The British Military Ferguson Rifle – Part one
Guns were serial numbered in the three places – Butt Plate, Tang and Trigger Guard. In addition the bayonet and pair of “belt plates” (cross-guard plate and belt buckle) were numbered to complete the “stand of arms”.
We began the Ferguson project in about 1996. Ernie Cowan passed away in 2018. He was a master craftsman in wood and metal. Without his talent in building guns this story could have never been told. Ernie did not just “build” guns, he duplicated original specimens in the same manner done in their day – all by hand. We never considered our guns as “reproductions”, just a continuation of production. When “duplicating” a gun there is no room for error. One slip of the tool and the gun is scrap. Each one was unique just as in the 18th century with no interchangeable parts. Every part was hand-made down to the finest detail, which was not only difficult but time consuming in order to match the original weapon. I look back and wonder how he did it. He made the guns and I did the research. His end products are a wonder to behold. The time required to complete a rifle limited him to only 4 guns per year with a total of only 15 Fergusons produced. We had a long waiting list for them and could have made many more. We stopped only because we became involved in two other gun projects that caught our interest at the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition – the “short rifle” and “airgun”. The controversy surrounding these two weapons us with a challenge we could not resist.
In conjunction with the Ferguson project we were dragged into the Pattern 76 rifle story when we discovered the importance we believe it play in the Ferguson story (the powder aspect) and will touch upon that subject briefly in this story. We ended up building only 4 each of the two styles of those two rifles.
At Ernie;s passing I lost a lot of original photos so I had to work from ones in my archives, so please forgive some of the quality. When DeWitt Bailey published his book On British Rifles, the P76 rifles were just being recognized and studied. We believe the introduction of SDS German powder saved his overall rifle project from failure and made possible the tapered plug pattern Ferguson Rifle. The P76 used the same powder charge as his rifle and in addition (by accident or original design by Ferguson) his rifle could also fire the P76 pistol ball with deadly results. The basic design of the two rifles was connected, in fact we found very similar characteristics in the stocks and furniture on both guns. The P76 was well under way when Ferguson arrived on the scene to supervise the building of his 100 “plug” guns”. In the haste to get them in the field it only makes sense that basic patterns already in use by the 4 gunsmiths building the P76 (and ultimately his rifles) would appear on his rifle. In the end we solved almost all of the controversy surrounding all three rifle projects, hopefully leaving our work the final word on the subject. As explained in the story the only mystery we did NOT solve was exactly when and where the “tapered plug” military Ferguson idea originated to win out over his civilian version. Either his straight plug design never proved suitable for field use or the British Government just did not want to pay the royalty to him on each gun made. We concluded from our research that the first reason was the cause. The tapered plug design simply had a tighter breech seal and practically no fouling problems, thus winning over his personal gun project. This is the first time the true story of these weapons has been made available to the public. There are many misconceptions about these rifles that we hope to dispel. The “NRA” site has a video on this based upon our work. This is Ernie’s legacy. I am proud to have been a part of it.
Copyright 2020 – Richard H. Keller/ Great War Militaria
All rights reserved
Not to be reprinted without express permission of the author
Chapter 1: The Beginning
Chapter 2: Surviving Specimens
Chapter 3: Patrick Ferguson – The Man
Chapter 4: The Birth of an Idea
Chapter 5: The Rifle
Chapter 6: Deployment
Chapter 7: Ferguson’s Second Rifle Corps
Chapter 8: The Campaign in the South
Chapter 9: The Road to Kings Mountain – His 3rd Rifle Corps
Chapter 10: The Aftermath and the Fate of his Rifles
Chapter 11: Summary
Chapter 12: The Ferguson Rifle – A Weapon Beyond it’s Time
Appendix I: Roster of 123 officers and enlisted men of Ferguson’s New York Rifle Corp (King’s Mountain Campaign)
Appendix II: Ferguson’s men and equipment (Philip de Loutherbourg sketches)
Appendix III: Rifleman horns of the American Revolution.
Appendix IV: Ferguson and Chaumette’s Patents
Appendix V: “The Honor of Firing before his Majesty”
Appendix VI: The Smithsonian Ferguson Rifle
Appendix VII: Fired Ferguson rifle ball recovered from Kings Mountain
********** Chapter 1 – The Beginning
Major Patrick Ferguson has left a legacy that few British officers can match in terms of loyalty, ingenuity, and recognition for improved weapons and tactics specially designed to match the superior advantage of the American long rifle of our American Revolution over any weapon in British army at that time. After 200 years, great controversy continues over his several “Rifle Corps”, as well as the uniforms and equipment worn by his riflemen. Unfortunately, his defeat at King’s Mountain relegated him into the footnotes of British history along with his contributions for advancing military “riflemen” concepts that were a few decades before their time. The biggest controversy remains the fate of the weapons that bear his name – the “Ferguson Rifle” – which erroneously has become synonymous with every vertical screw breech rifle ever made, regardless of maker or style. This historical inaccuracy we shall sort out in our story and give credit where due. New material is constantly coming to light even as we write, but we shall offer the open-minded reader the opportunity to examine all that has surfaced to date and then draw their own conclusions about Ferguson, his rifles and their service in America.
How did such a man accomplish so much under the strict, and slow to approve, military chains of command of the 18th century British Military war machine? During his brilliant military career, in which he suffered no defeats until King’s Mountain, he incurred the respect of his men and the civilians in his sphere of conflict as well as the reputed envy and jealousy of superiors, most of which we found to be unsubstantiated. During the research needed to reproduce and fully understand his fascinating firearm, much insight was gained into this man and his thinking.
One cannot tell the story of the rifle without telling the story of this incredible individual, as they are inseparable. Not only can those who served with him be proud to have been a part of his career, but the United States can be thankful that he was the perfect gentleman soldier at the moment he may have held General Washington’s life in his hands (another controversy). His contributions may not have made an immediate difference in the American conflict, but they did have a profound effect upon the organization of Rifle Regiments worldwide that would follow in less than 20 years after his death. Using his new tested and tried tactics, riflemen would rise above a secondary role on the battlefield and start a tradition of elite units for centuries to come.
We were always puzzled by the fact that modern attempts to shoot his rifle (originals and replicas) were unsuccessful. The rifle would bind up from fouling after several shots and the few replicas available were of such poor quality that they were unsafe to shoot. Civilian guns, built on the screw breech design, were adequate for hunting when only a few shots were required, but had yet to be adapted for military use where extended shooting was required. This was the goal Ferguson set out to correct. As it turns out he was very fortunate to be in the middle of his task when a new type of powder was introduced into England – the German “SDS” required for the “rifled carbines”. This powder also proved a God sent for his project and resulted in the reliable breech loading rifle that eventually came to America.
Our project was to build and EXACT copy of the military “Ordnance Rifle” (the 18th Century British term for his rifle) and resolve the long standing controversy surrounding the merits of the rifle. To accomplish this task, we set out to examine the surviving examples of those rifles and choose one to copy.
********** Chapter 2 – Surviving Specimens
We first discovered that the breech loading rifle to which he refers in almost all of his writings pertained to his straight plug design. It was not new in the gun community, a fact that he states in his letters. His idea was to improve upon the design and adapt it to military use. He was unsuccessful in that project and only a few guns were made by Durrs Egg upon his patent aimed at the civilian market . Those guns are specifically marked on the breech “FERGUS” and made only by them to whom he had given sole rights of manufacture. Several have survived (No. 2 & no. 15), so we know at least 15 were built under his patent.
The weapon that came to America had nothing to do with that project. Instead, out of his endeavors, came 100 entirely new rifles – one with a TAPERED plug. Neither Ferguson nor history gives us a single clue as to the origin of this rifle. English War Office records just call it an “Ordnance rifle”. Over the years a myth was created (and continues today) that Ferguson invented this gun. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He does however deserve the credit for convincing the British government to accept and build a new gun in a small quantity to arm a special Corps of Riflemen organized, trained and commanded by him. This is the story of that rifle.
Our search uncovered only TWO of the original 100 military “Ordnance Rifles” – one in Morristown National Park, New Jersey and the other in the Milwaukee Public Museum collection. Another well known “Ferguson” rifle, and most likely one of the two prototypes made by Durrs Egg at crown expense (but straight plug design), resides in the Smithsonian Institute, having a direct unbroken lineage from Frederick DePeyster, brother of Abraham DePeyster, Ferguson’s second in command at King’s Mountain, to the museum. That rifle undoubtedly played a role that led up to the acceptance of the tapered plug rifle, but other than that, it has nothing to do with the rifle used by his Rifle Corps in America. We will however touch upon the gun to explain the differences in the two guns – “military” and “civilian” versions. We also devoted a special chapter to that rifle with never seen photos.
The most famous example of the military “Ordnance Rifle” is now in the Morristown National Park Museum, having been purchased for donation in 1947 by the Washington Association of New Jersey. A history of this gun was contained in their archives, linking it to South Carolina, having been brought back as a trophy by a Union prisoner from Quincey, Massachusetts whose family put up a million-dollar bond to secure his release with his personal possessions, one being the Ferguson rifle. (#1) The history of the rifle and its condition point to a King’s Mountain origin. It is basically untouched since the day it was made other than showing very hard use with very old period wrist repair. The original damage indicates it was done in battle or intentionally afterwards to render the rifle unserviceable. The repair would have made the gun serviceable again even as a muzzleloader. Weapons were valuable and someone could have easily picked it up and carried it home as a souvenir. The right side of the butt stock has some deep gouged out areas where markings had been removed. Those markings might have given us valuable information had they survived.
As with ALL military rifles it has an 11 start .070 thousandth tapered plug (this one is bronze) and is .65 caliber, forcing a .650 ball through a .648 rifled barrel with .020 deep rifling (deeper than most guns – needed to keep the ball from skipping in the grooves). The quick start tapered thread drops the plug one inch in one turn for breech loading.(#2) It is serial No. 2, one of 25 made by Mathias Barker in a contract for 100 rifles divided equally among four crown contractors, all of whom were making the rifled carbines. They were William Grice, Mathias Barker, Benjamin Willets and Galton & Sons, all of which is confirmed by payments made to them by war office records.(#3) The guns were numbered 1 through 100, with serial numbers hand engraved on butt plate, barrel breech plug tang and trigger guard. Bayonets were also numbered to each rifle, along with the pair of belt plates (breastplate and waist buckle) to complete the stand of arms.(#4)
The other known military Ordnance Rifle is in The Milwaukee Public Museum and is quite interesting in that it has had ALL exterior British markings removed (even the barrel). The side sling swivel and bayonet lug have also been removed to demilitarize its outward appearance. In addition, the barrel has been shortened slightly and it has an IRON plug in lieu of a bronze one. All other specifications are identical to the Morristown rifle. This difference in plug material may have been part of the “experiment”. It was rather obvious from close examination of that rifle that the owner was hiding the fact that it was British military property. This would only have been done for one reason – for their safety. Whoever “liberated” the rifle did not want either side confiscating the weapon, or if it was taken during the war, which is most likely, they did not want to get caught with a British weapon, especially in the South where one might find themselves dangling at the end of a rope for such liberties. It is likely that this rifle was also a King’s Mountain “souvenir“ since there are no confirmed reports of the capture or loss of any rifles in combat (other than those left in New York as unserviceable) up to the time of the King’s Mountain battle. The faint remaining markings tells us that it was also one of the 25 made also by Mathias Barker. At some time in its life someone made some very crude, large cuts into the iron tapered breech plug, some extending to the bottom. His patent for the STRAIGHT plug calls for “various cuts” (fouling cuts) across the outside of the screw done in such a way as “not to communicate and occasion any part of the charge to blow out”. They were designed to force the fouling into the recess cut into the face of the breech plug. The cuts made on this plug would have rendered the gun very dangerous to shoot. (See Appendix IV for his patent drawings). We have several theories as to the purpose of those cuts, but it is not important to the story. What is important is that it is one of the 100 “Ordnance Rifle” brought to America, regardless of condition.
The third (and best-known Ferguson style rifle but NOT one of the 100 military production) is part of the Smithsonian Museum Arms Collection and, as stated earlier due to its pedigree and construction suggests it is one of the two supplied at Crown expense to Ferguson. It is unique and made to his patent. It has a 10-start straight iron plug as found on all known civilian rifles regardless of who made them – including the 200 East India guns made by Henry Nock in 1777. From this rifle’s history, it was probably carried in the Brandywine campaigns. When Ferguson was wounded in his right arm during that battle, he was unable to shoot his rifle, so he gave it to Frederick DePeyster, brother of Abraham DePeyster (Ferguson’s second in command at King’s Mountain). Family history recounts that Frederic was one Ferguson’s his favorite officers and “pupils” (probably in marksmanship) and was nicknamed the “Bulldog’s pup” (Ferguson was known as the “Bulldog” due to his tenacity to complete any course of action he stated), indicating a close relationship of some sort. The rifle survived the battle of King’s Mountain only because Frederic DePeyster was on detached duty. It remained in the DePeyster family until General J. Watts DePeyster donated it the U.S. Army, who eventually turned it over to the Smithsonian. It is not only the most historical and best documented Ferguson rifle in this country but it still has with it the only known surviving double-edged sword bayonet that was specially designed by Ferguson for use with his rifles.(#6)
Having examined the two military rifles, the Morristown specimen was the best one for our task. During a year of research, an amazing and unprecedented (within British firearms history) saga began to unfold of the man who was totally responsible for the production of the rifle that bears his name – Patrick Ferguson. How one single weapon intertwines with a man’s life is as important as the weapon itself, for the two have been inseparable since 1776 – the year it became known forever as the “Ferguson Rifle”. As stated before, history (and improper research) made every type of screw-breech weapon a “Ferguson” rifle, adding more confusion to the rifles’ story for more than 200 years. It is VERY important to recognize FROM THE BEGINNING of this study that Ferguson was working on two entirely different rifle projects in 1776 – one of his own design and a military version, not of his design, that accompanied his troops to America.
