The Pennsylvania Longrifle in South Carolina during the American War of Independence

by James R. Mc Intyre[1]

Haymaker and Humble Cheeks, two beautiful examples of the craftsman’s arts.  The top “Pennsylvania” rifle was made in  Virginia before 1774; the bottom rifle was made in the Kentucky region of Virginia in 1780.  Photo by Mel Hankla.

The Pennsylvania longrifle and the men who carried it occupy an ambiguous place in the historiography of the American War of Independence.  On the one hand, many of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress in May of 1775 saw in these frontiersmen the war-winning shock troops that would quickly defeat the ministerial forces at Boston and conclude the revolt.  The riflemen did not live up to these high expectations and quickly the sentiment regarding them changed.  By 1777 and 1778, many of the rifle units in Washington’s army were receiving military muskets.  This, however, only tells half of the story.[2]

As is often the case in the historiography of the War of Independence, the southern perspective is omitted.  From this standpoint, the role played by this rifle emerges as a markedly different one.   We look to describe the uses of the rifle in the southern campaigns and explain the difference in perception of the weapon between the two theaters.  The focus will remain almost completely on the use of the rifle in South  Carolina.  Some explanation of how a weapon commonly referred to by contemporaries as the “Pennsylvania rifle” came to play such a prominent role in revolutionary South Carolina is due.

The weapon initially developed in the Pequea Valley of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Most experts agree that it resulted from a fusion of technologies between the short Jaeger rifle common to central German states and the Swiss hunting rifle which possessed a longer barrel and more graceful silhouette.  Martin Meylin is likewise recognized as the inventor of this firearm.[3]  After an early period of evolution, the rifle began to proliferate.  Beginning around 1720, new settlers moved into Pennsylvania.  As they found land to be costly in the Quaker colony, they quickly spread south to newly opened territories via the Great Wagon Road and in the process aided in the proliferation of the rifle.  As the longrifle traveled southward, its utility on the frontier emerged as an undeniable fact, especially to those who used hunting to supplement their income from farming and other enterprises.[4]  As new settlements appeared, many journeymen realized the possibility of setting themselves up as masters in the trade of gun making on the frontier, as they would be under less heavy scrutiny from the guild authorities.  By the same token, these men provided an important service to the new communities precisely where the rifle would be of most utility.  The production of a rifle in a fully equipped gunsmith’s shop took roughly a week, and depending on the materials used and how elaborately the stock was carved, could cost between ten and fifty dollars.[5]

It is clear that by the end of the French and Indian War at the latest there were longrifles in quantity along the South Carolina frontier.  Furthermore, these weapons were in the hands of both whites and Native Americans.  The frontier and the backcountry were quite unsettled at this time.  The depredations along the South Carolina frontier including those connected with the Cherokee War left a region often described as lawless and bordering on the brink of barbarism.  While the conditions in the South Carolina backcountry improved in the aftermath of the Regulators troubles, the frontier remained open to attack. Certainly a weapon with the capabilities of the longrifle would garner great popularity under these conditions.[6]

The rifle’s popularity in the region is evidenced by the following description left by one Baika Harvey, a recent Scottish immigrant to the region of Kettle Creek, Georgia — “I seed Eight Thousand men in arms all with Riffled Barrill guns which they can hit the Bigness of a Dollar between Two & Three hundred yards Distance…”[7]  The number of men referred to in Harvey’s account might seem high for an area near the end of the rifle’s zone of proliferation to that time.  However, the violence the region had recently been subject to could serve to explain the high number of rifles, at least in part.  By the same token, the range and target size seem quite exaggerated, though they are often repeated in other account concerning the riflemen.[8]  What is certain is that by the time the riff between Great Britain and her North American colonies devolved to an open military conflict, there were rifles in some quantity in the southern colonies in general and in South Carolina in particular.  Several of South Carolina’s Continental regiments, specifically the Fifth and Sixth, were raised as rifle units.

