American militiamen, such as those depicted in Don
Troiani’s “Lexington Green, April 19, 1775,” provided their own arms
and kept them at home.
By George C.
As galloping express riders and ringing
church bells spread across New England during the early hours of
April 19, 1775, thousands of farmers and tradesmen carrying a
variety of firearms poured out of their homes and headed toward
Lexington and Concord to intercept the British Army column
approaching from Boston. America’s War for Independence had begun.
Yet, despite their deeply held convictions, these provincials had no
realistic chance to win.
In opposition against the finest army and
navy in the world, the Colonists possessed no trained armed forces,
no established central government, no financial reserves and no
industry to supply their effort. The Northern American Colonies had
been settled to enrich the mother country by exporting raw materials
to England’s factories and then serve as a market for their finished
goods. Thus, the manufacturing facilities, such as those needed to
produce arms and support a war, did not exist this side of the
As a young society gripped in a
pioneering spirit, however, the rebels possessed an explosive
vitality and ability to innovate. How they defied the impossible and
drew upon this “new world energy” to successfully equip their
spawning armies is one of the untold stories of our incredible path
Militia Organizations: In the
beginning, the only existing American military groups were the
individual militia systems of each colony. These units were usually
identified by their town or county locations and included all men
from 16 to 60 years of age. Being loosely structured, they met
locally to drill several days each year, but lacked the discipline
to stand against professional troops in open
Each member was equipped with a
firearm plus a bladed back-up arm, such as a short sword, belt axe
or bayonet. Yet, unlike the mother country’s own militia
regulations—in which the authorities controlled the arms and stored
them together in a secured central location between muster days—each
American had to provide his own arms and keep them at home. The gun
specifications, in turn, were vague. Massachusetts, for example,
required only “a good fire arm.” Because Britain had done little in
past years to furnish her Colonists with military arms, the militia
employed a wide assortment of smoothbore muskets, carbines, fusils,
trade guns, light or heavy fowling pieces, and rifles—of varied
lineages and bore sizes.
In addition, as
the new United Colonies hurriedly attempted to create a regular army
by enlisting militia members into Continental Line regiments, many
of the recruits left their personal arms at home for the hunting
demands and physical protection of their families. When Washington
arrived at Cambridge opposite Boston in July 1775, he found an
estimated 15 percent of the troops without firearms and many others
with arms not capable of military field service.
|American-made muskets played a crucial role in
the early battles of the War for Independence, including the
Battle of Bunker Hill. America-made muskets are prominently
featured in Don Troiani’s “Bunker Hill.” Of the 300,000
muskets used by American line troops during the Revolutionary
War, in excess of 80,000 were the products of America’s some
2,500 to 3,000 scattered gunsmiths using mixed
Sources: The immediate American needs had to be
satisfied quickly by obtaining existing guns. The provincials
proceeded to raid local arsenals, confiscate Loyalist guns, purchase
civilian arms, seize British supplies, acquire cast-off or surplus
firearms in Europe through independent agents and repair or
cannibalize damaged pieces.
also implemented to make use of the limited production capabilities
within the Colonies. An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 gunsmiths were
available, of which perhaps two-thirds favored the American cause
(Moller I). Early in 1775, local “committees of safety” were already
placing orders with those makers. (Some modern collectors describe
all American Revolutionary War muskets as “committee of safety”
guns. This term should only refer to those arms produced under a
“committee” contract. Few survived and most were not identified by
the makers who feared retaliation by Royal authorities.)
|No. 1: An Early
Assembled Fowler/Musket, c. 1740
long arm, which predates the War for Independence, illustrates
the Colonists’ early reliance upon reused mixed parts. Jacob
Man of Wrentham, Mass., would later carry it as a Minuteman at
Lexington/Concord and while a soldier in the 13th
Massachusetts Continental Regiment through the New
York-Trenton-Princeton campaigns (1775-1777), as well as at
the Battle of Rhode Island (1778). The American stock mounts a
bulbous Dutch lock, a convex French S-shaped iron sideplate, a
cut-down British brass buttplate, an English trade pattern
escutcheon and a crude locally cast brass trigger guard
secured by four nails. A French pinned fowler barrel is
stocked to the muzzle, indicating the early lack of socket
bayonets. Its iron ramrod is held by three thimbles, of which
the bottom one is an old Queen Anne ribbed pattern, and the
others simple rolled sheet brass.
