The prowess of American riflemen: a mystery now solved

Techniques & Tech

March 20, 2017
by Ian Saberton Also by this Author


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In his Colonel George Hanger to all Sportsmen, and particularly to Farmers and Gamekeepers (London, 1814) Hanger retails a diverting anecdote about the prowess of American riflemen, but, ever since, the date and precise location of the incident to which it relates have remained a mystery:

Colonel Tarleton and myself were standing a few yards out of a wood, observing the situation of a part of the enemy which we intended to attack.  There was a rivulet in the enemy’s front, and a mill on it, to which we stood directly with our horses’ heads fronting, observing their motions.  It was an absolute plain field between us and the mill, not so much as a single bush on it.  Our orderly-bugle stood behind us, about three yards, but with his horse’s side to our horses’ tails.  A rifleman passed over the mill-dam, evidently observing two officers, and laid himself down on his belly, for in such positions they always lie to take a good shot at a long distance.  He took a deliberate and cool shot at my friend, at me, and the bugle-horn man.[1]  Now observe how well this fellow shot.  It was in the month of August and not a breath of wind was stirring.  Colonel Tarleton’s horse and mine, I am certain, were not anything like two feet apart, for we were in close consultation how we should attack with our troops, which laid 300 yards in the wood and could not be perceived by the enemy.  A rifle ball passed between him and me.  Looking directly to the mill, I evidently observed the flash of the powder.  I directly said to my friend, “I think we had better move or we shall have two or three of these gentlemen shortly amusing themselves at our expence.”  The words were hardly out of my mouth when the bugle-horn man behind us, and directly central, jumped off his horse and said, “Sir, my horse is shot.”  The horse staggered, fell down, and died.

The anecdote provides certain clues as to the date and precise location of the incident:  the month was August; Hanger and Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton were serving together in the British Legion; they were on ground that Hanger traversed on several occasions; and they were preparing to attack.  So when and where did this conjunction of events occur?

Hanger was appointed major in the British Legion in June 1780 and his active service ended in October of that year when he fell ill with yellow fever at Charlotte.  Therefore we can fix the month of August as being August 1780 in South Carolina.  My biographical essay on Hanger[2] details the ground that he covered during that month and from it may be gleaned the only instance in which Hanger and Tarleton, while preparing to attack, served together during August on ground that Hanger traversed on several occasions ― ground that included a mill.  Taken together, these circumstances pinpoint August 18 and White’s Mill on Fishing Creek as the date and place at which the incident occurred, that is to say, during Tarleton’s and Hanger’s pursuit of Brigadier General Thomas Sumter.  It was a location that Hanger traversed, not only then, but on his return from the action, and also on the Legion’s advance towards North Carolina during the autumn campaign.  In no other circumstances did this entire conjunction of events occur.  By contrast Hanger’s march from Charlestown to Camden earlier in August had covered ground over which he passed only once.

Hanger is emphatic that never in his life did he see better rifles than those made in America or men who shot better.  “They are made,” he says, “in Lancaster and two or three neighbouring towns in that vicinity in Pennsylvania.  The barrels weigh about six pounds two or three ounces, carry a ball no larger than thirty-six to the pound, and are three feet three inches long.  I have often asked what was the most they thought they could do with their rifle.  They have replied that they thought they were generally sure of splitting a man’s head at 200 yards, for so they termed their hitting the head.  I have also asked several whether they could hit a man at 400 yards.  They have replied certainly, or shoot very near him,”[3] as indeed is evinced by Hanger’s anecdote.

Hanger contrasts the American rifle with the British Brown Bess:  “I do maintain that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common soldier’s musket by the person who aimed at him.  A soldier’s musket, if not exceeding badly bored and very crooked as many are, will strike the figure of a man at 80 yards; it may even at 100 yards; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, provided his antagonist aims at him; and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you may just as well fire at the moon and have the same hopes of hitting your object.”[4]

