The Samuel Davies chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution spent an exciting afternoon recently as guests of the Green River Gun Club, where the DAR members learned some techniques their ancestors used to fight the British during the Revolutionary War.
After an entertaining and educational lecture on communication from Nicky Hughes of the Kentucky Military History Museum, Bill Ferguson and Martin Hickey of the Green River Gun Club brought history to life by dressing as British soldiers and instructing members on the use of black powder. Next up, DAR members were invited to actually fire black powder guns, thanks to a group of teenagers from the Warren County 4-H Shooting Sports Program.
In 1776, you could see the whites of your enemy’s eyes in battle, so members of the Green River Gun Club set out targets at 50 yards on their range, the actual distance between soldiers. Experiencing history up close and personal – not exactly your grandmother’s DAR.
Since DAR is dedicated to preserving history, promoting education and encouraging patriotism, its members thought you might enjoy reading about what they learned.
The fife (flute) and drums are associated with George Washington’s army in our minds, but they weren’t just for entertainment. It was actually the fife, drum and sackbut, an early form of the trombone – and they were loud.
Believe it or not, the Continental army had no radios or cellphones, so communication between troops was difficult. So, musical instruments were used to relay information over the din of war and were key to a successful battle. Drums tapped out paradiddles, which were coded messages, and sackbuts blasted inspirational tunes. Commanders could also locate musicians quickly through the fog of war – their uniforms were the reverse color scheme of the troops.
But let’s get to the big bang. It wasn’t easy to be a soldier in those days. Guns were awkward, heavy, labor-intensive and loud. If that weren’t difficult enough, the men shot in line formation. Rows of soldiers, side by side, shot over the shoulders of their comrades in front. They had to load (more on that later) and fire in careful coordination to prevent hurting one another – rigid alignment to maximize their firepower.
They fired in volleys, and when the volley fell apart, they resorted to the barbaric bayonets on the ends of their muskets – a prickly situation indeed.
Just how did those black powder guns work?
No modern bullets for soldiers of the Continental army – just a heavy and fairly large lead ball. So how did that lead weight get launched accurately through the air? Actually, it didn’t.
The rifle bores were smooth and aiming a musket was imprecise at best. The lead ball was simply boosted out of its comfy little bed of black gunpowder from inside that smooth barrel when the gunpowder ignited.
Now this is an over-simplification, but here’s how that happened:
Step one: Dump your black powder into the barrel of your gun. Just make darn sure there is no fire from your previous shot left inside that barrel or your whiskers will be smoking and your ears singed (if you are lucky.)
Step two: Cram that fat lead ball into the barrel with a long tamping rod. You might also need a wooden mallet to give it a tap. (Again, no sparks please.)
Step three: Add a little touch of that explosive black powder underneath the hammer of your gun when you cock it so a mere spark will create a tiny flash in the pan that ignites that bigger load inside the barrel when you pull the trigger.
Voilà. You have it. A loud bang, a nice little fireworks display, a puff of smoke and the lead ball hurtles off into the distance where it makes contact with a British Redcoat if you’re lucky. Hopefully, your ears will not be ringing and you will be able to hear the sackbut and paradiddle as they command you to move 50 steps left and fire again.
Disclaimer: This description is meant to entertain and educate. Please do not try this without proper supervision. Consult your local expert 4-H teenager and wear adequate ear and eye protection.
What did the DAR members learn at the Green River Gun Club? The Revolutionary War was an incredibly difficult fight against a well-trained and well-armed enemy – and yet, we still managed to win.
– Disparte is a author and member of the Samuel Davies chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.