Don N. Hagist
© 1993, 2002
Orignally published in The Brigade Dispatch,
Volume Vol. XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1993), pp. 8-10.
It is a common misconception that British soldiers did not aim their muskets, but rather were taught to simply "point and shoot." One needs only to read the manual of arms used to train soldiers during this time period to discern that this is not true. In describing how to bring the musket to the Present, or firing position, the manual reads in part:
"...raise up the Butt so high upon the right Shoulder, that you may not be obliged to stoop too much with the Head, the right Cheek to be close to the Butt, and the left Eye shut, and look along the Barrel with the right Eye from the Breech Pin to the Muzzel..."
This method of instruction clearly demonstrates that aiming was an explicit part of the firing exercise; it was also discussed in popular period military texts.1 We also know that British soldiers regularly practiced target shooting, called "firing at marks".2 So it is clear that some value was placed upon an individual being able to hit a target with a Short Land Pattern firelock.
On the other hand, those who have live-fired these weapons know that it takes a reasonable amount of practice to achieve consistently good results. There is evidence to suggest that a typical British soldier may have fired only a dozen or so live rounds in a year for training purposes, but this is in no way certain.3 Further, the difference in diameter between original firelock bores and original balls persuades us to question whether a soldier would be able to hit anything at all.4
And yet, soldiers hit what they aimed at. There are a number of documented cases of sentries firing upon and wounding soldiers attempting to desert.5 In such a situation, it was rare to be able to get more than one shot off. Considering that these actions often occurred at night, sometimes in poor weather, and that the deserters were most probably attempting to avoid being shot, we get the impression that there were some quite well qualified marksmen in the army.
One case is particularly intriguing. In 1777, a soldier of the 22nd Regiment of Foot was court martialed "for maliciously firing at two Hessian soldiers (one of whom is since dead)", while serving as a safe guard at a farm in Rhode Island.6 A safe guard was "a protection granted by a prince or general, for some of the enemy's lands, houses, persons, &c. to preserve them from being insulted or plundered."7 In this case, the lands were not "the enemy's," but plunder was a problem nonetheless.
What stands out here is that the safe guard, private Thomas Edwards, fired on not one but two people. Was he able to load and fire so quickly that he could get two shots off before his targets got out of range, and still fire accurately? This seems unreasonable, even though Edwards was an experienced soldier.8 Did one of the German soldiers persist in provocative activity even after another had been shot? Not very likely. Did Edwards fire on a German soldier who was trying to help a wounded comrade?
The proceedings of the court martial, preserved within the War Office papers of the British Public Record Office, provide the answers.9 In cases involving bodily injury, it was typical for a surgeon to testify to the court, describing the nature of the injury and therefore the probable cause. Surgeon Major Limbergen of the Regiment von Ditfurth gave the following description of the wounds suffered by the two soldiers of his regiment:
1st Fuzileer Iburg had received seven wounds from Balls cut into square pieces, three of which penetrated three or four Inches deep into the parts of the bone of the right leg; two Balls pierced the posteriors to the same depth, one the right ham; one entered the Right Arm, in such a manner that without a large incision it would not have been possible to save it- this Operation produced a great Effusion of blood, and was attended with a violent Fever.
2nd Fuzileer Wallenshausen had five wounds, from the same kind of slugs as follows- One in the right Hip near the joint, two others in the outward joint of the Right Hand, followed also by a violent Fever.10
The musket was loaded with a kind of shot apparently made by cutting up balls into pieces. The quantity of these pieces loaded can be estimated from the testimony of several witnesses, who indicated that Edwards fired only one shot. If we suppose that a single ball yielded eight of these "slugs", formed by cutting on each of the three axes of a sphere, then Edwards probably had at least two balls' worth in his firelock in order to produce thirteen wounds with one shot.
No other information appears in the trial transcript to indicate whether or not this kind of load was typical (although we can speculate that it could not have been uncommon or it would have been an issue in the trial). The only supporting reference for this kind of ammunition used by British regulars in Rhode Island is the issue to the 22nd Regiment of "1 Cwt lead shot" on May 10, 1777.11 "Shot" could refer either to normal caliber musket balls or to something smaller.
More information must be uncovered before we can conclude that guards and sentries typically loaded their weapons with "Balls cut into square pieces." If this practice was common, it certainly explains the ability of individual soldiers to hit human targets in adverse conditions.
And what of Thomas Edwards? Two of his company officers and several fellow soldiers, all quartered at the Dyer farm, spoke in his defense, as did Edwards himself. Stock from the farm had been stolen frequently, including several sheep, two of which belonged to Captain Edward Brabazon. Over several nights, Edwards had brought in a number of German soldiers he had caught near the farm. The night before the shooting incident, he tried to stop four of them whom he had discovered on the grounds after dark. The German soldiers ill used Edwards and dragged him around a field. As a result Edwards ...
came into the House some little time after Gun firing, with the Appearance of having been attacked by some Men, his Shirt being open, and himself seemingly much confused, and that he said he had been drag'd about the field by some Hessians, and then demanded why none of them had come to his Aid.12
Edwards "requested he might be no longer a Sauve Guard unless he could discharge its Duties," that is, unless he be allowed to fire on intruders. Captain Brabazon took the matter to Lieutenant-Colonel John Campbell, commanding the regiment, who gave permission to safeguards to fire if necessary. Ensign Richard Proctor went to the German barracks to inform them of this new measure. In spite of this, on the night of the shooting, Edwards noticed a party of ten men breaking down a fence. After challenging them and receiving no answer, he fired a single shot at them from behind a haystack, producing the wounds described above by the German surgeon. He testified that he felt that this was his duty as a safeguard, the more so since Captain Brabazon had given him orders to fire rather than risk an attack like the one of the previous night. He also showed the court his "Order of Sauve Guard" from General Clinton.
