Updated date:

The Kentucky Rifle


Brown Bess


Kentucky Rifle


The flintlock mechanism


The Kentucky Rifle

An old Bill Cosby routine proposed that wars be fought like football games in which a coin toss decided the procedure. In the case of the Revolutionary war, Cosby said it would have sounded something like this:

"General Cornwallis of the British, this is General Washington of the Continental Army."

"General Washington of the Continental Army, this is General Cornwallis of the British."

"If you'd shake hands, gentlemen."

"O.K., British call the toss."

"British called heads, it is tails."

"General Washington, what are you gonna do?"

"General Washington says his troops will dress however they wish, in any color, in buckskins and coonskin caps, and hide behind the rocks and trees and shoot out at random."

"British, you will all wear bright red, all shoot at the same time, and march forward in a straight line."

Amusing, but there were very good reasons for the tactics of both sides, and those reasons were called the ‘Brown Bess’ and the ‘Kentucky Rifle’.

The Brown Bess was the issued arm for the British forces, and, since the colonists themselves were required by British law to be armed, it was also often the arm of the American rebels. Like the Kentucky Rifle, it was a muzzle loading flintlock, but there the similarity ended.

In use for nearly one hundred years, the Brown Bess was a smoothbore musket of .75 caliber. The origin of the name ‘Brown Bess’ is lost to history. The proper name was the Land Musket, and there were several variations, like the Long Pattern musket, Short Pattern Musket, India Pattern Musket, and Land Pattern Cavalry Carbine. The Brown Bess did not have any sights. It was aimed by sighting along the top of the barrel.

Charging and firing a Brown Bess was complicated compared to today’s weapons. A prepared paper cartridge containing both ball and powder was torn open by the soldier. The hammer was drawn back to the half-cock position so the frizzen could be opened by rotating forward. The ignition powder pan on the lock was then charged and the frizzen was rotated back to the rear, covering the pan and preventing the ignition charge from escaping. The remainder of the powder was poured down the muzzle, followed by the rest of the paper and then the ball, which was tamped firmly into place by the ramrod.

To fire, the hammer was drawn back to full cock. When the trigger was pulled, the spring-loaded hammer rotated forward, and the flint struck the frizzen, emitting a shower of sparks which ignited the powder in the pan. The resulting flash shot through the small ignition hole drilled in the barrel and ignited the main charge, driving the ball out of the barrel with great force. Since the ball weighed a full ounce (only the largest big game rifles use a bullet that heavy today), the recoil was tremendous.

Since the Brown Bess was a smoothbore weapon, accuracy beyond fifty yards was abysmal at best, so the military tactic employed was a timed fusillade, in which the troops lined up in two long rows, the front row kneeling to fire and the second row firing over their heads. On command, both rows fired, laying down a deadly curtain of lead balls weighing a full ounce that inflicted deadly wounds on the other side. Both hits and misses were matters of sheer luck.

Like all major inventions, the Kentucky rifle (also called the Pennsylvania Rifle) was developed to meet a need. The hunters and woodsmen in the New World found the Brown Bess inadequate in numerous ways. It was far too heavy to carry long distances, its large bore required large amounts of precious lead and gunpowder, and it was woefully inaccurate beyond fifty yards. In response, the early American gunsmiths developed a virtual work of art.

The caliber was reduced from three quarters of an inch to less than a half inch, vastly reducing the amount of powder and lead required per shot. That also had the effect of increasing the velocity of the ball, greatly increasing the range and the impact forces at a distance. The length of the barrel was increased to nearly four feet to employ all the force of the powder charge. But the real genius was the combination of rifling and a cloth patch.

A rifled gun barrel has grooves cut into the circumference of the bore that twist as they traverse the length of the barrel. That has the effect of imparting a very high speed spin on the ball. Any imperfections in the ball become negligible because, instead of presenting only one face to the wind, the ball is spinning rapidly, so any imperfection is equalized. In addition, the spin creates a gyroscopic effect, which resists any force trying to move the ball off course, like a crosswind.

