The History of American Technology

The Rifle versus the Musket

Fall 1998

The musket are different kinds of weapons, with different advantages and disadvantages.  Whitney's contract was for muskets -- not rifles.

"Rifling" imparts a spin to the projectile that a gun fires.  Gunsmiths get a barrel to do this by cutting spiraling grooves, or rifling, into the inner surface of the barrel.   When a tight-fitting projectile travels down the length of the barrel, its surface bites into the grooves, and it begins to spin.

A musket is a smooth bore weapon.  The interior of the barrel is polished, and when the projectile moves through it, there is no particular orientation (or spin) imparted by the barrel.

Until we think about it, in modern view of weapons, a rifle seems to have all the advantages:  1) Giving the projectile a spin gives it a much more stable trajectory once it leaves the barrel -- you can aim the weapon much more accurately.  2) The much tighter fit of the projectile required to impart spin also means the expanding gases that are pushing the projectile down the barrel have much more difficulty bypassing the projectile -- more of the weapon's energy goes toward pushing the projectile and it will go faster and farther.

The techniques for rifling gun barrels was developed by German gunsmiths in the 16th century, and by the late 18th century the technology was well understood and in wide use.  Rifling was commonly used in the colonies for hunting weapons, but no one advocated the use of rifling for standard military weapons.   Indeed, colonial gunsmiths, especially those in the areas of Pennsylvania where German immigrants settled, specialized in producing hunting rifles with very long barrels.   These colonial "Pennsylvania" long rifles were the weapons Daniel Boone and other frontiersmen made famous for their range and their accuracy. 

With a quality rifle, a good marksman could expect to hit a target accurately at several hundred yards.

In contrast, even the best marksman would expect trouble getting a musket ball to hit a man-sized target at much more than 40 or 50 yards. Hitting a line of advancing infantry became difficult past 100 yards.  

If that's the case, why was the musket the weapon of choice for military use?

The answer to that question lies in the 'rate of fire'.  Both the rifle and the musket of the late 18th and early 19th century were muzzle loaders, which means there was no way to put the projectile into the gun back around the trigger and the firing mechanism.  You had to put the powder charge and the ball into the end of the barrel and push it down the barrel into the firing chamber.   With a smooth bore musket, the ball would quite often simply drop down the barrel.   The tight fit needed to make rifling effective, however, required driving (pounding) the ball down a rifle barrel using a ramrod and, perhaps, a mallet.

You'll find different rates of fire reported, but in general most agree that for trained troops the standard for a musket was three rounds (shots) per minute.  Some claim rates of fire as high as 5 rounds per minute from each musket.   With the rifle, things were quite different, and the experts talk about "minutes per shot."   In other words, even a good marksman might have trouble getting off more than one shot every three minutes.

If you're hunting, one shot every three minutes isn't so bad -- as long as you're a good marksman.  On the battlefield, it's disastrous.  Enemy soldiers with fixed bayonets can charge at you from a long way off in three minutes.

What should we make of all this on the difference between a rifle and a musket?

There are several points that should be obvious even in summary form:

Finally, there's a point that may not be so obvious to all.  Whitney's contract was for muskets -- not rifles.  The product was a standard military item that had been in use for over 100 years.  He did no innovation in the design or the function of the musket.  His job was to make a standard, well-understood product using innovative production methods that would allow for interchangeable parts.  His innovations were in production methods, not product design.

The product was one that had just one use and one potential customer.  It was a military weapon, and the military was the only possible customer.  Whitney's innovations did not immediately revolutionize all gunsmithing -- the production of rifles went on in the same traditional craft fashion well into the 19th century.