It should be clear that this weapon would make a very useful addition to the arsenal of the Patriots, especially in the South, considering the type of fighting that would take place in that theater.  While the early years of the War of Independence witnessed more formalized warfare such as the British attack on Charleston in 1776, there were as well numerous smaller clashes in the backcountry, such as the first Siege of Ninety Six, in which rifles played a prominent role.[9]  The evidence suggests that while the manner in which the war developed in the North served to downplay the use of the rifle, with focus going to more formalized European tactics; in the South, with the eruption of the partisan conflict in the summer of 1780, the rifle became a key instrument of war.[10]

Among the reasons given for discarding the rifle in the northern theater were the two most common shortcomings cited concerning the weapon: its slow speed for reloading and its inability to mount a bayonet.  The chief reason for the lack of bayonets on longrifles was the fact that through the process used to manufacture the barrels, they were hexagonal in shape.  Thus, due to the shape of the barrel, the longrifle could not mount a standard socket bayonet.  While there is some evidence to suggest that there were in fact ways to work around the lack of a bayonet socket, such as swamping or the use of plug bayonets, it is not clear to what extent these solutions were utilized.  One thing must be kept in mind—the number of Revolutionary era rifles still in existence is exceedingly small.[11]

Many times the clashes in the South between partisan groups were very short and violent with one group essentially ambushing another.  Under these conditions, the first volley could decide the outcome to a large extent.  In this sort of an encounter, the rifle’s liabilities far offset its assets.  The reloading time would not be some much a factor as the first volley did the majority of the damage.  Likewise, the accuracy and range of the rifle made it the perfect sort of weapon for these engagements.  An example of this type of encounter was the Battle of Williamson’s Plantation (Huck’s Defeat), which occurred on June 18, 1780.  Christian Huck, a Pennsylvania Loyalist captain in the feared British Legion, died in a dawn attack executed by cooperating SC Patriot militia groups.  Many of these men were armed with rifles and several initially claimed credit for killing Huck.  It was finally decided that John Carroll, who lived on the upper Fishing Creek in the New Acquisition, fired the fatal shot from a double-loaded rifle.  (Double-loading refers to loading the rifle with two projectiles and an extra heavy charge of powder.  Troops occasionally resorted to the practice in order to maximize the lethality of the first volley.)  This engagement stood as the first time the Patriot militia attacked British regular troops.[12]

For more drawn-out engagements, the riflemen were often deployed in ways that served to offset their liabilities.  One example of this type of deployment would be Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780.   Here, the troops under the command of various officers including Patriot militia Cols. Isaac Shelby, William Campbell, James Williams, Joseph Winston, Benjamin Cleveland with Lt. Cols. John Sevier, Joseph McDowell, William Chronicle, and Frederick Hambright attacked British Maj. Patrick Ferguson’s provincial troops camped atop the rise from many points almost simultaneously.  Ferguson’s men, a few of whom may have been armed with his own breech loading rifle, were also equipped with muskets with bayonets.  When the Loyalists charged, the Patriots gave ground until Ferguson’s men were pressed from another area of the battlefield.  It should be mentioned that the method followed in their attack was not a consciously adopted stratagem on the part of the Patriots but merely the manner in which the engagement evolved.  Still, it proved successful as Ferguson was killed on the field and his troops were surrounded and routed.[13]  In another excellent example of longrifle firepower, with word of British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s approach, SC Patriot militia Gen. Thomas Sumter carefully selected his defensive stand on hilltops in farm buildings at Blackstock’s Plantation on the Tyger River.  Here the backcountry militias were completely protected from Tarleton’s cavalry and could easily dominate the battlefield where they pinned the British 63d Regiment of Foot in the fields and lanes below. Plantation barns, cribs and the Blackstock’s house were used for protection while reloading.  Sumter easily checked Tarleton and inflicted 20 to 1 casualties on the Brtitish.

Probably the greatest example of utilizing riflemen’s range and accuracy would be Continental Gen. Daniel Morgan’s deployments at Cowpens on January 17, 1781.  One of the key features of Morgan’s defense in depth consisted in the roughly 120 riflemen from North Carolina, South Carolinaand Georgia posted in his first line.  The men were to fight in threes, two men holding fire as one man delivered fire.  These men forced Tarleton to deploy for battle without complete intelligence of his enemy’s disposition, thus accomplishing two tasks of central importance.[14]  Likewise, their long-distance fire inflicted casualties on the non-commissioned officers, making the deployments of Tarleton’s men less organized than they might otherwise have been.  Cowpens stands as one of the most complete victories for the Patriots in the War of Independence.  The role of the riflemen in the first line played no small part in that victory.  Morgan’s positioning of these troops and his expectations on their performance showed him to be a commander who appreciated both the strengths and limitations of the longrifle.  This should come as no surprise since Morgan commanded one of the first ten rifle companies raised by the Continental Congress in June of 1775.

