Marksmanship in 1775: Myth or reality?

Some historians have perpetuated myths about the men and guns of the American Revolution, taking aim at American marksmanship. But recent scholarship shows that the citizen soldiers who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill were far better shots than the “professional” British soldiers who faced them. Just how good were they? Read on.

A now forgotten Prussian artillerist of the 19th century, one Col. Schlimmbach, devoted many beetle-browed hours to calculating precisely that during the Napoleonic Wars (c.1799-1815) the enemy needed to fire “a man’s own weight” in bullets before scoring a hit. Assuming, then, that he survived both disease and cannon shot, the typical soldier who fought in just a few battles could be fairly certain of enjoying a peaceful, pensioned retirement.

The same could not be said for those British troops fighting the American militia in the early stages of the War of Independence. They stood a dismayingly good chance of being shot by the end of a single engagement. The marksmanship of the American fighting man has a long and storied tradition in our nation’s history. Since the Revolutionary era, Americans have assumed that they are, shot for shot, the finest marksmen on the planet.

It was only in the decade preceding World War II that the “myth” of American marksmanship first received incoming fire from historians, especially as it pertained to the War of Independence—the hammer and anvil of the American character. In 1934, Allen French’s otherwise magisterial The First Year of the American Revolution claimed that owing to “poor American guns, and the men’s lack of practice … too much has been made of American marksmanship” in the critical year of 1775, when the militia fought at Lexington/Concord and Bunker Hill.

French’s dismissal of American expertise was echoed by Christopher Ward in his popular War of the Revolution of 1952. He concluded that at Lexington/Concord, “only one bullet out of 300 found its mark,” so demonstrating “the fallaciousness of the belief so often expressed that the Yankees were superior marksmen, dead shots in fact.”

Through time, this once-radical view has become conventional wisdom, even among the most painstaking of historians. In his detailed Battle of Bunker’s Hill (1975) John Elting went so far as to assert that “at best the average New Englander [in 1775] … could load and fire a musket with a fair chance of hitting an easy target at short range. But this made him probably as good a shot as the average French or Prussian veteran.”