How the Continental Army Armed Itself

About the author

Edward St. Germain.
Edward St. Germain

Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

Editor’s note

The following is a chapter from the book “The Private Soldier Under Washington” written by Charles Knowles Bolton in 1902. The book helps to explain the conditions that Continental soldiers experienced during the American Revolution.

The book contains fascinating letters and notes written by soldiers during the war, which you may find contain some outdated spellings of certain words compared to modern English.


Although guns were far more generally used at the outbreak of the Revolution than they are to-day, a serious problem in each campaign was to provide firearms for the troops. Each farmer in 1775 had his trusted flintlock, made usually by the hand of a village gunsmith.1 With the disappearance of village artisans much of the charm and prosperity of rural towns has taken flight. The little shop of the cordwainer, or shoemaker, no longer resounds to the merry tapping of the pegs or the creaking of the waxed threads in his hands; the cooper and the broom-maker are so rare that few of the present generation have seen the one crowding his staves into place and the other shaping the broom-corn about the handle. The itinerant weaver, too, has passed away, and the miller no longer grinds the coarse flour, cornmeal, and buckwheat which delighted the children of a by-gone age. Who of us, looking through the advertising pages of a popular magazine, will feel any sentiment for the factories and mills pictured there – those unlovely successors of the vine-covered shops of the cordwainer, the cooper, the gunsmith?

Flint-lock guns, wooden canteen, and welded bayonet which were used by privates during the Revolution.
Flint-lock guns, wooden canteen, and welded bayonet which were used by privates during the Revolution.

To polish the barrel of a gun with buckskin and to keep a gloss on the stock by frequent use of oil and wax required more time than the average soldier could or perhaps would give;2 so that during the war many of the firelocks soon wore out from exposure to the weather; some were lost in difficult marches, and others becoming broken could not easily be repaired, since the parts were usually hand-made and a new part had to be fitted to its place. The Continental Congress, July 18, 1775, in recommending the formation of militia companies, suggested that each soldier have a good musket that would carry an ounce ball, a bayonet, steel ramrod, worm, priming wire, and brush fitted thereto, a cutting-sword or tomahawk, a cartridge-box to contain twenty-three rounds of cartridges, twelve flints, and a knapsack. The barrel was to be three and a half feet long. In time Congress established a Continental gun factory at Lancaster, Penn., and a gun-lock factory at Trenton.3

When the militia soldier provided his own firelock his contribution to the cause was considerable for those days. In Massachusetts a gun and bayonet were estimated by the Provincial Congress to be worth £2;4 in Pennsylvania in 1776 a gun brought about the same sum. In Virginia in 1778 a gun appears to have been worth from £3 to £5, and a rifle a pound or two more; a drum was valued at half as much. At this time £5 would buy about fifteen cords of wood, pay a laborer for two weeks’ work, or purchase some fifty bushels of coal.5

The flintlock, or firelock as it was commonly called, was an effective weapon when supplemented by earthworks. At Bunker Hill, after two splendid but ineffective advances against the Americans in their hastily formed defences, General Howe saw that the bayonet was his last resource to silence their destructive fire. At Long Island the British used the bayonet with deadly effect, by receiving the fire of Washington’s men and charging before they could reload.6 Therein lay the weakness of the firelock, for the manner of loading was clumsy and slow. The end of the cartridge – a paper case filled with ball and powder – was bitten off, and a little powder was sprinkled on the pan;7 the remainder of the contents was then dropped into the muzzle of the barrel and held in by ramming down the cartridge-case like a wad. The powder in the flash-pan, ignited by sparks from the contact of a flint with the “battery” (a piece of steel), communicated through a hole with the charge in the barrel. From this description it will be evident that the manual of exercise called for movements more intricate in loading and reloading than were required later when the percussion-lock came into use.

Until the introduction of Baron Steuben’s plan in 1779 the form of exercise in the regiments was influenced by the previous training of the colonels in English, French, or German methods.8 The English systems in use in the Colonies before the war naturally had the greatest vogue. In 1757 the Militia Bill was passed in England to provide 32,000 men for home defence, so that the regular army could be employed abroad. As the new levies were to exercise but one day a week a simple form of discipline was desirable; and that devised for the county of Norfolk became so successful for drilling militia that it was known widely as the Norfolk Discipline. This plan was in favor in New England as early as 1768, when an abstract was published at Boston; and Timothy Pickering’s simplification of the Norfolk was much used at the North early in the war. Colonel Bland’s Treatise, published first in 1727, was more or less in use in the South; a copy had been in Washington’s library for many years.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress, however, had in 1774 adopted the British army manual of 1764 (known as the “Sixty-fourth”),9 which, at the time the New Haven edition appeared, was in general use in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts Bay.10 The words of command and motions for priming, loading, and firing a flintlock may be of interest in this age of rapid-fire machine-guns. The explanations are not given in full, as they are very detailed, to obtain uniformity in company drill.