Rifled barrels were not new, but the original design required a ball of the same diameter as the bore, requiring that it be pounded into the muzzle with a mallet, and then forcefully tamped the length of the barrel to the firing chamber. That drastically slowed down reloading and deformed the lead ball, which affected accuracy.

The Kentucky Rifle employed a ball that was smaller than the bore and then used a greased cloth patch to make up the difference. The powder was poured into the muzzle as usual, but then a cloth patch was placed over the muzzle and a ball was pressed into it. A ramrod was then used to push the ball and its sealing patch down the barrel until it was seated. When the rifle was fired, the cloth patch acted as an effective seal, preventing the rapidly expanding gases from escaping past the ball. The patch also engaged the rifling grooves, creating the spin that so effectively increased accuracy.

Firing the Kentucky Rifle was identical to firing the Brown Bess with the exception of the greased cloth patch. But the result of that firing was worlds apart.

The effectiveness of the Brown Bess depended on exposed soldiers dispatching a hailstorm of lead on equally exposed soldiers on the other side. The effectiveness of the Kentucky Rifle however, depended on the skill and accuracy of the individual soldier dispatching his chosen target, and that target was often the British officer.

Prior to the revolutionary war and the Kentucky Rifle, the commanding officers usually remained at the rear and well out of range, but the guerrilla colonist tactics caused the British officers to grudgingly nickname the Kentucky Rifle the ‘officer's widow maker’. Killing shots at ranges up to three hundred yards were not uncommon, ranges unheard of using a smoothbore musket like the Brown Bess.

As a result, many skirmishes between the American rebels and the British consisted of the British soldier marching fully exposed in a disciplined straight line wearing their red uniforms while buckskin clad Americans shot at them from behind boulders and trees. It may sound humorous today, but it was anything but funny to the Redcoats.

The result was the ultimate demise of the Brown Bess musket and the worldwide adoption of the American Kentucky Rifle.


WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on June 09, 2015:

Thank you, Cam!

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on June 09, 2015:

Will, this is useful information that enhances our understanding when we read other writings about the American Revolution. Great hub.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on June 08, 2015:

Thank you, Gus!

Aladdins Cave from Melbourne, Australia on June 08, 2015:

Very interesting, and I learned a few things.

Thank you well done, and thumbs up

Cheers from BOOMERANG land :)

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on October 21, 2014:

Thank you, Tim!

I see magic tricks on your page, so I'm now following. ^-^

Timothy Arends from Chicago Region on October 21, 2014:

Interesting to read of the different historical fighting styles and how they came to be, and also the fact that the Kentucky rifle was adopted worldwide!

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on November 29, 2012:

"On a slightly related note, I understand that as the war progressed, the Americans came to use European formations on the battlefield in the major battles-- but I'm not sure why..."

The Americans also used the inaccurate Brown Bess, because that's often all they had, so they had to use the same tactics. But those armed with the long distance 'Kentucky/Pennsylvania' weapons employed guerrilla tactics. Most Americans, however, were actually armed with the Brown Bess.

Thanks for a great comment!

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 29, 2012:

This is a great explanation of the Kentucky rifle and tactics. What a difference-- 50 yards vs 300 yards. The military was notorious for sticking with what they were used to. "If Brown Bess has been used for 100 years, it must be terrific!" Excellent explanation about why both sides' battlefield tactics were so different. On a slightly related note, I understand that as the war progressed, the Americans came to use European formations on the battlefield in the major battles-- but I'm not sure why, unless it has to do with command and control, which the British certainly had. Great hub!

femmeflashpoint on July 07, 2012:

Thumbs up!!! Voted up, shared, pinned and liked!

This was way cool, Will!

I'm sending it on for my Kentucky-Tribe to read. They'll love it as much as I did!


WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on April 11, 2012:

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, WBA!

wba108@yahoo.com from upstate, NY on April 11, 2012:

The beauty of the American system is epitomized here by the adaption of new weaponry by a small rural culture with limited available finances! How a seemingly small innovation here changed the nature of warfare! Looking back we should be greatful for how the wonderful advances in technology has enhanced our society in so many ways!

