A Huron or Ottawa warrior, 18th century. He is armed with a curved club and an American long rifle, an acquisition of trade or warfare (artwork by Don Troiani).
By Periklis Deligiannis
The Europeans (British and French) who colonized North America in the 17th to 18th centuries were forced to adapt to the martial art of a ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ environment which was lost from Europe since Late Antiquity or the Early Middle Ages. The Native American (Indian) who was their main rival, unfortunately for them, had not read Grotius and Vattel, the founders of the rules of the noble and ‘civilized’ warfare (corresponding to the subsequent Treaty of Geneva) with which the Europeans of the 17th and 18th centuries complied. The Native American had his own original weapons and his own methods of war, the deadly warfare of the forest. Of course he did not know the pitched battles or the attack at the sound of the trumpet. The Indian bow unlike the European harquebus (and afterwards the musket) was silent, accurate, and able to unleash fast repeated arrowshots, even in wet weather (when the wick and the gunpowder of the harquebus/musket dampened and made it useless).
American marksman in a tree shoots at British soldiers (American War of Independence).
The Indian tomahawk was a handier weapon and with more possible uses than the 4-5 meters long pike, which the first Europeans brought in North America (and which soon fell into disuse). When the Native warrior nabbed prisoners of war, he did not follow Grotius’ regulations that imposed the care of the POWs and their exchange among the belligerents. Instead, slaughter and torture were the ‘rules’ of the Indian. He thought nothing of flaying his enemy or bleeding him to death with jabs or pointed sticks. These martial methods of the natives sowed terror among the European settlers.
A fine specimen of a Pennsylvania rifle.
Hunting, clashes with the Indians and skirmishes in the backwoods (Early American border forests) prompted the first White Americans to invent and procure many improvements in the firearms brought from Europe. The rifle that prevailed among the various types was a German musket from the Alpine region (Southern Germany, Austria and German Switzerland). The Germans, English, Scots-Irish, Dutch, Scots and other European settlers who settled in the Atlantic coast of the subsequent U.S., especially those of Pennsylvania, have developed this Alpine musket to such an extent that by the mid-18th century the “Pennsylvanian rifle” (“Pennsylvanian musket” to be accurate), later to achieve fame as the “Kentucky rifle” was already noticeably different from its German Alpine prototype. It was longer and more slender, had a small bore (a calibre of about 0,50), used a lead ball weighing only about half a ounce, and was more accurate. The Pennsylvanian rifle was surprisingly straight-shooting, suitable for the environment of the dense North American forests. On the contrary, even at such a late period as was the year of the start of the American Revolution (1776), the Alpine rifle was still comparatively clumsy, heavy and short-barrelled and with a ball of double weight (one ounce). It was slower to fire, heavier in recoil and had a much smaller range and accuracy.
Pennsylvanian rifle, with right and left views of the gunstock and the firing mechanism.
Slow loading – with short iron rod, mallet and ramrod – had not disqualified the rifle for backwoods use, but the Americans developed a quicker and less strenuous means of loading: the “patch”, a small greased cloth encasing a lead ball which could be pushed smoothly down the barrel. By insuring a tight fit in the rifling, the patch ensured economy in fire-power and more convenience and accuracy. At the same time, the Europeans were continuing to push the lead ball naked.
What the Americans achieved with the patch was the full contact of the ball with the perimeter of the barrel and therefore greater economy in the gunpowder, greater range and greater accuracy. The shot range and accuracy increased relatively with the length of the gunbarrel and the quality of the material of the patch. Especially if the patch was silk (an expensive material), the range increased by 30-40 yards.
Until the American Revolution, the Pennsylvania rifle, practically unknown in England and used in a ‘primitive’ form only by a number of German hunters in the mountains of Central Europe, had been a typical weapon in the American backwoods. An Englishman who was in Maryland in 1775 notes that “such rifles were mass-produced in many places of Pennsylvania and the boys learn to use from a very young age, and become familiar with this marvelous gun.” He also acknowledged that “One thousand American marksmen with these rifles in the forests, could easily exterminate 10,000 British regular soldiers. With this rifle they earn their living, hunting for meat and furs which they trade. The Yankees are the best shooters in the world.” With such reports, the British soldiers possibly had already understood that almost every American opponent of them would be a sharp-shooter.
At the same time the British musket was so ‘primitive’ that the official manual of the royal army did not contain even the command “Aim” for the musketeers. On the other hand, the American rifle, unlike the European musket, was not equipped with a bayonet and was a slower, more fragile weapon of special skill. Ill-suited to the European formal battle-array, it remained a highly individualistic weapon, admirable for skirmishing. These guerrilla tactics of the Americans which were based on lethal skirmishes, were extremely successful and had to convince the British from the very beginning that the subjugation of the ‘rebels’ would not be easy.
A collection of Kentucky rifles, which were developed from the Pennsylvanian prototype.
The Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle became indivisible from the famous dress and later uniform (linen or leather jacket with fringes, fur hat often from squirrel skin, moccasins etc) which characterized the North American “marksman” (man of the borderlands) and the rangers (who were marksmen as well). Especially the jacket was colored usually in shades of green for camouflage in the forests. Such was the terror that this uniform caused to the British soldiers because of the losses that they had by the marksmen, that George Washington called with a special decree the American soldiers to wear the uniform of the marksman and not the official, in order to bend the morale of the enemy. Finally, it should be noted that the American marksmen who were for some time the main striking force of the Continental Army, were not ethnically English in majority (the colonists of English origin were a little more than half of the American population in 1776). They came mainly from the backwoods (western border with the independent Indian tribes of the interior) and thereby were overwhelmingly Scots-Irish and Germans, who despised the English. For this reason they fought so passionately against the British rule in 1776-1783.