Butt Tang: 27⁄8"
Barrel: 511⁄8", .71 cal.
|No. 2: A Club Butt Country
Fowler, c. 1715-1750
Although technically a
hunting gun with the fore-end of its maple stock reaching to
the muzzle of a European barrel, this family fowler, which
omits all but the basic components, is typical of many of the
existing arms carried into the field by the American forces
early in the Revolution and by the militia throughout the war.
Its stock is the popular civilian club butt form, but the
non-essential buttplate, escutcheon, sideplate, raised carving
and bottom ramrod pipe are not included. The Queen Anne
period, three-screw flat lock design with its reinforced cock
has an unbalanced profile which suggests possible Colonist
manufacture. An uneven, hand-forged iron trigger guard,
however, is obviously American-made. The wooden rammer is
secured in two upper, sheet-brass thimbles.
Barrel: 45", .70 cal.
|No. 3: Early French Components,
A French Model 1717 musket furnished
most of the elements remounted on this American cherry stock.
It might have been an arm captured during the Colonial Wars
with French Canada, or an early arm among the foreign aid
shipments during our Revolution. Included is the distinctive
M. 1717 lock with its vertical bridle, a typical French flat
S-shaped sideplate, a double-pointed trigger guard, a long
butt tang, and a 47" barrel. The double-strap upper barrel
band from a French Model 1754 musket had a cone-shaped ramrod
pipe brazed to the bottom by the Colonists who were probably
influenced by similar Spanish and Dutch designs. The
provincial restocker also provided a New England petal-type
raised carving around the barrel tang.
Butt Tang: 43⁄4"
Barrel: 47", .70 cal.
Trigger Guard: 125⁄8"
|No. 4: British Brown Bess
Elements, c. 1775-1783
Major parts from a British
Long Land 1756 Pattern musket, which was still the primary arm
of their infantry early in the Revolution, were remounted by
the rebels on a maple stock to create this firearm. In doing
so, they reused the lock, trigger guard, sideplate, and
buttplate, but omitted the original escutcheon, fourth rammer
pipe and raised beavertail carving surrounding the barrel
tang. The lock area of the stock, in turn, was made thicker by
the Colonists, probably to strengthen that most vulnerable
location from fractures. The convex side plate is also inset
deeper than normal. An American hand-forged iron ramrod
includes a thick button head, while the original 46" Brown
Bess barrel has been shortened by 5⁄8" reflecting the constant
need to dress the muzzle walls as they became sharpened from
prolonged rammer wear.
|Length: 60 5⁄8”|
Lock: 7”x1 1⁄4”
Butt Tang: 53⁄4"
453⁄8”, .77 cal.
Trigger Guard: 11"
Within a year, the committees had largely
been superseded by the states, most of which raised and equipped
their own regiments during the war. The Continental Congress also
began issuing multiple contracts through agents of its Board of War.
