American Revolutionary War: Weapons and the Composition

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History Of The United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

The Continental Army was in many ways the same as the British Army during the American Revolution since the Continental Army’s officers copied from the structure they knew the best—the British one.

An illustration of musket, which was also known as the Brown Bess.
The flintlock musket was the weapon of choice for the British Army during the American Revolution. (Image: armi1961/Shutterstock)

The American militiamen enjoyed more success over the British Army in 1775 than anyone would ordinarily have predicted. The running fight at Lexington and Concord had forced the British to run for their lives. The conduct of the militia at Bunker Hill made the unhappy General Thomas Gage growl that “The Americans show a spirit and conduct against us they never showed against the French.”

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American Revolutionary War: Composition of the British and the Continental Army

However, the Americans were, after all, fighting an enemy that had underestimated them, and they were fighting only a small detachment of what was arguably the world’s most successful professional army. The question for the Americans through 1775 was whether they could keep that momentum going. The British regular army in 1775 had grown to a total strength of about 48,000 men, although that 48,000 was diced up into garrisons in Britain, Ireland, Gibraltar, and Africa.

By the time the American Revolutionary War was in full swing, that number had been increased to over 100,000 men. That was a small gain for American purposes, though, because by then the British were also facing France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

An image of a Grenadier Guard.
The Grenadier Guards were one of the three regiments of guards in the British Army during the American Revolution. (Image: Inscribed “PWR”/Public domain)

The Continental Army was in many ways the same as the British Army since the Continental Army’s officers copied from the structure they knew the best—the British one.

The basic organizational unit of the British Army was the regiment. Each regiment of the army had its own administrative structure. It also had its own traditions, its own history. The infantry regiments of the British Army were principally identified by number, beginning with the first and ending with the last regularly organized infantry units. The three regiments of guards—the Grenadier Guards, the Cold Stream Guards, and the Scot Guards—were all arranged as the first regiment afoot, the second regiment afoot, third, and so on.

By the time we get to the thick of the American war for independence in 1781, there would be 105 regiments of infantry on the regular establishment. Although the size of regiments fluctuated in time of war for obvious reasons, any given regiment of infantry had—by regulation—eight companies, along with a company each of Grenadiers and light infantry.

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Weapons of the American Revolutionary War: The Musket

The basic weapon a British recruit was issued was a 75-caliber musket weighing over nine pounds, with a 46-inch-long barrel. Now, this was a musket, rather than a rifle.

In the 1700s, there was a significant difference between the two. A rifle was so-called from the rifling on the inside of its barrel, a series of spiral grooves that gave a bullet a spin that significantly improved its accuracy. The barrel of a musket was smooth on the inside, hence the musket was less accurate.

The advantage of the musket was that it was easier to load than a rifle in the 1700s. The redcoat of the 1700s greatly preferred a weapon he could load and fire more times to a weapon that fired straight, but that was dangerously difficult to get ready to fire.

The British army musket, which was known affectionately as the ‘Brown Bess’, was the British infantry weapon of choice for a century, straight through the 1700s and into the Napoleonic Wars. To load it, a soldier had to reach into a cartridge box that he carried on a sling and pull out a paper cartridge that contained a charge of black powder and a soft lead slug. He then had to tear the cartridge with his teeth, pour the powder and the lead slug bullet down the muzzle of his musket, and ram it all together down the barrel with a thin steel ramrod.

Crossed flintlock muskets with bayonets over a shield.
The musket with bayonet was the primary weapon of the British Army during the American Revolution. (Image: armi1961/Shutterstock)

To fire the musket, the soldier dribbled a small amount of black powder onto a small open pan at the near end of the barrel. He would then raise the loaded weapon to his shoulder and pull the trigger. Consequently, a hammer would snap forward and a piece of flint would screw into place in the hammer, striking a spark and igniting the powder in the pan. Then, through a narrow hole in the barrel, it would ignite the powder present in the barrel and expel the bullet.

A well-trained infantryman could load and fire his Brown Bess, and get through this whole process about four times a minute. However, that was under ideal conditions, and ideal conditions are rarely what happens on a battlefield.

The Brown Bess was loud, and when it was fired, a cloud of dense, sharp-smelling, grayish-white smoke would blanket a battlefield in something that looked like a very, very dense fog, unless a good wind was up that day. The Brown Bess was not a marksman’s weapon, nor was it intended to be.

In 1779, for instance, only 20 percent of the men in a battalion of Norfolk militia armed with the Brown Bess could hit a target of approximately 100 feet in size, even though the distance was only 70 yards. Picking off individual targets across a battlefield was not the point, though, either for the Brown Bess or for the tactical doctrine of the British Army in the 1700s.

A good British officer would understand that his regiment’s firearms were chiefly useful for their shock value. Used en-block, they could disrupt the cohesion and timing of an enemy unit, either by slowing that unit down through confusion or by inducing an enemy to stop and return the fire himself, so that at that moment, the attacker’s attacking momentum was lost.

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Weapons of the American Revolutionary War: The Bayonet

Since this usually occurred at ranges of not more than 80 to 100 yards, there were really only opportunities for one—or at most two—volleys of musket fire by an entire regiment. At that moment, the soldier turned to his other great weapon, and that was the bayonet.

The standard-issue bayonet was an 18-inch long spike of fluted steel with a small barrel at one end for attachment to the muzzle of the Brown Bess. Its potential lay chiefly in the bayonet’s power to intimidate an enemy. Actual bayonet combat was really comparatively rare, but intimidation is not a bad thing to induce in the enemy.

A competent officer who knew how to manage his men on a battlefield would measure his distances and his timing perfectly, and deliver a volley of musket fire at close enough range to disrupt the enemy, and then close on the run with the bayonet. The impact of the volley and the momentum of the charge, tipped as it was with the regiment’s bayonets, would cause a demoralized enemy to break and run.

Common Questions About the American Revolutionary War: Weapons and the Composition

Q: What was the Continental Army composed of?

After its inception, the Continental Army consisted of soldiers from all 13 colonies. Before the creation of the Continental Army, the American revolutionary wars were mostly fought by militias.

Q: How were the British Army and the Continental Army alike?

The armies were similar in the sense that the Continental Army more or less copied the modus operandi of the British Army because that was the only method known to them.

Q: Why was the Continental Army successful?

The Continental Army had numerous advantages over the British troops with the biggest being their cause, their independence and freedom, which was indeed a very motivating factor.

Q: What advantages did the British have over the colonists?

The British soldiers were more professional and better paid than their counterparts. The British also had more resources to draw upon than the Colonists, at least initially.

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