1. Poise your Firelocks ! – – – – – – 2 motions

1. (Lock outward, firelock perpendicular.)
2. (Left hand just above the lock and of an equal height with the eyes.)

2. Cock your Firelocks!- – – – – – 2 motions

3. Present ! – – – – – – – – 1 motion

1. (Six inches to rear with right foot. Butt-end to shoulder.)

4. Fire! – – – – – – – – – – 1 motion

5. Half-cock your Firelocks! – – – – – – – – – -1 motion

6. Handle your Cartridge! – – – – – – – – – -1 motion

1. (Slap your Pouch, seize Cartridge, bite the top well off.)

7. Prime ! – – – – – – – – – – 1 motion

1. (Shake the powder into the pan.)

8. Shut your Pans! – – – – – – – 2 motions

9. Charge with Cartridge! – – – 2 motions

1. (Put the Cartridge into the muzzle, shaking the powder into the barrel.)
2. (Hand on Rammer.)

10. Draw your Rammers! – – – – – – 2 motions

11. Ram down your Cartridge! – -1 motion

12. Return your Rammers! – – – – – 1 motion

13. Shoulder your Firelocks! – – – – – 2 motions

1. (Left hand under butt.)
2. (Right hand thrown down at side.)

These actions were much the same in all the manuals, although in the Norfolk they were begun chiefly from the shoulder, and not, as here, from the “rest.” Baron Steuben made his words of command shorter and sharper. In the manoeuvres greater divergence appears.

At this time there were two serious objections to the firelock: the soldier required so long to load and fire it that a rapid advance of the enemy close upon the discharge found him with no weapon ready for defence, so that he was apt to be overcome with panic; and the two qualities of powder needed in the cartridge and the pan for effective firing were difficult to obtain. Franklin advocated the introduction of pikes; and in a letter in 1776 gave strong reasons for the use of bows and arrows, claiming that a man could send four arrows for every bullet, that his vision was not clouded by smoke, that his enemy seeing the arrow (he could not see a bullet) had his attention diverted from his duty, and when struck he was less able to fight.11 It is interesting to hear Colonel Thomson, a successful militia officer of South Carolina, advocate the next year for his regiment one hundred “complete riflemen with good horses and spears.”12

The use of an old-time musket, which now seems so cumbersome, led to frequent accidents. In August, 1775, for example, a man forgot to stop the end of his powder-horn; he flashed the powder in the pan of his gun so near to the horn that there was a conflagration which burned many soldiers.13 Another man lowered his gun to recock it, when there was a report and the gun “kicked” him in the breast, producing instant death.14 The force of these firelocks may be illustrated by an accident that happened in December, 1775; John M’Murtry, who was cleaning his gun, put in the priming and pulled the trigger, not knowing that it carried a load; the shot went through a double partition of inch boards, through one board of a berth, through the breast of a man named Penn, and hit a chimney, leaving its mark there.15

The scarcity of fire-arms made it necessary in the autumn of 1775 for Washington to order that no soldier was to carry away his arms if they were fit for use; private property would be appraised and purchased.16 In the following January he authorized colonels to buy guns which the militia were willing to sell;17 and yet a month later 2,000 men in camp lacked arms.18 Colonel Ritzema’s regiment in May possessed in all ninety-seven firelocks and seven bayonets.19 In July of the critical summer of 1776 nearly one-fourth of the army bad no arms,20 and the New, York convention ordered that each militia-man without arms should bring with him a shovel, spade, pick-axe, or a scythe straightened and made fast to a pole.21

One method of obtaining weapons was to disarm all disaffected persons,22 and another means of increasing the supply was to purchase through local committees of safety the arms owned by men who for one reason or another were not likely to engage in active service. In Pennsylvania county committees of safety, by authority of the province assembly, appointed three collectors for each township. These men could call upon the nearest colonel of militia for aid or could bring before the committees any recalcitrants.23