His FIRST priority was his personal breech loading rifle project based on the Smithsonian rifle (10 start straight plug). By his own admission it was not “invented” by him – a major myth that has persisted for over 200 years and continues so today. He only attempted to “improve” on Chaumette’s pattern by adding the fouling grove (or multiple grooves as specified in his patent) to clean the threads during rotation of the breech in order to make it reliable for extended military application. His SECOND project was the overseeing and building of the 100 tapered plug breech loading military rifles NOT of his design. It is very easy to confuse the two projects (civilian and military rifles) and most writers, not taking the time to fully understand the differences in them, unwittingly treat them as the same. In truth, almost all of his correspondence and letters that are extant pertain to his civilian rifle project – except for one written about his demonstrating the military version (with soldier in full gear) in front of the King at Windsor, AFTER they were well into production, where we know he was using the military version. Again, after 10 years of research, we have found NO correspondence or official documentation relating to the origin of these rifles. The only thing we know for sure is that he was involved in their production but NOT the design and that they were successful in the military application he had envisioned for his civilian version. Trying to separate the two guns and their place in the history still confusing. Of the many breech loading rifles shown in various arms books and articles, none give the necessary details needed to assist in solving the mystery. We could only guess where and when the tapered plug design originated. To his credit his desire to field riflemen for the British cause always came first over the two individual rifle projects, as proven by him accepting a different rifle than the one he personally promoted.
********** Chapter 3 – Patrick Ferguson -The Man
The Ferguson rifle story begins with the birth of Patrick Ferguson in 1744 as the second son of and Aberdeenshire laird, James Ferguson of Pitfour, and Anne Murray, a daughter of the fourth Lord Elibank, in Scotland. He led a gentry lifestyle but was always dreaming of adventure, thus he began a military career at the age of 16 with a purchased commission as Cornet dated July 12, 1760, the lowest rank of a commissioned cavalry officer, in the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons. During his first service in Flanders and Germany in 1760, he displayed all the fine qualities necessary for making a British officer including fighting a duel in Paris with swords with a French officer who insulted the British nation. This service was cut short in 1762 by illness, having always suffered a “delicate constitution”, and he was sent home to recuperate over the next six years. He spent his time studying and debating politics as well as honing his military arts and skills. The use of “citizen soldiers” for defense of one’s country was one of his favorite and animated topics for both published writings and discussions. The basis of this belief was quite simply that citizens, in repayment for the privileges afforded them by their country, should willingly become soldiers when called upon in defense of their country. This belief extended to the rebellion in the Colonies and to the fact that there was a larger majority of loyal and devoted subjects within the colonies to put down any uprising and all that was needed were arms and proper leadership. Ferguson vigorously embraced this “citizen soldier” (equal to our National Guards of today, the United States “militias” of the 18th century) concept during his military career and threw himself into its accomplishment, little knowing that his ideals would ultimately cost him his life in a battle fought by such soldiers.
In 1768, at age 24, a company was purchased for him in the 70th Regiment and he joined his detachment at Tobago, West Indies to take part in the first Carib War (1769-1773) that ended in a stalemate and unsatisfactory peace agreement. It took a second war (1795-97) that ended in their defeat. It was his first experience facing a partisan army fighting or their homeland, and it is quite possible that the experience during this campaign played a part in his attitude and respect for guerrilla warfare when waged by a patriotic and determined enemy using a minimum complement of weapons. He was soon to face a second insurrection in America waged by a more determined and better armed “mob” of rebels. At the end of the first war he left the islands for a short visit to Nova Scotia, then returned to England in 1774. Where and when Ferguson first acquired the desire to have a weapon that could be reloaded and fired from the safety of any available cover is unknown, quite possibly in the West Indies. His keen interest in firearms can be attested by the fact that he was noted as being one of the best marksmen in the country with both a pistol and rifle. We believe he may have acquainted himself with the “long rifle” during his brief visit to Quebec on his way back to England from the Indies in 1774. If an unusual or superior weapon appeared anywhere at hand, his curiosity would have forced him to examine it, especially the legends of the rifle whose capabilities were made famous in England from the French & Indian Wars.
Although convinced of the rifle’s accuracy, he was dismayed with its slow method of loading, a problem with fouling after only a few shots and the lack of a bayonet. How much Ferguson was influenced by other designers is well documented, as he himself admitted that his patent was merely “various improvements” upon a previous basic design of a threaded screw breech – that of the French inventor Isaac de la Chaumette, who had produced and patented a screw breech weapon as early as 1704 in France, even though the original concept goes back to the 1600’s, possibly in tapered and straight plug design. When Chaumette moved to London in 1721, he immediately patented his gun in his new country advertised the trial of his gun invention in newspapers. The gun making community was disturbed enough by his work that in 1723 they unsuccessfully attempted to block the proofing of his weapons. Its novelty and popularity among gentlemen gun enthusiast, combined with the fact that some of the most noted and influential gun-makers in England were making a good profit from the manufacture and sale of his guns blocked those efforts. All “gentlemen” in 18th century England were involved in “shooting sports”.(#7)
The quality and success of the Chaumette’s breech loading rifle can be measured by the fact that George I had a fine example of his own. Ferguson obviously became fascinated with the system of this gun and since the design saw sportsman use throughout France and England, he no doubt had an opportunity to examine a variety of specimens. The newspapers of his time carried articles on weapons of this nature, as well as advertisements, so many debates had already ensued over its possible use in the military circles, but without results. Ferguson’s keen mind became fixed upon a military application of the rifle and he set out to make it happen. As he would find out, it would not prove an easy task since Chaumette’s rifle fouled quickly due to both the straight plug design and poor powder (German SDS powder was not yet part of the gun culture in England) that produced considerable fouling while operating the breech plug. One must remember that for civilian application, these drawbacks were acceptable, since a sportsman would fire only a few shots in the course of a hunt. Ferguson needed to make the gun fire reliably for many more shots than had been previously accomplished, thus his “patented design” added “fouling cuts” and a “fouling” chamber on the face of the breech plug to gather the fouling built up by shooting. Even then it did not work well enough to be accepted by the government, hence, the adoption of a tapered plug system on the military rifle. We believe the introduction of SDS powder in England for the Pattern P76 rifle projects made it all possible since the fast burning powder produced less fouling. We also believe the government did not want to pay royalties on his rifle when a simpler, less complicated and cheaper design that worked well.
********** Chapter 4 – The Birth of an Idea
We believe he became an ardent disciple of Light Infantry after attending one of Howe’s Light Infantry schools in 1774. When he saw the possibility of combining rifles with these tactics is unknown, but we know it was after being assigned to Woolrich Arsenal in 1775. Here he had the opportunity to learn about guns and their manufacturing techniques. This is where he may have been introduced to his first breech-loading rifle. This is where we believe he decided to make his military career one of improving and enlarging the Light Infantry concept to include the use of rifles. Even though this had been successful in England’s previous war with France, the rifle idea had been dropped until a new war heated up in America and now, as before, the for rifles would again arise, and he could be prepared when the time arose. In his project he saw possible promotion and fame – that which every military officer coveted, and we believe it was the year 1775 and the new war with America that set him on the road to King’s Mountain. He could not have picked a better time in history to step into the limelight. Ferguson would have been introduced to the history of Light Infantry and rifles while attending Howe’s school. He would have learned the same lesson that all of England learned while fighting in dense, trackless forests and mountains in the French & Indian War of 1756/1763 – the need for “Light Infantry” – men who could move quickly without the impediment of cumbersome uniforms, equipment and open field warfare tactics that would impede their progress and subsequent fighting capabilities. General Wolfe, with the approval of Sir Henry Clinton, the Commander in Chief of British land forces, chose to train a small portion of hand-picked men from each infantry regiment that could move swiftly, scout and fight on the enemy’s terms in a harsh environment, and be intelligent enough to use their own initiative when needed. Roger’s Rangers were the first of that type to successfully test such tactics against the French. The Light Infantry units to follow were lightly equipped and trained in special warfare based upon the tactics developed by his unit. They became the flankers and skirmishers of the Army, making first contact with the enemy and spoiling any attempts at ambush. Of additional interest is that in 1757, 300 “rifled carbines” with bayonets and steel rammers were purchased for use in that war. (See Appendix III)
The first use of Light Infantry was at Louisburg in 1758, but they were disbanded at the end of the French & Indian war in 1763 but were reestablished in 1770-71 by the persistence of Sir William Howe. Their tactics were so successful that a light company (or “flank” company) was later formed for each regiment. The need for rifles, to meet the threat from American rifles, was also recognized as early as 1775, with both Burgoyne and Howe requesting them from the Ordnance Board in England. The 1000 muzzle-loading Pattern 1776 rifles, followed by Ferguson’s 100 rifles, were a direct result of their demands.
It was with this background and knowledge that Ferguson probably conceive the idea of combining rifles with Light Infantry tactics. Exactly how he convinced the government to fund his ideas is still unknown, but we are sure his persuasive character and enthusiasm for the project, as well as the assistance of some of England’s finest experts in the armories who favored his idea had a lot to do with it.
The first reference to his pursuit of a “plug gun” for military application is in March of 1776, with Adjutant General Harvey writing to Capt. Ferguson that “I have received the letter relative to the Improvement of the Rifle Barrel” but delayed action due to “a multiplicity of business at present”. (#8) The delay was very short as two of the civilian style prototype rifles were done by April, the bill paid by War Office records of June 1776 – “..The Master Genl desires that the new Rifle piece of Capt Ferguson’s be paid for, as well as one more which Mr. Egg is to make upon the same Construction, which is to be left at the Tower as a pattern”. The short time in which the two “plug” guns were built indicates to us that Egg was well into Ferguson’s gun project making it an easy task. Ferguson’s next step was to become proficient with the new rifle. He states writes that he practiced so hard in his quarters at learning to load and fire the rifle rapidly that his hands became sore. (#9)
A “Scotts Magazine” report reads – “On Saturday, April 27,1776 there was an experiment tried at Woolrich Warren before Lord Townshend and several officers, of two pieces of rifle-barrel guns and two muskets, to see which did the most execution and carried farthest. The rifle-guns were approved of, and fired six times a-minute on a new construction, and were the invention of Capt. Ferguson of the 70th Regiment”. Ferguson did fire his rifle on that date for Lord Townshend, Master-General of the Ordnance, which was also reported in the June 1, 1776 Annual register – “Some experiments were tried at Woolrich before Lord Viscount Townshend, Lord Amherst, Generals Harvey and Desaguilers and a number of other officers, with a rifle gun upon new construction by Captain Ferguson of the 70th Regiment, when that gentleman under the disadvantages of a heavy rain and high wind performed the following four things, none of which had ever before been accomplished with any other small arms. 1st. He fired during four or five minutes at a target, at 200 yards distance, at the rate of four shots each minute. 2nd. He fired six shots in one minute. 3rd. He fired four times per minute, advancing at the same time at the rate of four miles in the hour. 4th. He poured a bottle of water into the pan and barrel of the piece when loaded, so as to wet every grain of the powder, and in less than half-a-minute fired with her as well as ever without extracting the ball. He also hit the bull’s eye at 100 yards, lying with his back on the ground; and notwithstanding the unequalness of the wind and wetness of the weather, he only missed the target three times during the whole course of the experiments”. (#10)
His demonstration and rate of fire so impressed the Lord that an order of 100 rifles immediately followed the demonstration, divided among four gunmakers already employed as royal armorers. This is where the REAL mystery begins. Ferguson’s practice and dexterity with a breech loading gun paid off and convinced the proper officials to move forward with the project on a limited scale BUT not with a gun of his design. We can only guess as to what occurred between this important date and the final building of a totally different rifle two months later.
