of the fighting itself. But speaking generally, and looking at the case with the local circumstances in mind, there was no reason why, beyond a certain outdoors tradition and love of handling a gun, the provincials should have been as good shots as their ancestors.
In the first place, the only men who were able to get a shot at the British on that day were men of eastern Massachusetts, very few of whom had ever had a chance at big game. It is true that game was seen from time to time, as is shown by the fact that just about this period a cow moose was shot in Connecticut. But that the animal was unrecognized, and was described in the newspapers as a kind of prodigy, is proof of the unusualness of the occurrence.1 The country in eastern Massachusetts was no more wooded than it is today, while the lack of game laws makes it seem more than likely that even deer were rare. The farmers of that day used their smoothbores as fowling pieces. Had they shot at deer they would have used buckshot—and that is a very different matter from using bullets at a considerable range.
1 My reference to this is mislaid. The incident means no more than does the fact that in January, 1924, a doe was seen in Main Street, Concord, and that in June of the same year a fawn broke a plate-glass window in Worcester. In both places deer are extremely unusual.

And in the second place, only exceptional men are natural marksmen, while even they need frequent practice. Any man with experience in our recent War, whether in the regular army or some force of home guards, learned how much range firing is needed to make a good shot out of a civilian, even though he be, as most Americans are, familiar with the mechanism of a gun. A mere occasional field day, with a chance of ten or twenty shots at a target, can do no more than show a man the diff1culty of the art. If studied as a science, rifle-shooting needs mastery of the trigger-squeeze, of sighting, of estimating the range, of wind, of mirage. This refers to the use of our modern rifle, an instrument of precision, which if held "on" the target at the instant of a proper trigger-pull will put the bullet on its way to the mark long before the recoil can derange the aim. But the firelock of 1775 had a slow hammer that by means of a flint ignited the powder in the pan, a slow flash that set off (in most cases) the powder in the barrel, a slow-burning powder that sent a slow bullet along a heavily dropping trajectory. The aim with a flintlock needed therefore to be held steadily and long. There was in addition probably not a rifled weapon in Massachusetts, except the imported gun of a sportsman or the duelling pistol of some offlcer.1

Further, there was no absolute uniformity of either powder or bullets. Even under the best conditions, therefore, much shooting was necessarily haphazard, except in the case of men who knew their individual guns, trimmed their rough-cast bullets with care, made their cartridges or loaded theif guns always exactly alike, and, finally, were able to do enough practice shooting to teach them how to use the gun under varying conditions. But the average man in those last few months of preparation was denied the chance to perfect himself in shooting. Let him have a good gun, let him have ever so good a will in making his cartridges properly—but when once made the cartridges stayed in their box, and the gun hung on the wall, except when taken down for use in drill. For powder was too precious to be wasted.
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The Flintlock of 1775



1 The action of the flintlock gun, used in warfare for over a century, was as follows. A hammer holding a flint was snapped forward against a steel from which it struck sparks. This steel was a part of the cover of a "pan" holding a few pinches of powder. The angle of the blow of the flint forcing open the pan, the sparks would ignite the powder. The flash entering by a touchhole into the barrel of the gun, would ignite the charge. If the flint failed to spark, or if the powder in the pan had become wet, or if the touchhole were clogged, the gun would fail to fire.
A proper flint had sharp or jagged edges. When these were rounded by friction, the flint would no longer spark. Then it had to be made rough by "picking" or "knapping", or else had to be replaced.
A rifle is a gun of which the barrel is bored with spiral grooves. These, giving a twist or spin to the bullet, make it fly true. If the bullet fits them closely, there is less escape of gas, and the range is longer. Even in European armies, there were comparatively few rifles in use in 1775, though Saxe advocated the use of the "rifled fusee"; and in Massachusetts practically none were used, whether by the regulars or the provincials.
pp.28-30
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Speaking of the militia, and even of the minute men as a whole,* the chief practice that they could indulge in was snapping the flintlocks upon the empty barrels on the village green.

It is true, of course, that potentially the American was a better shot than the Briton who was to oppose him. Taken from a handicraft or from the plough, the British recruit had neither knowledge of nor interest in the use of a gun, unless he had once been either a gamekeeper or a poacher. On the other hand, every Yankee knew the stories of the fights of his ancestors with the Indians, if indeed he had not himself been in the fighting, the last of which had taken place but fifteen years before. There were in Massachusetts some of the older men who had been at the taking of Louisburg in 1745, and a good sprinkling of men in their early forties who had been at the battles around Lake George. Small as was the proportion of these men in the population as a whole, and remote as was the time when every man could kill his own meat at the cost of a little hunting, there survived in the province the tradition of frontier life, and a genuine contempt for the methods of the regulars.
The British army was thoroughly Europeanized, for on the continent had been its chief battles; and Wolfe and Howe, the only leaders besides Sir Jeffrey Amherst who had both genius and an understanding of frontier methods, died too early to effect a change in its tactics. The regular army had therefore absorbed or imitated the French or Prussian drill, and trained its battalions to attack in an extended front of men three deep, with volley firing by platoons in regular sequence, commonly beginning at a range too great for effectiveness. Such was the method of the first two British attacks at Bunker Hill.1 But the general weakness of such volley firing was already clearly recognized by all students of the writings of Marshal Saxe, among whom it was held to be a good principle to reserve the fire until the last possible instant before charging.2 This theory was absorbed by some of the American drill masters, who would add a military as well as a political reason to the general practice of exhorting their men to wait for the British fire. For politically, as even the youngest knew, they would not then be aggressors in a civil war. And tactically the risk would be well repaid, as we shall see at Concord bridge.
1 This was in spite of Wolfe's advice that troops should attack an intrench- ment "not in a line, but in small firing columns of three or four platoons in depth, with small parties between each column, who are to fire at the top of the parapet." The final attack at Bunker Hill was in column and succeeded.
'On the effectiveness of eighteenth-century musket fire see the "Reveries" of Marshal Saxe, Edinburgh, 1759, pp. 28-30; this is quoted in part in Timothy Pickering's "Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia", pp. 126-128. See also the "British Military Library, or Journal", London, 1799, pp. 180-181. ("It is generally supposed that, upon an average, every hundredth ball only does execution.") Algarotti's "Letters", London, 1783, p. 298; William Thomson's "Military Memoirs", London, 1804, p. 464; Duane's "Military Dictionary", Philadelphia, 1810.