The rebels’ early specifications followed the British Land Pattern
with its pinned .75-cal. barrel, but the stipulated barrel lengths
varied from 42" to 46" and recommended bayonet blades ranged from
14" to 18". Surviving examples further show that even these official
dimensions were routinely disregarded to expedite
Foreign Aid: Eventually the patriots’
desperate shortage of arms would be relieved by supplies from
abroad. Yet this aid raised even more complications. Beginning in
1777, shipments began to arrive from France, as well as the
Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. Mixed within these consignments,
however, were firearm patterns of virtually all Western European
nations, as most of the foreign arsenals supplying American aid had
within their inventories captured, abandoned or damaged arms from
multiple enemies of previous wars. American agents, such as Benjamin
Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, also arranged large private
deliveries of assorted armaments from Europe’s professional arms
dealers. Such an overwhelming variety of gun patterns in the
American ranks were further aggravated by a substantial number of
odd musket components within the cargos.
|No. 5: Mixed English
Fowler Parts, c. 1776-1780
The above musket is
attributed to the American manufacturing town of Goshen in
northwestern Connecticut near the state’s iron furnaces. That
key site had numerous gunmakers and as many as 28 blacksmiths
during the Revolutionary War. The sloping striped maple stock
supports a minimum of abbreviated components, which suggests
early wartime production. Its 44" barrel, for example,
conforms to the state’s October 1776 specified length, while
the lock is reused from a c. 1750 English Fowler, as are the
straight-backed trigger guard and buttplate—both of which had
their ends cut off to reduce inletting work. The plain
sideplate was cut from sheet brass after tracing the outline
of its lockplate. Three simple rolled sheet brass thimbles
hold the wooden ramrod. The exposed muzzle mounts a bottom
stud for a socket bayonet.
Butt Tang: 3"
Barrel: 44", .67 cal.
Trigger Guard: 45⁄8"
Sideplate: 5 5⁄8"
|No. 6: Complete American
Manufacture, c. 1770-1800
Bulky in profile, this
sturdy musket appears to be entirely constructed in the
Colonies. Its heavy round barrel is marked, “new hampshire
militia” (not official stamping). The flat beveled lock, in
turn, resembles a popular period form in continental Europe,
yet the extended tail and rounded pan with an exterior bridle
suggest provincial manufacture. The locally created simple
brass furniture also shows the design influence of Britain’s
stepped butt tang (held here by two rear nails), France’s
double-pointed trigger guard, and America’s penchant for
triangular sideplates cut from sheet brass. The stock is
thickened at its most vulnerable location, i.e., the adjacent
lock cavity, side plate inletting, barrel breech, and side
screws. An escutcheon and raised carving are omitted. Three
sheet brass thimbles hold a hand-forged, iron button-headed
Barrel: 44", .75 cal.
|No. 7: A Remounted Hessian
Musket, c. 1776-1785
A cannibalized Germanic long
arm furnished most of the parts for this example. Reused on a
heavy ash stock was its flat/beveled German lock with the
typical internal screw holding the frizzen spring, a faceted
flash pan, and a squared frizzen top. The wide (21⁄8" across) buttplate is held
by the original pair of rear projecting convex screws, plus
two flush wood screws through the tang. Its pointed escutcheon
with a center screwhead, the arrow-tipped trigger guard, plus
the common Hessian barrel having a front blade sight and a
bottom bayonet stud complete the transfer. The Americans added
their own simple sheet brass sideplate and three plain rolled
thimbles that supplemented a remounted, faceted Germanic
bottom pipe for the iron button head ramrod. No raised carving
Butt Tang: 53⁄4"
453⁄4", .78 cal.
|No. 8: French Aid
Influence, c. 1777-1783
This arm’s three American
brass barrel bands with their rear-side springs copied the
iron bands on the newly arriving French aid muskets. A British
Long Land Brown Bess 1756 pattern, in turn, provided the lock
(marked, “EDGE 1756”), trigger guard, side plate, escutcheon
and barrel, which was shortened from 46" to approximate the
French length of 443⁄4". The colonists supplied a
chestnut stock, a simplified butt plate resembling the English
stepped design, and a hand-forged replacement cock still
holding a crude locally knapped flint. As with many rebel
muskets, no sling swivels were provided. Use as a hunting gun
after the war is also apparent from the thinning of the
bayonet stud to create a front sighting blade and a later
dovetail near the breech to add a rear sight.
Butt Tang: 51⁄2"
Barrel: 441⁄2", .78 cal.