********** Chapter 5 – THE RIFLE
As mentioned, previous, the Ferguson rifle in the Smithsonian Institute arms collection, known as the “DePeyster” rifle, signed “D. Egg” has always been believed to be one of the two prototype guns Ferguson used for his original firing demonstration before Lord Townshend. This belief is only borne out by a letter from J. Watts DePeyster, who also believed that some of the rifles were in the King’s Mountain battle, to Charles B. Norton, circa 1880, in which he states “Ferguson’s own rifle, to which, as it is now perfectly established that the preceding refers, is still in existence and hangs amid other family trophies.” The lineage of the rifle appears in another article in Scribner’s Monthly magazine of April 1880, by the same author, in which he writes, “Ferguson was accompanied by his favorite pupil, a Captain of the Loyal Regiment, known as the New York Volunteers. This officer, only twenty-two years old, was detached previous to the fatal battle to assist in hunting the colonial Colonel Clarke out of South Carolina, and by his assignment to that duty escaped the fate of his superior officer. The particular rifle under consideration was a present to him from its inventor, his patron and friend. From him, it passed into my possession from my grandfather through the hands of his youngest surviving son, now President of the New York Historical Society”. (#11)
The gun might not have stayed in his hands, but after the death of his beloved mentor, it would be logical for Frederic DePeyster to retain the gun as a memento of his association with him. (#12)
Ferguson continued to publicly advertise and demonstrate his civili rifle wherever an opportunity existed and in front of anyone who would watch. On June 21, 1776, he fired his rifle before several foreign dignitaries, writing – “I have at 300 yards fired better than I expected, having put three balls out of four into a Compass of two feet in the Center of their Target – I also fired at 100 yards seven deadly shots in one minute”. He explains how he became such an expert with his rifle – “By the By, I have a Custom of exercising myself in my room with my Rifle-Gun, to keep my hand in, which makes them shake afterwards when I write”. Note the fact that he shot the rifle at 300 yards. The military version had only an extra 200-yard leak sight, his civilian version an additional 300-yard leaf (using a crescent moon cut-out that may have matched up to the bottom of the larre black bulls-eye at which he was shooting,, so we know he was probably using his straight plug rifle at this time. (Appendix II)
He paid for all demonstrations and trials from his Captain’s pay, which often put him behind in other debts. To save money, he stayed at the Tower of London in 1776 as a boarder while working on his project. After the board of ordnance made the decision to make the tapered plug version of his gun Ferguson immediately went to Birmingham to assist in the production of the weapons. This is where the story breaks from his original straight plug version and, as mentioned previous, no explanation of the change in plug design has arisen. In addition, a massive 25″ long by 1-1/2″ wide “sword bayonet” was designed by Ferguson to accompany each rifle, to be sharpened to a “razor’s edge” to provide a perfect “cut and thrust” weapon. (#13) The bayonets were number to the guns per Ferguson’s request. (#14) The bayonet itself blocks the front sight when mounted on the gun, making aimed fire impossible. They were also designed to take the place of a “sword” when mounted. The effectiveness of the weapon and bayonet is well documented in their King’s Mountain battle exploits, when his small body of riflemen, with fixed bayonets, drove the enemy down the mountain many times.
The short time in which the new Ferguson rifles were finished is remarkable in itself – June to September,1776 time frame. Minutes of the War Office Records of November 1776 state that it was with “difficulty” that “the few hands who by 4 months Constant attention….have brought to make arms upon his construction”. The job required all new patterns for casting the metal parts and all new tools for making the barrels and breech system, nothing of which was like the tasks already underway except perhaps the stock and furniture design. Ferguson’s personal proof mark (Crown over “PF”) of the completed gun is found directly behind the breech plug on the top flat of the barrel, indicating that he had full authority for final acceptance of the first 100 rifles. This authority is spelled out in War Office minutes of June,1776 that specify “the Master General desires that Orders may be given to the Contractors at Birmingham that no more rifles be made according to the present Pattern & that the number wanted to complete those already bespoke must be finished immediately as a new Construction of Capt. Ferguson’s is approved and who authorized by his Lordship to give directions to the workmen which must be implicitly followed”. (#16)
Those instructions prove that Ferguson’s new rifles were intended to replace the muzzle-loading Pattern 1776 rifled carbine. This must have really upset the contractors who had just tooled up for the short rifle and were in mid production. Now the War Office sends someone new and unknown into their midst to interrupt production, retool for a new gun and even take total control over the making of his new “rifle-gun”.
These guns were built as no other guns in War Office history. Normal procedure was to have parts made on contract, usually in the Birmingham area, and delivered to the Tower for eventual distribution to the gun assemblers where they were completed. Many books quote the cost of a gun at what the gun-maker was paid on a final bill, but this was only the ASSEMBLY cost using supplied (and prepaid) parts. Ferguson himself contracted and inspected all parts for his rifle, except the barrel. Other than the barrel being proofed and inspected by a Crown inspector (a man by the name of King who put a “crown 8” on the underside of the barrels), no other government acceptance or ownership marks were placed on the rifle except the storekeepers’ mark on the butt when they went into Tower stores.
Not all three major contractors were barrel makers, but for contract of only 100 barrels, it would be quite sensible to have someone else supply the blank rifled barrels. The barrel maker is believed to be the “WRF” stamped on the underside of several of his rifles, both military and non-military, as well as some P76 rifles. With no other guns to examine of the 100 produced, it is difficult to say whether ONE of the four contractors, possibly Barker, did the breech plug portion for all contractors, but this is a good likelihood with such a small order. Barker was a barrel maker and was equipped to do the job, at which point he would place his initials “MB” alongside the “WRF” (thought to be the person who rifled the barrels), as found on the Morristown gun. Tooling up to tap, thread, and plug only 25 barrels would be expensive for any one gun-maker. Until the underside of more Ferguson style barrels are examined, this remains an educated guess. If Barker had done the entire process, there would be only his initials “MB” with the inspector mark and no other initials. It is obvious from the amounts of money paid to Ferguson from approximately November of 1776 through March, 1777 that the first 100 rifles were expensive to design and build. The bill for 4 pounds each from the contractors, as stated previous, was only for assembling the parts provided into a finished product, including final finish work on the bayonets. The following monies were paid to Ferguson, or other contractors for related material, in addition to the funds paid to the four contractors:
November,1776: Ferguson/100 pounds, “on account of Riffle Barrel Guns to be delivered to the Tower”.(#17)
January,1777: Ferguson/100 pounds, reason unspecified.(#18)
February,1777: Ferguson/100 pounds, “on acct of Riffle Barrels”.(#19)
March,1777: Ferguson/259.4.2 pounds, “on account of Riffle Guns”. (#20)
The above entries, which are certainly not a complete record of expenses surrounding the production of the gun, were probably to pay bills from various contractors for parts. This adds 581 pounds to the 400 pounds paid for the assembled product, giving a total of almost 981 pounds for 100 guns, or slightly less than 10 pounds each. British war office records indicate L3.3.0 paid for “assembly” of a “rifled gun without plug” (Pattern 76) rifle) and L 4.0.0 for a “rifled gun with plug and bayonet”(Ordnance Rifle). Adding the costs of the parts would probably double that for either weapon. For a comparison basis, using only the “assembly” bills above (using the fact that both rifles used the same value of basic parts), the Ferguson rifle would come in at about 20% additional cost over the Pattern 76 rifle, and that is reasonable for the added work on the threaded plug mechanism and bayonet, but we think this figure is too high. Having made both guns we can honestly say that they were equal in the labor involved. The plain round barrel with plug took less time to make than filing the flat faceted barrels and mounting the rod swivel mechanisms of the P76. One thing is certain – the British found his guns acceptable otherwise they would not have decided to replace the P76 with his breech-loader. This alone tells us that the Ferguson rifle was not dropped from use because of expense. If it could have reduced casualties, as Ferguson predicted and proved in the Brandywine campaign, plus match or excel the American riflemen in both speed and accuracy, it was a bargain. The dual-purpose sword bayonet, suitable for both infantry and mounted purposes ,increased the rifles versatility and was certainly part of this new “experiment”. So why were no more made?
First, all it was an “experiment” not only in the type of rifle but in the use of rifles themselves. The defeat of Ferguson and the loss of the colonies spelled an end to the demand for any type of rifles for the balance of the 18th century. The war in America was very unpopular in England, using up valuable resources that were needed elsewhere in the world (France had declared war on them). Rifles were never popular in the British army as it was not the way wars were fought. Such “sniping” of officers from beyond musket range was not only considered ungentlemanly, it was downright cowardly from the British perspective. They never accepted the American frontiersman’s mode of warfare, a way learned from surviving in a harsh, hostile environment by any means possible, where the only goal was to survive. In an essay on Light Artillery and use of Spears for home defense, written in 1808, by a Major John Addington, can be found the best explanation I have encountered concerning the British thoughts on rifles in combat in the 18th century – “Indeed, there is but one single circumstance that can recommend the rifle to anybody, which is not only an indelible blot on the boasted civilization and polished manners of Europe, but repugnant also to the manly feelings of a soldier – individual murder – knocking down a sentry or picking out an officer. All that rifles ever have done, or can do, amounts to no more than mere vexation, without contributing to the general issue of the engagement”.
Ferguson’s rifle (as well as the Pattern 1776 carbines) were produced only as a means of challenging the frontiersman’s domination of the battlefield with their long rifles beyond musket range. The superiority of his rifle was overshadowed by Ferguson’s embarrassing (at least to the Crown) defeat at King’s Mountain. Had he survived the war and returned to England, the gun may have continued in service, but once he left England and suffered his defeat, the “experiment” was labeled a failure and there was absolutely no one to take up his cause or defend his well-proven beliefs in his gun. In short, the need for rifle production by the British Army ended with the American campaign but would only reappear in similar form in about 20 years with the Baker Rifle, which went back to the muzzle-loading design.
No time was wasted in sending someone to inspect the finished barrels, as another War Office record of August,1776 shows that by “Master General’s directions that a proper Person be immediately sent to Birmingham to Prove the Riffle barrels making there under the direction of Capt. Ferguson he had therefore sent down Mr. King the Master Viewer & Furbisher who is very proper person for that Service”. (#21).
Some of the rifles were certainly available by September of 1776. A Scott’s magazine of October reported that at “Windsor, Oct 1. An officer belonging to the 70th regiment has been down at this place for some weeks past, teaching several men the use of the rifle-gun. He takes a party of men out every morning and evening; they fire at a target from one hundred to three hundred yards distance …. Their Majesties attended a review of the riflemen yesterday afternoon (making it September 30th), and were much pleased at the dexterity of the officer..” (Scott’s Magazine, 1776, p.558).
The demonstration referred to is the one Ferguson put on for the King at Windsor. When his men failed to meet Ferguson’s expectations, due to nervousness in front of the King and inexperience with the gun, Ferguson himself, with the comment “They would not be so embarrassed in presence of your majesty’s enemies” picked up a rifle and “out of nine shots which he fired at the distance of 100 yards, put five in the bull’s eye of the target, and four within as many inches of it. Three of these shots were fired as he lay upon his back, the other six standing erect. Being asked how often he could load and fire in a minute, he said seven times; but added pleasantly that he could not undertake in that time to knock down about five of his Majesty’s enemies”.(#22)
Quite possibly he shot at the standard six-foot square target with two foot center, which was very impressive when compared to the capabilities of the common smooth-bore muskets. The fact that Ferguson was probably one of he best marksmen of his day played an important part in his success, and the failure of his men to impress the King demonstrates the special skill that needed to be attained to use the rifle effectively.
Ferguson applied for a patent on his design on December 2, 1776, and won final approval by March 29, 1777, the same month he shipped out to America. Nothing on his patent was ever used on the military rifles, otherwise it may have paid handsomely, especially if adopted for larger caliber guns. In his own words, and those of the British Government, his patent was submitted to secure the rights for the military and keep his design out of “bad hands” (competitors). As far as we can ascertain, no royalties were ever paid on his patent, so gunsmiths may have just capitalized on his notoriety within the gun circles at the time. It is no different than today when a famous person’s name is used to endorse products.
The news of the defeats at Trenton (December,1776) and Princeton (January,1777) so alarmed the British military command that Ferguson was ordered to make ready without delay for departure to America with his 100 men. War Office records of January 28, 1777 show an order to the Tower “That what Rifle Guns there are in Store at the Tower of Capt. Ferguson’s be sent to the Commanding officer at Chatham..” (#23) A letter dated February 19,1777 from the War Office to the Commanding Officer at Chatham barracks instructs Ferguson to select 100 volunteers from the 6th and 14th regiments stationed there. (#24) Ferguson was officially placed in command of his 100 volunteers on March 6, 1777, and began a short period of training in the use of his new arm.
On Jan 31, 1777, Ferguson had requested accouterments for his newly assigned rifles and note is made that “2 kegs of powder… along with Carbine Ball” were sent “to Fire at Marks at Chatham”. (#25) Apparently the 12 bullet molds supplied with the rifles had not yet arrived in Chatham or there was no lead available to cast their own balls. On February 21, 1777, 5 kegs (100 pounds each) of glazed powder (known as Superfine Double Strength)) was also sent. This powder cost an enormous L7.10 per 100 pounds in comparison to the L1.5 for musket powder, but without it, the Ferguson rifle could not function properly. (#26) The same month Ferguson again asked for his accouterments.(#27). All items arrived (except for his powder flasks) since the bill for accouterments was submitted on March 29, 1777. By March 23, 1777, Ferguson was in Portsmouth awaiting departure to America. (#28) A War Office letter of March,1777 informs General Howe of Ferguson’s arrival and mentions the fact that “a quantity of Green Cloth” is sent over to make “particular Cloathing for them”.(#29)
Ferguson advised the Ordnance Board on March 24, 1777 that his “Powder Flasks” had not yet arrived and that 67 “Rifle Guns” and 33 “Bayonets were carried on board the ship Christopher for passage to New York. (#30) Letters exist showing the remaining 33 rifles and only 40 bayonets were shipped on June 22, 1777, allowing time for them to possibly catch up to Ferguson’s Fall Brandywine campaign. Note that there is still a shortage of 26 bayonets for which no additional documents could be found indicating their shipment to America, but we are sure he eventually received them.
