The First Fight of Ferguson’s Rifle

Techniques & Tech

November 3, 2014
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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In the spring of 1777, Washington and the Continental Army were encamped in the Blue Hills, now known as the Watchung Mountains, above the Scotch Plains at Morristown. Gen. Howe and the British army were stationed in New York City, on Staten Island, and at posts throughout New Jersey. The armies’ foraging parties skirmished in the northeastern part of New Jersey – at places like Elizabethtown, Connecticut Farms, Springfield, Somerset Courthouse and New Brunswick. As the opening of the year’s military campaign approached, Gen. Washington believed Gen. Howe wanted to “either bring on a General Engagement upon disadvantageous Terms … cut off our Light parties & Lord Stirlings’s Division which was sent down to support them… or possess the Heights and passes in the Mountains on our left.”[1] In March, Washington sent General Benjamin Lincoln with 500 men south to Bound Brook near the Raritan River; they were to protect the area’s farms and serve as an early warning post if Gen. Howe decided to march inland. On April 12, they were attacked by Lord Cornwallis who had travelled up the Raritan with 2000 men from New Brunswick. Lincoln and his men barely escaped. On May 29, Washington moved his army south to Middlebrook on the heights overlooking Bound Brook. Here Washington was seven miles from New Brunswick but still on the south slope of the Blue Hills, if he needed an escape route.

On June 12, Howe marched his army of 16,000 west from New Brunswick; he formed a defensive position at Somerset Courthouse, eight miles from Middlebrook, and plundered the area’s farms.Washington did not move from his position. Howe stayed five days, from the 14th to the 19th, and then returned to Perth Amboy by way of New Brunswick.[2] From June 22 to 24, Howe moved his army to Staten Island. On the 24th, Ambrose Serle, Howe’s secretary, wrote to Lord Dartmouth, the former Secretary of State for the American colonies. He told him that after “vainly endeavouring to bring Washington to an action from the rocks and hills where he was posted … [and with] no intelligence that can be depended on … about the Northern Army” Gen. Howe’s army was departing New Jersey.[3] If this was a feint by Howe to draw Washington out of the Blue Hills, as some historians believe, why did Serle not describe it as such to Lord Dartmouth? There was nothing to gain; Serle’s letter proves that Howe was genuinely frustrated in his attempts to bring on a major engagement. Washington, observing the British embarkation, believed it was safe to move his army out of the Blue Hills and down to Quibbletown. Howe immediately recognized the opportunity, and saw his chance. He ordered all of his forces to re-cross the Arthur Kill from Staten Island to Perth Amboy. He was going after Washington!

His plan was to use a pincer movement similar to the one he had employed in the Battle of Brooklyn Heights (and would employ three months later at Brandywine). He would station four battalions at Bonhamtown to prevent any communication reaching Washington from the patriots in New Brunswick while two separate columns, led by Lord Charles Cornwallis and Major-General John Vaughn, marched on Quibbletown. Cornwallis’ column with 5,000 men set out at 1 a.m; they travelled west on Amboy Avenue to the town of Woodbridge and on Old Tree Road to the Scotch Plains. If they could turn Washington’s left flank at Scotch Plains and get between him and the Blue Hills, Washington would have no escape route.[4] Vaughn’s column with around 12,000 men set out at 3 a.m: they travelled west by a more southern route on the New Brunswick Road and King George’s Road to Quibbletown. Howe was going to attack Washington’s army from two directions and with his escape route into the Blue Hills blocked, Washington was going to be forced to fight a general engagement.

