20 Apr 22
“Every war has martyrs, the unsung heroes.
They fight because they are trained to, kill because they are told to, and die because they are destined to.”
Anurag Shourie
Ferguson and his rifle!
Matchlock muskets were in use in Western Civilization starting in the 1400s, but were rendered instantly obsolete by the flintlock system (starting in the early 1600s).
Yet, matchlock muskets continued in common use, particularly in less-advanced parts of the world, well into the 1800s. They required no complex lockwork and were thus far easier and faster to manufacture than flintlocks.
Wheellock firearms were in-between, but came and went quickly, never enjoying much popularity, save among wealthy consumers. Wheellocks were complicated, temperamental, expensive, and again were rendered instantly obsolete by the flintlock.
All used black powder and were muzzle-loading.
It is possible to reload muzzle-loading muskets and rifles while in a prone position (fighting “Indian style”), but the process was slow, particularly with rifles.
Reloading can be accomplished much more rapidly while the shooter is standing upright, but standing-up in the middle of a North American wilderness battle in the 1700s was something not normally associated with good health, as British soldiers painfully discovered during the American Revolutionary War!
So, among belligerent nations (which included all of Europe and the British Islands), there was much interest in military circles (1700s) in the development of a useable breech-loading longarm. Reloading would be much quicker. The user’s shooting posture would become irrelevant, and in the case of rifles, bullets would not have to be laboriously pounded down the entire length of the barrel!
As you might imagine, intrepid inventors came-up with an endless plethora of methods for breech loading.
Some were truly ingenious, but most were impractical and never saw the light of day!
The main problem was obturation, that is sealing the breech during firing, so that hot, high-pressure gas did not leak back into the shooter’s face and hands. Until the advent of metallic cartridges a century later, this issue would never be adequately addressed.
In the interim, there were several attempts that did show some promise!
Patrick Ferguson, inventor of the revolutionary breech-loading “Ferguson Rifle,” is one example!
Coming from a prominent Scotch family, Ferguson was a British military officer during the American Revolutionary War. Ferguson’s signature rifle employed a tapered, vertical screw at the breech that exposed the chamber from the rear. One could “unscrew it,” load it at the breech, and then screw it back into position for firing with a single rotation of a crank incorporated into the trigger guard.
The Ferguson Rifle’s rate of fire was several times that of a muzzle-loading musket, many more times faster than a muzzle-loading rifle. In fact, one of Ferguson’s main motivations in developing his rifle were reports of deadly long-range accuracy on the part of American frontiersmen using their muzzle-loading rifles!
On the downside, Ferguson’s rifle was relatively frail as well as being expensive and slow/difficult to manufacture. The stock was reported to have cracked on most copies after just a little use. Few, aside from the copy used by Ferguson himself, ever saw actual battle use.
Ferguson patented his rifle in 1776 and arranged, at his own expense, to have them manufactured in England. Some, fewer than one hundred, ended up in America and some of that number were used during the Revolutionary War by a small unit Ferguson personally organized and commanded, at the direct order of King George himself, as Ferguson and his rifle had greatly impressed the King during a demonstration! A few other Ferguson Rifles may have been individually purchased.
The unit was involved in at least one battle, Brandywine (Philadelphia) in the fall of 1777.
As fate would have it, sometime during the battle, while hiding in bushes, Ferguson spotted two mounted American officers riding around during a lull in fighting. Ferguson indicated later that he could have easily shot one, maybe both. But he decided not to fire, as both were facing away from him, and shooting them in the back would have been, at least in Ferguson’s mind, “less than honorable”
One of the officers Ferguson chivalrously spared that day was almost certainly George Washington himself!
Sometime afterward, Ferguson was seriously wounded, twice, and while he was still convalescing, his unit was disbanded by short-sighted, cynical superiors who considered Ferguson a shameless grandstander, and his rifle little more than a gimmick!
The unit’s contingent of Ferguson Rifles were directed to be collected and stored in a warehouse, but their fate was lost to history after that, and they could have ended-up anywhere!
Ferguson, by then a major under British General Cornwallis and not yet fully recovered, was killed at the Battle of Kings’s Mountain on the border between the Carolinas on 7 October 1780.
As noted above, the Ferguson Rifle, ingenious as it was, was never produced nor deployed in numbers that would have any significant impact on the Revolutionary War (nor any other war) and occupies today, little more than an obscure footnote in military rifle history.
The few original copies of the Ferguson Rifle (all currently residing in museums and private collections) that still exist today were recovered ninety years later from Confederate arsenals by Federal forces during the American Civil War.
A number of replicas have been manufactured in recent times and are owned and used by reenactors.
Patrick Ferguson was a genuine hero, by any standard. Pity he was on the wrong side!