Here it is important to note that the accouterments for Ferguson’s riflemen were all newly designed. They carried a smaller “rifleman’s cartridge box”, belly box (for greased balls), ball bag and powder horn. These are explained more in depth in Appendix II. The type of “flask” carried by his men (and all other riflemen) was a small artillery priming horn pressed into service for his needs. There is no additional correspondence indicating that Ferguson ever received anything different than the horns. The term “flask” in the 18th Century was used to describe any vessel for carrying powder. Proof of this exists with a priming horn in my collection bearing the marking of the “63rd” regimental of foot. It belonged to a rifleman in their light company. This regiment participated in some of the campaigns led by Ferguson – the capture (and recapture) of Stoney Point, NY, in 1779 and the siege of Charleston, after which, a portion of the them became mounted infantry under Major Wemyss that served under Tarlton in many small engagements and would have carried the Pattern 76 rifles. Ferguson notes in his letters home that he drilled his men extensively in the use of the prone position during combat to avoid enemy fire and credited it often for saving casualties within his ranks, especially at Brandywine. He also taught his men to walk and fire, forward and backwards. Ironically, both of these skills are documented at King’s Mountain. Speed of firing was not pressed upon his men. He never mentions it except in concert with his firing demonstrations. Slow, well aimed, accurate fire from the protection of whatever cover was available was Ferguson’s tactics.
His rifle regiment remained a part of the 70th Regiment. As their training came to an end, General Howe, already on campaign in America, was sent a dispatch advising him of the impending arrival his new Corps of riflemen for his disposal.
********** Chapter 6 – Deployment
Ferguson and his men arrived on May 26, 1777 in New York after a nine week voyage. It is at this point two other timely documents exist, the first dated 30 May,1777, stating “His Majesty having been pleased to form a Corps of Rifle-Men under Temporary Command of Capn Ferguson 70 Regt composed of Recruits raised for different Regiments serving in North America and that those Men shall notwithstanding be considered as part of the Strength of the regts for whom they were inlisted.” The second is dated June 1, 1777, stating “All Arms & Accouterments brought out by Drafts or Recruits are to be delivered to Brigadr Genl Cleveland and lodg’d in the Ordnance Store, taking receipts for the same. Capn Ferguson of the 70th Regimt will collect from different Officers who have had Charge of Recruits on board Ship, and Exact list of their names, Regts they belong to, in order to their being transmitted to their respective Regimts. Those belonging to the 6th, 14th & 16th regts are to be turned over to the weakest Regts, the Commanding officers of which will send certificates according to the Agents of 6th, 14th and 16th Regts.”
If this order was obeyed, as most like it would be, Ferguson’s unit was now disbanded and he recruited new men from units now serving in America, just as a letter of February 21, 1777 (to the superintendent of the recruiting service) instructs “His majesty having been pleased to direct that a Detachment of 100 Men besides Commissioned and Non-Commissioned Officers, shall be formed from the Recruits belonging to the Regiments now in North America, serving under Sir William Howe and be put under Command of Capt Ferguson of the 70th Regiment. I have the honor to signify to you His Majesty’s Pleasure, that you do repair to Chatham and see the same carried into execution. These Men, notwithstanding their being under this temporary Command, while on board ship, and until Sir William Howe shall dispose of them, otherwise are considered to be as part of the Strength of their respective Corps”. In short, they were under Ferguson’s temporary command to fill his 100-man unit on paper. It is still unclear that, with Howe’s permission, he kept his original 100 volunteers. Perhaps as “volunteers”, they remained in his unit as part of a letter of March 6 (before Ferguson’s arrival) from Lord Barrington to Howe suggests “..have (Barrington) the Honor to acquaint you of the arrival of Captain Ferguson with the Detachment of the Rifle Men under his command the 24th May: from the Experience of so intelligent an Officer I am hopeful this Corps may be essentially Serviceable.”
Although General Howe had not been consulted in the matter of this new Rifle Corps, nor given the satisfaction of approving the sending of Ferguson and his new rifles, and despite the possibility of having any personal apprehensions (of which none have been documented), he applied the new unit where it might prove valuable as the Brandywine campaign would soon bear out. From the accolades given by Barrington and Howe’s previous knowledge and favorable experience with Ferguson’s attendance in his Light Infantry School training (not to mention Howe’s favorable mention to the King prior to the Windsor shooting display), there is no reason to believe Howe had any ill will toward Ferguson’s Rifle Corps as other writers have suggested through history. The long expressed need for British riflemen on the continent was such that Howe would have certainly welcomed any assistance from that quarter.
Ferguson left Amboy on June 12, 1777 as part of the 2nd Division. (#32) We know that by August of 1777, at the start of the Philadelphia campaign, his men were wearing a distinctive green uniform made from the cloth provided, since Ferguson wrote a letter that month explaining that the uniforms often worked to their advantage as the local inhabitants sometimes mistook them for rebels, thus inadvertently providing them with valuable intelligence on rebel movements and activities that otherwise would not have been so freely offered. These uniforms were probably made after Ferguson arrived in America. In a letter of March 6, 1777 Barrington mentions the cloth – “Green Cloth &c is sent over for the use of this Detachment in case you should think it advisable to Direct a particular Cloathing for them”. A distinctive uniform was extremely important in those days to identify individual units as the maneuvered on the battlefield from a distance, thus the different colored jackets, facing and lace found on uniforms of the period. It is unknown if the cloth was sent on the same ship in which Ferguson sailed. One thing is certain, making the uniforms would have been an easy task once in America. The British Army had access to a multitude of skilled seamstresses who followed them in campaigns -making, repairing and laundering soldiers’ garments. How and when they were made is not important since we know from his letters that the uniforms were completed in time for his Brandywine campaign.
On June 23, 1777 his men, being assigned to Brig. Gen. Leslie’s troops, encountered rebel forces during their march to Amboy, NJ., his men received their baptism of fire at a place called “Short Hills”. (#33) Patrick Ferguson’s time had now come to implement his careful planning in a major campaign. His new breech-loading rifle had arrived in America to prove its worth on the battlefield and he could now set about validating his beliefs and ideas of irregular warfare carried out by Light Infantry armed with a special weapon that would give them the edge on survival in battle. There is no doubt that Ferguson had great expectations for the deployment and use of his new Rifle Corps, and he relished the ideas of independent action centering around his men and weapons, but one must remember that there were no tactics specifically designed for riflemen, so Howe deployed his men to their best advantage – as skirmishers and flankers with the Light Infantry to protect them from the harassment of American riflemen and prevent surprise attacks. The idea of hiding behind trees and bushes to pick off the enemy was deplorable to the British idea of war in general, but new battle tactics were quickly put into place to counteract enemy strategies involving rifles. As his army headed toward their first major battle at Brandywine, Ferguson’s men, along with other riflemen armed with the new Pattern 76 “rifled carbines”, joined in clearing the advance for General Knyphausen’s column, mainly keeping enemy riflemen out of range of the advancing columns – a job he accomplished with great success.
It was during the Brandywine Campaign that Ferguson first tested his men and rifles in a major engagement. His men, 130 strong and called “Ferguson’s Riffler’s” or “Ferguson’s Riflemen”, boarded a ship from Staten Island on July 20, 1777 and arrived off Turkey point on the West side of the Elk River on August 23, 1777. Grey’s Ferry and Head of Elk were soon taken, with Ferguson’s men fighting at Iron Hill on September 2, 1777. By September 7th, Ferguson’s Corps joined the advance vanguard under Knyphausen marching toward Brandywine. They would also be referred to as “Ferguson’s Riflemen” and “Ferguson’s Sharpshooters” in period correspondence of this campaign – ironically the same names that will be found in later Southern campaign reports of 1780. In a letter to his brother dated Oct 8, 1777, he described in detail much of his unit’s role in the battle. It was his men, along with the Queen’s Rangers, that waded the waist deep waters of Chad’s Ford to attack and capture with bayonet alone a 4-gun battery of enemy artillery positioned on the road to protect the crossing.
Ferguson writes “my whole detachment was under 90 men” and that “my lads were so fatigued with dashing after the rebels over all surfaces that I found it necessary to leave one half by turns in the rear with the column of march and work my way with the other”. At times he only had 30 men with him during his flanking maneuvers for “keeping up a rattling fire from the ground”(prone position) to “bully” the stubborn enemy into giving ground. Ferguson’s new rifle was proving itself a valuable tool for survival even in face of a sheltered enemy who always afforded every means of cover at their disposal. In his own words he described how he threw his people on the ground at least six times during the morning’s battle and how “upon the Signal to rise my Lads like Bay’s dead men Sprung up and not one hurt such is the advantage of an arm that will admit of being loaded and fired on the ground”.(34)
Ferguson’s success of his new tactics and rifles during his first major engagement instilled in him a confidence that he could easily meet and defeat an equal or superior force under any circumstances. His entire concept was to demoralize and decimate the enemy with his accurate and superior firepower while protecting his men from enemy fire, then at the opportune moment, rise up and drive them from their positions at the point of the bayonet.
Accounts of casualties are confusing and vary from book to book, but Ferguson’s letter to his brother from Wilmington, dated October 8, 1777, clarifies this misunderstanding when he writes “amongst other feats the troops behind us were witnesses when my 30 Lads advanced to a breast work of 100 yards in extent well lined with men Whose fire they received at twelve yards and when everybody thought they were all destroy’d they Scrambled into the breast work and the Dogs ran away leaving even their Hatts and Shoes by the way: – We were Stop’d from following them: by a heavy flanking fire from a very extensive breast work at 80 yards distance I threw my party immediately on the ground, but Wemyss’s who had kept the road being close to my rear came under a part of it and had a fourth part of his men and officers killed and wounded”. Ferguson, in the same letter just before this statement wrote “we kept them (Wymess’s men) un disturbed and clear’d the way for them fast as they could follow” until the disaster he describes happened. For many years the part of the letter in italics could not be read, but finally it has been clarified and puts to rest the belief that Ferguson lost 1/4 of his men when it was Wemyss’s casualties (17) who were with his men as a combined force. (#35)
Unfortunately, his overwhelming success in this open field battle may have led to the over confidence that would contribute to his defeat at King’s Mountain. There he would meet an entirely different type of enemy carrying equally deadly rifles in lieu of the mixture of muskets and rifles they had just faced and would fight in a backwoods Indian style that he and his men could not have anticipated. For the moment he reveled in the victory at hand which he accredited to the training of his men and the advantages his new rifle afforded.
It was out of the Brandywine Campaign that one of the most romantic and chivalrous stories arise, that of Ferguson sparing General Washington’s life by refusing to fire upon two unsuspecting American officers from ambush. We shall never know if the man he spared that day was indeed General Washington, but what is important about this episode is that Ferguson could have easily killed the unsuspecting man but his chivalrous nature would not allow him to do so. (#36) We can only speculate on what course American history might have taken had Washington been killed. What is important about the event is that Ferguson’s chivalrous attitude would not allow him to cowardly ambush an officer calmly reconnoitering the ground on horseback. They did indeed try to bluff them into surrendering by waving rifles and calling to them, but to no avail, as they simply trotted away with their backs turned, feeling perfectly safe since they were well out of standard musket range. It was immediately after this incident that Ferguson received a severe wound to his right elbow that would incapacitate it for the rest of his life.
Ironically, if Ferguson had kept under cover and not drawn attention to themselves by attempting to capture the two stray American officers, he may have survived the battle unscathed. They were beyond musket range by his own account, so it most likely that the two officers, whose lives he had spared, pointed out his position to their own riflemen who then fired upon them. It was most likely a rifle ball that struck him.
Following Brandywine, Ferguson’s unit went to Nova Scotia, where he recovered from his wounds while learning to use sword and pen with his left hand, his right being almost useless. Due to his wounds, Howe took this opportunity to return his men to the Light Infantry companies from whence they had been drawn. In the words of his biographer, Adam Ferguson, “What mortified him most was, that during his confinement the rifle corps, deprived of its leader, was broke up … the rifles lodged in the store of spare arms, and the men returned to their respective regiments”. (#37). The use of the term “mortified” reflected Ferguson’s feelings toward the disbandment of his corps and expressed the importance of the rifles in his life. Adam Ferguson’s statement has since been proven wrong, but it created a myth that his rifles mysteriously disappeared into history, but as time would prove, Ferguson had no intention of letting his independent rifle pass into oblivion.
