“So you make muskets here?” a wide-eyed visitor asks excitedly as I welcome him into the Gunsmith shop. It’s not an unusual question, and as I continue to learn my trade with George and Richard, I experiment with new ways to respond to inquiries we hear many times each day.
“I’m afraid not,” I explain as I hold up our display rifle. “This is a rifle; that is a fowling piece over my shoulder, the one on top is an Indian trade gun, those are pistols, and this small silver fowler is to spoil a rich boy.”
Our guest pauses, “But aren’t these all muskets?” With the grand opening of Colonial Williamsburg’s new Musket Range just around the corner, we thought it would take a moment to dispel a few common misconceptions about the firearms you see around Williamsburg, and give you a taste of what to expect when you join us at the range!
One of the most common misconceptions about 18th-century firearms is that they’re all muskets. The term “musket” actually refers to one type of firearm in the 18th century: military long guns. The Brown Bess weighs a hefty 10 or more pounds and is built as a weapon, with a lug welded to the muzzle to accept a 17-inch bayonet.
The great majority of the firearms you will see as you visit Williamsburg are muskets. Visit the Magazine and you’ll be treated to a view of one of the best collections of period English military arms in the country, including dozens of “Brown Bess” muskets, dragoon pistols, pikes, swords, small artillery, and even a reproduction wall gun–be sure to ask the military interpreters all about their favorite arms.
You won’t find any military arms when you step into the Gunsmith shop. Prior to the American Revolution, civilian gun shops like ours kept busy repairing fowling guns for farmers and occasionally building new arms. The gun most likely to be made entirely in a shop like ours was a “rifle gun,” an accurate hunting tool carried on the frontier by market hunters like Daniel Boone. Today you know them as the “Kentucky Rifle” or “American Longrifle.” By the mid-18th century, the rifle gun had fully evolved into a uniquely American tool carried by James Fenimore Cooper’s famed literary character “Hawkeye.”
If you could afford just one firearm, you would choose something more versatile than a rifle: the fowling gun, or shotgun as they’re called today. As a farmer, you carried it for predators and pest control, shooting a patched round ball with decent accuracy, buckshot, birdshot, and nearly a dozen grades in between depending on the size of animal eating your crops.
“But they’re not very accurate, right?” is the next question I frequently hear. Believe it or not, a rifle gun in the hands of a trained marksman can hit an apple-sized target at a hundred yards, though individual results may vary! British Army Major George Hanger reported that the American rifle corps holding him captive during the Revolution claimed they were “generally sure of splitting a man’s head at 200 yards.” The specialized marksmen who fought during the Revolution were not trained soldiers, but had been hunters all their lives. It was small matter to go from hunting a deer in the woods to hitting a British officer wearing a red coat and a white “X” across his chest.
With a bit more knowledge of 18th-century arms under your belt, take the next step and join us at our Musket Range to fully immerse yourself in 18th-century history. Step up to the line and prime your lock. Feel the full weight of the King’s musket as you shoulder a Brown Bess (that’s one below) and take aim at a target 25 yards away. Instead of a front sight, a bayonet lug will help direct your view down the muzzle toward your target. Squeeze the trigger gently, and try to keep your eyes open as the cock falls with its flint, scraping a shower of sparks into the priming. “Kaboom!” You feel the heat of the priming flash, and the musket recoils against your shoulder as it belches fire, roaring with a white cloud of sulfurous smoke.
Exciting as it is, and believe me, there’s nothing else like shooting a flintlock, I ask you to also consider the history of the firearms you are handling. We cannot talk about Colonial history without also discussing the many armed conflicts that shaped this fledgling nation, and more importantly those who gave their lives in the fight.
The sound and feeling of firing a flintlock is like no other. My colleague Katie Watkins in Military Programs put it best: “It’s a true 18th-century sound, sight, and smell, but it’s much more than just a boom. That boom represents seven years of struggle, of hardship, of families torn apart, of new realities and freedoms soon to be won.”
GUEST BLOGGER: ERIC VON ASCHWEGE
Eric joined Colonial Williamsburg as an Apprentice Gunsmith this year, and has been playing with flintlocks since he was 18. His fascination with Colonial history started at a young age, finding clay pipe bowls, glass bottles, and a variety of other exciting treasures in his neighborhood north of Boston. Prior to joining Williamsburg, he was a licensed sailing captain in the Caribbean and Puget Sound, and operated his own business building 18th century arms. Joining the Gunsmiths is a dream come true, and Eric is thrilled that each day he gets to work with like-minded history geeks in a shop where he can play with fire, shoot guns, and get his hands (and usually face) dirty.