In September 1776 there occurred an incident of long distance marksmanship, or luck, that deserves a close look. The eyewitness, Private Joseph Plumb Martin 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.”
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” 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.
 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.
 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.
 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 .