Ferguson and his unit received glowing accolades from Knyphausen which found its way to Howe, so there could be no dissatisfaction with the conduct and success of his Rifle Corps in the Brandywine campaign of 1777. A letter from J. Patterson to Ferguson dated September 12,1777, contains great praise for Ferguson and his actions at Brandywine, and reads, “The Commander-in-Chief received from Lieutenant-General Knyphausen the most honorable report of your gallant and spirited behavior in the engagement of the 11th, on which his Excellency has commanded me to express his acknowledgements to you, and to acquaint you, Sir, that he shall with great satisfaction adopt any plan that can be effected to put you in a situation of remaining with the army under his command. For the present, he thought proper to incorporate the rifle corps into the light companies of the respective regiments. I am very happy to be even the channel of so honorable a testimony of your spirited conduct, and that of your late corps”. An additional letter immediately followed – “H.Q. Camp on the Heights of Brandywine, 13th Sept. After Orders, Evening Gun firing. The British Riflemen are to join the Light Companies of the Regiments to which they respectively belong”. (#38) This correspondence makes it very clear that the disbanding of his rifle corps was only intended to be temporary since Ferguson’s direct presence was deemed necessary for it to function effectively, a sentiment expressed by DeWitt Bailey also – “…the sudden disbandment of his corps on the day following the battle must be largely attributed not to the malice exposed by Adam Ferguson’s statement but rather to Howe’s conviction that Ferguson’s corps was of real value only under Ferguson’s personal leadership..” (#39)
********** Chapter 7. Ferguson’s Second Rifle Corps
We know from period correspondence that Adam Ferguson’s statement of the rifles were put into stores has proven incorrect and that the rifles went with the men back to their Light Infantry units to be recalled in 1778. DeWitt Bailey presents a very convincing case for the rifles’ continued use at the Battle of Paoli on September 20, 1777, based upon Xavier Della Gatta’s 1782 painting of the Battle of Paoli in which 5 men in green uniforms appear in the battle with long bayonets that could only represent Ferguson’s men with their sword bayonets fixed. (#3, op. cit., page 53)
Two specific incidents confirm that Ferguson’s men and rifles were still in action after his wounding. The first is a letter written by an officer in the 2nd Light Infantry stating, “We marched on briskly still silent – or Company was advanced immediately preceding a Company of Riflemen who always are in front – a picquet fired upon us at the distance of fifteen yards miraculously without effect – This unfortunate Guard was instantly dispatched with rifleman’s swords.” These were probably Ferguson sword bayonets as no other riflemen carried any type of swords. If anything, the Pattern 76 riflemen were armed with light infantry axes (tomahawks) as part of their accouterments, like those found in French and Indian war campsites and battlefields.
Second, Captain Thomas Armstrong (64th Foot) writes “The men of Fargusen Corps now are atasht to this battl to join the Riffel-men under Lt. Shaw till fruther Orders – Lt. Matthews to act with the Riffel-men til fruther orders”.
These two bits of historical evidence confirm that Ferguson’s men, upon being disbanded, carried their rifles back to their original units from which they had been drawn. This would have been standard military practice. The repatriated soldiers would have continued to use their rifles until ordered to do otherwise, which is exactly what happened and correspondence of 1778 confirms. (#40) British Army order issued February 21, 1778 (during Army winter quarters in Philadelphia) called for a return “to be given in … of the Number of Rifles belonging to Captain Ferguson’s late Corps now in the Possession of different Regiments”. (#41) This was simply asking for an account of what rifles were in the hands of the troops. An additional army correspondence was issued on July 28, 1778, while the Army was in New York and reads “Any Officer or Corps, having in Possession any of Capn Ferguson’s Rifle Guns, Bayonets, or Powder-Flasks, are requested to send them to Mr. Wood at the Ordnance Office, that they may be immediately repaired”. (#42) This order was a total recall of Ferguson’s rifles to Ordnance Stores in New York. We know they eventually ended up in New York because seven of his rifles were listed “unserviceable” in a General Return of Arms in Ordnance Stores dated March 10,1783. (#43)
It was probably no coincidence that Patrick Ferguson was in New York when this order was issued. It is even quite conceivable that Ferguson himself was behind the recall and repair order, overseeing the entire procedure. Since he was recovering from his wound, it was the perfect time to regain control of his rifles. Ferguson continued to recover his strength, anxiously awaiting his next opportunity to prove himself and to take his newly refurbished rifles back into combat. The fact that only seven were left behind means the others were gone and could only have been taken by Ferguson. (#44)
The earliest documented information we have that he formed another Rifle Corps (the second), using his returned rifles, is from Scott’s Magazine (Volume 43, Edinburgh, Jan 1781, Page 29): “Germantown 1777 – Here Capt. Ferguson was dangerously wounded in the arm; while ill, Gen. Howe distributed the remains of his men among other corps; but on his recovery he collected them again”. Draper states, probably based upon the above statement: “During the period of his unfitness for service, General Howe distributed his riflemen among other corps; but on his recovery, he again embodied them, and renewed his former active career”(#45)
There are other hints of his recalled rifles back in use in 1778 and 1779, long before he organized his last third and final Corps of riflemen in December of 1779. Ferguson, during the Fall of 1778, now almost fully recovered from his wound, set about the busy job of chasing rebel privateers between New York and the Jerseys, during which he approached within 35 miles of Philadelphia. During his engagement in October with some of Count Pulaski’s Legions, the rebel commander reported “that his party cut off about twenty-five of Ferguson’s men in their retreat, who took refuge in the woods, and doubtless subsequently rejoined their friends”. (#46) In a report dated October 15th, 1778, he notes “we have neither lost a man by the enemy nor Desertion since we set out”. (#47) In another report from Little Egg Harbor, dated October 15, 1778, Ferguson reported his losses at “two men of the 5th, and one of the Provincials missing, and two of the 5th slightly wounded” during skirmishes. (#48) No additional reports from the American side mention capture of a significant amount of men or arms, so those accounts are probably accurate.
Of interesting note is one passage in Kemble’s orderly book dated October 19, 1778 which reads “Monday, Oct 19th. Reported that Captain Rifle Ferguson had failed in his attempt at Egg Harbor”(#49) This unusual reference to “Captain Rifle Ferguson” hints at the fame his special rifles brought him, and that he was again be in the field with his “riflemen”. We must also take note that this is well after the July 1778 recall of his rifles, making them available for his use. In May of 1779 Ferguson was a very busy man and specific mention of a second “unofficial” Rifle Corps surfaces.
Early in the month he landed a force of 650 men at Shoal Harbor and launched a successful attack upon the enemy stronghold at Shrewsbury. Later that month he made an unsuccessful attempt on Paramus, but the affair was miscarried in the darkness of the night. Captain Ewald, of the Hessian Jaeger Corps, makes note of “Ferguson’s Corps” as part of the troops departing from Philipse’s wharf on May 31,1779 to land at “Tellar’s Point, where all troops disembarked under General Pattison to march upon the enemy stronghold (a stone fort) on Verplank’s Point. His entries for the same day include two references to Ferguson’s Corps – “General Vaughn advanced at once against the fort with two hundred jagers, Ferguson’s Corps, and the English Grenadiers to assault all the approaches”, and “The jagers and Ferguson had to approach as close as possible on the land side in order to harass the garrison of the fort with rifle fire, but this could not help much since the whole fort was built of rocks and building stones”. (#50)
In September of 1779 a letter sent from Major General Pattison (to Captain Andre) from New York notes that Capt. Ferguson was requesting “Carabine & Pistol Ball & flints for rifles”. (#51) His request for “rifle” flints along with both size balls (both usable in his rifle) is identical to his request for the same size balls sent to Chatham Barracks in England for training. This is very strong evidence that his breech-loaders (recalled in 1778) were again in the field and part of the weapons in use by the “Rifle Corps” mentioned by Ewald. (#52)
The year 1779 ended with Ferguson being promoted to Major in the 70th Regiment in on October 25, 1779 and his departure from New York for the Charles Town expedition on December 26, 1779 with his a new “Rifle Corps” of Loyalists, making it the third organization of a Rifle Corps. We can be sure that if he used a number of his recovered breech-loading rifles in the 16-month period covering his New York campaigns of 1778-1779, keeping as many as possible to arm his final Rifle Corps that were to perish at King’s Mountain.
********** Chapter 8 – The Campaign in the South
A very interesting source relating to the actual organization of his third rifle corps comes from an article published in “Acadiensis” magazine entitled “Major Ferguson’s Riflemen – The American Volunteers: The Story of a Loyalist Corps”, by Jonas Howe. This was basically a formal reorganization of his second Rifle Corps. If he had spent the 1778-1779 time-frame training men with rifles for his New York expeditions, it is doubtful he would have given up those men. This article not only enlightens the reader on the history of Ferguson’s final Rifle Corps, but for the first time provides the names of the officers and men who followed Ferguson to the Carolinas, 123 in all with 100 being privates, the same number as his initial Rifle Corps of 1777. He was basically duplicating his original unit. #53)
There can be little doubt that Ferguson, true to his character, would not have missed the opportunity to arm this new body of “loyalist” marksmen with as many of his serviceable rifles as possible from the New York stores. Author Howe describes their organization by Ferguson: “After his recovery in the autumn of 1779, he began the formation of another corps of riflemen for special service in the Carolinas, but in this case appealed to the Loyalist corps at New York for officers and men, from whom he received enthusiastic support, as there were no jealousies among the loyalists to combat, as in the former experiment”. (54)
It was at this time he appointed Captain Abraham DePeyster, of the King’s American Regiment, his second in command, and Anthony Allaire a Lieutenant, whose diary of the day-to-day movements of his new unit remains today as a valuable reference. Both men played important roles in the direct operation of the new unit known as “Major Ferguson’s Corps” (nominally the same name used by Ewald in the previous New York campaigns) – or “The American Volunteers” when referred to by Lt Allaire in his diary.
There has never been any question that Ferguson raised a final corps of “Riflemen” for his Southern campaigns. Books and letters of the period call them by such names as “Ferguson’s Sharpshooters, Ferguson’s Riflemen, Ferguson’s Rifflers, etc.”. That they were armed with rifles cannot be disputed, but the real question that still plagues historians is the type of “rifles” they carried. The fact that the rifles were recalled and possibly used to arm his unofficial second “Rifle Corps” used in the 1778 & 1779 New York campaigns shows that his rifles were available to arm this third and final Rifle Corps. History has long overlooked his second Rifle Corps due to lack of information, viz. the “recall” of his rifles in 1778 and references to his rifles in use in period journals).
The Society of Army Historical Research recognized his first and third Rifle Corps, concluding in a 1921 study that “it is evident that Ferguson raised two Corps of Riflemen, both armed with the ‘Ferguson Rifle’. The first was formed in 1776 and was incorporated into the Light Companies of various battalions in 1777. This Second Corps, formed in 1779, was the American Volunteers”. (#55)
Lt. Col. Ferguson (referred to as such in Lt. Allaire’s diary,having been brevetted by Cornwallis for the purpose of organizing the Tories into a fighting force in the Southern Campaign) arrived in Georgia in early 1780 with his American Volunteers. During his Southern campaigns Ferguson is now shown as a Major in the 71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot. All documents, papers (Clinton and others) and personal correspondence shows him as part of that unit. He was part of the The Light Infantry Regiment of the 71st during the Brandywine campaign.
Now we come to the most important fact that needs to be recognized and accepted – all of his rifle Corps were comprised of “riflemen”, which quite simply means they were armed with rifles. This is indisputable. They were NOT armed with any type of smoothbore firearm. They became renown throughout the South because they were riflemen. The various names given to this group of men by writers of the time out of respect for their skill in shooting, indicates that they were no ordinary rifle company, and as we shall later see, what made them so special to the authors describing them was the rifle they carried – Ferguson’s new breech-loader. That this unit was a “rifle company” is confirmed by Captain Peter Russell when he lists “Fergusons and Hangers Riflemen” (December 26, 1779) as being part of the Army that left New York and later, in an entry of February 9th, 1780 – “We left at Savannah Lt. Col. Ferguson’s Corps of Riflemen”. (#56) Alexander Chesney, a Carolina Loyalist, wrote, “Colonel Balfour then returned to Fort ’96, and Major Ferguson, who had raised a corps of loyalist known as Ferguson’s Sharpshooters, succeeded to command, under the title of Colonel and Inspector of Militia”. (#57)
From all period writings, even a letter written by Ferguson himself from King’s Mountain mentioning his “riflemen”, only one conclusion can be drawn – Ferguson’s final unit, regardless of what it is called by various writer’s – Ferguson’s Sharpshooters, Ferguson’s Marksmen (Tarlton’s letters), Ferguson’s Corps, New York Volunteers, Provincial Corps, Veteran Volunteers, American Volunteers, or New York Volunteers – was an elite Corp armed with his rifles.
Leaving Savannah, GA on March 5, 1780, Ferguson and his riflemen began an arm of the invasion force that moved into South Carolina to draw off some of the rebel forces around Charleston. His force marched on the flanks of the main army, reconnoitering the areas, clearing them of the enemy, and procuring supplies, boats and wagons for the Army’s use in the reduction of Charleston. On March 14, 1780, while in pursuit of a band of rebels on horseback, his group stopped to camped at MacPherson’s Plantation, the wealthy property of a noted Rebel sympathizer. Another party of loyalists under Major Cochran, being in pursuit of a different party of rebels, mistook Ferguson’s small group as the enemy he was after, and in the ensuing morning skirmish Ferguson was again wounded in his good arm with a bayonet. Healing was slow, but he eventually recovered.
Ferguson arrived with his riflemen before Charleston at the end of March. He participated in the campaign to reduce Charleston by keeping the rebels in check who attempted to send relief and gather supplies for the besiegers. His men fought an engagement at Monk’s corner on April 13 and several small skirmishes in and around Charleston including the taking of several of the smaller rebel redoubts defending the city, including Ft. Moultrie, which surrendered to the British forces on May 7, 1780. During this siege, he spent most of his time with Colonel Tarleton (Bloody Tarleton) scattering and defeating rebels who attempted to hamper the siege efforts. On the 12th of April, Ferguson and Tarlton, as an advance guard, surprised and routed the American forces guarding the upper fords of Cooper River, which cut the American communications with the backwoods country, giving the British forces control of both sides of the river. James Ferguson states in his book, “Tarleton was unequaled as a wielder of cavalry, Ferguson unrivaled as a commander of riflemen”, a combination that created a formidable force with whom few could compete. (#58) Unfortunately (and unknowingly) the close relationship with Tarlton at this time helped fuel the hatred he would face from angry frontiersmen on King’s Mountain.