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on March 03, 2012:

The Jaeger was the rifle that required a mallet to drive the tight fitting bullet down the barrel, in order to have a tight seal. The genius of the American made rifles was the greased patch seal.

jimmar on March 02, 2012:

Nice bit of history. Have you ever researched the history of the Jaeger rifle and it's influence on the American Revolution?

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on October 30, 2011:

Hi, ThomasRydder,

My friend has a flintlock, double set trigger from the revolutionary war era. I've shot it.

ThomasRydder on October 28, 2011:

Hey Will...GREAT article. Taught me quite a bit I didn't know. Always thought that the British line was for the purposes of being proper and fighting as gentlemen. My brother owns a .45 caliber that he built from a kit. Somewhat of a loose resemblance to the rifles you speak of, but there's one resemblance. I can split a playing card edgewise from 30 paces with it. Kinda gives you an idea what the Brits felt like. Kudos, my friend!!

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on October 14, 2011:

Thank you, thelyricwriter!

Richard Ricky Hale from West Virginia on October 14, 2011:

You did a great job there Will. Everything is structured well and your a great writer. My grandpa had one but I don't know what ever happened to it. She had another that he used in World War II. Great job Will on the history.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on September 15, 2011:

That makes all kinds of sense, Barb.

I'm going to build a flintlock myself.

Barbara Bethard from Tucson, Az on September 14, 2011:

Hubby put together a replica Kentuckian rifle and pistol. I like the pistol the best...that rifle is heavy! we've never fired it though...just my .22 ga...personally I think its cause he knows I'd outshoot him with the Kentuckian just like I do with the .22 :)

us country/southern/rural/river rats whatever you call us played with guns and got real good at shootin' :)

I love it too, still do!! Keeps my ole lady eyes sharp.

but I hate war/love the kids serving but hate war, does that make sense?

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on August 25, 2011:

Hi, Eiddwen, and thank you!

Eiddwen from Wales on August 25, 2011:

A very interesting hub and thanks for sharing Will.

Take care


WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on May 23, 2011:

Thank you, stars439!

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on May 22, 2011:

Very interesting rifle. They look like interesting weapons. Thank you for sharing.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on April 22, 2011:

Hi, Dex, and thank you.

War is hell, and it must have taken a lot of courage to just stand there and hope you didn't get hit.

Dexter Yarbrough from United States on April 22, 2011:

This was simple a great read, Will. The Bill Cosby bit was a great addition. I always wondered why the British marched in a straight line. I thought it was because they were simply arrogant. You helped explain why!

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on April 20, 2011:

Thanks again, Mrs. J. B.!

Mrs. J. B. from Southern California on April 20, 2011:

I love how you talk about both.. I would have chosen the Brown Bess.. WHY???? I like the looks.. HEHE can you tell I am a girl??? Anyway thank you for the education. I appreciate it.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on March 12, 2011:

Hi Granny's House

No, I don't have one...yet! ;-)

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on March 12, 2011:

Hi Wayne and thank you.

Granny's House from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time on March 12, 2011:

Will, fantastic writing. Well done research. Are these some of your own rifles

Wayne Brown from Texas on March 12, 2011:

And now I know the rest of the story ...thanks, Will! WB

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on March 09, 2011:

Thanks for commenting Alastar Packer

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on March 09, 2011:

Knew the basic over-lays between the 'Brown Bess' and 'Kentucky Rifle',but never the details, this was a great new learning hub on that, thanks.Can you imagine if the loyalists at 'The Battle of Kings Mt.'had had the Kentuk instead of Bess? I believe the 'Over Mt.guys' would still have won but it sure would have been harder.Thanx again.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on March 08, 2011:

We are who we are.

Thanks Maggie May!

