Tactics and Weapons of the

Revolutionary War.


A basic overview of how the weapons of the American Revolution were used and why.

Weapons and tactics are interdependent. When one changes the other changes.


The main weapons of the American Revolution were the muzzleloading flintlock musket, its attached bayonet, and the cannon. Secondary weapons were the rifle and pistol, swords and other cutting weapons. By far, the most common weapon was the smoothbore flintlock musket, of a large caliber, .62 to .75 inch bore, or equal to 16 to 11 gauge shotguns.

A musket has no rifling to spin the ball. It is "smoothbored" and will shoot both ball or shot, or a combination of the two. The firearms of the period used blackpowder. Blackpowder leaves fouling behind when fired. For this reason, the balls used by the military were undersized, so that the troops could quickly seat the next load down the barrel. The British musket, (the Brown Bess), was 75 caliber and they used a 69 caliber ball. The French musket (the Charleyville), supplied to the Americans, was 69 caliber and fired a 65 caliber ball. They were long barreled ( about 42 inches) and could mount a long triangular shaped bayonet on the barrel. The bayonet was an important part of the musket system. The length of the musket, with the long bayonet, was also designed to be used to defend against horsemen. By forming a rectangle or square with men facing outward with their bayonets, horsemen could not ride among them. Cavalrymen were considered the equal of 3 to 5 men on foot, because of their mobility. The bayonet replaced the pike as the means of defending against cavalry, and was the close range weapon.

The armies used paper cartridges to speed the loading process and reduce the risk of loose powder being around sparking guns. A wooden dowel about the diameter of a ball was used as a former to make paper tubes. Into this a ball and the proper amount of black powder was put, and it was sealed, usually by being tied with string.

To load, a soldier opened his cartridge box, grabbed a cartridge, bit off the end to expose the powder, and poured a small amount into the pan of the lock, closed the pan, dropped the cartridge (powder first) into the barrel, removed his rammer, rammed it home, returned his rammer, and then "made ready" to shoot by cocking his lock, and "presenting" or pointing, his piece to the enemy. There were no sights, just the bayonet lug near the muzzle. The soldier just looked down the barrel.  Soldiers were expected to  be able to fire a shot every 15 seconds for at least 4 minutes before needing to slow down because of the fouling in the barrel.

Since the ball is undersized, and the paper cartridge is just dropped into the barrel, the ball might come out spinning as the gases behind it escaped unevenly. It might spin in any direction, and fly like a curve ball or be thrown slightly to any side. After 75 yards it was very hard for a soldier to deliberately hit a man sized target.

To compensate for inaccurate shooting, the men fired volleys, sending a mass of balls toward the enemy, some of which should hit. In order to fire volleys in unison, they formed into units of two or three ranks (lines) deep, shoulder to shoulder. The unit would operate like a machine, lead by an officer (assisted by his non -coms), who would give the orders to load, fire and maneuver. Units could turn their lines, form into columns or squares, advance or turn about at the direction of their officers. Early in the war, the Americans did not have a universal system. Each state or even regiment had their own, making command by generals harder. The Americans also did not practice large unit -Brigade or larger- drills early in the war.

The tactics of the day called for each unit to form next to it's neighbor, forming a line across the battlefield. ( not necessarily a straight line, or an unbroken one.) They would both defend and attack in these formations, which gives them the name of linear tactics.

The tactics were not designed to shoot down the enemy until he gave way, but to break up his organized lines so that your side could then march forward, in cohesive, organized and linear fashion, and charge with the bayonet. A disorganized unit can not stand against an organized bayonet charge. Each unit tried to break the unity of the enemy formation so it could charge with the bayonet. Charged units, if not able to organize themselves, would give way if possible- or die spitted.

Muskets could be fired as fast as every 15 seconds., or 45 shots per minute. It took a sense of timing to be able to drive a charge home while the enemy was reloading and unable to fire and break up your lines.

Rifles, while much more accurate than muskets, also were loaded much slower. It would take almost 30 seconds, and sometimes a minute or more, to reload a rifle. In that time they were often charged with the bayonet, and since rifles were not equipped with bayonets, riflemen usually had to yield to musketmen.

Early in the war, the Americans had a shortage of bayonets. When France joined the war, they supplied muskets with bayonets, and the other accutrements- uniforms, cartridge boxes, etc, alleviating the Americans shortage of arms and bayonets. The French provided a hundred thousand muskets and bayonets during the war.


Cannon were considered the queens of the battlefield. Infantry unsupported by cannon usually lost if the enemy had cannon. American Militia units were known for not standing up against British units with cannon support, since they rarely had any of their own.

3 lb cannon at fort lee

The Muzzleloading cannon used were smoothbores, and smaller than used in later wars. Most were 3, 4 or 6 pound guns, mounted on wooden carriages with large wheels. Some 3 pound guns had iron legs to stand on and were called "grasshoppers". Larger guns of 12 pounds were sometimes used in the field, and even larger guns were mounted in fortifications and ships.

The cannon fired either solid ball, various small shot, or sometimes shells. Shells are a hollow iron ball filled with blackpowder and fitted with a fuse. The shot used could be buckshot, musket balls or grape shot, which are larger iron or lead balls about 1 inch in diameter.

Cannon had a range of several hundred yards. A 3 pounder ranged about 800 yards with solid shot, and 2 hundred yards with grape shot, maximum. At close range, loaded with shot, it could destroy an enemy company.

It is a myth that the Americans won by using cover, while the dumb British stood in the open in ranks to be shot by the hidden Americans. Both sides fought primarily in the open, in formation. When von Stueben took over training at Valley Forge, he put a single standard and methodology into the American army, so they could work better together. They then became a match for the British on the open ground in every respect. The Americans had been hampered by various methods and commands of maneuver, with little large scale drill. Von Stueben changed that, setting a single standard and training the army to use it, and the Americans proved their ability to use these techniques at the Battle of Monmouth. Instead of a regimental way, or state way, there was only the ARMY way. One method, one way to issue the order.

Certainly on occasion the Americans used cover, hiding behind trees and rock walls. The start of the war at Lexington and Concord is a prime example, and the New Jersey Militia, used it well also, both being examples of partisan warfare. Most battles of armies were fought using linear tactics. Even most partizan battles were fought using some form of linear tactics- they would fire volleys, and often stood in lines. Both sides used cover when they could. The slow rate of fire made manuever important, so units fought and moved in lines, even in woods, so they could protect against bayonet charges.

Flintlock Pistol (from the Valley Forge Museum).



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New Jersey during the Revolution

list of Site pages

I recommend also Outwater's Militia web page.


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