Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The British Secret Weapon ... of the Revolutionary War - a Breach-loading Rifle 80 years ahead of it's time ...

This is a guest column, written by Bob Shaver and published in "Patent Pending" blog:

It is reprinted here, with permission

The British Secret Weapon of the Revolutionary War

By Bob Shaver

The British in the American Revolutionary War had their own secret weapon, the Ferguson breech loading rifle. This was designed by Patrick Ferguson, then a Captain in the British army, and patented in England in 1777. It had a threaded cylinder attached to the trigger guard, with steeply pitched threads that allowed one twist of the trigger guard to open the breech for insertion of a ball and powder. In tests conducted before the Army officials, the rifle proved that it could shoot 6 shots per minute and reliably hit a target 200 yards away. This was far superior to the standard issue smooth bore musket, the Brown Bess. The barrel of the Ferguson rifle was rifled, which contributed greatly to its accuracy.


Following conservative advice, only 200 of the rifles were commissioned. These were used by troops personally trained and commanded by Captain Ferguson. He was wounded at Brandywine, and his core of riflemen was disbanded, and their remarkable weapons stored in a warehouse.


After recovering from his wound, Major Ferguson was put in command of British and Tory forces in South Carolina, where his forces developed a reputation for killing civilians and prisoners. Under Major Ferguson’s command, a force of 1100 British regulars and Tories trained in British field tactics traveled the frontier of South Carolina fighting militias, and forcing settlers to join the Tory army and swear allegiance. When Ferguson threatened to go over the Blue Ridge Mountains to eradicate the refuges of fleeing militiamen there, the leaders of remote “over mountain” settlements decided to mount a force to confront Ferguson, and many small groups of frontiersmen headed for Ferguson’s last known position for a battle.

From a force of 1400 men, the backwoodsmen sent their fastest 900 men, some mounted and some on foot, to catch up to Ferguson as he headed back to Cornwallis' main force. The frontiersmen were all armed with the Pennsylvania rifle, later called the Kentucky rifle. Hearing of the approaching force, Ferguson’s force of 1100 took position on King’s Mountain, and dug in for a fight.

The Whig riflemen and their Kentucky rifles were not equipped for a bayonet charge, and whenever faced with one they fell back. However, shooting from behind rocks and trees, they poured murderous fire from long distance into the British and Tory positions. Some British positions were found with a pile of several men each with a bullet hole in his forehead, killed when they peered around the same rock one after another. Ferguson was killed in the fight, and had seven bullets in him. In an hour of fighting, 225 British were killed and 28 frontiersmen were killed.

Shooting downhill, it is thought that the British over shot their targets. Shooting uphill, the frontiersmen and their Kentucky rifles carried the day, and ended the British efforts in the South. Although the Ferguson rifle was not used on King's Mountain, the death of Ferguson ended its use and further development, and a breech loading rifle was not successful for another 80 years, in the U.S. Civil War.

Other Revolutionary War era technology is posted at:

The Kentucky Rifle

The Brown Bess Musket

Franklin's Jet Boat

The Turtle Submarine