Congress urged upon the Colonies the need of encouraging gunsmiths,24 and the Colonies themselves imported large consignments of fire-arms from Bordeaux in France.25 Pliarne, Penet et Cie., of Nantes, did a large export business and claimed that they were able to send arms and powder directly from the royal manufactories.26

Lead was to be had with less effort; that for the campaign of 1776 was taken from the statue of King George on the Bowling Green and from the house-tops of New York;27 and the amount needed for the operations of 1777 came from the leaden spouts and window-weights of Philadelphia.28 As the bore of the muskets differed in size the bullet-moulds were often of various sizes, and were joined together so that a soldier could make balls to fit any firelock. The running of balls – running the lead into the moulds – was a frequent duty in camp; it was noted one day by David How in his diary that he went to Prospect Hill after he had done his “steant running ball.”29 A quarter of a pound of buck-shot30 or a pound of lead to be “cast into ball to suit the bore” was a proper allowance for a man.31 In Stark’s regiment each man on the day of Bunker Hill fight had a flint in his gun, and was served a gill-cup full of powder and fifteen balls for his cartridges.32

Gray cartridge paper with cartridges and ball, also bullet mould and melting pot.
Gray cartridge paper with cartridges and ball, also bullet mould and melting pot.

Powder was the crying need through much of the war. As early as 1774, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts made an effort to provide powder; in December, Connecticut sought to obtain more powder, and Mr. Shaw, a New London ship-owner, offered a swift vessel to go to the West Indies for this purpose.33 “To maintain a post within musket-shot of the enemy for six months together,” said Washington, “without [powder],34 and at the same time to disband one army [i.e., of 1775] and recruit another within that distance of twenty-odd British regiments, is more, probably, than ever was attempted.”35 Every effort was made to purchase powder, to encourage the manufacture of it, and to have the people save nitre and sulphur.36 The Provincial Congress, two months before the battle of Lexington took place, resolved to appoint a committee to draw up directions “in an easy and familiar style” for the manufacture of saltpetre, these to be printed and sent to every town and district in the province at the public expense.37 Furthermore, the Congress agreed to purchase all the saltpetre manufactured in the province for the next twelve months at a stated price. After the passage of this act a “simple countryman,” it is said, brought into the House half a bushel of saltpetre which he had made, and promised that more could be made in eight months than the province had money to pay for. His method, the same as that described in the official Watertown pamphlet, is (in the language of a contemporary letter) “to take the earth from under old houses, Barns, &c., & put it lightly into a hogs-head or Barrel; & then fill it with water, wch immediately forms a lie. This lie he then puts into an ashes leach that has all the goodness extracted before, this being only as a strainer. After it is run thro’ wch, he boils the Lie so clarified to a certain Consistance, & then puts it to cool, when the saltpetre forms, & is immediately fit for use; & from every Bushel of earth he produces 3/4 lb. saltpetre. On this information the Act was suppressed for Amendment.”38

The Congress at Philadelphia aided in the quest for powder by authorizing suspension of the non- importation agreement in the case of vessels bringing gunpowder or sulphur (with four times as much saltpetre), or brass fieldpieces, or muskets with bayonets, allowing them to carry out the same value, generously estimated, in produce from the Colonies.39 Congress, on June 10, 1775, recommended to the several towns and districts in the Colonies that they collect all their saltpetre and sulphur, to be sent from the northern colonies to New York, from the central colonies to Philadelphia, and from those farther south to their committees and conventions to be manufactured into gunpowder.

The committee of safety in Philadelphia not only published the description of a process for making saltpetre, but called upon the local committee of each county to send two persons to learn the business at their works; these men when trained were, at the committee’s expense, to travel from town to town for the purpose of instructing others in the art.40

The flint was characteristic of the gun of this period. The blunderbuss, a short gun with a large bore, clumsy and inaccurate of aim, had nearly passed out of use;41 the old-time slow match which ignited the priming-powder had given way to the grooved wheel with serrated edges, rotating against a flint, and this in turn passed out of use when the flint was fastened into the jaws of the cock and sprung against the steel hammer or cover-plate of the flash-pan. Each man when possible had at least two flints,42 and also a wooden “driver” or “snapper,” which was substituted for the flint at the time of exercise to prevent unnecessary wear of the stone. A good flint would fire sixty rounds before it had to be repaired, but the habit of snapping the lock was so prevalent that few flints did so much service.43

Musket, powder-horn, bullet flask, and buck-shot pouch carried in the Revolution, and a drum carried at Bunker Hill.
Musket, powder-horn, bullet flask, and buck-shot pouch carried in the Revolution, and a drum carried at Bunker Hill.