Wangenheim map. Source: Library of Congress
Wangenheim map. Source: Library of Congress

Cornwallis’s column met three levels of opposition before uniting with Vaughn’s column. At 6 a.m., they encountered an advance guard of Daniel Morgan’s riflemen under the command Captain James Dark at Strawberry Hill in Woodbridge. The best that Dark’s men could do was to delay the column about half an hour and harass its flanks as it moved down the Old Tree Road.[5] It was this delaying action that gave warning to Lord Stirling and more importantly to Washington that Howe was advancing. Within an hour Washington had ordered alarm guns to be fired and Greene’s, Lincoln’s, Stephen’s, and Sullivan’s divisions to withdraw to the high ground of Middlebrook. Also, General Parsons was to take a position at the Scotch Plains Gap, General Varnum at the Brown Town Gap, General Lincoln’s division at the gaps leading from Quibbletown, and Brigadiers Stephens and Woodford at the Steel Gap.[6] Stirling in the meantime sent Brig. General Thomas Conway’s Brigade, a corps under Charles Armand, and three brass cannons to support the retreating advance guard. At 8 a.m. Cornwallis’s column encountered this opposition on a hill. Outnumbered, the defenders were forced to retreat into Martin’s Woods.

Armand’s corps was decimated. When the day began, it was comprised of 80 men; by days end 30 were killed and another 30 were captured.[7]

At 10 a.m. Cornwallis encountered Brigadier General William Maxwell’s New Jersey brigade, supported by Conway’s brigade and a severely depleted Armand’s corps. The force of almost 2,500 men was under the command of Lord Stirling and posted on the high ground near the Ash Swamp. Lt. Colonel Ludwig von Minnigerode, an German officer in Gen. Howe’s army, described their position as “on the steep bush-covered heights; right was protected by deep ravines and left by a thick wood.”[8] The battle lasted almost two hours. A British general wrote, “The General [Howe] upon hearing our firing marched & joined us, Quibbletown ceased to be an object as Washington had fled back to the Mountains.”[9] Von Minnigerode’s battalion of Hessian grenadiers attempted to get behind Maxwell’s brigade by circling north around the Ash Swamp, but were repulsed by grape-shot. Maxwell “was almost captured, [but they] missed him only by a hair’s breadth.”[10] Stirling, not wanting to risk being surrounded and confronted by five British soldiers for every one of his, ordered Maxwell to retreat to the Westfield Gap and Conway to the main army. Howe’s army was tired, angry and frustrated; they had failed to bring on a general engagement, failed to cut off Lord Stirlings’s division and failed to possess the heights and passes in the Blue Hills. Howe decided to end the advance for the day and pitched camp in sight of the Westfield Gap. Cornwallis’s column had suffered 40 killed and wounded[11]; Stirling’s division had suffered 12 killed, 20 wounded, and 20 captured.[12]

After spending the night, they began their march back to Perth Amboy, “plundering everything before them and destroying and burning Houses in a manner scandalous to Humanity.”[13] Howe, fearing an attack while they embarked for Staten Island, kept some of his units in battle formation, and gradually pulled back as more and more of the transports were loaded.

The Battle of Short Hills was a significant battle because of its repercussions: Washington’s army was not defeated, and Gen. Howe decided it was safer to go by sea than march through New Jersey if he was going to attack Philadelphia. Such a move now could not be conducted until the fall which gave the city more time to prepare and Washington time to build up the Continental Army. When Howe did attack late in the campaign season, he was unable to return to New York to aid Gen. Burgoyne’s advance from Canada, contributing to Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. Another interesting facet of the Battle of Short Hills was the first use of a new weapon – the Ferguson breech-loading rifle.


In 1775, as the British Army began to prepare for the almost inevitable war with the American colonies, young Captain Patrick Ferguson of the 70th Regiment of Foot had the idea to supply the army with an advanced breech-loading rifle to counter the threat of the American long rifle. British officers had heard the stories of the American sharpshooters specifically targeting British officers and the tales of their incredible shooting skill.

Within a year, he “refined the concept of a breech-loading rifle” which could fire up to six aimed shots per minute. His improvements were explained in The Annual Register: “Length 50 in.; weight 7 1/2 lbs.; bayonet 25 in. long and 1 1/2 in. wide, and being of fine temper and razor edge was called a sword bayonet; folding rear sight with leaves of 100 to 500 yds. The rotating breechblock has 12 threads to the inch, and opens or closes with one complete whirl of the guard. When open, the top of the screw is level with the breech bottom, a ball dropped in slides forward into a chamber slightly larger than the rifled diameter, the muzzle is tipped downward, powder put in to fill the chamber back of the ball, the guard is turned and the screw rises to the top and removes any surplus powder, while making the breech gas tight. When fired, the ball takes the rifling.”[14]

Ferguson trained ten local militiamen and his servant to handle the rifle. He knew a demonstration of the weapon before the War Office was warranted when the twelve men (including himself) as a group were consistently able to get off 70 aimed shots per minute. The demonstration was arranged for June 1, 1776.

