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Marksmanship

Marksmanship

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Shooting the Parrot. In the Netherlands the militia units often engaged in personal games of skill, one of which was called shooting the parrot. Either a live bird or a wooden one was set on top of a pole, and the men had to shoot it. This particular exercise came with the Dutch to New Netherland. In 1655 Fort Orange magistrates granted a tavern keeper permission to have the burgher guard shoot the parrot on the third day of Pentecost, provided he keeps good order and takes care that no accidents occur or result therefrom.

Contests. By the eighteenth century the English held contests in which men target shot for prizes. Caesar Rodeney of Delaware, father of the Caesar Rodney who signed the Declaration of Independence, helped organize several turkey shoots where people competed for various goods. These meets were advertised, and at a certain time and place marksmen gathered, Rodeney, who was somewhat better off than the average colonist, had time to practice and the money to buy ammunition. He was apparently a fair shot and competed for cloth, money, a hat, and a fiddle, which he also played.

Personal Skill. Men were proud of their abilities and sometimes took the time to shoot just for the joy of the sport and the chance to hone their skills. Anthony Klincken, who lived in Germantown outside of Philadelphia, always brought his gun when he came to the city. He also used to speak with wonder of seeing hundreds of rats in the flats among the spatterdocks at Pools bridge, and that he was in the habit of killing them for amusement as fast as he could load. William Byrd II shot targets with a bow and arrow, sometimes just for fun, but sometimes in a contest with others.

A CLOSE CALL

Racing with sleds on frozen lakes or rivers could be dangerous. Sleds could upset or run into each other while horses could stumble or slip on the ice. In 1659 the young administrator of the Rensselaerswyck patroonship was not about to let his life become all work and no play. The Hudson River had frozen, and he was out on the ice. He wrote to his brother in the Netherlands:

As to news, I have not much to write, except that it has been a severe winter, so that we could have all the racing with the sleigh that we wanted, but I have been again in trouble, for my sleigh turned over with me on the river, or was upset by another sleigh, so that I severely hurt my left hand, from which I suffered much pain, but now it is again nearly all right.

Source: Correspondence of Jeremias van Rensselaer: 16511674, translated and edited by A. J. F. van Laer (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1932).

Sources

Fare Weather and Good Helth: The Journal of Caesar Rodeney, 17271729, edited by Harold B. Hancock, Delaware History,10 (1962): 3370;

Charles T. Gehring, ed. and trans., Fort Orange Court Minutes 16521660 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990);

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York: Knopf, 1987);

John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, volume 1 (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845).

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Marksmanship

430. Marksmanship

  1. Buffalo Bill (18461917) famed sharpshooter in Wild West show. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 67]
  2. Crotus son of Pan, companion to Muses; skilled in archery. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 70]
  3. Deadeye Dick sobriquet of 1880s cowboy-sharpshooter, Nat Love. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 41]
  4. Egli Norse god, famed archer, met the same challenge as William Tell. [Norse Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 323]
  5. Hawkeye sharpshooting frontier folk hero. [Am. Lit.: The Last of the Mohicans ]
  6. Hickok, Wild Bill (18371876) sharpshooting stage driver and marshal of U.S. West. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 387]
  7. Hood, Robin famed throughout land for skill as archer. [Br. Lit.: Robin Hood ]
  8. Oakley, Annie (18601926) renowned expert gunshooter of Buffalo Bills Wild West show. [Am. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 771]
  9. Robin-A-Bobbin such a bad archer, killed crow while aiming for pigeon. [Nurs. Rhyme: Mother Goose, 33]
  10. Tell, William shot apple off sons head with arrow. [Swiss Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 1066; Ital. Opera: Rossini, William Tell ]