It is true that there had lately been a change toward common sense in the tactics of the British infantry. In Eland's "Treatise on Military Discipline", which up to 1753 had been the drill book for the army, the manual of loading and firing showed a hopeless formalism. For loading the officers gave sixteen orders, followed by the privates in a series of forty-nine motions, showing the ideal of the martinet of those days. At that time the soldier did not aim, he "presented" his piece: squared his body to the enemy, held his head upright, and having the butt of his gun in the hollow of his shoulder, pointed the barrel straight in front of him, but inclined a little downward, so that, in case the bullet sped directly at a man in front and not too far away, it would strike him in the middle. Soldiers were expected to hold their guns in this position until their officer was satisfied that they had correctly "levelled", when he gave the word "Fire!" and they pulled their "trickers." 1
1 Eland's "Treatise on Military Discipline", edition of 1753.
But even though in 1764 a simpler manual had been adopted, with marked improvement in simplicity of drill, it was still cumbersome. For the ordinary priming and loading eight orders were given, to be executed in "Prime and Load!" twelve movements. Simplicity had been gained in part by priming the gun not from a horn, but from the bitten cartridge. And for emergencies, at the single order "Prime and Load!" the men were taught to do the ma- noeuver in fifteen motions. But one questions how much the emergency was prepared for, or how much, on the other hand, the parade-ground type of officer insisted on the longer method, with the "one, two" counted between the motions. Such a question touches a vital matter when it comes to the question of aiming, of which the book gives two methods. At "Present!" the soldier was to " Step back about six inches with the Right Foot, bringing the Left Toe to the Front; at the same Time the Butt-End of the Firelock must be brought to an equal Height with your Shoulder, placing the Left-Hand on the Swell, and the Fore-Finger of the Right-Hand before the Tricker, sinking the Muzzle a little."
This was really no better than the directions of 1753, although the head was not necessarily held upright. But further directions on another page of the manual of 1764 seems to show that the regulars were progressing in learning how to aim. "And raise up the Butt so high upon the Right Shoulder, that you may not be obliged to stoop too much with the Head, the Right Cheek to be close to the Butt, and the left Eye shut, and look along the Barrel, with the Right Eye, from the Breech Pin to the Muzzle." The formalist was allowing the head to be stooped, then, but not too much, and nothing was said of the object to be aimed at, nor of the sights—not of the rear sight, for there was none; and nothing of the front sight, though one was there.1
1 Copies of the British manual of 1764 are rare. I have used the Massachusetts reprint of 1774, as ordered by the Provincial Congress. See pp. 3, 4, 5,

To a generation like ours, which studies the niceties of marksmanship, such directions seem absurd. Being intended, however, for men not above the intelligence of the English peasant of those days, they were doubtless well enough planned for their purpose. After much drill a company of these men probably learned to be quick and smart, and when they were veterans they or their European models became marvellously adept in loading and firing. The Prussians were finally drilled to shoot five times a minute, on the theory that, since the time that tried a man's nerves was when his gun was unloaded, he was the steadier for such speed. Other armies, however, recognized the chances of misfires from undue haste, and were content, even as late as Napoleon, with two or three rounds a minute.1 One might remark that those old soldiers might well learn to fire fast if they spent no time in aiming.
It was this last consideration that struck the provincials of 1774, this and our national disinclination to the niceties of show. Practically considering that the simpler the drill, the quicker a man could learn efficiency, certain "officers of the minute men, in the north-west part of the county of Worcester", petitioned on November 24th that the Provincial Congress should establish the military drill called the "Norfolk Exercise", which was apparently a simpler manual.2 But native genius had still further
II, 12. The same directions are to be found in "The Military Guide for Young Officers", by Thomas Simes, Philadelphia, 1776.
I Lloyd's "History of Infantry ", pp. 154-155. Encyclopedia Britannica, ed. of 1911, article "Infantry." Saxe wrote ("Reveries ", p. 100); "one can fire six times in a minute with ease; nevertheless, I shall only say four."
I1 have been unable to find a copy of this Norfolk Exercise. Timothy Pickering describes it in his preface. For the proceedings of the Congress, see the journals under the dates given.

The Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia
suggestions, and on the 9th of December the Congress appointed a committee (on which we see once more the useful William Heath, now Colonel) "to consider a plan of military exercise, proposed by Capt. Timothy Pickering, Jr." Pickering is a man who in his time filled many parts, a born controversialist ready with his pen, of whom like Heath we shall see more. The plan he proposed was doubtless his "Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia", published in Salem in 1775.
The book followed, in many respects, the old tactics of Bland and others, quotes them and Saxe, and gives evidence of much book study. The latest method was used in priming from the bitten cartridge.1 No parade- ground methods of loading were used: the men primed and loaded in ten motions, from a single order. What is more, here appears in print the result of generations of frontier warfare, in teaching the men to aim. "Lean the cheek against the butt of the firelock, shut the left eye, and look with the right along the barrel, from the breech-pin to the sight near the muzzle, at the object you would hit; or, in other words (to use the well-known phrase) take good sight." 2
1 The reader understands, it is to be hoped, that the cartridge of those days was made of a bullet and the requisite amount of powder, rolled together in paper into a cylinder small enough to enter, powder end first, into the barrel of the gun when fouled with shooting. If just snug enough to enter a clean barrel, the cartridges would soon be useless. In earlier days the cartridges contained powder alone; now they contained both powder and ball, and were used in the following manner. Holding the cartridge by the bullet end, the paper of the other end was bitten open, and a proper quantity was shaken into the pan of the gun, which was then closed. The rest of the powder was poured down the barrel and the bullet and paper stuffed in after it and rammed home.
'Pickering's "Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia", p. 21.
Here is seen the great difference between the British and the American idea of shooting. Lacking opportunity for practice, the American was no marksman, but he was on the way to be. We know from Lieutenant Barker's diary that the regulars had their rare field days at target practice. Without such opportunities the provincial could not be the expert with the gun that history would make him; but in spite of his lack of training the American was, because of his traditions and his cast of mind, potentially the more dangerous man with a gun.1
1 Barker's "The British in Boston", entry for December 9, 1774, p. 9. There are very few such entries. Andrews, while implying some frequency of practice, ridicules the British shooting. (Massachusetts Historical Society's Proceedings for July, 1865, p. 371.)
Note on the Slow Fire of the Flintlock. It would be hard to find today a man who has habitually used the flintlock as a practical tool, but I have come across a memorandum, made in 1898, of a description given me by my French Canadian guide, who in his boyhood had been entrusted with the family weapon, an ancestral flintlock. "I didn' like Mm. Firs' 'e strike, then 'e flash, then 'e go—clow! bzz! po-o-wl Shoot like a cannon, but awful slow. I tol' my farzer 'e shoot three time with new gun while 'e shoot once with old, so 'e give 'im up." Anyone can see the necessity of a long and steady aim with a gun that took so long in going off." (French, pp. 27-36) end of chapter V

Chapter XXX analyzes the changed situation when Percy's relief column arrives in Lexington and meets their harassed and exhausted comrades returning from Concord:
"Lord PERCY had one good quality of a soldier, for he could change his mind. Perhaps he remained of the same opinion as to the artful and designing villainy of the rebels, but one idea that he had been led into, that they were cowards, he unhesitatingly abandoned. He may have found amusement in letting his fifes play "Yankee Doodle", and watching the faces of the Whigs who listened as he marched out of Boston. He may have doubted Gould's story that Smith was being driven by the provincials. But when he saw the hurrying van of that broken force he admitted once and for all the valor of the men who could keep British grenadiers in hot retreat.
Very likely he did not look beyond the concrete fact. He could not be expected to understand that here was the arising of a new martial nation, fighting according to its own peculiar genius. He could not see that nation taking the despised ditty to be its own cherished tune, nor realize that that people would in a few years be winning campaigns from British generals by its own methods. In his situation he might not take a view detached enough to perceive that what the Americans now needed was leadership. Yet he may have been wise enough to pray that on that day leadership might still be lacking.
Percy was no raw soldier. Thirty-three years of age, he had served in the continental wars, and knew the science of that parade-ground school which still dominated all European tactics. The more to his credit, then, that with only a cloud of skirmishers about him, he knew himself to be in a danger where only the dogged following of a single policy could save his men. To rest the tired detachment, and then with flankers out to force his way back to Boston, was the best that he could do.1 Every delay was dangerous, and there was no help from Gage. For there in Lexington was more than a third of Gage's little army.

Percy rigidly adhered to the necessary plan. "No part of the brigade was ordered to advance," wrote Mackenzie, who with less insight seems to have expected an effort to punish the provincials. As the Yankees, always under cover, crept near and sniped his men, Percy took care to destroy their best protection, and ordered the throwing down of much stone wall, and the burning of three near-by buildings.
This, with the cannonading of the church, was long regarded with abhorrence by American historians, as well as by orators at the many anniversaries which have been celebrated on our historic ground. It is a testimony of our underlying good sense that there is still in Massachusetts a not unkindly feeling toward the English earl, even though he prevented our complete triumph.
Nor in spite of all that has been said of the conduct of Percy's troops on the retreat, is there a soldier of to-day who would deny him the right that he unhesitatingly took, to order his men into every house from which the column was fired on, when woe to the man of whatever age that was found within the walls. When old men were fighting against the regulars, suspicion lay heavily against every white head found within range;2 and when time was desperately short, suspicion was condemnation. Let the Percy Orders the Retreat
1 It was said that Percy had meant to intrench in Cambridge. See "Narrative and Critical History of America", vi, 124.
1 When the young men powdered their hair, discrimination would be difficult.

