Rifle or Musket?

Blue Ridge Parkway

Open Transcript


Good morning and welcome to the North Carolina frontier in the year 1780. Suppose that you’re a man of military age, that is to say between the ages of 16 or a little less and 60 or a little more. Suppose further that you have been instructed by your captain to muster at Sycamore Shoals, bringing your weapons so that you can form an army to fight the Tories that are under Major Patrick Ferguson of the British Army. Now, you don’t know this, but you’re going to wind up at Kings Mountain. Now, suppose further that you have the luxury of having more than one firearm in your cabin and you have to decide which one to take: a rifle or a musket. Now, this is a musket. It is called a smoothbore because the inside of the barrel here is quite smooth. This is the Rifle, which has spiral grooves cut on the inside of it, which causes the ball to spin as it comes out the barrel. Now, you have to decide which of these to take. Now, there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these, so we’ll go through these very briefly here. First of all, consider the range and accuracy of the weapon. The hunting rifle will easily be able to hit a man-sized target at 2 to 3 hundred yards. The military musket there is not going to be accurate at much more than 80. So, in terms of range and accuracy, the advantage goes to the rifle. So, we’ll put a big “R” over here. Now in terms of rate of fire, the military musket, if you’ve got your ammunition made up into cartridges beforehand, which I should certainly advise you to do so, it will fire about 4 times a minute. The hunting rifle will only fire about one time a minute. So, the advantage there is very definitely with the musket. Now, these are two of the most important features of a weapon. You can see that one is favored by the rifle, the other by the musket. So, already you can see that this is not going to be an easy decision. Now, let’s consider flexibility of ammunition. The rifle will fire a ball that is of a particular size. Your neighbor’s rifle balls are unlikely to fit yours, so it has to be very precise here. The musket, on the other hand, can fire all sorts of things. It can fire balls that just barely fit. It can fire balls that are loose. It can fire shot. It can fire a mixture of balls and shot. It’s quite flexible, so in terms of flexibility of ammunition, the advantage goes to the musket. In terms of cost of operation, you’ll get about 2 to 4 times as many shots out of a pound of lead with a rifle as you will with a musket, and it will require less powder as well. So, in terms of cost of operation, the advantage is very much in favor of the rifle. Initial cost. The musket is quite a bit cheaper, so the advantage there is with the musket. Sustained fire. What do I mean by that? Well, the gunpowder doesn’t burn evenly and completely. It leaves a residue with each shot. Gradually, as you fire over and over again, the barrel gradually becomes closed and you can’t jam a ball down there anymore. Now, how fast this happens depends on a lot of things, such as the quality of the gunpowder and so forth. But it turns out that the musket will fire about twice as many rounds as the rifle before it fouls and has to be cleaned. Not something you want to do on a battlefield. So, the advantage here lies with the musket. The effect on the target. This is a musket ball for a rifle, about half and inch in diameter. You don’t want to get hit by one of these. This is a musket ball fired by the military musket. Quite a bit bigger, almost three quarters of an inch in diameter. You really don’t want to get hit by one of these. So, in terms of the effect on your target, the advantage again goes with the musket. Reliability and durability. The rifle is a rather delicate thing. If you use it as a club in hand-to-hand combat, it’s apt to break. The musket, on the other hand, is designed to take a lot of abuse and still function. So, once again, the musket has the advantage. In terms of weight, the rifle is about 8 and quarter pounds, but my rifle is a little bit shorter than most of them. Rifles will typically be between 9 and 11 pounds. That’s a little bit heavier than a musket, which will weigh in about 9 pounds. However, the musket ammunition will be quite a bit heavier and, so, if you consider the weight of the weapon and its ammunition, they’re about the same. Neither advantage. And Finally, the bayonet. Now, the musket will be able to mount a bayonet. The rifles typically do not and that is a great disadvantage in the battlefield. However, it’s an advantage for the musket only if you happen to have a bayonet and out here on the frontier you don’t. Of the entire 1000-man army that musters at Sycamore Shoals with you, none of them have a bayonet. Not a single one. And so, for you, there is not advantage to the musket. However, I should advise you that the muskets that you are going to be facing when you get to Kings Mountain are equipped with bayonets and they are handled by men who know how to use them. The advantage of the bayonet, of course, is that the rifleman must drop his rifle and pick up a knife or a hand ax to defend himself. If someone attacks you with a 6-and-a-half-foot edged weapon, this is all you’ve got. You are in a lot of trouble. Now, there’s one more thing that you need to take into consideration before you make your decision. And that is, when you muster at Sycamore Shoals to go to Kings Mountain, you will take with you about 6 out of every 7 men of military age on the frontier. That means that almost all the weapons on the frontier are going with you to Kings Mountain. That means that when you are absent from the frontier, and if the Indians should happen to attack the frontier, which they have been doing in recent years, the weapon that you have chosen to leave behind is the weapon that your family must depend upon for their survival. Now, it is time for you to make your decision. Will you take the rifle or the musket? Choose wisely.


Different types of weapons used during the Battle of Kings Mountain had advantages and disadvantages. Weigh the pros and cons of using a rifle vs. a musket.