“This Morning at one o Clock I was waked out of Bed by a Message from Lord Townsend desiring me to be at Woolwich, site of the Royal Military Academy, by Eleven – At Eleven I was there accordingly altho the Day was rainy and I was not in my most active mood – at one Lord Townsend arrived attended by Lord Amherst, General Harvey & General Desiguliers – the Rain & wind were against me, but notwithstanding the Rifle met with no discredit, as it perform’d four things never before acomplish’d.

1. – it put 15 balls into a target at 200 yards in 5 Minutes – 2. It fired 6 good Shots in a Minute – 3. it put a ball at 100 yards into the bulls Eye laying upon its back – 4. it fired four Shots in a minute advancing at the rate of four Miles Per Hour – 5.after pouring a bottle of water into the barrel & Pan when loaded in half a Minute she fired as well as ever.”[15]

The War Office and Board of Ordnance assured Ferguson that adoption of his rifle by the British army was only a matter of time. Contracts to manufacture the rifles were immediately permitted. Orders for the first 300 rifles were placed in the summer of 1776.

In a letter to his sister, Ferguson explained how he sent a letter to General Sir William Howe asking for his support of the rifle: “…I have taken the Opportunity of the return of General Howe’s Aid du Camp to America, to write a Letter of acknowledgements to that Gallant amiable & Noble Person, for the very unmerited Obligation he has laid me under in mentioning of me to his Majesty, and I have at the same time endeavour’d to interest him in the adoption of my Bantling,which Lord Townshend I find, by a Letter his Lordship was pleased to honor me with yesterday, begins to take a fatherly Charge of: & indeed all along he has not been disposed to hurt it but now that a certain person [the King] who saw it at Windsor has been pleased to stand God Father, it will probably find friends.”[16]

On December 2, 1776, English Patent No. 1139 was issued to Patrick Ferguson covering “improvements in design of firearms.” But instead of the wholesale re-equipping of infantry with Ferguson’s rifles, General Howe, commander of British forces in North America, received an order authorizing at first only a single small corps to be armed with the rifle. In Britain, a leader in gun-making, there was not enough production capacity to manufacture the multi-start thread required for the breech mechanism. While at least 50,000 rifles would have been required to completely re-arm British forces, the gun-makers in Britain had the capacity to producesuch a thread at a rate of barely 1000 per year.

On February 19, 1777, in another letter to his sister, he wrote, “Genl: Harvey told me that his Majesty had directed him to propose to me to go to America – ’was I willing?’ ‘certainly to go where his Majesty pleases’ – a report was accordingly made to the King, & orders issued for forming a Company of 100 Men from the Chatham recruits for that Service, to embark as this Day- the warning was short, the Command not very flattering for an Old Capt. of 18 years Service, & I had been Obliged to take whatever Men were pointed out to me – they have neither Cloathes for that Service, nor are in any respect to my wish … I shall endeavour to have 60 men more (which there are rifles for) thrown into the same ship … The King proposes giving me ₤100 to equip me.[17] For the next month he recruited and trained some of the men who would make up his corps of riflemen. Just before his departure on March 25, Ferguson sent a letter to the Board containing“a Certificate of the Number of Rifle Guns produced … along with a request for “Powder Flasks … and Bayonets.”[18] On board he had 67 rifles and 33 bayonets. On June 22 the remaining 33 rifles and 40 more bayonets were shipped from England, but there is no evidence that they ever reached Ferguson.[19]

Ferguson and his corps sailed onboard the Christopher to New York, where they arrived on May 26. Problems during manufacture of the breech-loading rifle had delayed Ferguson’s departure from Britain.