reader of our old histories, and the patriotic sympathizer with the heroic defenders of the rights of a free people, remember that the regulars were fighting for their lives, that many of them had in their hearts the terror of the scalping knife, and that in hot blood they could not pause for gentle methods. There are brutes, too, in every army. The time to check the deviltry of war is not when weapons have been fleshed and the demons in men have been unchained, but when preventive wisdom still may be heard.
As soon as he felt it possible to get the tired detachment again upon its legs, and doubtless too soon for many of them, Percy ordered the retreat. With the detachment in front, and the Royal Welsh Fusileers in the rear,1 at about quarter past three the fifteen hundred men formed in column and began their march.2 However defiant was the most reckless man there, the men of sense may well have wondered what now was to ha'ppen.
For this did not depend entirely upon themselves. It is true that they had been greatly strengthened. Apart from the fresh troops, they had a leader who could keep his head; and the new regiments were officered by men who within a month had conducted one long practice march with the rank and file. Moreover, as we shall see, a new factor had entered, the artillery. Percy's field- pieces during the halt had reduced the Americans to comparative silence. The cannon were to maintain their influence in the march that followed. Evidently the British were far stronger than before.
1 The Royal Welsh were the 23d Regiment.
' In adopting Mackenzie's figures I accept a lower estimate than common, which would put the total some hundreds higher. Heath said the total was from 1500 to 2000. The diarists generally put the numbers lower than would be expected; for example, the Pope MS. puts the brigade at "about 700." About 1800 has been the common estimate.

The Americans needed therefore some factor to offset British reinforcements, British cannon, and British leadership. American reinforcements were sure to come. Cannon were not to be had: the sole idea, until now, had been to hide them from confiscation, and not a single company of provincial matrosses was ready for the field. There were no new British tactics for the Americans to meet; the regulars had gained most in morale, and American morale could scarcely be bettered. What was needed was generalship to break down the stubborn British determination to drive forward.
Of the American generals, Artemas Ward, the senior, was sick that day in Shrewsbury. Preble had resigned his office. Pomeroy and Thomas were not in evidence. There remained only Heath, and he was on the field. Wakened at daybreak, he went to meet with the Committee of Safety, whose record for the day contains only a clerk's copy of an order of the preceding day. The actual work of the committee during the morning seems to have been sending out the news to the farther towns and the other colonies. The speed with which the call spread, the excitement and determination with which it was received and passed on, make in themselves an interesting story.
The committee is believed to have met at Menotomy, and it would be interesting to know how its members kept clear of Percy's column.....
Leaving this meeting, Heath tried to gain the road ahead of Percy's column, and for the purpose took a detour through Watertown. Here he was appealed to by the militia, who asked for orders. With forethought, Heath sent them down to Cambridge bridge, with orders "to take up the planks, barricade the south end of the bridge, and there to take post", in order to "impede" Percy's retreat.2 The words do not read as if he expected to stop the British.
Continuing his detour to Lexington, Heath was joined by Warren, and apparently the two remained together.8 At Lexington Heath assisted in "forming a regiment, which had been broken by the shot from the British field- pieces (for the discharge of these, together with the flames and smoke of several buildings . . . opened a new and more terrific scene)." It seems strange that in that kind of fighting an American regiment should have kept together long enough to be broken by the cannon, and that Heath should have assisted in forming it. What was his purpose? Was he to try to change the American tactics?
1 Frothingham's "Life of Warren", p. 457.
General Heath's "Memoirs", p. 14 (p. 21 in reprint of 1904).
* " From this time Warren, as chairman of the committee in Boston, kept near Heath, for counsel if need be." Justin Winsor in "Narrative and Critical History of America", vi, 125. The statement is conjectural, though the conjecture may be a good one. Heidi says merely that Warren " kept with him."

They needed to be bettered. For successful as they had been till now, the British flankers had caused too high a percentage of the American deaths, and again, the column had not suffered a single check.
Perhaps new tactics were impossible with men who instinctively fell out of ranks to begin individual firing at the regulars. Practically every company that came on the ground acted as did the Woburn men. Their captain wrote, "We . . . then concluded to scatter and make use of trees and walls for to defend us, and attack them."1 But if the British flanking were to be stopped, other methods were necessary. Leaving the rear-guard action to take care of itself, but designing to protect the men who were attacking in flank, Heath should have kept in advance of the column. Holding together every regiment, battalion, or company that came on the field in a body, Heath should have ordered them to keep under cover, but to waylay and crush every flank guard that the British sent out. It was a certain way not only to protect his men, but also to break down the new British morale.
And next Heath should have sought every opportunity to block the road. That might not have been very simple. At dozens of places the shade trees of to-day could very soon, by means of a little ax-work, be made into tangles difficult for marching troops to pass. Such places probably were not frequent in 1775, but wherever trees stood
1 Diary of Loammi Baldwin. Kurd's "History of Middlesex County ", i, 448.
American Inexperience

