Gunpowder and Freedom: How the Tides Turn
“As to war, I am and always was a great enemy, at the same time a warrior the greater part of my life, and were I young again, should still be a warrior while ever this country should be invaded and I lived — a Defensive war I think a righteous war to Defend my life & property & that of my family, in my own opinion, is right & justifiable in the sight of God.” –General Daniel Morgan
A British officer named Colonel George Hanger once stated “I never in my life saw better rifles (or men who shot better) than those made in America.”1 In January, 1781, a cold winter day, a group of Patriots under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan faces off against British Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his heavy dragoons at the battle of Cowpens. Morgan and his riflemen rely on a special weapon to fight the British, the Kentucky Long Rifle. Historians have often depicted that technology is the decider in winning and losing. From the Ottoman Turks using great bombard cannons to lay siege to the city of Constantinople, to the dropping of Fat Man and Little Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII, technology has always been the great equalizer. In the story of the American Revolution one man, one weapon, and one battle will turn a group of farmers into heroes and turn the tides of revolution.
Different sources will be used to analyze the man, the weapon, and the battle including biographies of Daniel Morgan, articles on the battle of Cowpens, and articles and sources on the Kentucky Long Rifle itself. The battle of Cowpens might have been the deciding battle of the Revolutionary War, but the development of the Kentucky Long Rifle and the use of this weapon by Daniel Morgan and his riflemen changed the war by offering the American troops, mainly militia, a weapon technologically more advanced than the British. This allowed Daniel Morgan to use tactics not conventional to the British and to change the tides of war.
In 1779, Daniel Morgan received a letter from General Gates; a general in the Continental Army. This letter would change Daniel Morgan’s career and help him make his mark on United States history.2 Daniel Morgan was born in New Jersey in 1736. At an early age Morgan left home and made his way to the back country of Virginia. This is where he would develop many of the skills he would use to defeat and outlast the British. Morgan became a Colonel in the Continental Army as war started to break out. After he attained his commission, Colonel Morgan went out and mustered 600 crack frontier riflemen and marched them to the Continental Army assembling ground. From here Morgan and his men marched to Canada to join forces with Benedict Arnold to try and liberate Canada. Morgan’s men became famous for being able to pick off British officers at a distance. This would make Morgan’s unit famous, and forever known as Morgan’s Rifleman. After the ill-fated Canada campaigns and a slightly more successful campaign at Saratoga, Morgan returned home to tend his crops and to his wife.
This fore mentioned letter would find Morgan at his home in Virginia. The letter from General Gates stated that Congress had commissioned Daniel Morgan as a Brigadier General in the Continental Army and commander of the Southern Department. Morgan met with General Gates at Berry’s Tavern in Ashby’s Gap. Morgan would be given command of a rifle unit similar to his famous Morgan’s Riflemen unit of the Canada Campaign. On July 28, Morgan agreed to join the revolution once again, this time he would help change the tide of war.
The tool that made Daniel Morgan and his men famous is considered the longest used firearm in history by a military, the Kentucky Long rifle. Also known as the Pennsylvania Long Rifle and the American Rifle, this gun is truly an American firearm. The term long rifle is used to describe the length of the weapon, on average the musket was 30 inches, the long rifle averaged between 35 inches to over 48 inches.3 The Kentucky Long Rifle was developed due to the demands of the new world. Designs of these firearms were first produced by European settlers in the 1620s. The designs were based off of Swiss-German Jaeger rifles. These guns were lengthened and lightened by the settlers and were made in smaller calibers for the small to medium size game found along the East Coast of the Americas. The biggest difference between muskets and rifles is rifling. “Rifling is a series of spiraling grooves cut into the bore of the barrel, which causes the projective to spin on its axis. The spinning would give the projectile enough stability to dramatically enhance the overall accuracy of the gun.”4
As Morgan and his men were marching north to New England and eventually Canada, they stopped to do a review. His men who wore “long fringed hunting shirts, ‘rifle shirts’ of homespun linen, in colors ranging from undyed tan and gray to shades of brown and even black, these tied at the waist with belts carrying tomahawks,”5 were able to shoot their rifles at 7 inch targets 250 yards away. This is a distance made possible only because of the rifling. No two long rifles were alike. The firearms came from the master craftsmen of the time period, truly fabricated to what the user needs. A lead ball casting die was issued with each firearm so that the owner could melt lead and cast his own ammunition.
