The Milwaukee Public Museum—Ferguson Rifle: A Revolutionary Firearm

Ferguson Rifle: A Revolutionary Firearm


It’s one of the more tantalizing "what if" questions in American history: could the British have defeated the patriots in the Revolutionary War had they employed a cutting-edge weapon known as the Ferguson Rifle?  The Ferguson Rifle, one of the first breech-loading rifles ever used in battle, fired four to six aimed shots per minute—twice the rate of the quickest-firing musket of the era—at a range of up to 200 yards.  It was a rifle without peer in the world, both for its efficiency and effectiveness. Despite its immense promise, however, the British Army never adopted it.  Today, only two of the 100 Fergusons used by the British Army in the Revolutionary War are known to exist.  They remain two of the most intriguing guns in the world.

The Milwaukee Public Museum will display one of the two surviving issue Ferguson Rifles and detail its history in Ferguson Rifle: A Revolutionary Firearm, now open.  The exhibit is free with paid admission.

"This rifle is one of the most famous weapons in American history," John Lundstrom, Museum curator of history, said. "The exhibit poses a fascinating question: could the British have revolutionized warfare with the Ferguson Rifle? Was this an opportunity for the British that was lost?"


The Brilliance of the Design

Invented by British Army officer Patrick Ferguson in 1774, the Ferguson Rifle loaded from the breech instead of the muzzle, eliminating the clumsy and time-consuming ramrod system that limited a soldier to three shots per minute and required him to load and discharge his weapon while standing upright.

The new rifle allowed a soldier to load with a couple turns of a screw and fire with great accuracy while prone or walking. It was, by every conceivable measure, superior to anything that had come before it.

"The latest research says the Ferguson was a better weapon than people even thought, and undoubtedly pointed the way to future rifles," Lundstrom said.  In fact, the quick-loading rifle was such an improvement over rifles of the time that some argue it could have changed the way 18th-century wars were fought. Its long-range accuracy could have rendered close-range muskets nearly useless, and eradicated the bayonet fighting that followed initial musket volleys.

"It’s not hyperbole to say that the Ferguson Rifle—and Ferguson himself—was 50, even 75 years ahead of its time," Lundstrom said. "We can imagine, had the British fully grasped the significance of this rifle, an entirely different type of warfare, and, quite possibly, a different outcome to the war."

Ferguson officially unveiled his rifle to England’s King George in a series of tests in 1776. Ferguson accurately fired in heavy rain and high wind, while walking toward a target 200 yards away and while lying on his stomach. His nearly flawless performance so impressed King George that he commissioned 100 rifles to be crafted and tested in battle against American patriots.

The one real test the rifle was given—at the Battle of Brandywine, Penn. in 1777— ended abruptly when Ferguson was badly wounded. The rifle would be given cursory trials in a handful of other battles, but was never given another extended opportunity.

Ferguson and the rifle were inextricably linked: because he alone possessed sufficient knowledge to operate and utilize the weapon, his death—at Kings Mountain, S.C. in 1780—meant the death of the rifle as well.

"People weren’t ready for this rifle, or Ferguson’s idea," Lundstrom said. "We can look back and see the importance of it today. It was a completely different way to conceptualize a rifle."

The Museum’s Artifact

The Museum’s Ferguson Rifle came to the Museum in 1900 in the collection of benefactor Rudolph Nunnemacher. The .65 caliber rifle is 49 inches long, with a 34-inch barrel.

Because it bears no external marks indicating country of origin, it was first thought to be German, but soon was identified as a Ferguson. Experts believe the rifle was captured by an American patriot from the British. The patriot probably rubbed off the crown etching on the Ferguson’s rifle lock that identified it as a British weapon to protect himself in the event he was captured by the British Army, who hanged those caught fighting with British weapons.

The only other officially issued Ferguson Rifle known to exist is owned by the Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey.

In the Museum exhibit, the Ferguson will be presented next to a .75 caliber British smoothbore musket called a Brown Bess, dating to 1759. This long-land musket was the standard British weapon at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

Diagrams in the exhibit will contrast the breech-loading design of the Ferguson with the Brown Bess’ muzzle-loading apparatus.

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