Thoughts on D. Boone's Gun

This material has been excerpted verbatim from Chapter III, of the book Daniel Boone, Wilderness Scout, by Stewart Edward White published by Doubleday, Page & Co. in 1923, with additional copyrights of 1921 and 1922, Boy Scouts of America.

It debunks many myths we debate even today and is of interest for the perspective it presents that was prevalent at the early part of this century. Much of the context should prove interesting for those portraying the Eastern Longhunter, as well as for the general black powder shooter interested in increasing his general knowledge of the design and style of the Kentucky Longrifle. The discussion is of Daniel Boone's rifle and the nuances of its design.

Transcribed by Dave Kanger

As to the rifle, there is the widest misconception. Those who do not know very much about rifles are quite apt to ascribe impossible accuracy to them. James Fenimore Cooper had a lot to do with that by telling in his Leatherstocking Tales of Hawkeye hitting nail heads at a hundred yards, clipping the heads off soaring hawks, placing one bullet on top of another, and a whole variety of wonderful tales. The tradition has been carried forward by romancers and just plain and fancy liars ever since.

Now item one: you cannot see a nail head at one hundred yards; and anybody who can hit what he cannot see is wasting his time when there are so many other miracles to be performed. Item two: there is such a thing as the "error of dispersion." That is to say, if you place any rifle in a machine rest and from it fire a series of shots, you will not find the bullets superimposed one over the other: they will be found grouped very close together, and the diameter of that group is the error of dispersion. This error is due to a number of things, some inherent in the weapon and the ammunition, and some due to temperature, wind, barometric pressure, and the like. The error of dispersion at Cooper's hundred yards for the most accurate rifle ever made would average an inch or two wider than any nail head.

But James Fenimore Cooper is not alone responsible. We get many honestly intended stories of the prowess of "a man I know." One man of my acquaintance used to turn an interesting purple at even an eyebrow raised over his story of an acquaintance who habitually killed running coyotes at 800 yards with a 30-30 carbine..............................

Having thus disposed of the dispersion error as a reason for distrusting the Dick Dead-Eyes, we will now examine another little joker called the triangle of error. You lay your rifle across some sort of solid rest; and, without touching it, you look through the sights. About forty feet away you have a friend with a pencil and a piece of white paper pinned against a box. The friend moves the point of the pencil here and there at your command until the sights are accurately aligned on it. Then you yell Mark! and the friend makes a little dot--invisible to you--where the point of the pencil happens to be. He removes the pencil, you remove your eye from the sights, and try again of course without disturbing the gun. If your eye is absolutely accurate the second pencil dot should be on top of the first. Only it isn't. The triangle formed by the three trials is the above-mentioned triangle of error. It measures the variations of sighting your eye has betrayed you into through the fixed sights of an unmoved gun. The size of the triangle will humiliate you. It can be reduced by practice; and it must be reduced by practice if you are to become a great shot; but it will never entirely disappear. It's error must be added to--or, in the case of a lucky shot, subtracted from--the dispersion error.

Up to this moment you have not touched the gun, yet already the Leatherstocking feats have been shown to be absurd. Now you must introduce the personal element, the consideration of whether you are a good shot or not. Daniel Boone and his companions were wonderful shots, but they were not perfect shots. No man is that. And this personal error, no matter how small, must be added to the mechanical errors mentioned above. No wonder people get a false idea of the capabilities of rifle shooting, so that when they see some really good shooting, it does not seem much to them. And no wonder those who do know something about it come to distrust all the old stories.

But these have gone to the other extreme in their disparagement of the arms of those days. They are willing to acknowledge that the men who used them were wonderful shots, considering the arms they had to use; but that with modern weapons they would have been very much better shots. For the old flint-lock rifles of those days they have a good-humored contempt. They point out the excessively long, heavy barrel, the short, light stock with its scooped butt plate; the simple open sights; and they clinch the matter by calling attention to the flint lock and what they think must have been its slow action, amounting practically to "hang fire." In contrast, they show us the modern light, high-velocity rifle with its balance, its aperture or telescopic sights, its true, quick-acting locks, the speed and precision of its percussion ignition. The legend emanating from this body of opinion is that accurate shooting, as we understand it, must have been impossible.

Well, let us see.

The typical "Kentucky rifle" looks to us like a uselessly and stupidly clumsy affair, to be sure. It was so long that a tall man could rest his chin on its muzzle when the butt was on the ground. In contrast to its heavy, long octagonal barrel, the stock was short and light, which made it muzzle heavy. The low sights consisted of a plain bar with a nick in it for the rear, and a knife-blade of silver or bone in front. It was fired, of course, by a flint lock. Boone's rifle, which is still in existence, was five feet three and a half inches long, of which the barrel was over four feet. It carried a round ball that weighed 55 to the pound, or 130 grains--15 more grains than a .32 Winchester. As the balls were round, however, the calibre was about 44. It weighed eleven pounds.