Needing additional recruits to complete his corps, Gen. Howe gave the following order on May 29: “His Majesty has been pleased to form a Corps of Rifle Men under the Temporary Command of Cn. Ferguson 70th Regt. compos’d of Recruits rais’d for Difft: Regts. serving in N: America And that those men shall Notwithstanding be Considered as part of the strength of the Regts: for whom they are inlisted … [20] For the next couple weeks, one can only surmise that most of Ferguson’s time was spent in training the new recruits. On June 12, his corps was ordered to New Jersey. On the 21st, they were instructed to join Brig.-General Leslie’s troops at Bonhamtown.[21]

On the 22nd, Gen. Howe’s army returned to Perth Amboy after his attempts to lure Washington into a general engagement failed. Leslie’s brigade and Ferguson corps apparently were to serve as the rearguard for the army’s embarkation; “… about 5 [o’clock] a body of the Enemy shewed themselves in the rear and attacked the Lt. Inf. – The last of the troops arrived at Amboy about 3 o’Clock. General Leslie … took post … a mile or two beyond Bonam town and Amboy …a good deal of firing [occurred] & orders were sent from Gen. Howe to send the baggage forward to Amboy with all Expedition, & to keep the 2nd Divisionhalted a little time at Bonam town, which made us conclude the Enemy were appearing in force in the rear ….”[22]In a letter to his sister, Ferguson offered more information: “We who belong to the Light Troops sometimes come into sight of them, & exchange a few distant innocent Shots – My Lads were only concern’d in one Skirmish in a wood, where we had Six kill’d & wounded as they have never exceeded 90 under arms, it is a slice from my small command which I can ill afford.”Ferguson’s letter home put the amount of men in his corps at no more than ninety. If, as mentioned above, the final 33 rifles he had been waiting for were not going to be shipped from England until June 22, then some of his men “under arms” must have been still using a musket.[23]

On June 24, Ferguson’s Corps was ordered to make ready for their embarkation: “The undermentioned to hold themselves in readiness toEmbark … The reserve to consist of the seventhand twenty-sixth British, 1st Battn. of Anspach & Fergusons Riffle Corps — Hessian Anspach Yaugers, third Battn. of Hessian Grenadrs …“[24] While they were waiting, it was reported that there was “Some flying of the rebels Horse and Foot on Strawberry Hill, three miles from this encampment.” In the evening “an advanced a body of our men … took position Strawberry Hill to the right road to Woodbridge.”[25] One of the first reports on the 25th stated, “This morning early Ferguson’s Riflemen surprised and took one Rebel Light dragoon and also an advanced Piquet, shot the officer thr° the thigh and took him with 4 privates, the rest escaped.”[26]

Gen. Howe, when he learned that Washington had come down from his mountain stronghold to the low ground at Quibbletown, ordered an about face; his men were going to be subjected to a forced march if he had any chance of defeating Washington’s Army or a portion of it. That night Ferguson’s corps was given their place in the order of march, “The Army when put in Motion will March in two Columns from the wrigt: by half compys: — Order of March for the left Column Under the Command of Majr: Genl: Vaughan: … Artillery, Ewalls Compy of Hessian – one 3 poundr and Anspach Yaugars  — Fergusons Corps – One Amozet [ammusette] — “[27] Unfortunately, the records are quiet as to the corps’ actual part in the main engagement on the 26th. The final mention of the corps was on July 8: “The remainder of troops under orders for Embarkation are to Embark to morrow Morning according to the following ordr…3rd Embarkation -Lt. Infantry & Fergusons Corp at half past 9”[28]

Despite their performance in the month of June, Howe gave no recognition of Ferguson or his breech-loading rifle in his official reports to the War Office. Most readers of the Revolutionary War are not introduced to Captain Ferguson and his innovative rifle until the Battle of Brandywine in September of 1777 – three months after their baptism of fire in New Jersey.

/// Featured Image at Top: Source: National Park Service


[1] George Washington to the Continental Congress, 28 June 1777, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

[2] Mark M. Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York: David McKay Company, 1966), 857.