Production: The existing provincial gunsmiths
included a number of master craftsmen, but the need for volume soon
overrode artistry as their primary objective. The most
time-consuming work was making locks and barrels. Even before
hostilities began, it was usually more cost effective for the makers
to import those two components in bulk and make the remaining parts
locally. This new flood of used parts changed most gun production to
mixed assembly and repair. The author has found as many as five
countries represented on a single American musket. Some of these
reused parts even had portions cut off to reduce inletting
Although the typical American-made
long arms favored the familiar British Brown Bess Land Pattern
during the early war years, they shifted toward French designs and
components as foreign aid expanded and France’s serviceable muskets
re-equipped most of the Continental Line. The transition came
slowly, however, for the maintenance and repair of arms returned
from active field use added to the gunsmiths’
As late as 1778, General von
Steuben wrote of Washington’s line regiments following his arrival
at Valley Forge in February, “The arms were in horrible condition,
covered with rust, half of them without bayonets, many from which a
single shot could not be fired … muskets, carbines, fowling pieces
and rifles were seen in the same
Centralized Locations: To cope
with these continuing demands, the individual states and the
Congress began to establish larger and more centralized
storage/repair facilities. By 1778, there were six Continental
arsenals located in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Carlisle,
Lancaster), Maryland (Head of Elk), New York (Albany), and Virginia
(Manchester). (Moller I). In 1780 Congress created the Philadelphia
Supply Agencies, which included The French Factory, The Continental
Armory, and related parts suppliers as major repair and production
sources centered in that city. Also by this late date, Congress had
enough inventory to sell surplus arms to the states which, in turn,
had expanded their own capacities. Virginia founded a State Gun
Factory in Fredericksburg (1775), but most of the states resorted to
encouraging private gunmakers in favorable locations, such as
Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, Connecticut’s Goshen and Virginia’s
Rappahannock Forge. The rebels’ most complete manufacturing
resources were in Pennsylvania, which had important iron furnaces;
but much of this capacity was focused on civilian long rifles, which
are not covered in this article.
|(1.) A locally cast innovative
American brass pattern c. 1740.
(3.) A reused traditional
French double-pointed musket design in iron.
(2.) A simple colonial hand-forged iron form nailed onto a
plain c. 1715-1750 country fowler.
(4.) The British Long
Land Brown Bess cast brass pattern; its screw penetrated the
stock’s wrist to secure the escutcheon.
|(5.) A remounted English fowler trigger guard that had
both ends cut off to minimize inletting work.
typical Germanic double arrow design remounted from a Hessian
|(6.) An American-made c. 1770-1800 pattern incorporating
the double-pointed French influence (see No. 3).|
Another former British Brown Bess component that now omits the
original sling swivel as did many Colonial-assembled
Identification: Because the great
proportion of muskets made here during the Revolution mounted a
mixture of reused or locally made parts, no standard American
pattern emerged from the war. This is why a modern collector is
faced with the challenge to identify and date each component in
order to determine the probable age of a gun. There are, however,
certain indicators for associating smoothbore long arms with our
relevant 1715 to 1783 period:
• Most period stocks had a round
wrist; it became oval beginning about 1790.
• The musket stock
usually included a chair rail crease or pinched channel along the
lower edge of a raised comb.
• Locks prior to the 1790s were made
with a rounded cock on a rounded lockplate, or a “flat on
• The lockplate ended with a tapered point for its tail
versus the 19th century rounded form.
• The tip of a cock’s post
was either stubby, notched or had a forward curl; after 1795, it
often curled toward the rear.
• When present, sideplates were a
single, complete piece; two separate components appeared after
• Many Colonists had an aversion to sling swivels; some
cannibalized European trigger guards retained an earlier hole
drilled for the lower swivel, but the American stocks frequently
omitted a hole for the second swivel in its fore-end.
