Guns of the Revolutionary War
Fighting with Lock, Stock, and Barrel
Almost all of the soldier’s guns used during the Revolutionary War, both pistols and long-barreled weapons, were “flintlocks.” The “lock” was the metal firing mechanism. Before the war, locks and barrels were usually imported from European manufacturers. After it started, most guns carried by the Continental Army were either seized from the British and Loyalists or bought overseas. Some American gunsmiths could make locks, more could make barrels, and even more people could carve the wooden handles called the “stocks.” Or you could buy “lock, stock, and barrel,” meaning the whole assembled gun!
Most barrels were smooth inside, referred to as “muskets” or “smoothbores.” Some people could afford to buy (or could make) “rifled” barrels, with twisting grooves inside. “Rifles” were more accurate because the grooves made the balls spin and thus cut through the air better. Patriot militia sharpshooters with rifles were especially feared by opponents.
In 2014 an army lieutenant colonel pointed out that rifles, more common among Patriots, made it easier to integrate Whig militia with the Continental Army. In response, the British had to change tactics. “First, they adopted skirmish tactics and moved away from traditional volley ranks. Second, they rapidly occupied the battlefield and immediately conducted a bayonet charge to defeat Whig militia units as fast as possible. Finally, they minimized reserve forces and positioned them beyond the range of rifled fire.”[a] All of these changes were on full display at the Battle of Guilford Court House.
The “effective range” of muskets, the distance at which they could be accurately aimed, was only 30 to 50 yards. In 2016 a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve “designated marksman” could not hit a soldier-shaped target at 50 yards using a period musket. However, a unit firing in volleys would have higher success. Under simulated battle conditions, a group of interpreters more experienced with muskets landed only 8% on any part of a group of targets at 200 yards, but that figure rose to 67% at 50 yards. Even that close, though, only 1/3 of the hits would likely have dropped the target.
Both muskets and rifles shot round lead balls. Around 1778 Continental infantry began adding three or more smaller (about .30 caliber) buckshot balls in muskets, and the Patriot militia had long included seven in these “buck and ball” loads.
Caring for weapons was a regular and critical chore. When the Continental Army first camped near Guilford Court House during the Race to the Dan, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene issued very specific orders. He said the guns should not be broken apart. With interesting spelling he wrote, “‘Cleaning the locks is more Servicely and affectually done by boiling them in clean water and brushing out the dirt with a bunch of Hoggs Bristles or Feathers, and applying a little Neatsfoot Oyl.’”
Early in the war, the problem for the Americans was just getting weapons. A North Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress, Joseph Hewes, “reported from Philadelphia that he had been unable to purchase muskets for the North Carolina troops at any price. Other agents, traveling through the back country of the province, found it equally difficult to purchase firearms from the inhabitants, who refused to disarm themselves, fearing Indian attacks.”[b]
Triggering a Shot in 30 Seconds
When you pull the trigger of a flintlock, it releases a small “hammer” to arc forward around an axle at the bottom. The hammer holds a sharpened piece of rock called a “flint” in a small vise on top. The flint hits a vertical metal plate in front of it, the “frizzen,” and causes a spark, just like a match being struck. The spark travels down to explode a small amount of gunpowder in a tiny bowl or “pan” below the frizzen. That sends a flame through a small hole in the lock and the base of the barrel. There it explodes more gunpowder behind the ball and sends that forward.
After some number of shots, the flints wear out and no longer spark well, or at all. The number varies based on the type of flint and condition of the frizzen, perhaps 10 to 25 shots or more. Soldiers carried extra flints, but it took around a minute to replace them.
The entire process of firing a single time starts with putting the stock end on the ground and standing the gun up. The soldier pours gunpowder into the barrel, and packs it down with a long, thin, metal “ramrod.” Then he puts in a bullet, often made by him in his spare time, and packs it down. Next he picks up the gun and pulls the hammer back partway. (This is called the “half-cocked” position, so to “go off half-cocked” means shooting off your mouth before you’re really ready!) More powder is poured into the pan, and the hammer is pulled the rest of the way back (to “full-cocked” position). Now it is ready to fire again.
The fastest soldiers could do all of that in about 15 seconds, but 30 was more common. Some had learned how to merely slam the back of the stock on the ground instead of using the ramrod, for example. Obviously part-time fighters, like most militia on both sides, took much longer. Given that, and the fact that muskets were accurate (“effective”) for only about 50 yards or less, it is easy to understand why militia tended to run in the face of rapidly advancing professional soldiers with bayonets pointing at them—the “cold steel.”
 Babits, Lawrence, and Joshua Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
[a] East, Lt. Col. Jackie, Lessons from the British Defeat Combating Colonial Hybrid Warfare in the 1781 Southern Theater of Operations (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2014).
[b] Rankin, Hugh F., The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971).