Now why did Boone pick that particular kind of weapon? Most people do not realize that there were then plenty of what we call light and handy rifles in existence, and they shot well, too. All sorts of ideas were tried out very thoroughly. There was plenty of opportunity to experiment. If Boone and his companions and contemporaries deliberately chose all their lives to carry eleven pounds of metal, to burden themselves with five feet or so of gun, then they must have had good reasons. And as a matter of fact, they did have good reasons.

In the backwoods, remote from all sources of supply, economy of powder and lead was greatly desirable. It became an absolute necessity when, as did Boone, the hunter cut loose for a year at a time. He should be able to vary his charge of powder according to the distance he had to shoot and the game to be shot. Now a patched round ball in a barrel with a slow twist is the only sort whose consistent shooting is not affected by great variations of powder charge. A rifle shooting a long or conical bullet must be resighted with any radical increase or reduction of the charge. It will be just as accurate with the new charge, perhaps, but the bullets will hit to the right or left of the old sighting. Increase of powder behind a patched round ball, however, does not affect the sighting at all. It will merely add velocity, and so cause it to shoot farther and hit harder. The sighting does not have to be changed.

Thus the hunter when shooting small game at close ranges would often use but a thimbleful of powder, while for extreme distances he would pour in double! Each man tried out his own rifle with different charges until he knew exactly what it would do. Usually about half the weight of the bullet in powder made a full load. He took the same sight up to about fifty yards with the thimbleful charge that he would at one hundred with the full charge, or a hundred and fifty with a double charge. There is a very persistent legend, which you have probably heard, that they used to measure the powder by pouring it on a bullet held in the palm of the hand until the bullet was completely covered. No such inaccurate method would have been tolerated for a moment by any good shot. When once the proper charge was determined the hunter made him a little charge cup to hold just the proper amount, usually from the tip of a deer's horn, and this was suspended by the bottom (to keep it dry) from the powder horn.

Thus we have found a very good reason for the round ball, and for the fact that the front and rear sights were fixed. They did not need to be moved because the point of aim was always the same; the powder was varied for different ranges, and as there was no increased "drift" it was unnecessary to move them sideways.

But why the very long, thick, and therefore heavy barrel? We are usually told that it was to "burn all the powder." It is a fact, however, that in a machine rest a barrel a foot, or even eighteen inches shorter is just as accurate. As a matter of fact, the reason is the same as for the round ball; scarcity of ammunition. The aim had to be deadly. It might be added that without muzzle loaders, and without the advantage of our magazines, it was extremely desirable to make the first shot count! And so, again, the aim had to be deadly. It must be remembered that these weapons were developed in a country where most of the shooting was done in the deep shade of forests. Aperture sights were out of the question; and aperture sights are the only sort that do not blur near the eye. Try it. You will find it impossible to focus sharply on the rear sight, the front sight, and the object of aim all at the same time. One of them must be blurred somewhat. Usually it is the rear sight, because a slight blur there is of lesser importance. How can this be obviated? By getting the eyes farther away from the rear sight. Try that. Lay your rifle across a table and then look over the sights from a little distance back. Both the sights and the object of aim will be clear and defined; and naturally that makes for better accuracy. The only way to gain this result is to build a very long barrel and place the rear sight some distance down it. For remember, if you want accuracy there must be considerable between the front and rear sights. In addition to this consideration there is no question that a strong man can hold a muzzle-heavy gun steadier than he can a muzzle-light gun; and these were strong men.

Besides, the thick barrel vibrates less than the thin barrel, has less "whip', as it is called. A modern light rifle often has a tremendous "whip", sufficient to throw the bullet off the mark, but since the whip is always the same it can be compensated for by sights. If the powder charge is changed, however, then the amount and perhaps the direction of the whip changes, so that your former sighting would be no good at all. That is one reason why reduced charges are so unsatisfactory in modern rifles. But these thick, heavy barrels reduced whip to almost nothing. It was still further reduced by the material from which the barrels were made, a very soft iron, so soft that a shaving could be cut from the edge of the octagon barrel without dulling a knife. The fact that they made the knives showed that they could make harder metal; but this soft iron had less vibration, less whip.

