A View From The Overlook: Long Shot
One of the many joys of being a national park ranger is that you get to referee America’s culture wars.
You see, American history is perhaps not the best-taught subject in American high schools. This is not entirely the fault of the school system. Adolescence is a difficult time for learning history, as it happens to be the same time that nature pours great gushing gallons of seething hormones into the teenage body, causing wild spurts of growth and desires and affecting sight and hearing, making all adults appear and sound stupid.
For an example, let us attend an American History class at J. Edgar Hoover High School (Home of the G-Men) in Toad Stabber, Texas.
Mr. Bryant, the history teacher and football coach, is trying to interest the class in the American Revolutionary War.
Joe Don Buckmeister, star running back for the G-Men, is not at all interested in the American Revolution. He is interested in the legs of Becky Sue Bradshaw, cheerleader and aspirant to the crown of homecoming queen.
For her part, Becky Sue is also not interested in the American Revolution; rather, she is interested in attracting the attention of the captain of the football team, with sidelong glances and a toss of her blond ponytail.
Now let us fast-forward a decade. Joe Don has married Becky Sue and is quite familiar with her legs and the rest of her geography (they have four kids) and the hormones are less thunderous.
Joe Don and Becky Sue Buckmeister are now ready for their Historical Second Chance.
They are ready to study the American Revolution, and the National Park Service is ready and waiting for them with more than a score of colonial and revolutionary war sites. Joe Don and Becky Sue will be well-served.
Indeed, the Buckmeisters were probably wise (or lucky) to wait for the NPS version of American history, as it is generally a far more accurate take on the truth than is found in most school districts, Texan or otherwise.
Consider the sad and lugubrious story of Sarah Palin and Paul Revere.
Ms. Palin, a continually contentious lady, bounced back from her 2008 Vice Presidential run with a 2011 visit to Boston, site of the famous Tea Party and Paul Revere’s Ride.
Although she visited Paul Revere’s house (which is NOT an NPS site), she apparently failed to avail herself of instruction on the Boston phase of the American Revolution offered free of charge by the Boston unit of the National Park Service and which would have cleared up many of the legends and misconceptions with a factual, non-partisan interpretation of what really happened.
This omission turned out to be a tactical error on the part of Sarah, due to the possibility that as a high school history student, she was a great basketball player. Reporters asked what she thought of Paul Revere. Sarah was off and running with a gob-smacking interpretation of the famous ride that was even more off the wall than Longfellow’s poem.
According to Sarah, Paul was riding to warn the BRITISH that we weren’t going to let them take our guns away from us! No sir!
These statements and others allowed snarky liberal reporters from left-leaning journals to wonder if she had jumped from being merely misinformed to having lost her marbles.
All of this could have been avoided if Sarah had availed herself of the historians of the Boston National Historical Park to get her facts in reasonable order.
President Obama has a different problem in having a tin ear for popular rural and small town American culture and history. He famously faux-pased with a comment on how certain Americans “Bitterly cling to their religion and their guns.”
So do Liberals have any trouble with Truth and Reality?
The Second Amendment
Liberals have a tendency to pooh-pooh the Second Amendment’s insistence that the “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” the modern liberal position being that it referred to “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” and that the Founding Fathers, being refined, well-educated, non-deistic gentlemen (very much like a modern liberal) SURELY would not have wanted a bunch of illiterate overweight Rednecks who probably belong to some snake handling church, to actually OWN firearms!"
No, the Founding Fathers must have meant that the firearms were to be stored in some sort of fort or armory and then issued to the citizenry by their “betters” in an emergency.
This does not seem to be the case. Your correspondent inquired of Minute Man National Historical Park over at Concord, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.
According to Ranger Jim Hollister, “The vast majority of the Minute Men were using their own firearms. According to law, all able-boded men between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to serve in the militia, a part-time citizen army. This meant that they had to provide themselves with appropriate arms and equipment, turn out for inspection and training with their company (organized by own) at least eight times per year, and, depending on the military situation of the time, be available for periods of extended service…Those unable to afford arms were expected to put up some sot of security in the form of crops and then were provided arms by their town with the expectation that the cost would be paid off in installments."
The arms required were a “well fixed firelock musket…the barrel not less than three-foot-and-a-half-long, a knapsack, a cartouche (cartridge box), one pound of good powder, 20 bullets fit for his gun, 12 flints, a good sword or cutlass, a worm and a priming wire.
