First Rifles in America by Ed Hale

matchlock rifle


The Matchlock Rifle was invented in the 1400’s and was used in Jamestown, Va in 1607. This rifle used a smoldering wick like fuse to impart a spark to black powder that was near the hole that enters the barrel to ignite a  larger charge of black powder and propel a lead ball from the barrel. The word “Lock” is used in early firearms as perhaps as a synonym for “mechanism”. It this rifle was not very reliable, and was superseded by the wheellock below.

First Wheel Lock Musket

The first wheellock rifle to arrive in America was the Mayflower Wheel-Lock Musket likely owned by John Alden in 1620 who arrived on the Mayflower. The Musket was a smooth-bore firearm and this one was discovered during a renovation of a home in Duxbury, Massachusetts in 1924. Click on the highlighted words for more details.  Later in the 1600’s, it was a home protection weapon, found, and kept loaded in a secret spot at the front door over the years and was forgotten. Black powder is the the propellant of a round lead ball and patch to hold the ball against the powder. The rifle is fired when the trigger is pulled releasing a spring loaded serrated wheel turns on the iron pyrite held against the wheel. The pyrite and wheel create sparks to ignite the black powder in a pan that connects to the powder charge behind the round lead ball.

This firearm is the only of its kind and is owned by the National Rifle Association and displayed in their museum in Virginia. Technology changed slowly back then. A flintlock came on the scene in the early 1700’s below.


The First flintlock rifle was the .75 caliber “Brown Bess“, perhaps receiving the brown from the metal acid wash that turned the metal a brown color. See web links. The term “Bess” may have come from its predecessor, the Arquebus or perhaps Blunderbus .  It was an imported smooth-bore rifle that was widely used by colonists and  militia men of the 1750’s to 1800’s. It was accurate to about 80 yards or so. The colonists used a long-standing version called the Long Land Pattern. Rifles of this type were kept as a pattern to make additional rifles. The weight was around 10.5 pounds.  It had no rear sight and the bayonet lug near the bore was used as the front sight. It was a good wild game getter of its time and used by its citizens to hunt and protect the home and town. The continental army depended on citizen militiamen to bring their own Brown Bess rifle and ammo to fight the British during the Revolution. Colonists used the rifle in battle by placing more than one ball in the bore and often used additional smaller balls. The load and shoot time for the Brown Bess was 2 to 3 times a minute. The British were not happy with such barbaric practices as to load many balls like a shotguns double O Buck on their soldiers

My Cousin Colonel Nathan Hale, commander of the Second NH Regiment used the Brown Bess in fighting the British at Lexington and Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary war and is chronicled in the book Saratoga, by Richard Ketchum first published in 1997. My 6th great grandfather Nathaniel Hale inherited his father’s “Brown Bess” in Newbury Massachusetts and used it as his protection weapon and hunting rifle in Falmouth, Maine.

Prior to the American Revolution an evolution in firearms was taking place where German immigrants in Pennsylvania were tooling the bore of rifles with grooves called rifling, one rifle at a time. This allowed the bullet to spin thus providing stability and accuracy out to 300 yards and more. They were made in Pennsylvania for use on the Kentucky frontier and called the Kentucky Long Rifle .



The first true rifle that began to be built in the 1740’s one by one by German  Craftsmen. The detailed carvings, storage compartments, and accoutrements (to equip) of this rifle were scrolled metal work on the stock adding to the beauty of this fine rifle made with birds-eye maple. This rifle was capable of 300 yard accuracy and was enhanced with the advent of the cap-lock rifle and elongated Mini-Ball in the 1800’s. It was this rifle, in flint or cap-lock that began the romance of wood and steel  to be made into artwork that is sought after by many rifleman and hunters and collectors today that love a wooden stock. Today the most popular early rifles of this period are the Hawken Flintlock or Caplock Rifle and the Kentucky Long Rifle which is so often romanticized in stories of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Today there are both collectors and shooter that relive and re-enact the past with these rifles in hand. I thoroughly enjoy the history that surrounds them. Rifles are part of America’s founding heritage and essential to maintaining freedom as well as home protection and sport. Over the next 100 years there were numerous advances we will see in the guns that Won the West, their use in hunting for food, protection and the military.

Since the invention of the rifle some 400 -500 years ago,military rifle applications, were always the driving force for rifle improvements. The benefits were seen in civilian use,marksmanship and hunting as well as home protection.

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About Ed Hale

I am an avid hunter with rifle and Bow and have been hunting for more than 50 years. I have taken big game such as whitetail deer, red deer, elk, Moose and African Plains game such as Kudu, Gemsbok, Springbok, Blesbok, and Impala and wrote an ebook entitled African Safari -Rifle and Bow and Arrow on how to prepare for a first safari. Ed is a serious cartridge reloader and ballistics student. He has earned two degrees in science and has written hundreds of outdoor article on hunting with both bow and rifle.