It should be clear at this point that the rifle constituted a weapon well suited to the type of fighting that transpired in the Southern Department, especially in the backcountry.  Likewise, the commanders often realized this and posted their riflemen to make the most of the weapon’s advantages, and to some extent, minimize its deficiencies.  Certainly Huck’s Defeat, Kings Mountain, Blackstock’s Plantation, and especially Cowpens, exemplify this point.[15]  In addition to the commanders at these engagements positioning their men to make the best use of their rifles, the riflemen had to have superior aim in order to take full advantage of the capabilities of their weapons.  While it is highly likely that not all riflemen were crack shots, enough of them were for the weapon to have a telling effect.

Finally, this should not be taken as anything approaching a complete discussion of the role of the rifle in the South.  Rather, this is a set of initial remarks and an invitation to begin the discussion of the role of the weapon.  Likewise, it further supports the idea that the war in the South constituted a fundamentally different military event – a different type of conflict waged with different tactics than that fought in the North.  The longrifle stood as a weapon ideally suited for this type of war.  Commanders who were successful in the Southern Department appreciated this fact, and appreciated the advantages the longrifle could offer.


[1] James R. Mc Intyre is a professor of history at Moraine College, Ill. © 2008  A version of this paper was published in American Revolution magazine, Vol. 2, p.11-13.  For more details, see Professor Mc Intyre’s article at http://lib.jrshelby.com/index.htm#mcintyre.

[2] One example of the attitude many of the northern delegates initially held concerning the longrifle’s capabilities comes from a letter by John Adams to his wife Abigail.  “They have voted Ten Companies of Rifle Men to be sent from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, to join the Army before Boston.  These are an excellent Species of Light Infantry.  They use a peculiar Kind of […] [call’d] a Rifle—it has circular or […] Grooves within the Barrell, and carries a Ball, with great Exactness to great Distances.  They are the most accurate Marksmen in the World.”  See John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 17, 1775, http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.  Adams’ words were echoed by John Hancock in writing to Joseph Warren on June 18, 1775, “This is a good Step and will be an excellent additional Strength to our Army.  These are the finest Marksmen in the world. They do Execution with their Rifle Guns at an Amazing Distance.”  See Smith, Paul H. ed. Letters of the Delegates to the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976-2000.  In connection with the riflemen being rearmed with muskets, see Col. John W.  Wright, “The Rifle in the American Revolution.” In American Historical Review, 29 (1924), pp. 26-30.

[3] Norman B. Wilkinson, “The Pennsylvania Rifle.”  In Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet. 4. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (1976) p. 1.

[4] The evolutionary periods of the longrifle were as follows, according to Philip B. Sharpe, The Rifle in America. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1938, p. 19.  The first period ran from 1718 to roughly 1775, and should be seen as a developmental or transitional period between the parent weapons and the Pennsylvania longrifle.  This first period witnessed the perfection of the flintlock version of the longrifle in its technological development.  The second period ran from 1776 until 1825, and witnessed a new wave of proliferation of the firearm.  Finally, 1825-1850 saw the ornamentation reach a decadent level.  By the last period all of the technological innovation had reached their full manifestation.  On the uses of the longrifle in hunting during the pre-revolutionary era, see Joseph Ruckman, Recreating the American Longhunter: 1740-1790.  Privately Published, Joseph Ruckman, 2000

[5] For the proliferation of the longrifle south, see Ruckman, Longhunter, pp. 41-42.  On the time for manufacture and the cost, see Wilkinson, “Pennsylvania Rifle,” p. 3.

[6] Mention of the Cherokee using the longrifle during the Cherokee War were found in Matthew C. Ward, Breaking the Backcountry: the Seven Years War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754-1765. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003, p. 197.

[7] Baika Harvey quoted in Robert Scott Davis, “Lesson from Kettle Creek: Patriotism and Loyalism on the Southern Frontier,” in Journal of Backcountry Studies. Volume 1, number 1, (March 2006): 2-3.