"As far as we can tell, all the firearms used on both sides on April 19, 1775 (Lexington & Concord) were smoothbore. Rifles were popular on the frontier (The backcountry of Virginia and Pennsylvania etc.) where men were expected to hunt for their food. However, in New England, apart from occasional bird hunting (fowling) hunting was considered somewhat of a wasteful pastime. The arms they possessed were primarily for their military duties.”
Thank you, Ranger Hollister
(Fortunately, Mayor Bloomberg is over 60 years of age, and thus would not have to buy an AR-15 or other state of the art firearm had this militia law still been in force. Ironically, the Second Amendment, in addition to allowing you to own a gun, also gives you the freedom NOT to own one.)
The Long Shot
Now Ranger Hollister touched briefly on two mythic American legends, the Frontier and the Kentucky rifle: Just what was the effective range of the Kentucky rifle?
Well, that depends. If the rifleman were Mel Gibson (in The Patriot), Daniel Day Lewis (in Last Of The Mohicans), or John Wayne (in just about any of his movies), only the curvature of the Earth would prevent George III from being assassinated. But what was reality for the reasonably expert pioneer rifleman?
“If in doubt, ask a ranger,” so I asked a few. These rangers deal in black powder muzzle loaders on a daily basis and many of them hunt with such rifles, so they are passing expert.
Ranger Kent Cave of Great Smoky Mountains National Park quotes from an NPS booklet, “rifle making in the Great Smoky Mountains” published in 1941:
“…. The majority of the rifles made by the Great Smoky Mountain rifle makers and by rifle makers in general were sighted at 60 yards; these rifles were formidable up to 200 yards. The muzzle velocity of these rifles, with ordinary charges of powder, is said to have been from 1,000 to 1,200 feet per second. In expert hands, up to 100 yards, they were remarkably accurate.”
(You may get the booklet on line at www.nps.gov/history/online_books/popular/13/index.htm)
Ranger Ove Jensen of Horseshoe Bend National Military Park roughly agrees. “The rifles used here were typical civilian hunting rifles, ranging in caliber from .32 to .50. The rule of thumb for hunting rifle is a maximum effective range of 300 yards and one shot per minute.”
The effect of the rifle was often psychological.
Ranger Eric Olsen of Morristown National Historical Park states, “The American Long Rifle could be accurate up to 200 or perhaps even 300 yards. It all depended on who was doing the shooting; in terms of their individual skill and the conditions when they were shooting. Of course, if you read quotes from that time, the American riflemen boasted that they were deadly accurate. The enemy believed the hype too. At the beginning of the war, British and German officers frequently removed fancy parts of their uniform so as not to make targets for the American riflemen. Of course the Americans were not the only troops with rifles; the British and German troops had them as well. Riflemen in all the armies were used as scouts and skirmishers. They were only a small part of the big armies of the day.”
Ranger Norman Nelson of Fort Necessity National Battlefield allows, “A smoothbore musket could reliably hit a man at 60 yards. A rifle of the time could reliably hit the same target at 150 yards. There were some who could, through the use of “Kentucky elevation,” push the envelope out to 300 yards or more.”
For the sake of argumentation, we will discuss the possibility of “or more.”
On display in the prestigious New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is a beautifully engraved powder horn inscribed by a veteran of the Battles of Saratoga, the decisive battle of the American Revolution. The powder horn is both a work of art and an historical object, as it commemorates the shooting of General Simon Fraser by Tim Murphy of Morgan’s Rifles at a “distance of one quarter mile.”
That would be 440 yards.
Is this probable? It had better be, as it is the most famous long shot in American history.
According to legend, General Benedict Arnold (in his Good Guy phase) told General Daniel Morgan that the charismatic General Fraser was rallying his troops for a possible battle turning stand and that he needed to be taken out. Morgan told Murphy to do just that. Sgt. Murphy climbed a tree with his double-barreled rifle. After a few near misses, Murphy took out not only General Fraser, but also General Burgoyne’s Aide de Camp Sir Francis Clerke who had just ridden up with important dispatches for Fraser. (Monumental example of bad timing!)
The Journal of American Military History, Vol 74, # 4, October, 2010, p. 1037-45, states that it highly unlikely that Tim Murphy shot General Fraser for a variety of technical reasons, including bullet drop and the lack of adjustable rear sights on his rifle.
So what does the NPS say? They are wisely agnostic on the Murphy story. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish social and historical society, has installed not one but two memorials to the alleged feat of Tim Murphy at Saratoga Battlefield.
The powder horn? Possibly a forgery. Interestingly enough, Tim Murphy never claimed to have made the shot.
So, we will have to tell Joe Don and Becky Sue that the jury is still out on the most famous long shot in American history. If you would like to referee, feel free to have at it!!