The Long Shot of September 1776

Brown_BessIn September 1776[1] there occurred an incident of long distance marksmanship, or luck, that deserves a close look.  The eyewitness, Private Joseph Plumb Martin[2] of the Continental Army, describes the scene.  Martin was on the east shore of Manhattan Island marching north with the East River on his right.  He wrote that:

“…here I saw a piece of American workmanship that was, as I thought, rather remarkable.  Going one evening upon a picket guard…we had to march…close upon the bank of the river.  There was a small party of British upon an island in the river…One of the soldiers, however, thinking perhaps he could do more mischief by killing some of us, had posted himself on a point of rocks at the southern extremity of the island and kept firing at us as we passed along the bank.  Several of his shots passed between our files, but we took no notice of him, thinking he was so far off that he could do us but little hurt and that we could do him none at all, until one of the guard asked the officer if he might discharge his piece at him.   …the officer gave his consent.  He rested his old six-feet barrel across a fence and sent an express to him.  The man dropped, but as we then thought it was only to amuse us, we took no further notice of it but passed on.  In the morning upon our return, we saw the brick-colored coat still lying in the same position we had left it in the evening before.  It was a long distance to hit a single man with a musket; it was certainly over half a mile.”[3]

Long range shooting with smoothbore muskets was not practical and therefore seldom done in the Revolutionary War.  Normally, a musket was considered effective at less than 150 yards distance.  The large lead round ball was lethal at much greater distances but the accuracy of the weapon, and the extremely poor ballistics of the round ball, meant that hitting a target beyond 150 yards required considerable luck.  A musketman could shoot at a man sized target at 150 yards many times without hitting it.  The round ball fired from a smooth bore would lose velocity very quickly and thus require that the barrel be aimed well above the target allowing the ball, traveling along its rainbow arc, to fall at the target.  With greater distances this arc would have to be higher and higher to allow the ball to reach the target, making accuracy impossible.  The round ball was also very susceptible to being moved off course by side winds.

Let us examine what Joseph Plumb Martin tells us.  It does not take much imagination for us to almost become a part of the action.  The distant redcoat firing wild shots in our direction.  The nameless whig musketman asking for permission to send “an express” in return.  No doubt his buddies stood around making comments and wisecracks as he rested his long barreled weapon on the fence.  One wonders if he shot prone, resting the rifle on the lower rail of the fence.  The cheer that went up when the redcoat “dropped” can easily be heard by the reader.  No doubt the shot was a topic of conversation for at least a few minutes.  But what of the next day when they “saw the brick-colored coat still lying in the same position”?  What pride, or astonishment, did the unnamed marksman feel as he and his friends realized that his shot was probably the longest they had ever witnessed?  We can thank Joseph Plumb Martin for taking us with him on this day.

The weapon used by the British soldier on the island was almost certainly a common Brown Bess musket.  It seems entirely reasonable that Martin was not surprised that the incoming balls were falling “between our files” but “took little notice…he was so far off that he could do us but little hurt.”

However, the weapon used by the Continental soldier, as Martin describes it, was extraordinary.  Martin refers to its “old six-feet barrel.”  Six feet is 72 inches.  In comparison the Brown Bess had a 42 inch barrel.  A weapon with a 72 inch barrel would have a total length of about 89 inches.  If the average soldier was 5’7”, or 67 inches, this oversized weapon would be 22 inches taller than the soldier.  The muzzle would be almost beyond the reach of the soldier and it would be impossible for him to load in the conventional manner.  It appears Martin has overstated the length of this weapon that Martin specifically describes as a musket.

What makes this long range shooting incident unique, however, is not the weapon used.  Rather, it is that we have the ability to calculate the distance between the shooters.  This may be the only instance in the war where the distance of a “long shot” can be determined.  The particular island that the British soldier was on is not mentioned by Private Martin.  However, from examining a Revolutionary War era map and following Private Martin’s movements, the island in the East River can be identified.  The island today is known as Franklin D. Roosevelt Island.  In the recent past it was known as Welfare Island.  It was called Blackwell’s Island in 1776.

To complicate matters the shoreline of Manhattan has changed considerably since 1776.  However, using the 1767 map “Plan of the City of New York, in North America: Surveyed in the years 1766 and 1767”[4] which was drawn by British Army engineer Lieutenant Bernard Ratzer the distance from the shore to the nearest likely “point of rocks at the southern extremity of [Blackwell’s] island” can be determined.

The distance is about 1050 feet.  Of course, the exact position of the men on either shore cannot be determined so we can only say that the minimum distance was a bit over 1000 feet, or 350 yards.  The actual shot may have been a little longer.  While not the half mile (2640 feet/880 yards) Private Martin suggested, it was a very long shot that still fits his description as “rather remarkable.”

