American militiamen, such as those depicted in Don Troiani’s
“Lexington Green, April 19, 1775,” provided their own arms and kept them
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.
“3rd 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 to freedom.
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.
American-made 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 mixed components.
Initial 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 damaged pieces.
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 sheet brass.
Butt Tang: 27⁄8"
Trigger Guard: 85⁄8"
Weight: 7.8 lbs.
|No. 2: A Club Butt Country Fowler, c.
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, c.
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
reflecting the constant need to dress the muzzle walls as they
became sharpened from prolonged rammer wear.
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
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 button-headed rammer.
Butt Tang: 43⁄4"
Barrel: 44", .75 cal.
Trigger Guard: 10"
Weight: 10.0 lbs
|No. 7: A Remounted Hessian Musket, c.
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 wide (21⁄8"
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 443⁄4".
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 work.
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.”
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 in
|(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 escutcheon.
|(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 Hessian
|(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 about
• 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 about 1800.
• 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,
||(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 assembled
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 other
(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
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 arsenals (Guthman).
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
Note: This article appeared online in
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|(1.) A c.
1715-1730 bulbous Dutch lock is on a Massachusetts gun dating about
(2.) A British c. 1715 three-screw pattern (possibly made in America) on
a c. 1715-1750 Colonial fowler.
(3.) A French Model 1717 lock retains its unique vertical bridle in this
c. 1760-1780 provincial musket.
(4.) A British Long Land 1756 pattern, stamped “TOWER”, was manufactured
after 1764 (when lock-date marking ceased) before restocking by the
(5.) A c. 1750 English fowler’s lock and trigger guard appear on a
Connecticut musket, c. 1776-1780.
(6.) A Colonist-produced flat lock with an extended tail was mounted in
a New Hampshire long arm c. 1770-1800.
(7.) This Hessian pattern, having a typical squared frizzen top, was
reused in a provincial ash stock.
(8.) A British 1756 pattern Brown Bess lock, dated “EDGE 1756”, includes
an American, hand-forged replacement cock.
“Virginia Militia, 1780,” by Don Troiani,
courtesy of Historical Art Prints (Dept. AR), P.O. Box 660, Southbury,
CT 06488; (203) 262-6680;