near the road they should have been felled across it. As military men know, the slightest check to a column is sufficient to delay the march for minutes.1 Such frontal checks could have been made serious by means of fire, however slight, from the near-by stone walls—and the New England stone wall, little known as it is to people from other parts of the country, is frequent enough for such a purpose, and when well-built, that is double-built, impervious to bullets.
It all reads so nicely, on paper, that one is likely to forget the reasons against it: that Heath had no staff to help him give his orders, that the regiments had no field officers experienced in directing their men, and more important than anything else, that the men themselves were too raw.
Here too came in the influence of the cannon. Their effect upon the men is severely complained of by Joseph Thaxter, in his letter of 1824. Speaking of the cannon during Percy's wait at Lexington, he says "They fired them, but the balls went high over our heads. But no cannon ever did more execution; such stories of their effectf [sic] had been spread by the Tories through our troops, that, from this time, more went back then [sic] pursued."
To some extent Thaxter was right, though it scarcely needed Tories to spread rumors. Against militia, cannon are always demoralizing. And it is true that from Lexington on, many turned back. We have other testimony to that effect. Gordon says in his "History", "There were never more than about four hundred provincials together, attacking at one and the same time; and often scarce that number. But as some tired and gave out, others came up."1 John Winthrop, professor at Harvard College, had much the same story, for he wrote on the fifth of June, " I have been assured by several who were in the action, that not more than 300 of our people were engaged at any one time."2 Stiles heard the story in such form that he doubted it: that only a hundred and fifty provincials were in the action. "Yet I should think the men of courage exceeded 150."
1 "No one without actual experience can possibly understand how the slightest obstacle in the road, a small brook or fallen tree, will disorganize a marching column." C. F. Morse in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, Xliv, 6+-

Stiles missed the point that Gordon gives us, the fatigue of the pursuers. Thaxter adds a factor to the case, the cannon. It is very natural that some of the men that saw the cannon ball go clean through Lexington church should suddenly find that they were very tired, or that they were deeply interested in helping a wounded comrade home. Yet to men of spirit, excitement and determination will overcome fatigue. We know that some men who were at the Bridge followed the British to Charlestown. As to the story of the small number of Americans in the pursuit, there was great temptation to exaggerate downward, for the honor of the cause. It is impossible to believe that the number of the Americans, from Lexington on, was so small as even Gordon says. Mackenzie, exaggerating upward, puts the number of his opponents as "not less than 4000 actually assembled towards the latter part of the day." It is better to estimate that number as the total at all times engaged, and to believe that Percy's column was constantly beset by at least its own number of provincials. Yet as new men came in, the former pursuers as frequently dropped out.
'Gordon's "History", I, 314
12 Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, xvii, 290
The factor not considered in any of the accounts, and likely to be entirely ignored to-day, is a purely military one—the expenditure of ammunition. The minuteman did not go out equipped like the modern rifleman, with ninety rounds in his belt and sixty in each of two bandoliers. He carried thirty-six cartridges in his box, or else, like James Hayward, he had a pound of powder in his horn and forty bullets in his pouch. Battlefield experience taught Frederick the Great to equip his men with sixty rounds; but the men who turned out on that first Patriot's Day thought themselves well provided if they had their thirty-six or forty rounds and a couple of spare flints.
Consider the work of such a man in the pursuit. Coming in, let us say like a Lexington man when the British were in retreat toward his town, and taking a good post as the head of the column tramped past, he fired one shot and reloaded—under the circumstances, keeping under cover, an affair of a minute. A second shot and a second reloading, supposing he did not have to change his hiding place, would put him at the rear of the little column for a third shot—and he had done well. Then he must load and run and catch up, take a short cut if he could, hunt for a good stone wall or tree, and begin again. The work was fatiguing, and hard on the older men. Much of the time it was rear-guard work; there were flankers to be watched for, and a man would be delayed by his gun. For once in so often he must knap his flint or else replace it, and pick out the touchhole, and from time to time he must clean the fouled barrel. If he took pains with these he fell behind; if he neglected he suffered a misfire or perhaps worse, and
"The old gun which grandsire bore
Went back from Concord busted."
But if he were a good workman and kept his gun clean, and at some strain to wind and limb kept abreast of the column, and damned the redcoats and fired when he could, averaging one shot to every three or four minutes— then in less than three hours he would be feeling for another cartridge that was not there, or hearing the last few grains of powder rattle in the horn. We know of one actual case. Woodbury's flowery speech tells us that James Hayward, starting with his forty balls at Concord Bridge, had used all but two or three when he was killed before reaching Lexington.
When a man's ammunition was used up, what could he do? There was no place to buy more, no commissary to serve out a fresh supply. Even if he found bullets that fitted, powder was the scarcest thing in Massachusetts. He might take the cartridge box of a wounded man or of a captured regular. But on that day few men were generous to lend to others, there were not four hundred men disabled on both sides, and therefore many a man found himself, before the fight was half over, with a useless gun in his hands.
This, then, will explain Thaxter's statement that so many went back. The minuteman turned away from the fight because he could fight no more. The only consolation was that others were there to take his place.
But Heath, nevertheless, lost the best of his men, those who had stood fire. Wise Prescott at Bunker Hill refused to have his men replaced: they had stood a morning's cannonade, and were the more fit to meet the infantry assault. If similarly Heath could have had in front with him the men who had fought from Meriam's Corner to Lexington, and more particularly those who had marched in the open to be shot at, at the Bridge, he might more safely have tried to head the regulars, and from point to point to hold them for the rearward assailants to pour in a closer fire upon the massed column.
We have no answer to the question as to what Heath did with the regiment that he formed. Doubtless little enough could be done with them. It was many months before Washington trained regiments that could be depended on to meet the British on even terms. This one, once the firing began again, probably melted away under Heath's hand. What we should like to know is that he at least tried to meet the military needs of the situation.
The Stiff Fight at Menotomy
It is fair, however, to give him the credit for the stiff fight that took place at Menotomy. Percy's column had done little more than get well under way before the firing recommenced; and it had not gone more than five miles before, descending the hill which ended at the Foot of the Rocks, it was fiercely attacked. Perhaps Heath had seized the opportunity to plan the ambuscade. He wrote, " On descending from the high grounds in Menotomy, on to the plain, the fire was brisk. At this instant, a musket-ball came so near to the head of Dr. Warren, as to strike the pin out of the hair of his earlock. Soon after, the right flank of the British was exposed to the fire of a body of militia, which had come from Roxbury, Brooklyn, Dorchester, &c. For a few minutes the fire was brisk on both sides." 1
1 Heath's "Memoirs", p. 14.
It was so brisk that, quite to the point of our present theorizing, the British were brought to a halt, and the cannon were brought into play. Though Heath says " they were now more familiar than before", it is evident that the British blasted their way through. Not a provincial was killed by a cannon shot that day, but there was something about the fieldpieces that the militia did not like.1
The hot skirmish continued from the Rocks down onto the "plain." A button was shot from Percy's uniform. Doctor F.liphalet Downer, from Punch Bowl Village in Brookline, here met a regular in a bayonet duel, and killed him.
In this fighting, from Menotomy through into Cambridge, the flank guards of the British still continued to take the provincials by surprise....
1 In Lexington Historical Society Proceedings, i, 114, is a story of the Acton men, resting at Lexington, who ridiculed the cannon. But the guns saved Percy when in difficulty.
1 See pamphlet with that title, by Daniel P. King, Salem, 1835.
....There is no denying the things that happened. Noncombatants were killed; men who ignorantly stayed in the danger zone suffered the lot of the innocent bystander. Men fired from houses and were killed in them, or were killed because others had fired from the same house. When the troops entered Charles- town in the dusk, a boy put his head out of a window. Too many times, during the retreat, faces had appeared at windows, to be followed by musket fire—and the boy was shot at and killed.1 Soldiers who entered houses set fire to them in their rage, or wantonly smashed whatever invited their rifle butts. Regulars were killed in the very act of plundering. Their officers complained of the men's looting, and were ashamed of it.2 All of these things happen in war. But on the other hand, to revert to the sadly familiar parallel, we of this generation, who have seen the fair face of Europe laid waste, know that at least this visitation was light. This was not Frightfulness.3
1 Frothingham's "Siege of Boston", p. 372.
2 Letter of Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie, 2 Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings xi, 305, "I cannot commend the behaviour of Our Soldiers on their retreat. As they began to plunder & payed no obediance to their Officers." Mackenzie wrote, "Many houses were plundered by the soldiers, notwith- itanding the efforts of the officers to prevent it. I have no doubt this influenced the Rebels, & many of them followed us further than they would otherwise have done." Barker wrote, "The plundering was shamefull; many hardly thought of anything else; what was worse they were encouraged by some Officers." The plundering in many cases was an act of revenge; but any man who lingered for loot was in danger of his life. The loss to the Americans was quite as much in destruction as in theft.
3 One may find everywhere in old American histories and orations, deep horror expressed at the barbarities of the British. The catalogue begins with the "Narrative of the Excursions and Ravages of the King's Troops", issued by the Provincial Congress May 22, 1775. (It prefaced the depoeitions to which so frequent reference is made in these pages.) Hudson's "History of Lexington", of 1868, was reissued in 1913 with the same charges of vandalism, treachery, murder, and brutality, (1, 174-175.) A general answer to all these charges is attempted here. But for a scrutiny of many individual cases the reader is referred to Harold Murdock's "Nineteenth of April, 1775" (the section "Earl Percy's Retreat") in which modern research, and an unprejudiced point of view, have once for all made clear that our ancestor's horror of Percy and his men was based frequently upon ignorance of the facts, together with the idea that war, that thing of hate and fear and anger, can be gentler than it is."
pp. 237-251