A hit on a man sized target from 350 yards with one shot from a musket is not impossible.  This unnamed soldier did it.  But, experience tells us that it was a lucky shot.  One would expect that an entire regiment may have fired at that British soldier and not hit him.  But that does not matter.  What matters is that it happened and Martin described the scene to us so vividly.

Clearly, Joseph Plumb Martin may not have had a good eye for judging distances.  He misjudged, or misremembered, the length of the barrel of the Continental soldier’s weapon as well as the distance to the island.  However, Martin gave us a look at a minor incident in a long war which we have been able to analyze up close.

 


[1] This event took place either on September 3rd or September 4th.  Archibald Robertson, Archibald Robertson: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780 (New York: New York Public Library, 1930), 95-96.

[2] Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle, Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, George F. Scheer, ed., (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962) originally published anonymously in 1830.  I highly recommend this book.  It is a fascinating account written with vigor, humor and insight.  The reader cannot come away not liking Joseph Martin and wishing he would tell more of his experiences in the Revolutionary War.

[3] Scheer, Private Yankee Doodle, 31-32.

[4] The original of the map is in the Stokes Collection of the New York Public Library.  It is available online http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?trg=1&strucID=610789&imageid=1952232&total=1&e=w&cdonum=0 .

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8 Comments

  • Fascinating story. I’m assuming it wasn’t a Charleville that the soldier carried but some sort of locally made one? Any thoughts?

    I’m also surprised that the musket ball had enough velocity at that distance to do any good.

  • I presume you’re talking about the American soldier firing at the British soldier. In Sept 1776 it probably was not a Charleville…especially as Martin described it having a barrel 6 feet long! What it was is anyone’s guess. A 1 ounce roundball striking at any distance could be deadly. Further, we don’t know where the British soldier was hit – perhaps it was in the head. Of great interest is that some of the British light infantry were equipped with rifles – might the British soldier have been firing a rifle at the massed Americans on the far shore? If so, his firing would have been more practical than the shot from a musket at a distant lone man.

  • A great marksmanship story. Joseph Plumb Martin, even though he mentions the term ‘musket’, could have been using the term as a generic, or, given his age and his few weeks of military service experience at that point, he might not yet have known much about rifles or about wall guns. Either of these might fit the description of a longer barrel or weapon of 6 feet in length. A trained rifleman, due partly to the improved effective range (based on barrel and round physics) of his rifled weapon could hit targets at 300 or more yards. A trained rifleman with a large caliber wall or rampart gun could do even better. These larger bore weapons had much longer barrels and were much heavier than regular muskets or rifles. They were meant to rest upon a stand/rest, fence or other stationary object, and with their much larger/heavier round and powder charge could reach out and touch someone at over 300 yards. Based on a few descriptions of the use of such weapons by Americans, or of the similar amusette by Hessian riflemen, they were capable of hitting long range targets, such as artillery crews, at distances of 500-800 yards. I believe one description of the Hessians training on Staten Island prior to the battle of Long Island has a claim of hitting a mark at 1000 yards! That is my candidate for this feat of marksmanship.

    Thanks for a great story and a great analysis of the likely distance and location of this incident.

  • I think Frank hit the mark on his response. The answer I find is fairly straight forward. To quote from the above article; “The muzzle would be almost beyond the reach of the soldier and it would be impossible for him to load in the conventional manner. It appears Martin has overstated the length of this weapon that Martin specifically describes as a musket…” I believe to be incorrect. The fact that Martin describes the “old six-feet barrel ” is important, and in all probability, correct. This was early in the war, and most militia and state levies supplied their own weapon. Martin describes it as “old” at this time, indicating it was most likely, a so called “wall gun” or earlier fowling piece or, possibly, but less likely a rifled piece. Wall guns and early fowlers often had 72+ inch barrels and required rests or stands. They were not uncommon to be carried by militia and levies, as they were personal weapons, supplied by the individual. This is before short land pattern muskets were widely distributed to militia and levies. In all likely hood, the musket was as Martin described, and a wall gun or fowling piece could have made the shot (although a very good shot), at the distance specified in the above article.

  • Great story. As Chris stated, a 6 foot barrel was not uncommon during the period. I have seen originals with even longer barrels. The lucky marksman was probably using his personal weapon, and while not perfectly suited for the task, it did the job nonetheless.

  • If it had a six foot long barrel it was most likely a smooth bore fowler.

    To increase accuracy a smooth bore can be loaded with a patched ball.

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