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Ferguson rifle
These views of the Ferguson rifle show the unique features of its breech mechanism.

The Ferguson Rifle

Great as Maj. Patrick Ferguson's success was as a soldier, probably his most outstanding achievement was the development of the first breech loading rifle to be used by troops in battle. This arm, which is known as the Ferguson rifle, was expected by its inventor to bring revolutionary changes to gunnery practices. In the patent, which was granted by the British Patent Office on December 2, 1776, Ferguson describes it as ". . . an arm which unites expedition, safety, and facility in using with the greatest certainty in execution, the two great dessiderata [sic] of gunnery never before united."

This rifle corrected many inadequacies of earlier breechloaders. Its center of interest was the screw-plug attached to the trigger guard which passed directly through the breech of the barrel from the bottom to the top. This plug had from 12 to 14 rapid twist threads so that with one turn of the trigger guard the loading aperture in the top of the barrel could be opened or closed The single-screw thread on breech plugs of earlier breechloaders made it necessary to rotate the trigger guard three or four times to open or close the breech. The Ferguson screw-plug had the further advantage of being so designed that it never came completely out of its socket.

For years prior to its invention, gunsmiths had given thought to the development of a rapid-firing rifle. Patrick Ferguson believed he had invented such an arm; he hoped it would prove its effectiveness when tried under battle conditions in the War for American Independence.

Firing tests of the new weapon were conducted in the summer of 1776 at the Blackheath and Woolwich Arsenals, in England. Because of its remarkable performance, it was also demonstrated before the King at Windsor. In the course of a series of tests, and with a high degree of accuracy, Ferguson fired 6 shots per minute at a target 200 yards distant from a stationary position and 4 shots when advancing at a 4-mile-an-hour pace. He then wet the inside of the barrel, and fired effectively after a minute to prove the worthiness of this weapon in inclement weather.

Ferguson missed the target only three times during these tests, which impressed most favorably the high army officers who witnessed them. The tests proved that the Ferguson rifle was a weapon of infinitely greater accuracy and rapidity of fire than the "Brown Bess," the regulation musket of the British army.

After Ferguson was granted the patent on his rifle, arrangements were made for the manufacture of a limited number, probably 200 in all. The names of all the gunsmiths who produced this arm in the last years of Ferguson's lifetime and for a short time thereafter are not known with certainty. They were made, however, by Durs Egg, Barbar of Newark, Barker of Birmingham, Innes of Edinburgh, Newton, and Wilson of the Minories. In all likelihood, Durs Egg completed the greater part of Ferguson's order for the new military weapon with which to arm his rifle corps.

Three distinct types of rifle, depending upon the use intended for the weapon, were made—those with the proportions of a musket for the foot soldier, lighter models for the officers, and sporting arms. There was a variation of 48 to 60 inches in the length of these weapons; and a corresponding variation in the length of the barrels, which were either octagonal or round in shape. Their bores ranged in size from five-eights to three-quarters of an inch and were slightly larger than the usual bore of the long American rifle. Their rifling consisted of 6 or 8 grooves. These were equally spaced and completed at least three-quarters of a turn in the length of the barrel.

The earliest use of the Ferguson rifle was on American soil by rifle men whom Major Ferguson had personally trained. It was used at the Battle of Brandywine and is said to have been used later, with possibly a few having been in action at Kings Mountain. The successful use of this rifle in battle is sufficient proof that its inventor had made a notable contribution to military technology and developed a most effective arm. Unfortunately, it was at least 90 years ahead of its time.

What happened to these Ferguson rifles continues to be a matter of conjecture. While Ferguson convalesced after the Battle of Brandywine, his rifle corps was disbanded and his rifles put in storage by Sir William Howe. Later, an undetermined number were withdrawn from storage for further service. Though it can be assumed a number were destroyed in action and others carried off for use as new hunting rifles, a large number still remain unaccounted for.

Today there are only a few known specimens of this arm. Although those still in existence are largely in private ownership, there are several on public display in America. Two such arms are in the National Museum in Washington, one of which was originally given by Ferguson to Frederick de Peyster, the most important example in this country. The Rudolph J. Nunnemacher Arms Collection at Milwaukee, Wis., also has one of these weapons, as does the museum at the United States Military Academy, West Point, N. Y.

The National Park Service is fortunate in owning two Ferguson rifles. One of these, perhaps the second most important example in the United States, is in the museum at Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, N. J. It is marked with the initials P. F., indicating it was very probably inspected personally by Patrick Ferguson. The other is in the Kings Mountain National Military Park Museum. Though one occasionally hears of a Ferguson rifle for sale, their acquisition is a collector's dream.


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