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. Neumann
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.
Pennsylvania Regiment, 1777”
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 Atlantic.
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 battle.
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.
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
Arms 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
Efforts were 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
This American 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
Butt Tang: 27⁄8"
Trigger Guard: 85⁄8"
Weight: 7.8 lbs.
|No. 2: A Club Butt Country Fowler,
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.
Trigger Guard: 71⁄8"
Weight: 7.5 lbs
|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"
Weight: 9.2 lbs.
|No. 4: British Brown Bess Elements,
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"
Barrel: 453⁄8”, .77 cal.
Trigger Guard: 11"
Weight: 10.3 lbs.
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 production.
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"
Weight: 7.0 lbs.s.
|No. 6: Complete American Manufacture,
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
Butt Tang: 43⁄4"
Barrel: 44", .75 cal.
Trigger Guard: 10"
Weight: 10.0 lbs
|No. 7: A Remounted Hessian Musket,
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
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 was provided.
Butt Tang: 53⁄4"
Trigger Guard: 107⁄8"
Weight: 9.9 lbs..
|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
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"
Trigger Guard: 113⁄8"
Weight: 9.5 lbs.
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’ burdens.
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 company.”
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
(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
|(5.) A remounted English fowler trigger guard that had both
ends cut off to minimize inletting work.
(7.) A typical Germanic double arrow design remounted from a
|(6.) An American-made c. 1770-1800 pattern incorporating the
double-pointed French influence (see No. 3).
(8.) Another former British Brown Bess component that now omits
the original sling swivel as did many Colonial-assembled muskets.
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
• 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 flat.”
• 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 1800.
• 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.
• Hunting 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
• 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 53705-2398).
||(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 American
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 tang.
(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
(6.) Notice that this Colonist gunmaker simplified the British
“stepped” tang design (see No. 4) and disregarded
(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 escutcheon.
Arms from the author's collection
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.
After 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 1979
Moller, George D., American Military Shoulder Arms, Vol.
I, University Press of Colorado, Niwot, CO, 1993
Neumann, 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