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Marksmanship

Marksmanship

MARKSMANSHIP. Military marksmanship during the eighteenth century was tailored to the requirements of linear tactics. Measured against the norms that began to be developed at the end of the nineteenth century, marksmanship in line regiments during the Revolution ranged from very bad to almost nonexistent. Specialized units armed with rifled muskets were a partial exception, but even here the ratio of hits to shots fired was low by modern standards. Historian Christopher Ward calculated that at Lexington and Concord (19 April 1775), "only one American bullet out of 300 found its mark … [and] only one [militia]man out of 15 hit anybody" (p. 50). At Wetzell's Mills, North Carolina, on 6 March 1781, twenty-five expert riflemen, all of them veterans of the action at Kings Mountain, in South Carolina, fired from relatively close range at the gallant British Lieutenant Colonel James Webster as he led his troops on horseback across a ford they were covering. Eight or nine of these riflemen even succeeded in firing twice, and Webster was not hit once.

British regulars were not taught to aim, because in the case of linear tactics, the volume of fire was more important than its accuracy. Indeed, their Long Land Service musket (the Brown Bess) did not have a rear sight and had only the bayonet lug for a front sight. An American, captured at Fort Washington (16 November 1776), reported that not fewer than ten muskets were fired at his group within a range of forty to fifty yards, some at within twenty yards, and he was alive to give this critique: "I observed that they took no aim, and the moment of presenting and firing was the same" (Curtis, p. 19). Given that the weight of the musket was concentrated in its barrel, firing by volleys was prone to shooting both over and under the nominal target. Soldiers might hold the barrel too high with their left hand at the start of a fire fight, thereby sending their projectile over the target, while fatigue later in the encounter might cause them to let the barrel droop, causing the projectile to hit the ground in front of the target.

It is also worth remembering that eighteenth-century firearms were based on a double-ignition principle. The striking of flint on steel produced the sparks that ignited the powder in the priming pan, which then communicated part of the explosion through the touch hole to the main charge in the barrel. Many things could go wrong to interrupt the sequence. Wet weather could so dampen gunpowder that only about one shot in four could even be fired. Flints had to be held tightly and at the right angle in the jaws of the lock, and their utility could deteriorate quickly. Whereas a good American flint could be used to fire sixty rounds without resharpening, a British flint was good for only six.

Legends abound about American marksmanship. Perhaps the tallest of the tall tales was reported on 1 October 1774 by John Andrews, a Boston resident, and is quoted by the historians Henry S. Commager and Richard B. Morris:

It's common for the [British] soldiers to fire at a target fixed in the stream at the bottom of the common. A countryman stood by a few days ago, and laughed very heartily at the whole regiment's firing, and not one being able to hit it. The officer observed him, and asked why he laughed…. "I laugh to see how awkward they fire. Why, I'll be bount I hit it ten times running" (Spirit of '76, p. 30).

The British officer then challenged the boastful American to prove his ability, whereupon the American, who carefully loaded the musket offered by the officer, hit the target three consecutive times. Andrews' narrative continues:

He took aim, and the ball went as exact in the middle as possible. The officers as well as soldiers stared, and thought the Devil was in the man. "Why," says the countryman, "I'll tell you naow. I have got a boy at home that will toss up an apple and shoot out all the seeds as it's coming down" (Spirit of '76, p. 30).

The rifle shot that mortally wounded Brigadier General Simon Fraser at the battle of Freeman's Farm (First Battle of Saratoga, 19 September 1777) apparently was one of a dozen shots fired from a range of perhaps a quarter of a mile. Daniel Morgan, commander of an ad hoc unit of riflemen, sent as many as twelve of the men he considered his best shots into the tree canopy, to gain them elevation and a clear field of fire. One of them—in the nineteenth century the credit was lodged with Timothy Murphy—managed to hit an average-size man riding a horse 440 yards away. It seems reasonable to conclude that this success was as much a matter of luck as of skill.

SEE ALSO Lexington and Concord; Murphy, Timothy; Wetzell's Mills, North Carolina.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Commager, Henry S., and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of '76: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. Bicentennial Edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Curtis, Edward E. The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1926.

Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. 2 vols. Edited by John R. Alden. New York: Macmillan Company, 1952.

                           revised by Harold E. Selesky

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