Nor does Hanger have much respect for the marksmanship of the British soldier, offering “some remarks respecting the training of a raw countryman, or a mechanic from Birmingham, perfectly awkward and generally very ignorant.  He is consigned to the superintendence of the drill serjeant.  He is first taught to walk, next to march, and hold himself tolerably erect.  Then a firelock is placed in his hands, which he handles at first as awkwardly as a bear would a plumb cake.  When he is taught the manual exercise and fit to do regimental duty, they then take him to fire powder.  Whilst the drill serjeant is teaching him to fire either by files or by platoons, the serjeant says to him, laying his cane along the barrels of the firelocks, ‘Lower the muzzles of your pieces, my lads, otherwise when you come into action, you will fire over the enemy.’  After this the recruit is taken to fire ball at a target.  How is he taught?  Thus he is spoken to:  ‘Take steady aim, my lad, at the bull’s eye of the target; hold your piece fast to the shoulder that it may not hurt you in the recoil; when you get your sight, pull smartly.’  This is the general way in which I believe they are taught, and in the name of truth and common sense permit me to ask you how a drill serjeant who is no marksman himself can teach an ignorant countryman or a low order of a mechanic to be a good marksman.  In my humble opinion, excellent in their way as they are to discipline the soldier and form him for parade and actual service in the line, the serjeant is just as capable of teaching him how to solve one of Sir Isaac Newton’s problems as to teach him to be a marksman.”[5]


[1]   Hanger adds in a footnote, “I have passed several times over this ground and ever observed it with the greatest attention, and I can positively assert that the distance he fired from at us was full four hundred yards.”

[2]   See Ian Saberton, “George Hanger ― His Adventures in the American Revolutionary War end,” Journal of the American Revolution (February 17, 2017).

[3]  George Hanger, Colonel George Hanger to all Sportsmen.

[4]   Idem, A Letter to the Right Hon. Lord Castlereagh (London, 1808).

[5]   Idem, Reflections on the Menaced Invasion (London, 1804).


  • Nice bit of sleuthing, Mr. Saberton. I expect you found it quite satisfying.

    As an aside, I have often pondered the situation shown in the illustration accompanying your article–that of a black powder marksman/sniper up in a tree. What bothers me is that once the man fires, he’s going to have a cloud of smoke around him that tells everyone precisely where he is. Return fire will likely be immediate and accurate.

    1. The image was chosen by the editorial staff, not by the author, and was chosen for aesthetics rather than technical accuracy. That said, there is at least one plausible account of riflemen shooting from trees at the battle Freeman’s Farm (Saratoga):
      Given that a principal advantage of the rifle was not strictly accuracy, but accuracy at great range, a sensible rifleman could take a post where he knew he out of range of return fire (of an opponent without rifles). With favorable intervening terrain, like the ravine that separated American riflemen from the British left flank at Freeman’s Farm, the rifleman was also secure from an advancing enemy.
      In short, firing from a tree might not be wise in all situations, but certainly could be effective in the right conditions.

      1. Absolutely correct, Don. Some of Morgan’s men did fire from up in the trees. The added range of the rifle gives the shooter time to get his butt down should the enemy advance on him. What drew my attention in this illustration, however, is that the man appears to be a light infantryman with a French musket rather than a rifleman.

        Other minor observations for this great painting–the man seems to just be sighting as his finger is off the trigger and the firelock looks to be on half-cock; the legs on his overalls are too short as they should cover the top of the shoe; and, the bark of the tree looks like a sycamore but the leaves are wrong.

  • With greatest respect to Colonel Hanger, he is perhaps selling the common British soldier a bit short. Especially considering the year of his writing.

    The journal had a wonderful piece on soldiers musket’s having rear sights carved above the lock. In addition, Matt Spring has pointed to poor quality flints, rather than poor marksmanship, as a primary reason for lack of British fire effectiveness. European soldiers were certainly capable of hitting their targets.

    1. Alex, Thank you for your response. Yet when we consider Hanger’s remarks, we need to bear in mind that he is speaking with some authority, as a Guards officer, staff captain in the Hessian Jager Corps, major and second-in-command of Tarleton’s British Legion, and reputedly the best shot in England. We must therefore give him his due and accept that his views inevitably carry considerable weight.