Flints were not easily obtained and workmen who could shape them were few. When “a vein of prodigious fine black flint stone” was discovered upon Mount Independence (near Ticonderoga) in 1776, the commanding officers of regiments were ordered to inquire if there were among their soldiers any old countrymen who understood the hammering of flints.44

At the beginning of the war the farmers had their powder-horns, many of which bore designs and phrases expressing the sentiments of their owners. It was soon discovered that paper cylinders filled with powder and balls, and bound at either end with jack-thread, were more serviceable. They were ready for use in an emergency and in time of rain or snow; on the other hand, they could not be withdrawn except by firing the gun, and when powder was scarce the battalion or regimental guards (quarter-guards they were called) were instructed, it would seem, to charge their pieces with powder and “running” (loose-fitting?) balls that there might be no waste of ammunition.45 The number of rounds carried by each man was less than the British regulars had at almost every period of the war, owing to the scarcity of cartridge-paper and powder. At the battle of Bunker Hill most of the men are said to have fired thirty rounds.46 In the Quebec expedition Arnold’s men had only five rounds apiece,47 and during the winter of 1775-76 Washington felt that he could not risk more than twelve or fifteen rounds at a time in the hands of the men.48 Later on the Continental soldiers carried as many as twenty-five or forty rounds to be used against the sixty of the regulars.49

Given the firelock with powder and balls, there was still to be considered the man behind it; his skill and courage were worthy the attention of the Commander himself. In his book of orders, under date of June 29, 1776, Washington said to his soldiers: “He [the General] recommends to them to load for their first fire with one musket ball and four or eight buck shot, according to the size and strength of their pieces; if the enemy is received with such a fire at not more than twenty or thirty yards distant, he has no doubt of their being repulsed.”50 When placed behind earthworks or a stone wall this had proved the best of devices. In the open field enough disciplined troops would survive such a fire to fall upon the raw recruits with fixed bayonets before they could, in their inexperience, load and deliver a second volley;51 but the regulars were scarcely a match for the militia when protected by earthworks.

Officers constantly advised the militia to hold their fire until the enemy approached to within a few yards of their defences; they gave orders also to aim with care, for they knew that many in the ranks were marksmen. When 500 volunteers were to be levied in the mountains of Virginia in 1775, so many men came forward that the commanding officer made his selection by a trial of skill. A board one foot square bearing a chalk outline of a nose was nailed to a tree at a distance of 150 yards, or about the space covered by fifteen to twenty houses in a modern city block. Those who came nearest the mark with a single bullet were to be enlisted. The first forty or fifty men who shot cut the nose entirely out of the board.52

At Bunker Hill the American works were silent until the British were within forty yards, and where companies of grenadiers had stood, three out of four, even nine out of ten in some places, lay dead or wounded in the long grass.53 A Scotchman living in Virginia said two months later that the slaughter of June 17th was to be attributed to the fact that the Americans “took sight” when they fired.