On May 12, Charleston accepted terms of surrender and the British forces victoriously entered the city. From this point, Ferguson’s volunteers continued campaigning in the Charleston area to secure it from the rebels, fighting many small engagements. Allaire’s diary of June 23, 1780 puts them near Ninety-six and he notes that “the militia are flocking to him from all parts of the country”. Ferguson’s reputation and personal qualities both as a marksman and leader drew to him patriotic and experienced local inhabitants, many of whom were of Scottish ancestry and anxious to assist a fellow Scotsman in a noble cause, and he soon began to put together a large partisan force with which to carry out his plans of pacifying the Carolinas with his loyal British subjects. In his book “Two Scottish Soldier’s”, James Ferguson states “to a corps of originally 150, but soon reduced by disease and hardship to 100 hand-picked men, Provincial Regulars (i.e. seasoned volunteers from New York and neighboring states), armed with his rifles, he soon succeeded in attaching about 1300 or more hardy natives”. (#59) This statement puts Ferguson’s rifles in the hands of his Corps.
During this period, Tarleton’s outward contempt and brutality toward the rebels was fueled by Lord Cornwallis’s order, given immediately after his victory at Camden in September, to Colonel Cruger at Ninety-Six stating “I have given orders that all the inhabitants of this Province, who had submitted, and who have taken part in this revolt, should be punished with the greatest rigor; that they should be imprisoned, and their whole property taken from them or destroyed…”, and in addition “that every militia man who has borne arms with us, and had afterwards joined the enemy, should be immediately hanged”. (#60) These explicit orders for harsh treatment of both the rebels and supporters were often softened by Ferguson’s courtesy to local families of rebels who had a difficult time just surviving in a warring climate, along with insistence that any of their own troops who committed depredations and outrages be severely punished. In most cases, punishment was not as severe as deserved, but some attempt was made to discourage looting and general incivility toward the local inhabitants who were not sympathetic with the British cause. One can well imagine the extreme harshness of the civil war being waged in the Southern Districts when General Greene wrote “The Whigs seem determined to extirpated the Tories, and the Tories the Whigs. Some thousands have fallen in this way in this quarter, and the evil rages with more violence than ever. If a stop cannot be put to these massacres, the country will be depopulated in a few months more, as neither Whig nor Tory can live”. (#61)
Thus, a fire was being slowly kindled and fanned by atrocities on both sides that would rage into a full-scale conflagration to destroy one side or the other. The King’s Mountain affair proved to be the climax of those escalating outrages and the turning point for both sides in the bloody on-going war of extermination referred to by General Greene. After the fall of Charleston, Ferguson, having been appointed Inspector General of the Militias by Clinton, set about to win over and gather in the British sympathizers of the area, and in short, exercise the opinion that he had long espoused that these loyal “Tories” could be armed and trained to prove a valuable tool for their cause. Clinton and Cornwallis also held the same mistaken beliefs, unaware of the deep contrasting sentiments and hatred held by each side toward each other going back to the French and Indian war that had long divided the South, mostly over colonist land claims that were overturned by the British courts, forcing them farther west to find new land on the frontier (hence the “over-mountain men” were born who held a special resentment toward the British).
In addition to his brevet to Lt. Colonel, he also gained a Brigadier-Generalship of Militia due to his untiring and successful efforts. Eventually his command would number almost 2000 with “a small squadron of horse”. With almost the same authority granted as a Military Governor, he earned the respect of the local inhabitants and all of those who came in contact with him, with most agreeing he was a natural born leader. He argued the British cause in depth with all who would listen, denounced the rebels for creating the current situation, but encouraged them to come back to the empire with full absolution. History would learn later that the British cause was lost in the Carolina conflicts, and Ferguson did all within his power not only to win over the people of the local countryside to the British cause, but to convince them that he was freeing them to take up arms under his direction in support of their cause and their country. Ferguson had a genuine dislike for the “Whigs” while sympathizing with the plight of their families, discouraging harsh treatment unless justified, and treating prisoners with kindness. It was Ferguson’s success at his diplomatic and military undertakings that caused Lord Cornwallis to dispatch him to the western wilds of North Carolina in September of 1781 with his “own corps of Provincial Riflemen, and a body of local royalist militia”, to discourage rebel activity while espousing the King’s cause, drive out or destroy any active rebels in the area, and gather names of Loyalist who would fight on their side if called. (#62)
Historians have concluded that Cornwallis had learned nothing from the defeats at Trenton and Princeton, viz. sending out detachments beyond immediate reinforcements from the main body of troops, supplies and support of his fleet via of the inland waterways. In his defense, Cornwallis probably felt that if he did not send an expedition to immediately pacify and organize the support of existing Tories in the Western regions of North Carolina also, they would lose the advantage gained by the taking of Charleston and the resultant bolstering of morale in the entire region. Ironically, the same reason given for Ferguson’s defeat was also applied to Tarlton’s defeat at Cowpens – he was beyond assistance if needed. The simple truth may be that Cornwallis had such a contempt for the American forces in the South, regulars or militia, that he simply could not imagine a defeat at the hands of such troops. Regardless of his logic, he also underestimated the type enemy his troops would face in the back country.
************************************************************************ Chapter 9 – The Road to King’s Mountain
Ferguson set out with his mixed force to a task for which he was well suited with confidence of swift support of additional Militia or British troops if needed. To best accounts about 1100 men may have started the campaign with about 950 participating in the battle. We know that Ferguson had sent out a body of troops on a foraging expedition just before the battle and this may account for the difference in numbers. Ferguson had accomplished this sort of mission very successfully many times over and no doubt felt competent to the task with the men and arms at his disposal, all well trained by him. Every indication is that his confidence and enthusiasm were high to prove his force equal to any such task, even when few within the ranks of the military hierarchy agreed with his theory. His only failure seems to be the underestimation of the determination of his enemy and their frontiersman style of warfare who when threatened or drawn to a noble cause, would go to any length of hardship or danger to rectify an injustice. Just such a threat and injustice took in September of 1780 in the form of a verbal warning sent to the backwater settlements via a paroled Tory prisoner that read in effect that “if they did not desist from their opposition to the British Arms, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword. (#63)
With the massacre of May 29, 1780 of a mixed group of Virginia Continentals and cavalry under Buford’s command in North Carolina still fresh in the minds of the frontiersmen, this message was no small matter, and was the biggest mistake he could have made. Colonel Isaac Shelby, after questioning the paroled prisoner as to Ferguson’s plans and whereabouts, immediately began organizing the campaign that would prove his downfall. “Tarleton’s Quarter” would be heard on King’s Mountain as those same frontiersmen sought revenge for not only Tarleton’s actions over many years, but those of any British force who had participated in those actions, including Ferguson, who had not only campaigned with him, but now offered up the same cruel threats. The memory of friends and comrades butchered on the battlefields united an opposing force that was bent on nothing short of his total annihilation. Had he been aware of the attitude of his enemy toward him he may have made quite a different decision than halting his troops to make a stand on ground more favorable to his enemy’s style of warfare than his own. He may have also taken the available time to entrench and build breastworks. It is now quite certain that he underestimated the response his threats would invoke from a group of men who would come at him with blind fury bent on vengeance or death. These “back-water” men were like nothing Ferguson had ever faced and he could not have predicted in his wildest dreams the wrath he invoked. When the attack began, Captain DePeyster heard the terrifying Indian war hoops and yells of the frontiersmen, the same he had heard at their disastrous Musgrove’s Mill fight, and remarked to Ferguson “These things are ominous – these are the damned yelling boys!”. (#64)
The frontiersmen had not yet become embroiled in the rebellion and would have normally chosen to stay home to harvest their crops, but once provoked with destruction, they dropped their farm implements and picked up their rifles. Indeed, neither Ferguson’s militia or riflemen, or any equal British force was a match for these men in their unorthodox form of warfare based on the initiative of singles or groups. That concept, coupled with wooded ground favorable to them, would have spelled disaster for any British force they might encounter.
We cannot be sure when Ferguson first realized that his command might be in grievous danger, but we know that he came to realize quite early that he may have bitten off more than he could chew. On October 1, 1780, he issued an entreaty to the local “Tories” for support, knowing full well that a group of enraged frontiersmen were hot on his trail. Meanwhile he began a careful withdrawal toward his home base. Ferguson had several successful skirmishes with scattered elements of the enemy threatening his column, but those who escaped these engagements spread the word throughout the region, bringing more men to the banners of the rebels. Ferguson had hoped to bring them to battle on his terms, but the enemy, gaining strength rapidly, always managed to evade him. Eventually they would unite in a crusade to find his small force of hated Tories and wipe it out before he could escape or obtain reinforcements. This hunter and prey concept was exactly what these frontiersmen thrived upon and the covered woods fighting that was to come was exactly the type of warfare in which they excelled.
As Ferguson withdrew from the frontier, he sent several messages to Cornwallis and then started a march to his headquarters at Charlotte via King’s Mountain. He was still unrelenting in his desire to bring the rebels to battle, but apparently by this time he had acquired the full knowledge that his force may be unequal to the task. With the impending numbers of enemy growing each day, and he not knowing their whereabouts, we can assume that he wisely wanted to be closer to his requested reinforcements. He needed to choose a place to cease his retreat and await reinforcements of local Tory bands or British regulars, and the place he chose was King’s Mountain, a well-known local landmark where relief could find him, and there he settled in on the evening of October 6, 1780. That evening he sent a dispatch to Cornwallis stating -“Good soldiers behind our riflemen and a few real Dragoons to second with effect and support the horse militia upon the enemy’s flanks would enable us to act decisively and vigorously”. Here Ferguson, in his own words, refers to his small corps of “riflemen”.
He could have escaped the full brunt of the rebel force hot on his heels from all directions had he not chosen to stand and fight, but this dispatch shows that he was very much aware that help, especially cavalry, whom the rebels feared most, could accomplish the task. Little did he know that most of his requests for aid, as well as his dispatches to Cornwallis, were intercepted, thus appraising the rebel forces of not only his position but his need for assistance. This new information renewed the rebel’s efforts to spring the trap on his force before help could arrive. The idea of retreat was probably distasteful to him, not only in that it epitomized a failure of his mission, but in that he was forced to flee from these “barbarians” that he disdained without obtaining a chance to prove his militia in combat. He was not a man of fear, and he weighed and measured the odds, just as every military commander might do, but there were forces beyond his control working against him at the very moment he needed everything to go by his expectations, especially the unfortunate fact that reinforcements were not available as quickly as he could normally expect them. Many battles are won on luck and courage, and although there was no lack of courage on his part, his luck had run out. Had he known the full situation, he might have opted for a different course of action, but his decision to stand and fight was based entirely upon help arriving before the full fury of “the damned yelling boys” could be unleashed upon him. His over confidence in his force may have played a factor in his decision, as well as the determination not to appear fearful of an enemy in front of his men. The fact that 600 men under Major Gibbs were within 15 to 20 miles of the American forces on the morning of October 7 shows that his gamble had almost paid off. Had Gibbs rushed to Ferguson’s aid immediately, the outcome of the battle may have been different. (#65)
Unknown to Ferguson, several spies had entered his camp and relayed his strength back to the rebels, with estimates not exceeding 1500 men. Ferguson had let a number of his militia go on furlough prior to the campaign. In addition, he had sent out a large foraging party, possibly as many as 200, whose return he anxiously awaited, and who indeed did return toward the end of the surrender process, firing into the backs of the rebels, causing great confusion among them which resulted in additional casualties within the British ranks of those attempting surrender. By most accounts, this small Tory party hastily retreated when they became aware of the real situation and escaped unscathed.
About 900 of the Americans had rushed ahead to engage the enemy while other elements constantly arrived on the scene by foot to join in the fray. That the British were outnumbered is never disputed, and the lay of the land gave favorable odds to the attacker, both in the fact that the wooded sides of the mountain were ideal for the frontiersmen’s style of fighting and that Ferguson’s men made perfect silhouetted targets against the skyline for the deadly long rifles below. Colonel Harry Lee summed up the entire situation in his evaluation that the British position “was more assailable by the rifle than defensible by the bayonet”. (#66)
At about 4 O’clock on the afternoon of the 7th with only several hours of daylight on their side, the frontiersmen, forming in four columns, surrounded and attacked the hill from all sides, swarming up the slopes to bring their rifles to bear. If they had been regular troops, they probably would have waited until the next morning in order to deploy with additional men and make a dawn attack, something which Ferguson’s mind might have factored into his wait for help, but these were not regular soldiers men and nothing could have restrained them from an immediate attack.
As early threats by rebels to overrun their positions emerged, Ferguson’s Rangers swarmed down the mountain to drive back the attackers with the bayonet, but no sooner had they accomplished their task and retreated up the mountain, when another group would require the same treatment from another quarter. Almost all early accounts from both sides (and later studies) confirm that the untrained “militia”, lacking bayonets for their muskets, did not participate in any of the bayonet charges. They also agree that it was only Ferguson’s riflemen that made the numerous bayonet charges against the rebels, as many as 7, being recalled each time with a blast from Ferguson’s whistle.
