Since the United States has now been an independent country for more than 230 years, it might be hard for many Americans to remember that the success of the colonial uprising was hardly assured due to a host of political and military factors. The Revolutionary War, as is the case with most conflicts, was a proving ground of sorts of new technology, with the colonists and their allies notably using naval mines, and even an experimental submarine, to upend Britain’s near complete naval dominance. On land, though, one British Army officer was demonstrating a then state-of-the-art rifle in an attempt to help sway the course of the conflict in the other direction and may have even had General George Washington directly in his sights at one point.
By the time the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Patrick Ferguson had already fought against the Holy Roman Empire in Europe during the Seven Years' War and served more time in the British Army in the British Empire’s West Indies colonies. In 1772, the Scotsman had returned to the British Isles where he subsequently took part in then relatively unusual light infantry training and began work on what would become Ferguson’s Ordnance Rifle.
Through much of the 18th Century and into the 19th Century, the British Army relied heavily on the Land Pattern Musket, or variants and derivatives thereof. Nicknamed the “Brown Bess” for still unclear reasons, the gun was typical of its time. A muzzle-loading flintlock
musket, it shot a .75 caliber round ball and had an effective range of between 50 and 100 yards. During the Revolutionary War, American forces used similar muzzling loading muskets, including captured British guns, as well as muzzling-loading rifles, such as the Kentucky Rifle.
With the Brown Bess, a well-trained soldier could manually load the powder charge and projectiles, ram them in place, set the priming compound under the flint, and then fire at a rate of between three and four shots per minute. Underscoring how lengthy and regimented the process was in the British Army, in 1764, Great Britain put out an official manual of arms for all military services that laid out 35 separate drills, many with multiple "motions," for proper use of the muskets in combat and on the parade ground.
Ferguson proposed an alternative gun that troops would be able to load at the breach end and do so much more rapidly than before. It would be rifled for greater accuracy at range compared to the smooth-bore musket, too.
To be fair, Ferguson was hardly the first to come up with the idea of a breech loading flintlock firearm or a mechanism that allowed for rapid fire. The design of Ferguson’s Ordnance Rifle lifts many key design features from a sporting gun a Frenchman named Isaac de la Chaumette had developed decades earlier.
But Ferguson’s rifle was a significant improvement over that earlier design. Instead of having to tediously unscrew the action, thanks to a more efficient series of grooves, the shooter only had to swing the trigger guard one full revolution to crank open up a cavity at the breech. Then they could drop the projectile into place along with the powder charge.
Closing the mechanism would force the powder charge into place and expel any excess in the process. The rest of the firing sequence was just like a typical flintlock rifle. You can watch the full sequence in the video below, which features a reproduction Ferguson rifle.
In addition, since the user wouldn’t have to prop the gun up in some way to tip the powder and ball into the muzzle, they could employ the rifle from a prone position. This could have allowed sharpshooters to better conceal themselves behind cover or while lying down in dense foliage or tall grass, something that snipers today probably take for granted.
In an initial demonstration for the British War Office and Board of Ordnance, Ferguson himself and 10 other trained soldiers were reportedly able to show a single rifle could put 15 balls on a target at 200 yards in just five minutes. This was as fast as shooting with the Brown Bess, but much more precise. The belief was that an infantry unit trained to effectively use the weapon could improve their rate of fire significantly.
The video below shows how fast it might have been possible for an especially well-trained soldier to operate the standard Brown Bess.
Despite support from British officials, Ferguson almost immediately found himself up against a host of obstacles in trying to get his rifle into widespread use. For one, the weapon had been developed with a not insignificant emphasis on enabling light infantry tactics that the British Army remained largely opposed to in basic concept.
To make up for the relative speed of fire and the limited range and accuracy of weapons such as the Brown Bess, at the time, the British Army and its contemporaries typically employed heavy or “line” infantry units standing in rows with limited maneuverability to maximize their firepower. Light infantry or “skirmishers,” would operate in smaller, more flexible elements – again relative for the time and not at all comparable to modern infantry tactics – either ahead of this line or along its flanks, operating in groups as small as a pair of soldiers and firing at will instead of using massed, officer-directed volleys.