Nadine M AuCoin from in a crack house in fort mcmurray on March 08, 2011:

Men and their guns! This is a very interesting read Will. Informative too, it helps paint an even larger imagery, picture to carry through while reading your great western stories.. I am also interested in antigues, find it fascinating! Thanks for sharing, useful and voted up!


WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on February 28, 2011:


Corrected James and thank you for pointing it out. I'm officially an old man as of today. That's my excuse and I intend to use it often! :-)

James A Watkins from Chicago on February 28, 2011:

You're welcome. My comment has not been approved. Just a technicality. :D

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on February 23, 2011:

Thank you James!

James A Watkins from Chicago on February 23, 2011:

Great Hub! I had heard of the "Kentucky Rifle" or the "Pennsylvania Rifle" but never knew the history behind it. Thank you for the education!

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on February 20, 2011:

Thanks Ghost

Ghost32 on February 20, 2011:

Great dissertation, Will. I was more or less up to date on the Kentucky Rifle (though I hadn't realized the Pennsylvania Rifle was precisely the same critter). On the other hand, I either didn't know or plumb forgot (early Alzheimer's?) about the ball for the Brown Bess being the same diameter as the bore. Mallet-pounding that thing down the barrel with a wild-eyed radical colonist about to pick you off LIKE a wild turkey must have been sweat-inducing indeed.

Rated Up and a bunch of other stuff.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on February 05, 2011:

One of my early American History textbooks featured a pioneer family. One of the chapters was about hunting wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner using a flintlock rifle.

Thanks for commenting!

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on February 05, 2011:

That's quite an elegant rifle - I like it! Made me think of Wild Turkey for some reason. Good blog, cheers!

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on February 04, 2011:

Thanks Micky Dee!

Micky Dee on February 04, 2011:

Beautiful write. Accurate on every account. God bless!

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on February 01, 2011:

Thanks Doug!

I'll be checking you out.

Doug Turner Jr. on February 01, 2011:

Interesting stuff. Three hundred yards is some wicked shooting. The British must have been soiling themselves knowing they could be picked off at such a distance.

The Cosby routine was a nice touch. Glad to follow you.

-- Doug

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 26, 2011:

Hi Dolores and thank you.

Yes, the Kentucky rifle and the Kentucky long rifle are one and the same (as is the Pennsylvania rifle). The barrels are typically right at four feet in length to make full use of the burning and expanding black powder.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on January 26, 2011:

Although I know nothing about firearms and have no interest in them, this was a great read. You are such a good writer, you just made me interested. Is the Kentucky Rifle the one some folks used to call a Kentucky Long Rifle? A friend of mine had one, and it was huge!

epigramman on January 26, 2011:

..well anyone who can put Bill Cosby in the same breath as a Kentucky rife certainly must be a hub genius!!!!

And that you are Sir - with an obvious passion for the history of your great nation - this hub is also a labor of love - and it shows - and your readers are the ones who benefit from your 'expertise' and the well researched details of your writing!

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on January 25, 2011:

These are beautiful rifles, and the writing was educational and interesting. Nice photographs too. God Bless You.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 24, 2011:

Thanks for commenting ahorseback.

ahorseback on January 24, 2011:

Hey Will , I love muzzle loaders , I have near a dozen firing replicas of all kinds something about the romance of black powder and round balls. I like and have shot all kinds of weaponry , Black powders my favorite though. Thanks for sharing.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 15, 2011:

That was cold, but not uncommon at all. I wonder about such selfish people, especially those old enough to know better.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on January 15, 2011:

We had one of those. My father had given it to me, but asked for it back to hang in his new house after his second marriage. My fathers second wife kept it - and every other thing he owned - when he died.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 15, 2011:

Hi Dusty!

Sounds like the same sort of rifle my friend has. Pulling the front trigger set the rear hair trigger, which touched off with the slightest pressure.

I like black powder and firing a flintlock. Every shot is exciting with all the sparks, clouds of smoke, and the possibility of a hang-fire.

BTW, (and as I'm sure you know) when the colonial rebel snipers fired,they had to move immediately because the smoke gave away their hidden position.