[8] While the marksmanship described in the above paragraph may seem hard to believe, I have several other accounts of the riflemen in action that corroborate the notion that these men possessed a very high level of skill with their firearms.  By the same token, it should be kept in mind that these men were demonstrating their ability in contests, not while under hostile fire.   A second example comes from the pen of another Scotsman, John Harrower and pertains to the raising of one of the Virginia companies in 1775.  More men turned out than were necessary to complete the company, so the commander “chuse his Compy by the following method Vizy.  He took a board of a foot square and wt Chalk drew the shape of a moderate nose in the center and nailed it to a tree at 150 yds distance and those who came nights the mark with a single ball was to go.”  By these means the commander would raise the men necessary for completing his unit.  The account furthermore demonstrates the level of marksmanship among at least one group of riflemen.  “But by the first 40 or 50 that fired the nose was all blown out of the board, and by the time his Compy was up the board shared the same fate.”  See John Harrower “Diary of John Harrower” in The American Historical Review. Vol. 6, No. 1 (Oct. 1900): 100.  A third example comes from a letter describing a shooting demonstration put on at Fredericktown, Maryland by Captain Michael Cresap’s Company of Maryland riflemen on their march to Cambridge in the summer of 1775, “Yesterday, July 31st, the company were supplied with a small quantity of powder form the magazine, which wanted airing, and was not in good order for rifles; in the evening, however, they were drawn out to show the gentlemen of the town their dexterity in shooting.   A clap-board with a mark the size of a dollar was put up, they began to fire offhand, and the bystanders were surprised.  Few shots were made that were not close to or into the paper.  When they had shot for some time in this way, some lay on their backs, some on their breasts or sides, others ran twenty or thirty steps, and firing as they ran, appeared to be equally certain of the mark.”  American Archives quoted in Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown. Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company, Printers, 1910, p. 94.  [Ed. Not to be too contrary, but we have the incident at the Battle of Weitzel’s Mill in which British Lt. Col. James Webster bravely rode forward to lead his men across the Reedy Fork River, exposing himself to Patriot riflemen posted in the hills beyond the river who took 32 shots without the desired effect.  Patrick O’Kelley, Nothing but Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas. Volume 3, 1781. Booklocker, 2005, p. 122.]

[9] Patrick O’Kelley, Nothing but Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas. Volume 1, 1771-1779. Booklocker, 2004, pp. 59-63.

[10] Jac Weller makes this same argument concerning the nature of the fighting at the tactical level in the south in his article “Irregular But Effective: Partisan Weapons Tactics in the American Revolution, Southern Theatre” in Military Affairs, Volume 21, (Autumn 1957), pp. 118-131.  The difference here is to some extent one of scope. I include the idea that the commanders in the Southern Department understood the utility of the rifle and adapted their tactics in order to bolster its effectiveness.

[11] Lawrence Babits, A Devil of a Whipping the Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998, p. 16, provides an excellent discussion of swamping. With regards to the numbers of actual Revolutionary War rifles, these are very hard to determine as guns were quite valuable and tended to be re-bored, thus making the date of their original manufacture very difficult, if not impossible to determine, unless the piece is signed by the maker.

[12] Michael C. Scoggins, The Day It Rained Militia: Huck’s Defeat and the Revolution in the South Carolina Backcountry May-July 1780. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2005, p. 116.

[13] O’Kelley, Blood and Slaughter, volume 2, pp. 322-342.  The classic account on this engagement is still Lyman C. Draper, Kings Mountain and Its Heroes, Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press, 1996 reprint of 1881 original. On Patrick Ferguson, see M.M. Gilchrist, Patrick Ferguson A Man of Some Genius. Edinburgh: NMS Publishing, 2003, a solid if biased biography.

[14] Babits, Devil of a Whipping, p.  83.

[15] Two additional engagements that exemplify this point were suggested to me by Dr. C. Leon Harris. These skirmishes were Clapp’s Mill, March 4, 1781 and Weitzel’s Mill, March 6, 1781.  Both are detailed in O’Kelley, Nothing but Blood and Slaughter, volume 3, pp. 108-111 and 119-123 respectively.

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