In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, the British had typically hired mercenaries or otherwise recruited irregulars, including colonial auxiliaries, to fill the role of light infantry. The British Army had an institutional aversion to the concept and routinely disbanded the units as soon as it no longer needed them. The demands of the Seven Years' War, and its French and Indian War side-show in North America, led to actual British troops filling the ranks of some of these formations.
Historians credit Brigadier General Lord George Howe with finally beginning to break the British Army’s hostility toward light infantry when he formally proposed the creation of a full regiment trained in tactics similar to the ones he had observed among his French and Native American opponents. French forces killed Howe in 1758 near Lake George in what is now New York State.
Ferguson, who trained in light infantry operations under Howe’s brother William, was a clear advocate for more flexibility on the battlefield and guns to go with it. And with some senior elements within the British Army taking an increasingly positive view of light infantry, as well as sharpshooters, he was able to quickly secure a contract, albeit for just 300 guns, and received a patent for the breech-loading mechanism in December 1776.
The far bigger issue was cost and complexity of manufacture. The British Army would’ve needed tens of thousands of Fergusons to replace the Land Pattern Musket and its cousins completely. The new rifles were four times more expensive than the Brown Bess and with just four gunsmiths building them, the guns were only reaching troops at a rate of less than 16 per month.
In 1777, King George III finally ordered that Ferguson simply establish an Experimental Rifle Corps attached to General William Howe’s forces in the North American colonies. Even then, this unit of 100 men struggled to obtain the appropriate number of rifles, with some of them using other guns alongside them, reducing the overall effectiveness of the concept.
The experimental formation took part in the massive Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, which occurred in present day Pennsylvania and lasted for approximately 11 hours, making the longest single-day engagement of the Revolutionary War. British troops backed by Hessian mercenaries inflicted heavy casualties on the colonial forces, including those under the command of George Washington.
In what is likely an apocryphal story, Ferguson himself may have had the American commander in the sights of his own rifle, a shot that could have had serious ramifications for the conflict. As the story goes, he declined to shoot an enemy officer standing next to another individual in a hussar uniform since the individual’s back was turned. The suggestion was that this could have been Washington next to Count Casimir Pulaski, a Pole who had become a senior officer in the Continental Army and was also at the battle.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Ferguson was himself wounded in the engagement. Apparently, without a vocal advocate to extend the test of his experimental unit, the British Army disbanded it and put the rifles into storage in New York.
After returning to duty, Ferguson went on to command local loyalist irregular forces in the Carolinas and led a counter-insurgency campaign – an underappreciated component of the Revolutionary War as it occurred beyond the well known battlefields – in the region. He died in the Battle of Kings Mountain in what is today South Carolina after reportedly refusing to surrender to pro-independence American forces.
It’s not clear what happened to his rifles after the United States finally won its independence in 1783. There is some evidence that Ferguson may have found a way to get the guns out of storage in New York and delivered to his militias in the Carolinas. In something of a final irony, the North Carolina Militia reportedly sent forces into battle against the British armed with those same Fergusons during the War of 1812, which cemented America’s status as an independent country.
Even though the British only made approximately 200 Ferguson rifles in total ever, these apparently remained in some level of limited service in North America through the American Civil War. The bulk of the original rifles now in museums and other collections were seized by Union Troops.
The rifles apparently had about as much impact on the outcome of that conflict as they did during the Revolutionary War. However, being the first breech-loading rifle to see real combat service officially with a standing military force, they did set the stage for future developments, both in regards to firearms and more mobile infantry tactics.
And as we celebrate the Fourth of July, we can be additionally grateful that the British did not find a way to exploit the full potential of Ferguson’s Ordnance Rifle and that the man himself missed the opportunity to potentially have shot George Washington in the back.
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