These rifles gave Daniel Morgan and his men an edge in battle as they could stay covered and shoot from a distance, rather than face the volleys of musket fire less than 20 yards away from crack British Redcoats. One anecdote from one of Morgan’s men is the story of David Murphy. Murphy was a Sergeant in Morgan’s Riflemen unit and a very deadly shot. On the morning of October 7, 1777 Murphy climbed up a tree in a field near Saratoga, New York.6 In his hand he gripped the famous Kentucky Long Rifle. Murphy was waiting for a high valued target to present itself, namely a British Officer. Patience would reward Murphy as British General Simon Frasor rode his mount across the battlefield. Murphy raised his weapon, aimed and fired. As legend states Murphy hit his target on his third attempt.
On January 17, 1781 newly commissioned Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and the Kentucky Long Rifle would make a stand and change the tide of war; the battle of Hannah’s Cow Pens (also known as the battle of Cowpens). Morgan’s enemy at this time was a British Dragoon officer named Colonel Banastre Tarleton who was attached to General Lord Cornwallis’s force. Tarleton came from a wealthy aristocratic family in Britain and joined the British Army at an early age. Tarleton was ordered by British General Lord Cornwallis to chase Morgan and crush him. Instead of running, Morgan took a stand. Morgan’s men at this time were mainly militia, not trained infantry regulars. Morgan’s tactics would be just as unconventional as his men.
Before the battle would happen, General Greene, who was the commanding officer of the Army of the South and Morgan, who was one of his most trusted subordinates, split forces. This was done to draw Cornwallis to split his forces as well and chase the Patriots. This meant that the American Southern Army could not be defeated in one single blow. Cornwallis sent 1,100 men under the command of Tarleton to chase down Morgan while he continued on after Greene. On the morning of January 17, 1781 Banastre arrived at Cowpens, his men weary and deprived of proper food and water, faced off against their Patriot brethren.
For his unconventional strategy Morgan laid out his men in three lines along a hilltop. The third line on top of the hill were his continental regulars, the second line was the militia; the first line was 150 of his best rifleman. His orders were simple, fire three volleys and then run to the rear.7 Once the three volleys were fired and the men retreated, Tarleton followed, and initiated Morgan’s trap. Tarleton’s men ran into a formed line of Continental regulars who fired volleys upon the British and then advanced with bayonets. The fighting only lasted for an hour. Tarleton escaped with only 175 men. In total 100 British were killed and 829 were wounded or captured. For Morgan’s men, 12 were killed and 60 were wounded.
This battle proved to be a game changer for the Patriots. Men throughout the South ran to join ranks with General Greene of the Continental Army. Morgan stated that “When men are forced to fight, they sell their lives dearly.”8 The British now knew that America was serious, and that they were a force to be reckoned with.
At the time of the American Revolution, the British had the greatest military force the world had seen. The “Redcoat” as they were called because of their red uniforms, was a highly trained and highly professional army. Their navy was second to none in the European world. The army was equipped with the classic Brown Bess Musket. Developed in 1742, the Long Land-Patten Flintlock Musket would evolve into a weapon of mass destruction that the British would use to tame and expand an empire.9 This firearm was typical to the firearm of the time. It used a flintlock mechanism that allowed a piece of flint to strike steel, once the hammer was cocked and the trigger pulled, causing a spark to ignite powder in the flashpan. The downfall of this rifle was that the barrel is smooth bore, meaning that the inside diameter of the barrel is smooth and generally larger than the diameter of the lead ball. As the powder ignites and pushes the lead ball down the barrel, it is actually bouncing off the sides and gas is escaping around it. The phrase “couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn” is coined from these weapons because they are nearly impossible to aim accurately. The Redcoats’ tactics allowed them to minimize the weakness of the Brown Bess musket. To do this, the British, and many other European Armies, line up in ranks and shoot a volley as one unit. The thought process is that hopefully a majority will hit an opposing force.
The British brought this style of warfare with them to America. Much of the American Continental army tried to fight the same way. At the brink of the war, the Continental Army was beaten badly trying to do this. At the battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Camden the Continentals were pushed back and badly beaten. Something had to change.