Nothing is said in any of the testimony about what happened immediately after the shooting. It is not known whether the other German soldiers helped their comrades away, whether other British soldiers responded to the sound of the shot (one soldier specifically mentioned hearing the shot), or anything else about the immediate reactions. Two days later, Edwards discovered two German soldiers taking away hay. These soldiers also attacked Edwards, and he would have been overpowered had not a Negro from the house come to his assistance.
Colonel Bose, commanding the Regiment von Ditfurth, sent a memorial to the court in which he stated that his men were merely going to purchase potatoes, and that they had done so before. The wounded German soldiers indicated to Colonel Bose that they saw no one, but were fired on from behind a parcel of hay and assumed the shot was fired by a British soldier, "perhaps a Sauve Guard who did the Injury without pretext or reason." The only Germans who actually testified were the surgeon whose testimony appears above, and another surgeon who confirmed the testimony. They also confirmed that one of the two soldiers had died of his wounds.
The court, after hearing all of the testimony, most of which was presented by British soldiers in favor of Edwards, concluded that "he is not Guilty of the Crimes he is charged with, which appearing to the Court to have occurred in the discharge of his Duty as a Sauve Guard, it doth therefore Acquit him."13
As a final interesting note, the courthouse where Edwards was tried is still standing in Newport, and has been beautifully restored.
1.The Manual Exercise, As Ordered by His Majesty, in 1764..., printed by H. Gaine, New York, 1775. While this document was very widely reprinted, the text of the manual exercise portion does not vary with the exception of typographical changes.
Popular military writer Thomas Simes advised, "Great attention must be had in the instructing of recruits how to take aim, and that they properly adjust their ball." Simes, Thomas, A Military Guide for Young Officers (London, 1781), p. 196.
2.For a description of a procedure for firing at marks, as practiced by British regiments in Boston in 1775, see "Fieldwork: Notes on the Evolution of British Light Infantry Tactics", Brigade Dispatch Vol. XXI, No. 1.
3.Returns of cartridges issued to regiments serving in Rhode Island are in the account books of George Wray, commissary at Rhode Island. Comparing the numbers of cartridges issued over a three-year period to various troop returns gives figures of around a dozen cartridges per man per year. We cannot say, however, that the prepared cartridges issued by Wray were the only cartridges used by the 22nd Regiment or other regiments. During this period the 22nd Regiment received other materials - paper, string, and "Powder Corn'd" - for making cartridges, as well as lead shot (see note 11). We also cannot assume that all cartridges that were issued were in fact fired; in particular, soldiers on guard with loaded weapons probably unloaded them by "drawing" the load with a ball puller and worm, rather than by firing, since extraneous gunfire could cause an alarm. Wray Papers, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI. Journal of Commissary Stores, George Wray Papers, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI.
4.Reproduction Short Land Pattern muskets generally have a bore diameter very close to .75 inches, and the balls used today for live firing typically are either .735 or .715. In contrast, original Short Land Pattern musket bores ranged from .75 to .80 inches, while the balls were .05 to .1 inches smaller, or between .65 and .75 inches. The difference between bore and ball diameter facilitated loading when powder residue had built up inside the barrel after a few shots. Neumann, George C. The History of Weapons of the American Revolution, New York, 1967, pp. 52, 60-62.
5.Several examples can be found in The Diary of Frederick MacKenzie (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1930; reprinted by The New York Times and Arno Press). See entries for August 21, September 2, and September 20, 1777, and May 7, 1778, among others.
6.W. O. 36/2, General Orders: Rhode Island, entry for February 20, 1777. Public Record Office, London (hereafter cited as PRO).
7.Smith, George. A Universal Military Dictionary (London, 1779; reprinted by Museum Restoration Service, Ottawa, 1969), p. 227.
8.Thomas Edwards was drafted into the 22nd Regiment when the 65th Regiment was drafted in June of 1776. His length of service in the 65th Regiment is not known at this time. He was killed on August 29, 1778, at the Battle of Rhode Island. W. O. 12/3872, PRO.
9.W. O. 71/83, pp. 102 - 108. PRO.
10.Ibid. Notice that these wounds are all grouped around the waist level, which gives a hint at Edwards' aiming technique.
11.Manuscript account book of stores issued in Rhode Island, New York Historical Society. This is the only reference to lead shot that appears in this book. "Cwt" is an abbreviation for "hundredweight", or 112 pounds.
12.W. O. 71/83, op. cit. All subsequent quotations are from this document. It should be noted that the mention of “after Gun firing” refers not to gunfire resulting from this incident but, rather, to the time of night, i.e., following the time of the firing of a single weapon to signal the equivalency of modern “lights out.”
13.This was actually the second time that Edwards was tried for this crime. The first trial occurred on 14 January, at which time Edwards was acquitted, "it being done in the Execution of his duty as a safeguard." On 16 February, however, it was ordered, "There being a want of form in the proceedings of a General Court Martial held the 14th January 1777, where of Major Bruce of the 38th Regiment was President. It is the Commander in Chiefs' pleasure, that a new trial do take place, in order to secure the prisoner, Thomas Edwards from a further prosecution for the same charge." Orders of 13 and 16 January, and 16 February 1777. W. O. 36/2, op. cit.