Chapter XXXI continues the marksmanship discussion starting on page 255
"The Poor Gun and the Lack of Powder
To one who reads the story, especially as it used to be written at the time when to glorify the country was. the first duty of an American, it comes as a surprise that after these miles of fighting there were killed of the British but seventy-three, while the total of their casualties was less than three hundred.1 From the constant use of the term marksman as applied to the Americans, one would expect the figures to be higher. It seems well, here, to return to what was earlier said as to the preparation of the Americans.
The provincials were not marksmen, for they could not be. There was not a rifle among them, and the muskets were not made for accuracy. Let any one who has handled a modern gun take into his hand one of these old flintlocks, and sight along it. His first discovery will be that it has no rear sight. It was not adapted, then, either for a good line shot or for varying ranges; it had not even the groove along which the shotgun expert takes his sight. And yet this latter comparison is the right one: the smoothbore was handled like a shotgun, the gunner sighting along the upper line of the barrel, judging his distance by experience, and deciding on the elevation by developed instinct. But for the average man that instinct is to be developed only by much shooting, and for the Yankee of 1775 the opportunity for practice was lacking for sheer absence of powder.2 For the double reason, then, the poor gun and the small experience, the provincials could not be the marksmen that history has made them.
*The British casualties were 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing, a total of 273. The American losses were 49 killed, 39 wounded, 5 missing, a total of 93.
1 Compare Pickering's statement that in 1769 the Salem musters gave a whole day to target practice, with the quotation in Frothingham's "Siege of Boston", p. 36. "Last week, at the field-day in Marblehead, the regiment did not fire a single volley, nor waste a kernel of powder."