Components fabricated by the provincials were usually cruder and
cheaper than European made elements, such as rolled sheet brass
ramrod thimbles versus the British use of castings.
fowlers, which normally extended their stock fore-ends to the muzzle
often had them cut back and added a barrel stud to mount a bayonet
for military service.
• Roller frizzens are found on some private
European guns from our period, but they did not appear on issued
long arms until about 1800.
• Most European military stocks were
of black walnut or, occasionally, beech. The Americans also employed
walnut, but, in addition, showed a preference for cherry and either
plain or striped maple. On a limited basis, the U.S. Department of
Agriculture will generously test pieces of wood (from inside your
stock) to identify North American vs. European species. (For
information, write: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,
Forest Products Laboratory, One Gifford Pinchot Drive, Madison, WI
||(1.) Notice the cut off and
reshaped British buttplate, the early English trade escutcheon
and a crude beavertail carving around the barrel tang of an
c. 1740 long arm.
(2.) This sparse
family hunting gun does not include the superfluous buttplate,
escutcheon or side plate.
(3.) A provincial gunsmith
reused a long, thin French M. 1717 iron buttplate here, but
added the popular American lobed carving around the barrel
(4.) This remounted Long Land Brown Bess furniture
omitted the original escutcheon and the stock’s beaver tail.
(5.) A Connecticut c. 1776 musket that ignored raised
carving and then cut off an old English fowler butt tang to
reduce production time.
(6.) Notice that this Colonist
gunmaker simplified the British “stepped” tang design (see No.
4) and disregarded other embellishments.
(7.) Remounts from
a Hessian musket are apparent in this wide arrow-headed tang
and pointed escutcheon.
(8.) Another American modification
of the established Brown Bess stepped butt-tang pattern was
employed here to join an original reclaimed
Arms from the author's
The great majority of surviving muskets
manufactured by the Colonists are not identified by their maker or
source. Yet a number of the states did, at times, stamp their issued
arms to indicate ownership especially early in the war. These
included, “MB” or “CMB”, Massachusetts; “SC”, Connecticut; “CR”,
Rhode Island; “PP” or “P”, Pennsylvania; “JS” or “PS”, Maryland;
“SP”, New Jersey; “NH” New Hampshire; “CN”, New York; and “SGF”
(State Gun Factory), Virginia. In addition, by 1777 European arms
were arriving in bulk without government ownership identification
and the Congress instructed each Continental regiment in the field
to stamp or brand its muskets “US”, “U:STATES”, or “UNITED STATES”.
Their compliance was spotty, but the practice continued in postwar
Out of the more than
300,000 long arms used by the American line troops during the War
for Independence, probably in excess of 80,000 were the products of
America’s scattered gunsmiths using mixed components. Yet, because
the soldier’s round lead bullets were undersized to allow for powder
fouling in the bore and the issued socket bayonets had to be
individually fitted to each barrel, their odd pedigrees did not
create the extreme hardships one might have expected. As such, they
filled a vital gap in arming the early regiments and continued as
the major repair and maintenance sources for Washington’s troops
until the war was won. The individual muskets illustrated in this
article are considered typical of the variety of long arms produced
by this homegrown cottage industry.
facing an almost impossible supply problem following
Lexington/Concord, the committed Colonists vigorously pursued all
available sources to create the desperately needed supply of arms.
Today their mixed-pattern muskets comprise a special category for
collectors and historians that testifies so eloquently to the “can
do” spirit which made possible our ultimate victory.
—George C. Neumann
Guthman, William H., “Committee
of Safety Musket? Prove It,” Man at Arms, July/August
Moller, George D., American Military Shoulder Arms,
Vol. I, University Press of Colorado, Niwot, CO, 1993
George C., Battle Weapons of the American Revolution,
Scurlock Publishing Co., Texarkana, 1998
Whisker, James B.,
Arms Makers of Colonial America, Associated University
Presses, Inc., Cranbury, NJ, 1992