The one advantage the Americans have was the Kentucky Long Rifle as mentioned above. All throughout history technological advances in weaponry and changes in tactics have changed how war was fought and won. During the Cold War the United States was militarizing at an alarming rate. The United States at the height of the Cold War had enough nuclear warheads to destroy the world many times over. In the mid-1960s a conflict was about to go hot in Vietnam. Lyndon B. Johnson, then President of the United States wanted to intervene. The military might of the United States should have easily defeated the Northern Vietnamese Army (NVA), but the NVA did not fight conventionally. The Communist enemy used guerrilla warfare to fight back and wear down the conventional style of warfare that the United States used. In September of 1975 after the United States left Vietnam, Saigon (Capital of S. Vietnam) fell to the Communist North. The United States should not have been stunned by this defeat. Rewind back to the War for Independence, revolutionary leaders such as Daniel Morgan and Francis Marion used similar unconventional hit and run tactics to terrorize the British.
Several authors have written about such topics. American Gun by Chris Kyle is one such book. American Gun is an adventure through American History using the gun as its lens.10 The book covers ten different firearms that have changed American History. They are the Kentucky Long Rifle, Spencer Repeater, Colt Single Action Army, 1873 Winchester Repeater, 1903 Springfield, M1911, Thompson Submachine Gun, M1 Garand, .38 Police Special, and finally the M16 Rile. For the précis, I am focusing on the first chapter, the Kentucky Long Rifle. The thesis for this book is “More than any other nation in history, the United States has been shaped by the gun.” This thesis is not overly complex, but it gives a clear and simple idea to what the book is going to cover.
Chris Kyle uses several different “schools” when writing this book. First is a historiographical survey of the topic. In his book Chris brings in many different sources and perspectives to argue the importance of the Kentucky long rifle in the American Revolution. For example he uses this line said by Colonel George Howard, a British officer, “I never in my life saw better rifles (or men who shot better) than those made in America.”11 Chris uses other stories, including those from Sam Houston and the Alamo, where the Kentucky Long Rifle also played a major role, to show its importance in American history. Another school of thought used is Myth-Story. Chris uses as examples the story of Timothy Murphy and how he sniped British General Simon Fraser. Other stories throughout the book are those of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their adventures using the Peacemaker. These stories are legendary as they add up to the folklore of what America is.
There is bias within this book. In the introduction the author points this out by saying “I’ve picked ten guns to serve as the flagship weapons for our tour of America’s past. Now, I have to say, it’s my personal list. If you’re a gun-history buff, you’ll agree with some of my choices and disagree with others. I’m sure you’ll be scratching your head wondering why in the hell I didn’t talk about this Remington or that Smith & Wesson. I understand completely. A top-ten list is tough to settle on, and you may come up with a list of your own you like much better.”12 As a firearms history buff myself I could have come up with something different, but Chris used his knowledge of firearms to pick what he thought was the best. By stating this, Chris makes sure that his audience knows that this is a subjective list and can be changed. But what the author does do is provide significant historical evidence to support his list.
The basic arguments that the author uses are historical events to prove that the individual firearms shaped America. Different accounts include the Battle of Cowpens, the stories of Davey Crockett, the impact of the Spencer Repeating rifle at the battle of Gettysburg, the use of the 1903 Springfield in General Pershing’s campaign against Pancho Villa in Mexico as well as its use by the American Doughboys in WWI. These are just a few of the many stories that Chris uses to explain why he thinks these firearms are the most important in American History. All of these historical accounts point directly to his thesis. The stories are also very clear to point out why he thinks these rifles are important.
The majority of these sources are secondary. There are some primary sources, such as The Life of Sam Houston by Charles Edward Lester which was written in 1860. There are also famous quotes such as “In my opinion the M1 rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised,” by General George S. Patton, and “Brave soldiers and the M16 brought this victory” by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore.13 These quotes show the readers what some of the most famous people of their generation say about the weapons described in this book. Secondary sources were used the most to gather accounts of the different events and to gain historical information about the firearms themselves.