To apply this statement to the occasion, the British casualties were low because the Americans could not get to effective range. Thrilling pictures were painted, in the mid-nineteenth century, of family parties, grand- sires, sons, and boys, potting the British from the first stone wall at a range of a dozen yards. To do such a thing was to court certain death—and we know that in certain cases the risk was taken. Lord Percy wrote:
Nor are several of their men void of a spirit of enthusiasm, as we experienced yesterday, for many of them concealed themselves in houses, & advanced within 10 yds. to fire at me & other officers, tho' they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant.
And we may remember that it was men such as these, or those caught by the flank guards when in imagined security, that swelled the American death rate. It was not the marksmanship of the regulars that caused all the forty-nine provincial deaths.
But on the whole, the Yankee was too wise to put himself in danger. He fired, not from the first stone wall that lined the road, but from the second. Calling Doo- little for the last time in evidence, look at his " Plate IV. A View of the South Part of Lexington." Here the provincials are firing at the troops from a distance which would be less than point-blank range for the modern rifle, but which for the firelock of those days was a thoroughly respectful distance. As a result, one safeguard was erected for the regular. Heath said, " It is to be remembered, that as [the British] kept the road, the fences (a large proportion of which are stone walls) covered "Such Distant Firing" their flanks almost to the height of their shoulders." l The dropping musket ball would in part neutralize that British advantage, but not entirely. The safe firing place was commonly too far away to be sure of a snapshot aim; and again, when so far away as that, the bullet itself lost power.
The effective range of a rifle of those days was over a hundred yards, but the gun was not reliable at a hundred and fifty, and the best range was sixty yards, the common range for rifle matches. At that range a Kentucky marksman could make a hundred per cent, of hits. But the New England smoothbore, the Queen's Arm known to generations of pioneers, was an inferior weapon not merely in accuracy but in power, and its owner needed a range not much greater than sixty yards if he was to make any hits whatever.2 Now it is greatly to be doubted whether, unless from the fancied security of a house, or because of the desperate self-sacrifice of a fanatic, sixty yards was the average range of those who shot at Percy's men that day. When Pickering at length came on the field he saw at a glance that "such distant firing was useless and trifling." 3 He viewed the fight at the time when the British had just emerged from the dangerous pass below Prospect Hill; and while we know that there was nothing trifling in such fierce brushes as that, it must be believed that in many parts of the chase, where there was no tempting advantage of safe cover, the Americans stayed at arm's length.
This is said in explanation of mathematical facts, which tell a bare tale. Frank Coburn, after study of the alarm lists in the Massachusetts archives, produced figures accepted by Harold Murdock, a careful computer, stating that 3763 Americans are shown to have been engaged on the Nineteenth. Accepting for safety's sake thirty-five hundred as the number of the Americans who actually got a shot at the British, what can be said for their shooting? There were two hundred and seventy- three British casualties—Gage's revised figures. Not one American in ten made his mark upon the enemy.
'Heath's "Memoirs", Reprint of 1904, p. 25. ' See Townsend Wheeler, "The American Rifle." For Pickering's "Letter", see p. 161.

This is why we have needed to make our study of the minuteman's shooting-iron. To it, and to his inexperience, must be laid the fact that he did not do better. After all, he did a fair day's work. And all he asked, in the months of siege that followed, was a chance to show that he had improved.
Nor need it be supposed that there was criticism ot the provincial fire at the time. Measured by the European standard of those days, it was above the average, and there was not a veteran in that flight who complained that the American fire was not sufficiently hot. Lieutenant Carter called it a "heavy and well-directed fire." ' Mackenzie, Barker, De Berniere, held it in respect. Percy wrote of the "incessant fire, wh like a moving circle surrounded & fol^ us wherever we went." By every standard of those days, the American fire was formidable. Certainly no one who experienced it asked to have it bettered. It was the preparation for the fire of Bunker Hill, which for deadliness exceeded anything previously known in warfare.
1 Letters of Lieutenant William Carter, dated 1775 and 1776, published in London in 1784. There are copies in the New York and Harvard College libraries, and a photostat copy in the Massachusetts Historical Society."
pp. 255-258

