Letter's to the Editor
Dear Mr. Tosca,
Your recent article in the April issue of El Ojo del Lago regarding historical firearms and the Second Amendment is much appreciated. You corrected many misunderstandings about the subject, mostly as a consequence of Hollywood script writers playing games with historical realities.
For instance, in a film like The Patriot, itself a historical abomination, movie goers were treated to the spectacle of small boys ambushing a column of British regulars. Every shot hit its mark. Such would never have happened in the real world.
For nine of my twelve seasons as a National Park Service ranger, I conducted live fire black powder demonstrations one or two days each week at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a War of 1812 monument on an island in Lake Erie. Your observations about the inaccuracy and cumbersomeness of the .69 caliber Charlesville musket are bang on. Those weapons were first given to colonial forces as a form of foreign aid from France and were later copied by Springfield Arms in Massachusetts.
Park visitors would frequently question the infantry tactics of the era, involving ranks of soldiers standing in formation, supposedly offering easy targets to the enemy. I would explain that the line of infantry functioned as one huge shotgun, that if one hundred men were given orders to fire, perhaps seventy of the muskets would actually go off. The misfire rate was generally around 30%.
In addition, as the old timers of my youth would have said that you couldn’t hit the broad side of a bank barn from the inside with a musket. By its very definition, a musket has no rifling inside the barrel. In addition, the weapons would often become rusty and gummed up from being toted around in all sorts of weather. Firing at an enemy was the equivalent of blowing a pea through a McDonald’s straw. A soldier might actually hit a member of the advancing enemy infantry, but most likely he would not.
There are other inaccuracies promoted by movie makers more intent upon providing entertainment than historical reality. In the promotions for the film Last of the Mohicans, which I confess that I have not seen, a character is shown firing what would have been a .69 caliber musket from either hand at the same time. There are a host of reasons why such a stunt would have been pure idiocy, among them that the recoil of a loaded musket would resemble that of a 20 gauge shotgun. The shooter would have at the very least suffered dislocated wrists.
The bayonet charge was more to be feared than the possibility of being shot. The advance was slow and relentless. Up close and personal, the bayonet was thrust into the enemy and twisted. When extracted, everything came out with it. No one survived such horrendous wounds. Death was slow and agonizing.
Those of us who opted to take part in the black powder program were required to endure 16 hours of training each spring, followed by a lengthy written exam and a practical test where one demonstrated skill at the drill and practiced all the safety measures, all the while under the watchful eye of our trainer Gerry Altoff, a man much admired by the lot of us, who continues to be legendary throughout much of the National Park Service.
At the end of the long day of training or of conducting seven firing demonstrations, each accompanied by a twenty minute historical program, it remained to clean the weapon. That task took at least another hour and included cleansing out the barrel with boiling water. Each part had to be cleaned and oiled. Even a single fingerprint on the steel barrel would turn to rust within a short time, so the cleaning had to be meticulous.
Today, Gerry Altoff remains one of my most valued friends. As black powder trainer, though, we were complete strangers, grunts, total incompetents. He was the stern drill instructor. It had to be that way. He would be turning us loose in front of the public with a loaded firearm. Gerry was a perfectionist, and we all accepted that we had to become perfectionists as well. Our status as black powder demonstrators had to be earned, and we were proud to have made the cut.
During the War of 1812 era, militia members were mostly untrained amateurs who gathered once a month, drilled for a while, played cards, chewed tobacco, and had a few shots of rotgut whiskey. When in the midst of a battle the going got really rough, many got going, miraculously realizing that they had left home before completing the plowing. The desertion rate was high.
The possession of private firearms continues to be a hot button political issue in the US. Wherever one stands on the matter, it is accurate to observe that the framers of the Constitution did not foresee the emergence of firepower available today when they framed the Second Amendment. One could not gun down a mass of strangers in a school, church or MacDonald’s restaurant with a .69 caliber musket.
Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Ed Note: Dr. Swinehart lives in the United States and for several years has been a highly-valued contributor to the pages of the Ojo.