There was also less recoil to a heavy gun. this does not sound important; certainly these husky frontiersmen ought not to have minded that, especially in view of the "kick" we get along with in our modern rifles. It was not important when the butt was rested against the shoulder. But very often the butt was rested on the upper forearm, or even in the crook of the elbow. It enabled the shooter to hold looser and across his body, which made for steadiness: but it was especially practised because he could shoot from behind a tree without exposing more than an eye and his forearm. And that was a healthy thing to do!

The sights were set low on the barrel not only for the obvious reason that they were less liable to injury, but also to prevent the rifleman from "drawing coarse," that is taking in too much of the front sight and hence shooting too high. We do that on purpose sometimes when shooting at longer ranges, but they get the same effect, it must be remembered, by increasing the powder charges. As has been said, the sights were in forest country adjusted for one hundred yards for full charges and one hundred and fifty yards for double charges. In the open country and in war they made these point-blank ranges longer.

Shooting across the body and from behind trees accounts for the deep scooped butt-plates and for the shortness and "drop" of the stocks. On the right side of the latter was a trap with a hinged brass cover for patches and grease. You may be sure that the brass was never polished! Indeed when the metal anywhere began to show bright it was rubbed with the crushed pod of a green hazelnut or some other vegetable acid. No one wanted a glint of light to betray him to his foes.

The bore at the muzzle was very slightly enlarged to permit of seating the bullet easily, which rested on a greased patch and was rammed home so just as to touch the powder, but not to crush the grains. That is another silly legend, that the bullet must be rammed down hard "until the ramrod jumps out of the barrel." Such a procedure would give an astounding variety of pressures; and our forebears knew better. Home-made linen was used for the patches. It is generally buckskin in the story books; but buckskin was too thick and was never used when linen could be had. It permitted quicker loading, because the bullet did not need to be forced in to make a tight fit; it made a gas check that prevented the gas from getting into the barrel ahead of the bullet; it prevented stripping the ball, and so "leading" the barrel; and it made possible firing many times without cleaning.

The flint lock, of course they used because they had no other. If they could have had percussion they would have been more pleased. But a properly made flint lock was not too slow for accurate shooting. They are judged mainly by the crude specimens to be found on the old Brown Bess muskets and other crude atrocities to be seen hanging on our walls. These had a ponderous hammer with a long sweep, a cumbersome heavy trigger, an appreciable hang fire. Click--floo--bang! they went. But the rifles of the hunters were furnished with finely adjustable set triggers that went off at a touch. For the benefit of those who do not know: a set triggeer outfit consists of two triggers; when one is pressed it "sets" the other, which will then go off literally "at a touch." Until set, however, it is safe. The spring, lock, and pan all worked smoothly and accurately together, "like two sides of a wolf trap," as somebody expressed it. The "mainspring," wrote the same man, "has an even velvety feel, soft yet quick and sharp. It shot with remarkable eveness. This was due to the fact that the same amount of gas escaped from the touch hole each time it was fired. The touch hole was bushed with platinum and therefore never burned out. And, finally, I never saw this arm misfire. Its owner never used any but the finest French flints, thin and very sharp. They were semi-transparent, and one would fire 150 shots."

That was something all these men insisted on, the thin, clear flint, scraped very fine and clean, and held by very tight screws. That, with the other details noted above, practically obviated hang-fires.

Another thing they were extremely particular about was the quality of the powder. They made gunpowder in America then, but it was of an inferior quality, consumed mainly by farmers. Occasionally a backwoodsman might employ it on game near home but never, it he could help it, on any serious business. He wanted French powder, with its fine, hard grains of a glossy black. This was quicker and more uniform in action, and when it was used the rifle did not need wiping out so often. Caked powder dirt, as we all know, is fatal to accuracy.

This powder was carried in a powder horn of from a half pound to a pound capacity. It was literally a cow or buffalo horn, but was far from the ugly clumsy makeshifts we see hanging on old muskets. Our frontiersman used to scrape and scrape again until the horm was almost as thin as isinglass. When the grains of the powder could be seen through the horn, it was considered a good job. From the tip of the horn depended by a thong the charger, hung mouth down to keep it dry. Never in any circumstances did they use metal powder horns. They were made even then, but they were used almost exclusively by the farmer and the military. Powder carried for any length of time in copper or iron is sure to deteriorate because these metals "sweat,"--accumulate moisture at different temperatures. Powder came from the factories in canisters, but it was invariably transferred to wooden kegs when it was to be stored for any length of time; or in gourds for lighter transportation................. The bullets were carried in a pouch, which, by the way, was called the shot pouch, never the bullet pouch.

With this outfit the first class shot could not drive nails at a hundred yards, nor superimpose balls one over the other, but he coud do excellent shooting.

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