Uzal Johnson, a surgeon in the battle wrote “As soon as they got to the Brow of the Hill, the American Volunteers charged them with success and drove them down the hill … Capt DePeyster, with the first Division of American Volunteers charged the Enemy again at the Point of the Hill and drove them a second time.”(#67) Lt. Anthony Allaire also reported that the first bayonet charges made by the “Rangers”, led by him, were upon Campbell’s men first (in a Southern direction) and then Shelby’s men (in a Northerly direction), all from the center of the narrow western portion of the battlefield. Later after action casualty reports by Lt. Allaire listed his “poor little detachment” at 70 infantry. (#68) and noted “These troops were well trained, and Ferguson relied largely upon them in consequence of their practised skill in the use of the bayonet”. (#69) Of the original 100 men assigned to the American Volunteers, 20 Rangers (under Lt. Taylor) acted as cavalry tried to assist Allaire early in the battle but were killed or dismounted by enemy fire immediately. Another 10 Rangers were guarding the baggage train and probably participated in the final moments of the battle as it swarmed around the wagons. For whatever reason, these 30 men may have lacked their bayonets or they would have been with the 70 infantrymen on the front line where they were sorely needed.]\
Campbell reported to have been attacked at least three times by Ferguson’s Rangers, Shelby three, McDowell one, Cleveland’s line once in the flank and twice driven back from the front, while Chronicle and Hambright received their one attack. This intense activity indeed depleted Ferguson’s men, and each time they attacked the enemy and retraced their steps, firing as they withdrew just as Ferguson had drilled them, they came back with fewer of their number. In this manner the battle seesawed on the perimeter for about 30 to 45 minutes, with the rebels relentlessly returning after each repulse to threaten the line again, and in turn, the British suffered more and more from sheer exhaustion and mounting casualties. The Americans continued to decline all personal contact due to lack of bayonets and proceeded to pick off the British at every turn, being silhouetted against the skyline making perfect targets. Ferguson was everywhere with his noted “silver whistle” sounding out calls to which he had trained his men to react, while at the same time encouraging his men to fight on and even participating in the attacks. This was a battle least suited for his British style tactics and most suited for the independent action displayed by the frontiersmen. Eventually the extended outer reaches of the lines were breached in several places and the British forces, threatened with being cut off from the main body of men in the camp area, began to withdraw in small groups. No mention is made of any large portion of the British forces being cut off piecemeal and captured, so the withdrawal must have been orderly. Sevier’s final assault on the far Western end the field, combined with the pressure of Campbell and Shelby upon the British center, spelled the end for those troops extended beyond the main camp. Outflanked and pushed by sheer weight of numbers, they now withdrew in haste to the Eastern end and fought from behind their wagons in the camp area, but the unequal conflict had an inevitable outcome. As their packed ranks were decimated by the unerring fire of the riflemen swarming around them on all sides, some men lay down their guns and tried to surrender while others tied white cloths to their bayonets, but Ferguson, on horseback, knocked these down and encouraged his men to fight on. The officers could not rally or direct the fire of the approximately 800 confused and frightened men packed in a defensive area only about 40 yards wide by 60 yards long. This part of the battle is where the British suffered the most casualties, as the rebels were at point blank range. It was not until Ferguson finally fell and DePeyster’s surrender accepted did the battle subside and killing ended. The entire affair was over in about an hour.
A lot of old scores were settled that day by the over-mountain men against their “Tory” oppressors, many of whom had been cheated out of their Eastern land claims that were poorly documented and surveyed a generation ago by fancy lawyers hired by these same men and their relatives. A Civil War of sorts in the South had been going on long before the Revolution and, beneath the currents, King’s Mountain was the first and final battle of that war. The harsh treatment of the Tory prisoners was also a direct result of the on-going local “civil war” within the Revolutionary War.
The death of Ferguson is a subject of much discussion, but it is far from the romantic death fantasized on television “history” documentaries. All accounts agree that he totally refused to accept defeat or capture at the hands of these rebels, and that he, accompanied by two other officers on horseback tried to break through the rebel lines and all were shot in the attempt. The rebels believed he was attempting to reach the wagon road and escape, but since his death occurred within the British defensive line, chances are that he was trying rally his men in another attack. His character would not have allowed him to abandon his men, regardless of any impending disaster. The frontiersmen had been informed by a captured dispatch rider that Ferguson would be wearing a “checked shirt, or duster” over his uniform, so they were well informed of the target for their rifles. He lost two horses during the battle and had mounted a third white horse to continue the battle beside two of his Loyalist officers, cutting and slashing at the enemy until his sword was broken. The end came when he and the two officers rode too close to an advancing line of riflemen who all fired at the group. The two officers were killed outright, and Ferguson was struck by six to eight rifle balls in close succession, one shattering his right arm again, one striking his thigh, and one striking him mortally in the head. Some report that he was dragged by his horse with his foot caught in the stirrup before his body could be released. Regardless, he was knocked unconscious by the fusillade of bullets and fast approaching death. His bullet riddled body was lain to the side by several of his men as the battle raged on. Ferguson never regained consciousness and his life ebbed away as the battle continued to rage around him. The one eye-witness account (from Uzal Johnson’s diary) that is probably closer to the truth is “… Col Ferguson gave the Word to charge again. He then rushed in amongst the Rebels with about half a Dozen Men. He was soon shot from his horse”. (#70)
The fact that the Americans were slow to accept the British surrender, shooting down two early bearers of a white flag, has never been disputed. Those early surrender efforts were unfortunately disregarded by many of the frontiersmen, either out of ignorance of the meaning of the flag or because they were caught up in their own personal fights which excluded any type of justice save that of their own choosing. At this point in the battle, the Tories, fearful of being slaughtered to a man, had no choice but to fight on in sheer desperation until a final flag of surrender was accepted and weapons grounded. As the firing gradually subsided throughout the battlefield, the rebels disarmed the Tories and both sides counted losses and looked to their wounded, but the battle was not yet completely over.
During the final surrender process, the victorious frontiersmen were fired upon from behind by one of the foraging party sent out by Ferguson earlier in the day. Estimates have been given that as many as 200 men had been sent out on this task during his march to the mountain, then returning piecemeal. The frontiersmen, suspecting treachery among their prisoners and not knowing initially where the fire originated, fired into the ranks of the surrendering Tories, resulting in additional casualties. The returning enemy party, realizing that the battle had not gone in their favor, quickly melted away into the surrounding forest edges and escaped.
************************************************************************ Chapter 10. The Aftermath and the Fate of his Rifles
Abraham DePeyster related that the enemy remained on the battlefield through Sunday the 8th of October, giving crude burials to the soldiers who fell on the British side. As for Ferguson himself, it was reported that his body was carried to a spring “near the mountain’s brow on the southern side of the elevation” by three of his men, then buried in a raw beef hide in a “south-eastern declivity of the mountain”. (#71) In 2003, battlefield archaeology, using ground radar imaging, put the matter to rest. Ferguson’s body rests under the rock cairn seen on the battlefield today and he is not alone. Another body was discovered alongside his, confirming the long-standing legend that he was buried with Virginia Sal, one of the ladies he entertained on the eve of the battle and killed in the crossfire.
To his credit, and by all accounts from friend and foe alike, his personal bravery, leadership and coolness during the entire affair was beyond reproach. All agreed that no one could have done more than he did to win the battle. His brave men had fought an unequal battle for as long as he was there to inspire them, but with his death and the specter of a massacre facing them, continued fight was unquestionably futile. If there is any fault, it lies at Ferguson’s feet for underestimating his enemy and poor choice of a defensive position that better suited them than his own force. Later investigation by the British of the affair absolved DePeyster of any wrongdoing in the surrender.
Casualties, as well as total participants at King’s Mountain may never accurately be assessed, but are probably close to those set forth in “The New Jersey” gazette of October 25, 1870, which gave the battle length as “47 minutes”, from which we can assume that it was a report of someone who was there. Tory casualties were listed therein at 150 killed, 810 made prisoners, of which 150 were wounded. This agrees with Lt. Allaire record of 960 total men on their side and is probably as accurate as one can hope. Governor David Campbell listed British casualties at 355 killed, 163 wounded and 716 prisoners, American casualties at 30 killed and 60 wounded. Some Tories did escape during the confusion of the battle and its aftermath simply by melting into the masses. Since the militia had no distinctive uniform save a “pine twig” in their hats, they could simply remove or replace the badge with a “paper” one that the Patriots wore in theirs. (#72) Only Ferguson, in his British uniform, and his “Rangers”, as Tarleton called them”, dressed for the most part in their “scarlet coats” with green facings, wore any distinctive uniforms. (#73) Uzal Johnson reported the engagement lasted one hour and five minutes, and reported that “we had only Seventy American Volunteers, fifty of whom got killed and wounded… [of the] eight hundred Militiamen engaged, two hundred and twenty-five Militiamen were killed and seventy wounded. He believed the enemy casualties to be equal to their explaining “I being employed to dress them in preference to their own Surgeon enable[d] me to get the Number”. (#74)
American casualties, officially reported for General Headquarters, lists 28 killed and 60 wounded, but since muster rolls were seldom kept by local Companies, assembled in haste, we shall never know the exact toll. The “Unknown” dead listed on the monument are a stark reminder of this fact. We now come to the subject of the rifles used by Ferguson’s men during the battle and their fate. We know that Ferguson’s men were all riflemen and as such, carried rifle. We also know that they were they only ones who made bayonet charges down the mountain. The Ferguson’s rifle is the ONLY rifle in British inventory that mounted a bayonet. The Ferguson rifles had to be on King’s Mountain. There is no other explanation. All historical documents and accounts lead us to the same conclusion. Draper describes another intriguing personal encounter by one of the participants, David Witherspoon of Cleveland’s Regiment discovered “one of the enemy prostrate on the ground, loading and firing in rapid succession”. He wounded the “Red Coat” and he surrendered. When reaching him “he found his mouth full of balls”. (#75) This is tantalizing evidence toward the use of a Ferguson rifle in that battle. The Ferguson rifle is the only weapon in the Revolution that could be fired “rapidly” (using the .610 pistol ball) while “prostrate” on the ground. This was a feat that was NOT part of any 18th century military tactics, being totally impractical on the battlefield with muzzle-loaders of that period. When he writes “such is the advantage of an arm that will admit of being loaded and fired on the ground”, he is stressing that his rifle was the ONLY weapon of that day capable of such a feat. (See Appendix IV) One of the best ways this can be accomplished is by placing 4 or 5 balls in your mouth and “spitting” a bullet into the chamber, followed by the charge from a cartridge, without taking your attention from the enemy advancing on your front. It was the same method practiced by frontiersmen with their muzzle-loaders in a battle to attain a faster rate of fire. (#76)
In addition to Witherspoon’s experience, another participant, Matthew McCrary, having joined Ferguson’s forces to protect an uncle who was a prisoner of the British, “”had thrown away his British rifle”, found a friend of his in the rebel line, picked up another gun and fought the battle on the American side. (#77)
Seventeen “baggage wagons” that could not be taken along were burned in the center of the British encampment on Sunday morning, October 8. James Ferguson states – “As the bore of the British rifle was large and lead was scarce in the Carolinas, the Americans destroyed all rifles captured atnKing’s Mountain”. (#78) Their uniqueness of parts and construction, their need for special powder along with the skill required to use them probably contributed to their fate and they joined the great pyre of burning material that the rebels did not want to fall back into British hands. They had captured more firearms than they could possibly save. Their prisoners were the only means of transporting their spoils of war. Muskets were the more valuable commodity to carry away. History relates that only several days after the battle, a Tory ranger was caught and hung at the King’s Mountain site. (#79) It may have been one of the foraging party that escaped at the end of the battle.
Of Ferguson’s Corps, Lt. Allaire notes that 18 men were killed on the spot, Capt. Ryerson and 32 privates wounded; 2 Captains, 4 lieutenants, three Ensigns, 1 Surgeon and “54 Sergeants rank and file”, including the mounted men (20) under the command of Lieut. Taylor taken prisoner. That totals to 18 killed, 33 wounded, and 84 captured – a total of 135 men, or about what the entire force mustered. (#80) Lt. Allaire, throughout his diary, used the term “American Volunteers” for his small detachment and the term “Militia” for the rest of the men. This constant distinction was most likely due to the specialty of his small band with their rifles in comparison to the militia armed with muskets.