[3] Ambrose Serle to Lord Dartmouth, dated 24 June 1777, The manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, Historical Manuscripts Commission, Vol. II (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1895), 440.

[4] John Andre, Major Andre’s Journal (New York: The New York Times and Arno Press, 1968), 32.

[5] Robert A. Mayers, “The Battle of the Short Hills,”, Issue 13 (Sept. 2001); Battle of the Short Hills June 26, 1777 – Souvenir Program June 25-26, 1977: 5.

[6] Frederic C. Detwiller, War in the Countryside: The Battle and Plunder of the Short Hills, New Jersey, June 1777 (Metuchen, NJ: The Metuchen-Edison Historical Society, 1977), 15.

[7] John Blair Linn and William Henry Egle, ed., Pennsylvania
Archives, Second Series, 2 (Harrisburg, PA: Clarence M. Busch,
State Printer, 1895), 96.

[8] Joseph Tustin, ed., Diary of the American War. A Hessian Journal. Captain Johann Ewald, Field Jäger Corps (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 69.

[9] Todd Braisted, transc., James Grant Papers of Ballindalloch Castle, Scotland, Library of Congress Microcopy, Reel 28, Container/Box 29 MFilP/GD494/1/Box 29, Letter Book No. 4, folios 17-18.

[10] Ernst Kipping and Samuel Smith, transl. At General Howe’s Side 1776-1783 (Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1974), 19.

[11] Harry M. Lydenberg, ed., Archibald Robertson. Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers, His Diaries and Sketches in America 1762-1780 (New York Public Library, 1930), 138.

[12]Israel Shreve to Dr. Bodo Otto, dated “Turkey Gap Sunday 29th. June 1777,” Israel Shreve Papers, Buxton Collection, Prescott Memorial Library, Louisiana Tech University.

[13] Henry Knox to Lucy Knox, 29 June 1777, The Henry Knox Papers (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1950).

[14] Entry for 1 June 1776, The Annual Register (London, 1777).

[15] To Alexander Scrymgeour, London, 1 June 1776, Scrymgeour-Wedderburn Papers: The National Archives of Scotland, H.M. General Register House, 140/2/51, in Marianne Gilchrist, “’The honor of firing before His Majesty’: Patrick Ferguson’s will and the Royal Armouries’ Ferguson rifle,” Arms & Armour, 5 (1):69-77.

[16] To Betty Scrymgeour, London, 21 October 1776, Scrymgeour-Wedderburn Papers, 140/2/55, in Gilchrist, “’The honor of firing before His Majesty.’”

[17] To Betty Scrymgeour, Portsmouth, 24 March 1777, Scrymgeour-Wedderburn Papers, 140/2/68, in Gilchrist, “’The honor of firing before His Majesty.’”.

[18] Marianne M. Gilchrist, Patrick Ferguson, A Man of some Genius (Edinburgh: NMS Publishing ltd., 2003), 33.

[19] WO 55/2147:177; WO 47/89:418, National Archives of Great Britain.

[20] John U. Rees, “’Necessarys … to be Properley Pack’d: & Slung in their Blanketts,’: Selected Transcriptions of 40th Regiment of Foot Orderly Book,”, viewed October 2014.

[21] D. W. Bailey, British Military FlintlockRifles 1740-1840 (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray Publisher, 2002), 45.

[22] Frederick MacKenzie Papers, William L. Clement Library, University of Michagan, M-1066, vols. A-E, Box 3-4, Journal D.

[23] Gilchrist, Patrick Ferguson, A Man of some Genius, 37.

[24] Rees, “Necessarys.”

[25] John Montresor, “Journals of Capt. John Montresor,” G. D. Scull, ed. and annot. Vol. 14, Collections of the New York Historical Society (New York, NY: New York Historical Society, 1881), 424-425.

[26] Montresor, “Journals,” 424-425.

[27] Rees, “Necessarys.”

[28] Rees, “Necessarys.”


One thought on “The First Fight of Ferguson’s Rifle

  • An excellent article demonstrating that Washington got campaign strategy right more often than he receives credit and that technology adoption always meets resistance. Two great lessons.

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