      1. Dear Mr. Saberton,

        Indeed that is all very well, I am not attempting to dispute Hanger’s qualifications as a soldier. However, when he talks about training, “a raw countryman,” “ignorant countryman,” “low order of mechanic” it seems to me that he is trying to make an argument that accurate firing is something that the “lower orders” cannot hope to achieve, something his allusion to Newton’s mathematics confirms. When we look at the careers of men contemporary to the time of Hanger’s writing, soldiers like rifleman Harris were certainly rough country men, but they became excellent marksmen. (Recollections of Riflemen Harris, 1-2).

        1. Alex, Thank you for your further reply, but as I read Hanger, he is commenting on the poor training of British soldiers in marksmanship rather than on the question of their ability if trained properly.

  • Apples and oranges, comparing muskets to rifles. The musket was built for throwing the most weight of lead per minute as possible, having smooth bores, premade cartridges and undersized projectiles so more shots could be fired without fouling plugging the bore. In turn, the long rifle was a hunter’s weapon unique to North America, where all powder and lead still had to be imported in 1780. Built for accuracy and economy of powder and ball, rifles took a full two or more minutes to load versus the four or five shots per minute of the musket, and they required cleaning every dozen shots or so or the balls would no longer fit. Rifles of the time were also fragile, very expensive, and not as common as stated in lore. Washington wanted them at Boston to use as a terror weapon, as few Brits had seen them, and asked for five companies of frontier riflemen to be formed accordingly. These units were only marginally successful, as subordinate commanders rarely knew how to use snipers and scouts and often wasted them. But the ultimate compliment to the rifle was their adoption by the British Army in time for the Napoleonic Wars.

  • Is there any documentation that platoons of muskets could constantly fire more than three shots a minute?

    1. Ben, apologies for not getting back to you sooner. May I refer you my article entitled “Ian Saberton looks at the famous ‘Black Bess'”. It appeared in the Shooting Times & Country Magazine, November 15-21, 1979. If you provide me with your e-mail address in response, I will transmit it to you.

  • The battle of Fishing Creek was Aug 18 around noon. White’s Mill is around 14 miles from Fishing Creek. Tarleton came up to Fishing Creek from Rocky Mt. After Fishing Creek Tarleton headed back to down to Camden. It doesn’t seem Tarleton was around White’s MIll on Aug 18? Maybe this happened around Rugeley’s Mill after the Battle of Camden?

  • I hope I am not being too pedantic, but the marksman in the tree is not a rifleman at all. He is firing a Charleville musket, which would have been a comfort to the sybaritic Major Hanger. In addition, that “Booger” must have been a pretty green sort to think he could get off a shot at 75 yards against advancing British infantry and have time to climb down that tree and scamper off before getting skewered.

    While George Hanger’s views on rifles, muskets, and British marksmanship are often quoted, I would be loathe to base any evaluation of the prowess of the Rebel rifleman on his word alone. There were a number of British officers of more sober character and more sustained front-line service who saw things differently than this high-living raconteur who liked to exaggerate to thrill or entertain British high society.

    For instance, on January 10, 1777, Captain William Dansey, commander of the 33rd Regiment of Foot’s light company, wrote: “the [the Rebels] are convinced that being a good Marksman is only a trifling requisite for a Soldier, indeed I myself saw them beat as Marksmen, at Frogneck [Throg’s Neck] I was engaged (having mine own and another Company under my Command) with a 150 or 200 Riflemen for upwards of seven hours at their favourite Distance about 200 Yards, they were better cover’d than we were having a house a Mill and a Wall and we had only Trees, they got the first fire at us before I saw them, I bid my Men to cover themselves with the Trees and Rocks and turn out Volunteers among the Soldiers to go to the nearest Trees to the Riflemen and keep up the Fire. . . . I continued the popping Fire at them and they at us we had the Satisfaction of knocking several of them down and had not a Man hurt.”

    Like many other British officers who worked closely with their enlisted men, Dansey harbored much more respect for the British soldier than Hanger evinces. Dansey not only trusted in his light infantrymen’s marksmanship, but also in their judgment in choosing the best cover and advantageous shooting positions. It bears noting that Dansey was writing to his mother, while Hanger, an officer of supposedly great potential who did not amount to much in the end, was trying to puff himself before the British public.

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