The rifle gained its fame and name from its use in what Native Americans called the “Dark and Bloody Ground”. The land west of the Allegheny Mountains, populated by the Iroquois and Cherokee, was the site of continuous warfare, the ground stained dark by the blood shed in battle between these two tribes for possession of these rich hunting lands. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War frontiersmen thought of the region as a hunter’s paradise. John Findley travelled the Ohio River documenting the valley’s beauty and abundance of game. A young adventurer and skilled marksman named Daniel Boone, explored the passage now known as the “Cumberland Gap” and followed Findley, rifle in hand, into what is modern day Kentucky.
Boone’s rifle, and its cousins, is more correctly known as a Pennsylvania Rifle. The more popular appellation, Kentucky Rifle, became permanent on January 8, 1815, two weeks after the Peace of Christmas Eve was signed at Ghent. The War of 1812 was already over when five thousand American soldiers and militiamen, including two thousand Kentucky and Tennessee frontiersmen armed with long barrelled rifles, under the command of General Andrew Jackson, engaged 7,500 British troops along a drainage canal just south of New Orleans. The British forces grimly advanced into the fire of cannon manned by Jean Lafitte’s pirates. As the orderly lines of troops came into rifle range, Jackson ordered the cannons to lift their fire so that the billowing powder smoke would not obscure the Redcoats. In just a few minutes British General Edward Pakenham and 2,000 of his Redcoats were cut down by American riflemen hidden in trenches and behind cotton bales in the pointless Battle of New Orleans. A popular song called “The Hunters of Kentucky” or “The Battle of New Orleans” was soon ringing throughout the nation’s taverns hailing Jackson’s victory. One couplet proclaiming “But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scar’d at trifles, for well he knew what aim we take, with our Kentucky Rifles” was a public relations coup of gigantic proportions. To this day, few ever refer to this quintessential American flintlock as the Pennsylvania Rifle.
The Battle of New Orleans may have raised public consciousness about the rifle but it was not the first conflict on American soil where the long-range capabilities of the colonial marksmen played an important part. Between 1689 and 1763, England and France fought a series of four wars on the continent that were mirrored in the colonies. The final conflict was The French and Indian War, known as the Seven Years’ War in Europe, fought between 1754 and 1763. Among the young colonials blooded in the conflict was a young teamster by the name of Daniel Morgan. Morgan, Daniel Boone’s cousin, survived the disastrous rout of General Edward Braddock’s expeditionary force in July of 1755 along with two young lieutenant colonels who would have much to do with each other two decades later-British regular Thomas Gage and Virginia militiaman George Washington.
Twenty years after serving with the British the tables turned. In July of 1775 Washington found himself in command of the newly formed Continental Army and with it, ten companies of riflemen. In command of the company from Virginia was Captain Morgan. As proof of their capabilities the Virginians marched from Winchester, Virginia to Boston, 300 miles away, in just three weeks. New England was treated to displays of marksmanship that amazed the locals who were unfamiliar with the rifle. Morgan’s men would demonstrate their skill by regularly hitting targets at twice the maximum range of the Yankee’s muskets and fowling pieces.
Over the next several years Morgan would command troops under Benedict Arnold in his abortive expedition to Quebec and in the Hudson River Valley. One lesson he would learn was that, as good as the rifle was, it was still slower than the musket and rifleman could not engage the enemy with out support. Morgan’s riflemen would prove their worth at Saratoga where they functioned as skirmishers, going out in front of the main battle lines to use their skills with the rifle to disable gun crews, kill officers, and generally harass the enemy. The constant rain of accurate long-range rifle fire hampered the fighting efficiency and mettle of the British troops under the command of Braddock’s Defeat alumnus General Thomas Gates.
It was here that one of the more famous long range shots of the war took place. The most celebrated of Morgan’s riflemen was Pennsylvania rifleman Tim Murphy. Tradition has it that Murphy was ordered to kill a British officer astride a gray horse. Perched in a tree and steadying his aim on a strong limb he missed with his first shot. With his second he mortally wounded General Burgoyne’s Aide de Camp, Captain Sir Francis Clerke, at a range of some 300 yards. Reloading, he next drew a bead and downed General Simon Fraser. Clerke and Fraser lingered for hours in agony before succumbing and were buried on the battlefield. In the end the British losses were twice that of the Colonial forces with rifle fire contributing greatly to the American dominance of the battlefield.
The British made several halfhearted attempts to establish a corps of rifleman to counter the colonial marksmen. The most noteworthy unit was under Major Patrick Ferguson of the Second Battalion of the 71st Highlanders, one of the finest marksman of his day and the developer of a breech loading flintlock rifle. Ferguson raised a company for deployment in North America to test his rifle. A colonial bullet shattered his right elbow on September 11, 1777 at Brandywine Creek, a battle where his riflemen contributed significantly to the British victory. After a lengthy convalescence he returned to active service but, ironically, before he could definitely prove the effectiveness of either his rifle or his troops, one of Morgan’s riflemen killed ‘The British Morgan” at the Battle of King’s Mountain, North Carolina on October 7, 1780.
After the war was won the rifle continued to prove its worth as the new nation pushed westward. As a tool, it both protected and fed the immigrants. On the occasional holiday it provided entertainment in the form of a riflemen’s frolic or turkey or beef shoot. These matches were fired standing, or from a rest, at 100 yards, or so. The target might be an X drawn with the fire-blackened end of a piece of wood from a campfire on a blazed tree side or a trussed turkey partially hidden behind a downed log. As the condemned bird’s head bobbed up and down the frontiersmen took turns trying to hit the moving mark. A successful shot earned the marksman the unlucky bird. If the prize were a beef then it might well be awarded in quarters, with each marksman taking his selection in the order of finish. Nothing went to waste with the “fifth quarter” - the hide, entrails, and bones-presented to the least successful of the five best riflemen.