The solution to the problem of inaccuracy was a straightforward one: imparting spin to the bullet, which steadied its path during flight. Like a football thrown with a tight spiral, a spinning projectile was much less susceptible to tumbling, erratic flight. Eighteenth-century gunsmiths understood that a rotating bullet was far more accurate than one that did not spin. Their challenge was a practical one—how to impart that steadying spin to the bullet? The answer was to carve a long, spiral groove into the interior of the barrel, which would give the bullet a twist as it traveled to the muzzle.

That spiral groove, known as “rifling,” gave the adapted firearm its name: the “rifled musket,” or simply the “rifle.” Rifles were not uncommon during the colonial era; colonists used them for hunting, and the Kentucky long rifle was an iconic weapon of the American frontier. Eighteenth-century rifles were ill-suited for war, however. In order for the spiral groove to impart spin, it had to grip the bullet very tightly. Forcing the bullet down the rifle’s barrel—which might be four feet in length—was a daunting task for the rifleman, one that required a lubricated piece of cloth to ease the ball’s passage and repeated hammering with a ramrod.

The bullet’s tight fit in the barrel made reloading a rifle even more laborious than loading a smoothbore: skilled riflemen often required more than half a minute to load and fire the weapon. The difficulty of reloading meant that the 18th-century rifle was used only sparingly in warfare, and usually only by specially-designated marksmen.


“American Long Rifle,” c. 1760, The Division of Military History and Diplomacy, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit at the National Museum of American History (accessed September 6, 2012).


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