50 Caliber from Arizona on January 15, 2011:

Will, good stuff, in the arsenal I keep a couple old Kentuckies, one with polished brass double set triggers shooting from a rest/sniper hide pulling the rear trigger reduced the trigger pull to a hair trigger but could be fired with full lock from the front. I've taken deer with it and javalina as well back when I was froggy and could get around better. I've got several pistols as well, great article of accurate info, peace 50

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 13, 2011:

Thank you gentlemen.

Chris Merritt from Pendleton, Indiana on January 13, 2011:

Thanks Will, that was interesting stuff. I am also a Cosby fan. I enjoyed this.

Longhunter on January 13, 2011:

My oldest son and I do eighteenth century reenactments and trekking, both portraying lowly longhunters, and I carry a Bess. I've used it to deer hunt with round ball and to squirrel hunt using shot. It also makes a lot of noise when shooting blanks, which I've done while marching in Fourth of July Parades. It's a great all round gun.

As always, a great hub, Mr. Starr.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 12, 2011:


I used to know all his routines by heart. My favorite was "To my brother Russell whom I slept with."

Thanks for your comments!

Ronnie Sowell from South Carolina on January 12, 2011:

I enjoyed this hub and remember Cosby's routine from years ago. Funny then, funny now.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 12, 2011:

Hi Rich.

Most of my work is short story fiction. I hope you like it.

rich_hayles on January 12, 2011:

Well written Will. I haven't read any of your hubs before but landed on it during a hop.

Really fasinating read and I will now have a look at your other work.

Thank you again.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 12, 2011:

We're happy that you have forgiven us for all that.

(You have forgiven us haven't you?)

John Harper from Malaga, Spain on January 12, 2011:

Speaking as a Brit I can only say it was dashed sneaky and not very gentlemanly to hide behind rocks and trees instead of marching crisply forward in straight lines, whilst our chaps launched a volley.....

Another informative article explaining why we lost America, and you can't play cricket!

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 12, 2011:

Hi Tim,

Years ago, when we were young men, my best friend's wife bought him what was supposed to be a replica flintlock rifle at a pawn shop. It was a .30 caliber with double set triggers, probably made for target matches. We fired it many times and it was a thrill to shoot with all the black powder smoke and noise! And it was very accurate!

About a year later, we learned that the barrel and lock actually dated back to the Revolutionary War era, although it was not a military rifle. The stock was newer, but still quite old, made somewhere in the early 1800's.

When he learned how old it really was, my friend stopped shooting it immediately. He still has it.

TimBryce on January 12, 2011:

Will -

Good job. I saw a Kentucky Rifle fired years ago when I lived up north. The gun was well maintained by an acquaintance of mine and I was surprised by the accuracy. The sound was certainly different than what I was used to.

All the Best,

Tim Bryce

breakfastpop on January 12, 2011:

You are definitely the talented gift that keeps on giving.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 11, 2011:

Thank you Suzie!

Coming from such a superb writer, that's high praise.

suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on January 11, 2011:

Great Hub, WillStarr. Interesting study of firearm history. Rated up.

WillStarr (author) from Phoenix, Arizona on January 11, 2011:

Hi OP! Hope all is going well with you.

Hi dahoglund

True, those who come from rural communities and grow up with firearms and hunting are almost always marksmen.

Thank you Lilly! I aim to please! :-)

Lori J Latimer from Central Oregon on January 11, 2011:

I did enjoy this, a bit of history before bed. Thank you for sharing your unique content with us, and the hard work. Voted up.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on January 11, 2011:

When my brother was in the army Reserves many years ago he told me when they went to training camp in the Summer it was always the guys from places like Kentucky who outshot everyone on the range. Truthfully I thought the tactics were because of the kind of landscape they had in Europe. Much as tanks are now less used than when we were fighting the second world war.

Old Poolman on January 11, 2011:

Will, Interesting and very informative, thanks for another darn good read. I learned a bunch I did not know and love it when that happens.

Related Articles