The patriots thought Tarleton was hot on their heels, so they did not tarry long near King’s Mountain. A large majority of the frontiersmen melted back into the wilderness from whence they came, to again take up the everyday task of surviving in the wilds. Few personal written accounts survive of their experiences and encounters, save those on pension records, upon which Draper draws heavily in his documentary of the battle a century later. The ensuing march of prisoners was probably one of the worst-conducted by an army both in brutality and ineptitude. By their own figures only about 130 captives from over 600 remained to be exchanged upon their arrival at Hillsboro, NC, with only about that many men left to guard them. As many as 100 escaped in one day alone, carrying the arms they were forced to pack along for their captors. The rebels tried 36 Tories in a mock trial at Bickerstaff’s Plantation and hanged 9 of them. These actions prompted Colonel Campbell to issue a general order to “restrain the disorderly manner of slaughtering and disturbing the prisoners”, it is little wonder that many risked their lives to escape. (#81)
It was, however, during this march that another piece of tantalizing evidence surfaces to place Ferguson’s rifles on the mountain. Draper wrote “Colonel Brandon, a rough, impulsive Irishman, discovering that one of the Tories, who had dodged into a hollow sycamore by the roadside, dragged him from his hiding place, and completely hacked him to pieces with his sword”. (#82) Another account goes into more detail, stating that “In the six day’s march they had found an excuse for killing but one man outright, a prisoner dodged into the basin of a hollow-sided sycamore and that Colonel Brandon went around there and killed him with a Ferguson sword”. (#83) This could only be referring to one of the sword bayonets made specifically for the Ferguson rifle since Ferguson’s personal sword was broken during the battle. These double-edged “sword bayonets” had their own shoulder strap and scabbard, making handy side arms, so many were probably retained as souvenirs of the battle. This reference informs us that the term “Ferguson” had been attached to the rifle during its use in America, instilling the two-century old belief that he invented the rifle. Although we now know this to be false, it hardly matters since he alone persuaded the British Ordnance Board to finance the rifles and place them in his hands where they gained the fame held today. The name “Ferguson Rifle” was well earned and he deserves all credit his name accords when applied to this outstanding weapon.
Allaire, choosing to trust the hand of fate rather than his captors, escaped on Nov 5th and arrived safely in British lines by the 20th, having traveled by his own figuring over 500 miles from the start of the campaign. Colonel Shelby reported 1200 stands of arms taken, but only 153 stands ended up at the end of the march, the remainder being taken by the escaping prisoners. These arms were reported in the North Carolina Senate Journal of February 1, 1781, and since only 130 prisoners completed the march, carrying one or two captured guns each, this seems appropriate. Colonel Cleveland kept 53 stands of arms as spoils of war, and the other 100 were stamped with state markings “North Carolina” and turned out for use my its militia. Considering that state militia troops received only the basic military training, it is safe to assume that all 153 guns were standard muskets. The rifles were of such noted difference and reputation that they most likely would have been noted as such by the legislature. If any of the rifles were kept by participants of the battle, individual or otherwise, it has never been recorded.
As for the captured and escaped Tories? General Green complained vigorously of the loss of prisoners that could have been exchanged for his soldiers wasting away in British prisons. Colonel Henry Lee wrote to General Wayne on January 7, 1781 that “The North Carolina government has in a great degree baffled the fruits of victory. The Tories captured were enlisted into the militia or draft service, and have all rejoined the British”, and that “two hundred were actually in arms against us”. Capt. DePeyster was paroled to Charleston in February of 1781. Here ends the King’s Mountain affair for it’s immediate participants.
********** Chapter 11 – Summary
As laid out in this article, the evidence is overwhelming that a great number of Ferguson rifles were in the hands of his “Rangers” at the battle of King’s Mountain. W. Keith Neal, who had a keen interest in both Ferguson and his rifle, stated in a 1971 article “knowing the character of the man and his great trust in those rifles, I think it highly unlikely that Ferguson should have failed to get them back for use of his men. I have come across several of the original Ferguson rifles which were used to arm his corps which have obviously been badly damaged in battle, and which in every case had the plug hammered up or riveted over to turn them back into muzzle loaders”. (#84) Efforts to track down the rifles mentioned in his article have proved fruitless, but, after many years of reading about Ferguson and his character, we are inclined to agree with his summation of Ferguson’s determination to see his rifle project though to victory or death. He absolutely would not have left any of his serviceable rifles to rust away in storage in New York.
Without a first-person account to confirm our theory of the rifles being on the mountain, the only other hard evidence would be the recovery of a fired Ferguson ball with its unique rifling marks or a piece of a rifle. Ironically, just as we were finishing this story, a fired Ferguson rifle ball recovered from the site found its way to us through another historian interested in the rifle. We included it at the end of the story. For us, it was the last puzzle piece to prove his rifles were on the mountain that fateful day. It is very interesting to note that a National Park Service Popular Study Series, History No.12, printed in 1947, entitled “Rifles and Riflemen at the Battle of Kings Mountain” makes the statement “The engagement also afforded one of the most interesting demonstrations during the Revolution of the use of the novel breech-loading Ferguson rifle”. (FIG.3) Today, sadly, and for some unexplained reason, the current Park Administration does not “officially “recognize the rifle’s participation in the battle, yet it is this weapon, and the grave of the man connected to it, that draws thousands of visitors every year. The rifle deserves the same consideration as the legend of Virginia Sal that was eventually shown to have merit and became the most likely person sharing Ferguson’s grave. Perhaps the park will someday take the time to present all of the evidence pertaining to the rifle’s involvement in the battle to their visitors, allowing them to draw their own conclusion. It may be one of those visitors who uncovers more evidence of the rifle’s role in the battle. Regardless of the fate of his 100 rifles, they have left a long-lasting impression upon both historians and arms collectors which keeps them and its mentor very much alive today.
With the conclusion of the King’s Mountain battle, the war in the South turned in favor of the Colonists. Those who sided with the Crown nown reconsidered their allegiances, and, with spirits broken, never again took up arms in force in favor of the British cause. In later years Thomas Jefferson recognized the victory at King’s Mountain for what it was – the turning point of the war – much like Gettysburg during the Civil War. It was fought by men of the same country with different loyalties and beliefs just as the conflict of 1861-1865 was fought three quarters of a century later. It too tore families apart with relatives facing each other over their rifle sights at King’s Mountain. Entire homesteads of both sides were destroyed and families left destitute as armies from both sides exacted age old retribution as they marched by. It was truly a civil war far beyond most people’s comprehension after a passage of 200 years. Our history books fail to fully document the Tory and Patriot atrocities committed in the name of each cause, but at King’s Mountain the patriots avenged long standing animosities and in their victory, as cruel as it was, turned the tide of the revolution in the South and put this country on the path to independence. At the same time they sent a resounding message to England that she could not rely upon her expected “Tory Army” in the Americas to make a difference in her conflict with the rebels. Was Ferguson right in his idea that the local inhabitants could be forme into efficient militia and prove effective in the name of their cause? Those around him observing his efforts to instill basic military tactics into local recruits, many of whom were forced into service for the Crown, were not impressed by the results. A letter, reported to be taken from Ferguson’s body, dated October 3, 1780, from Colonel Cruger at post Ninety-Six may say it all as he writes “I Flatter myself that they (the militia) would have been equal to the mountain lads, and that no further call for the defense would be made on this part of the Province. I begin to think our views for the present rather large. We have been led to this probably in expecting too much from the militia”. Lord Cornwallis, in total agreement to such misgivings, had sent a letter to Sir Henry Clinton in August of 1781 stating “Ferguson is to move into Tyron county with some militia, whom he says he is sure he can depend upon for doing their duty, but I am sorry to say, that his own experience, as well as that of every other officer, is totally against him”. (#85)
How disheartening all of this must have been to Ferguson as he set about his defense of the mountaintop, supported by over 800 of the militia referred to in these letters, yet he remained undaunted in his beliefs that his force could hold any rebel army until help arrived. The defeat of Ferguson’s combined militia did indeed end forever all attempts in the Southern sphere to organize British sympathizers into a fighting force, so the letter from Cruger, as well as Cornwallis’s assessment of his men, was not only prophetic, but became a final summary of his efforts. As for Major Patrick Ferguson, his conduct was based upon his own philosophy of life, described in his own words – “The length of our lives is not at our command, however much the manner of them may be. If our Creator enables us to act the part of men of honour, and to conduct ourselves with spirit, probity, and humanity, the change to another world, whether now or fifty years, hence, will not be for the worse.”(#86) The way the world of his day viewed his life was best summed up in an epitaph by his brother inserted in the “New York Gazette” of February 14, 1781:
“If an ardent thirst for military fame, a social and benevolent heart, an uncommon genius, a mind glowing with patriotic fire, replete with useful knowledge, and capable of persevering under difficulties where glory was in view, claim our admiration; Major Patrick Ferguson, who possessed these and other virtues in an eminent degree, and who fell warring against discord, irresistibly claims our tears”. (#87)
After a long, careful study of the man and the guns that rightfully bear his name, one has no choice but to agree with the epitaph, and it can now be noted that over two centuries later, both continue to be a legend that will never die. Patrick Ferguson would have been proud of the mark he left in our history and if he could look upon America today, would probably have been even more proud that he may have passed on a chance to shoot another equally distinguished gentleman by the name of George Washington at Brandywine in 1777.
************************************************************************ Chapter 12 – The Ferguson Rifle – A Weapon Beyond its Time
Our initial goal was to build an exact replica of the Ordnance Rifle for testing purposes, something that had never been accomplished to date. When the first rifle was completed we could not wait to get it to the rifle range. It was then that we discovered just how little previous historians and gun “experts” knew about this weapon since most had never fired one and those who tried used the incorrect type and amount of powder along with improper loading procedures, all of which resulted in the Ferguson rifle developing an unfair reputation for being unreliable due to fouling problems.
In recent years, some poorly made copies of the rifle appeared on the scene using 100 thousandth tapered plugs (made on CNC machines) resulting in excessive and dangerous gas leakage problems, They were never intended to be shot, something the makers failed to tell anyone.
We realized from the very start of the project that the rifle would HAVE to be hand build to EXACT specifications just like the originals with the correct hand cut 11 start 70 thousandth tapered plug that would hopefully result in an airtight breech. When our copy was finally completed, the breech plug was so well fitted that when closed it was impossible to blow air through it. This was what Ferguson had accomplished with his rifles in 1776. It was then only a matter of figuring out how he shot them with the success he recorded.
After extensive field trials we discovered that a measured charge of 65 grains of 50% FFFG & FFFFG (mixed 75 grains PER cartridge in a tube, not in bulk, allowing a 10-grain priming charge) duplicates the 18th century “SDS” powder and produced the most accurate groups. No “over the counter” powder on the market duplicates 18th century SDS. Charges over that amount produced excessive recoil, fouling and poor accuracy. This meant that the 90 grain chamber capacity of the Ferguson rifle was not necessary, so why use a chamber larger than needed?
First – the extra oxygen in the chamber helped ignite the charge. Second, the full 65 grain charge would fall past the mouth of the chamber avoiding the grinding of excess powder into the breach threads when closing the breech which creates the binding problems in the first place. Attempts to shoot the Ferguson prior to our work was always unsuccessful because of the wrong powder and improper loading. Many old books and articles show pouring the powder into the open breech from a horn, closing the plug and pushing excess powder out the top. This was one sure way to bind up the plug after several shots. Those early attempts to shoot the rifle gave it an undeserved bad reputation that can now be put to rest. If properly used, the rifle will far outperform any muzzle-loader of its day and never be out of service.
Amazingly, the theory of allowing an open space in a chamber was rediscovered” in the 19th century with black powder cartridges – as long as the case was filled to 70% capacity, the accuracy was not affected. The Ferguson rifle with its breech-loading system was utilizing 72% of the chamber space in 1776. (#88)]
The rifle performed magnificently, holding 4″ groups at 65 yards and capable of firing 20 to 30 shots without any noticeable binding in the breech. The trick was to make sure that as much of the charge as possible went into the breech, avoiding it being ground into the threads of the plugm during the loading process. Eventually, after continuous shooting, the plug will start to bind in the top of the breech. When this happens, it was only necessary to lower the plug about 1/8″ (without exposing the chamber area), apply water to the top of the plug, run it up and down a few times to clean the threads in the top portion of the barrel, and then wipe of the residue with a rag. In that manner the gun will shoot another 8 to 10 times before needing to repeat the process. If the above procedures are followed, the rifle will continue to perform long after any other long arm on the battlefield would become fouled and useless. To clean the bore for improved accuracy (if desired), all one had to do was load it with a lead ball (which seals the bore), pour water down the barrel slosh it back and forth a few times, then fire the weapon. This can be done very easily in the field in about 10 seconds. Even with a fouled bore, it will still strike a man-sized target at 100 yards – a distance constantly quoted in books at which American riflemen were wreaking havoc in British ranks even with their smooth rifles – of which the vast majority of frontiersmen carried at this time. In our opinion, Ferguson was right to place his faith in his rifles. He was 100 years ahead of his time. On open terrain, it’s reliability and massed firepower could have destroyed any attacking line of infantry long before they got to within musket range. The British military was not yet ready to recognize the superior firepower of this weapon on a battlefield. Had they done so it could have possibly changed the outcome of balance by many other world events.
Details of our early shooting experiments can be found in Appendix 6 of DeWitt Bailey’s book British Military Flintlock Rifles / 1740-1840, 2002 edition, Page 219, whose work has already been cited in this article. We know far more than we did at the time we wrote that article for his book.
This group was shot at 75 yards rapid fire from standing and kneeling positions using the .650 carbine ball – 6” red outer square. A group of riflemen firing at an opposing line formation at this distance would have been devastating. The pistol ball performs almost equally at this range. Only at longer range (100 yards or more) does it not perform as well as the carbine ball. I think it was 20 rounds averaging 3 shots a minute.
(To be Continued in part 2 with Footnotes & Credits)