An article review by Kirkus Reviews states that American Gun is a “raucous and duly violent tour of American history through the sights of 10 famous weapons, from the Kentucky Long Rifle to the M-16.”14 In another article by Publishers Weekly, states that the book is a “top ten pick”15 and that Kyle earned a following from his exploits as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, and from his autobiography, American Sniper. Kirkus Reviews believes that the book will appeal to military buffs, conservative readers, and firearms enthusiasts.16 Both of these reviews confirm that this book was written for the public to understand Kyle’s opinion that America, more than any other nation was shaped by the gun and by doing this Kyle wrote the book in a way that everybody can understand.
This book is clearly written and uses a language that is more conversational at times, rather than the language used by strict historians, to bring home thoughts and ideas so that everyone can understand. The use of this language can also provide some humor as well so the reading is not dry (another common problem with modern historical writing). This book uses a narrative approach that is in chronological order. The guns themselves are talked about in order of what was manufactured first. Within the ten different chapters Chris uses chronological order to show the development of these weapons. For example, in the chapter explaining the history of the 1873 Winchester Repeating Rifle, Chris first writes about its development. He explains that the Winchester Repeating Rifle first started as the 1860 Henry, famously known as the “Golden Boy.” With technological advancements and added refinements, the 1860 turned into the 1866 Winchester (Winchester bought the patent of the Henry). In writing this, Kyle paints an image of the development of firearms and how they evolve. That’s through technological advancements over a period of time.
Chris Kyle wrote this book in 2012-2103. To my knowledge the information is correct. Being somewhat of a firearms historian the information given about the individual firearms is correct. As for the events and stories told I believe that the information is factual. I believe the author successfully defended his thesis. At first I thought some other firearms could be used instead, such as the 1860 Henry or the 1876 Winchester instead of the 1873 Winchester or the M9 Berretta instead of the .38 Police Special. But Chris through what my grandpa calls “spinning yarn” is a great story teller. I greatly enjoyed this book. In terms of readability, it is a pleasure to read, and as I sat there I could see the images of the battles and robberies take place. I also own Chris Kyle’s other book American Sniper which is his autobiography of his time as a Navy SEAL sniper. Chris was an American hero and had tremendous potential as a writer, but history has a certain irony about it. Chris Kyle and a friend were murdered while helping a disabled veteran in February 2013. He has left us two amazing books that speak to history of America.
“Our success must be attributed to the justice of our cause and to bravery of our troops,17” General Daniel Morgan. The might of the British army and navy should have been enough to utterly crush the hopes and dreams of a free American nation. But there was one thing that the British soldiers, generals, and the King of England himself could not have anticipated, the dedication, passion, and skill of these “farmers with pitchforks” that the British lost to. Historians might disagree with my reasoning on how the war was won, but the use of the best rifle around, the Kentucky Long Rifle, having great leadership in the likes of General Daniel Morgan, and the unconventional tactics he and other American leaders used helped to undermine and eventually defeat the British.
On October 19, 178118 British General Lord Cornwallis had his troops march out of Yorktown and surrender to the American forces. Cornwallis, writhe with shame, had a subordinate hand over his sword to the Americans. General Daniel Morgan and his tough frontier regiment witnessed the surrender at Yorktown. The movie “Patriot”, which is loosely based off of Daniel Morgan and his conquests, shows the scene of the surrender of Britain at Yorktown. When a subordinate tells him he must surrender, General Cornwallis mutters to himself “Everything will change, everything has already changed.” The folklore of the Kentucky Long Rifle and the legend of Daniel Morgan will forever be immortalized, and their stories retold to every generation of this American Nation.
Adler, Dennis. "Frontier Flintlocks." Rifle FirePower, November 2012, 200-05.
Akers, Becky. "Three Fires, and You Are Free" The New American, February 02, 2009, 34-38.
Fischer, David. "Hubris, But No History." The New York Times, July 01, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/01/opinion/hubris-but-no-history.html?pagweanted=print (accessed January 23, 2014).
Grant, R.G. Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat. New York, New York: DK Publishing Inc., 2005.
Higginbotham, Don. Daniel Morgan Revolutionary Rifleman. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
Kyle, Chris. American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms. New York City: HarperCOllins, 2013.
McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
Murray, Aaron. American Revolution: Battles and Leaders. New York, New York: DK Publishing Inc., 2004.
Regan, Paula. Weapons: A Visual History of Arms and Armor. New York, New York: DK Publishing Inc., 2006.
Tunis, Edwin. Weapons. Cleveland Oh, & New York, New York: The World Publishing Company, 1954