As seen in Guns & Patriots
by James Pontillo
On October 7, 1777, General Simon Fraser of the British Army was felled from his horse while commanding troops on the battlefield.
The fatal shot was hurled from the barrel of Timothy Murphy’s Kentucky Rifle at close to 500 yards.
A frontiersman, Murphy was among the most talented shooters in the elite squad of Morgan’s Kentucky Riflemen.
The preferred soldier battle implement of the day was a smooth bore musket, which could be fired and reloaded five to six times in a minute by a skilled practitioner. A Kentucky Rifle, on the other hand, due to its tight fitting leather wad and ball could only be loaded and fired one or two times within a minute.
Because of its rifled barrel, the Kentucky Rifle was more difficult to keep clean and ready for action. Its disadvantage in speed was overshadowed by it superior accuracy at long range. It was impossible to reliably hit a target at only 75 yards with the smooth bore muskets. Muskets excelled, however, in the prime mode of battle of the day where hundreds of soldiers would line up two deep with long barrels from the rear extending passed the soldiers kneeling in front. Great volleys would be exchanged making War a bloody business of attrition.
While rifled barrel arms did not make production into high numbers until after the Civil War, rifling had existed as early as the fifteenth century. First accomplished in Germany, it is not surprising that German gunsmiths in Pennsylvania introduced the technology to the Colonies. Also known as the Pennsylvania Rifle, the Kentucky Rifle got its more popular name from the intrepid frontiersmen with independent and pugnacious qualities that have defined the American character since our inception.
As a matter of fact, it was in the War of 1812, with men under the command of Andrew Jackson (as pugnacious as they come) that the Kentucky Rifle received its exalted moniker.
It is this pugnacious character which allowed General Simon Fraser to be felled from his horse. The British operated under a certain code of conduct by which the unruly colonists would not abide. Under orders from Benedict Arnold, Daniel Morgan reluctantly ordered his best sharpshooter, Tim Murphy to attempt the fatal shot.
In a similar encounter only months later, General George Washington was lined up squarely within the sites of a British sniper who refused to take his shot because Washington’s back was to him. Such a shot would violate the gentlemanly code of War conduct to which the British deferred.
You might say the Colonists were “out of the box” thinkers. The British would say, “savages”.
This “savage” character is one that is ingrained in the American disposition. Americans are a thoughtful lot who weigh all data before deciding on a course of action, and when they move to action they do so with a righteousness and fervor not easily overcome.
copyright 2010 Jim Pontillo