The Kentucky Rifle
The flintlock mechanism
The Kentucky Rifle
An old Bill Cosby routine proposed that wars be fought like football games in which a coin toss decided the procedure. In the case of the Revolutionary war, Cosby said it would have sounded something like this:
"General Cornwallis of the British, this is General Washington of the Continental Army."
"General Washington of the Continental Army, this is General Cornwallis of the British."
"If you'd shake hands, gentlemen."
"O.K., British call the toss."
"British called heads, it is tails."
"General Washington, what are you gonna do?"
"General Washington says his troops will dress however they wish, in any color, in buckskins and coonskin caps, and hide behind the rocks and trees and shoot out at random."
"British, you will all wear bright red, all shoot at the same time, and march forward in a straight line."
Amusing, but there were very good reasons for the tactics of both sides, and those reasons were called the ‘Brown Bess’ and the ‘Kentucky Rifle’.
The Brown Bess was the issued arm for the British forces, and, since the colonists themselves were required by British law to be armed, it was also often the arm of the American rebels. Like the Kentucky Rifle, it was a muzzle loading flintlock, but there the similarity ended.
In use for nearly one hundred years, the Brown Bess was a smoothbore musket of .75 caliber. The origin of the name ‘Brown Bess’ is lost to history. The proper name was the Land Musket, and there were several variations, like the Long Pattern musket, Short Pattern Musket, India Pattern Musket, and Land Pattern Cavalry Carbine. The Brown Bess did not have any sights. It was aimed by sighting along the top of the barrel.
Charging and firing a Brown Bess was complicated compared to today’s weapons. A prepared paper cartridge containing both ball and powder was torn open by the soldier. The hammer was drawn back to the half-cock position so the frizzen could be opened by rotating forward. The ignition powder pan on the lock was then charged and the frizzen was rotated back to the rear, covering the pan and preventing the ignition charge from escaping. The remainder of the powder was poured down the muzzle, followed by the rest of the paper and then the ball, which was tamped firmly into place by the ramrod.
To fire, the hammer was drawn back to full cock. When the trigger was pulled, the spring-loaded hammer rotated forward, and the flint struck the frizzen, emitting a shower of sparks which ignited the powder in the pan. The resulting flash shot through the small ignition hole drilled in the barrel and ignited the main charge, driving the ball out of the barrel with great force. Since the ball weighed a full ounce (only the largest big game rifles use a bullet that heavy today), the recoil was tremendous.
Since the Brown Bess was a smoothbore weapon, accuracy beyond fifty yards was abysmal at best, so the military tactic employed was a timed fusillade, in which the troops lined up in two long rows, the front row kneeling to fire and the second row firing over their heads. On command, both rows fired, laying down a deadly curtain of lead balls weighing a full ounce that inflicted deadly wounds on the other side. Both hits and misses were matters of sheer luck.
Like all major inventions, the Kentucky rifle (also called the Pennsylvania Rifle) was developed to meet a need. The hunters and woodsmen in the New World found the Brown Bess inadequate in numerous ways. It was far too heavy to carry long distances, its large bore required large amounts of precious lead and gunpowder, and it was woefully inaccurate beyond fifty yards. In response, the early American gunsmiths developed a virtual work of art.
The caliber was reduced from three quarters of an inch to less than a half inch, vastly reducing the amount of powder and lead required per shot. That also had the effect of increasing the velocity of the ball, greatly increasing the range and the impact forces at a distance. The length of the barrel was increased to nearly four feet to employ all the force of the powder charge. But the real genius was the combination of rifling and a cloth patch.
A rifled gun barrel has grooves cut into the circumference of the bore that twist as they traverse the length of the barrel. That has the effect of imparting a very high speed spin on the ball. Any imperfections in the ball become negligible because, instead of presenting only one face to the wind, the ball is spinning rapidly, so any imperfection is equalized. In addition, the spin creates a gyroscopic effect, which resists any force trying to move the ball off course, like a crosswind.
Rifled barrels were not new, but the original design required a ball of the same diameter as the bore, requiring that it be pounded into the muzzle with a mallet, and then forcefully tamped the length of the barrel to the firing chamber. That drastically slowed down reloading and deformed the lead ball, which affected accuracy.
The Kentucky Rifle employed a ball that was smaller than the bore and then used a greased cloth patch to make up the difference. The powder was poured into the muzzle as usual, but then a cloth patch was placed over the muzzle and a ball was pressed into it. A ramrod was then used to push the ball and its sealing patch down the barrel until it was seated. When the rifle was fired, the cloth patch acted as an effective seal, preventing the rapidly expanding gases from escaping past the ball. The patch also engaged the rifling grooves, creating the spin that so effectively increased accuracy.
Firing the Kentucky Rifle was identical to firing the Brown Bess with the exception of the greased cloth patch. But the result of that firing was worlds apart.
The effectiveness of the Brown Bess depended on exposed soldiers dispatching a hailstorm of lead on equally exposed soldiers on the other side. The effectiveness of the Kentucky Rifle however, depended on the skill and accuracy of the individual soldier dispatching his chosen target, and that target was often the British officer.
Prior to the revolutionary war and the Kentucky Rifle, the commanding officers usually remained at the rear and well out of range, but the guerrilla colonist tactics caused the British officers to grudgingly nickname the Kentucky Rifle the ‘officer's widow maker’. Killing shots at ranges up to three hundred yards were not uncommon, ranges unheard of using a smoothbore musket like the Brown Bess.
As a result, many skirmishes between the American rebels and
the British consisted of the British soldier marching fully exposed in a disciplined
straight line wearing their red uniforms while buckskin clad Americans shot at
them from behind boulders and trees. It may sound humorous today, but it was anything but funny to the Redcoats.
The result was the ultimate demise of the Brown Bess musket and the worldwide adoption of the American Kentucky Rifle.