  1. The warlike stores in Massachusetts, and what is now Maine, reported April 14, 1775, aggregated:Fire-arms 21,549
    Pounds of powder 17,444
    Pounds of lead balls 22, 191
    Number of flints 144,699
    Number of bayonets 10,108
    Number of pouches 11,979(Journals of Each Provincial Congress, edited by Lincoln, p. 756.)
  2. Major Elliott’s Orders; in Charleston Year Book, 1889, p. 247
  3. Journals of Congress, May 23, 1776.
  4. Journals, October 25, 1774.
  5. Virginia Historical Magazine, January, 1899, pp. 280-283.
  6. Lord Percy’s Letter; in Boston Public Library Bulletin, January, 1892, p. 325. A century before this it was part of a musketeer’s training to draw his sword when hard pressed instead of attempting to reload.
  7. Sometimes “priming powder,” of better quality, was used.
  8. Steuben’s Memorial in Kapp’s Life (1859), p. 127.
  9. Washington’s own copies of Pickering and the Norfolk show no signs of wear; of the “Sixty-fourth” he had six copies, but the one in his library is fresh. His copy of the later work by Steuben bears annotations in MS. (probably his own), some of which were incorporated into succeeding editions. Sabin says that copies of Pickering’s Easy Plan show much wear. It was adopted by Massachusetts in 1776. See Catalogue of Washington Collection in Boston Athenaeum, pp. 135, 163. For an opinion of the Norfolk Discipline see the Monthly Review, vol. 21 (London, 1759), p. 340.
  10. Sabin’s Dictionary, viii., 30771.
  11. Franklin to Charles Lee. In his Works (Bigelow), vol. 6, p. 2.
  12. Thomson to Rutledge, August 13, 1777; in Salley’s Orangeburg County, S. C., p. 452.
  13. Rev. B. Boardman’s Diary; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, May, 1892, p. 404.
  14. Lieutenant I. Bangs’s journal, p. 55.
  15. A. Wright’s Journal; in Historical Magazine, July, 1862, p. 211.
  16. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 233.
  17. Washington’s Orderly Book, January 28, 1776.
  18. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 406.
  19. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 4, p. 65.
  20. C. F. Adams, in American Historical Review, vol. I, p. 651.
  21. New York Convention Journal, August 10, 1776 ; Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 4, p. 338.
  22. Journals of Congress, March 14, 1776.
  23. Minutes Bucks County Committee; in Pennsylvania Archives, 2d series, vol. 15, p. 359 et seq.
  24. Journals of Congress, November 4, 1775.
  25. American Archives V., vol. 3, col. 1065.
  26. Ibid., vol. 2, col. 1147 .
  27. Washington to the President of Congress, July 3, 1776.The following note is from the journal of Lieutenant Isaac Bangs (p. 57): July 10th, 1776:Last Night the Statue on the Bowling Green representing George Ghwelph, alias George Rex . . . was pulled down by the Populace. In it were 4,000 Pounds of Lead. . . . The Lead, we hear, is to be run up into Musquet Balls for the use of the Yankies, when it is hoped that the Emanations of the Leaden George will make as deep impressions in the Bodies of some of his red Coated & Torie Subjects, & that they will do the same execution in poisoning & destroying them, as the superabundant Emanations of the Folly & pretended Goodness of the real George have made upon their Minds, which have effectually poisoned & destroyed their Souls, that they are not worthy to be ranked with any Beings who have any Pretensions to the Principles of Virtue & justice.
  28. American Archives V., vol. I, col. 366; see also Journals of Congress, July 31, 1775. There was also a good lead mine in Virginia.
  29. D. How’s Diary, pp. 5, 30.
  30. A. Lewis’s Orderly Book, April 19, 1776.
  31. Orderly Book of the Northern Army at Ticonderoga (1859), p. 24.
  32. Quoted in Trevelyan’s American Revolution, pt. I, p. 331.
  33. Caulkins’s New London, p. 508.
  34. The word was omitted lest the letter, if it fell into the hands of the enemy, should disclose Washington’s precarious condition.
  35. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 313.
  36. Weeden’s Economic and Social History, vol. 2, p. 789.
  37. Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, February 15, 1775.
  38. Joseph Barrell to Joseph Green, November 3, 1775; in Boston in 1775 (Ford), p. 37.
  39. Journals of Congress, July 15, 1775.
  40. Minutes Bucks County Committee of Safety; in Pennsylvania Archives, 2d series, vol. 15, p. 354.
  41. Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts (Lincoln), p. 526.
  42. A. Lewis’s Orderly Book, p. 29.
  43. Washington’s Orderly Book, May 21, 1776; in his Writings (Ford), vol. 4, p. 100. General Greene, in his orders May 29, 1776, directed as a penalty for snapping locks two days and nights confinement on bread and water. (Long Island Historical Society Memoirs, vol. 3, pt. 2, p. 14.)
  44. Lieutenant E. Elmer’s Journal; in New Jersey Historical Society Proceedings, vol. 3 (1849), p. 41.
  45. Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1876, p. 94; June, 1875, p. 90.
  46. Letter of Jesse Lukens, September, 1775; in Boston Public Library, Historical Manuscripts, No. I, p. 25.
  47. American Historical Review, vol. 1, p. 296.
  48. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 387.
  49. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 426 ; vol. 4, p. 201; vol. 6, p. 71.
  50. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 194.
  51. See fn. 6, supra.
  52. John Harrower’s Diary; in American Historical Review, October, 1900, p. 100.
  53. Trevelyan’s American Revolution, pt. I, P. 328; Percy to his father, June 19, 1775 (MS. letters at Alnwick).

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