[RG - A fine little book full of insight and occasional wider commentary on historians and their observance/non-observance of their craft - with the battle posed as an example!
The issue of buckshot being raised:
Armchair general: http://www.armchairgeneral.com/forums/showthread.php?t=40267
"Fact #2: Annie get your Gun - Although the Colonial Minuteman is regarded as an expert marksman, many were poor shots and this was lamented by their officers in the wake of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Only the volume of fire poured onto the Redcoats ensured heavy casualties. The minutemen can be forgiven for this. Their muskets were used for hunting, and for the most part, they used buckshot, requiring far less skill than solid shot. The militia wanted to practice accurate firing, but gunpowder was too scarce to allow for this."
French refutes the "hunter" characterization...and as for skill..both require practice; would need to see direct testimony that principally buckshot was used along the Battle Road.
I found no mention in French's book, from testimony presented on either side, of the minutemen or militia using shot vice singular ball - using "quick loading" techniques would seem obvious given the tactical situation. Obviously, if someone knows of any "forensic" style reports as to what type of rounds caused the British deaths or were dug out of their wounded, we might easily answer this question. Nevertheless, using shot or roundball, the percentage of hits for numbers engaged and rounds fired was low on this day- and that is the point repeatedly stressed by French - that the eastern Massachusetts minutemen and militia, for want of powder, were not the marksmen on that day that they have been purported to be.
Concerning the use of buck and ball, later in the war after 17 April, when obviously lessons had been learned, tactics decided on and the basis of a supply system developed(however meager it was to prove to the overall American effort) Lawrence E. Babits in his book "A Devil of a Whipping" on the Battle of Cowpens in 1781, provides a fine discussion :
"practice was essential for accuracy....a well drilled musketman, given practice and encouraged to shoot rapidly, could deliver fast and accurate fire. Even with undersized bullets it is possible, without ramming, to hit a man-sized target eighty yards away with five out of six shots in one minute.7 Although special troops called rangers fired this way, regular infantry did not. Since regular infantry rarely practiced firing at targets, the question of musket accuracy should be directed at the shooter rather than the weapon.
Both sides increased musket lethality, if not accuracy, by issuing buck and ball cartridges containing one large ball and at least three smaller (.30 caliber) balls. Washington ordered that "buckshot are to be put into all cartridges which shall hereafter be made" in 1777. One sixty-man Continental company could launch at least 240 projectiles with a single volley. Buckshot could deliver a fatal wound, especially at ranges withing fifty yards where volley fire was most commonly used. p.13
7 The author accomplished this on at least two occasions. Both times, conditions were dry and windless, the musket bore was clean, and a new flints were used. To increase speed, balls were .63 caliber but the musket was .75 caliber. The extreme windage did not cause any loss of accuracy, but balls could be run to the breech without a ramrod, speeding the loading process dramatically. Starting with a loaded musket, six shots were fired in one minute. A silhouette of a British soldier was placed at a distance of 75 yards and five hits were recorded on one silhouette. More hits would have been obtained using buck and ball. Inspiration for this firing came from Robert Roger's Rangers, who also used buckshot. Cuneo, Robert Rogers of the Rangers, 53." p.165
Now, from the above, I hope to make it clear that I am not asserting that the smoothbore was not used with shot and round ball, or that "once mastered" one would loose that ability, or that the flintlock could not be loaded fast. Nor did author French from what I read. At any rate, it is irrelevant to what is being said by French about what transpired, and why it did, on 17 April. Personally, I have long been aware of buckshot usage from my long study of Roger's Rangers dating back over 30 years. French has asserted that a majority of minutemen or militia were not hunters or proven marksmen. They were also assuredly not rangers, back-country men or frontiersmen. As to "knowing the lifestyle?" to supplement my historical research - I would hope 24 years active duty army service, with ranger and light and mechanized infantry training and unit assignments and my own recreational camping, canoeing, and assembly of one and firing of three personal blackpowder weapons, as well as posession of some recreated kit and garb, has given me some glimpse as to what the lifestyle entailed. But, to my mind, for anyone to purport to really know the lifestyle, vice appreciate it, one would have to actually have lived in those times - all else being approximation to some degree or another.
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for an excellent recent analysis of this momentous and now often downplayed battle, set in relevant military parlance and on the blogroll click below :

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Decisive Battles: Lexington to Boston, 1775

Lexington to Boston Date: 19 April 1775

from the Calls for Fire Archive of the Graphic Firing Table blog by FD Chief of Portland, Oregon, United States - "scientist, teacher, retired Army sergeant" [I'm going to go out on the limb here and guess that he was arty - lol].

The Blog of all Blogs for events surrounding the battle, before and after is found at:


Boston 1775

 
 

3 comments:

Keith said...

This is a good blog my friend, but you need to do more research. You obviously know your history, bgut know little of the lifestyle. The smoothbore was used with shot and round ball, and once you have mastered its use you will not loose that ability. The flintlock was/is not slow, the ignition is instant, the main charge ignites the instant the flint strikes the hammer or so close to it that you will not see or feel any different.
With respect and regards, Keith.

RG said...

Thanks Keith..the excerpt is from French's book intact..the main point he asserts is that there were few marksmen in the minuteman ranks..owing to the powder shortages mainly and the fact that the frontier had long receded from towns like Lexington and Concord
..I have three blackpowders...

60 gunner said...

The flintlock ignition cycle is very slow compared to modern firearms or even a properly designed percussion muzzleloader. Some modern rifles have "lock times" in milliseconds.
However, it is still possible to do good shooting with flintlock.
A 50 caliber FL rifle, pretty common in Rev-war times is fully capable of effective fire on man sized targets to at least 300 yards in decent wind conditions.
The smoothbore as loaded for military purposes in 1775 is pretty inaccurate by any standard. Add the stress of combat and this gets much worse. But the larger ball of the issue musket was designed to pass through the man in the front rank and kill or disable the man behind.
The Americans in the revolution, from some things I have read but cannot cite off the top of my head, point out that the Americans in general, through out the Revolution, inflicted a higher level of casualties on their enemies than was considered "normal" in European Armys. We must remember that the smoothbore musket was not a "point" target weapon, it was an AREA target weapon. Today with a properly patched ball many shooters can hit fairly small targets with a smoothbore. These guns and the shooters could probably hit a man sized silhouette target reliably to 100 yards or more. But... Untrained men, under fire, with a smoothbore flintlock loaded as was the norm in 1775 are not going to have a high hit ratio. The skill of the shooter is largely negated by the equipment past 50-70 yards.

The exceptional number of British Officers and NCOs killed during the Breeds/Bunker Hill assault indicate a much higher level of accuracy and in fact this smacks of riflemen being present. A British officer's account seems to indicate many were inflicted by one sharpshooter.

I have been a flintlock shooter and ML gunsmith since the late 1960s.

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