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
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.
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
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
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
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.