Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Smoothbore or Rifle?

Smoothbore or Rifle?

Someone asked me recently which did I recommend, smoothbore or rifle. They also wanted to know about advantages & disadvantages & what calibres I would recommend, & what do I use & if I had a choice what would I purchase. The choice you make depends on several factors; what are you used to using, do you have a personal preference, what sort of country are you using this gun in, what game are you likely to encounter? So baring this in mind, I will do the best I can to answer the question, smoothbore or rifle?

I have used both, rifle & smoothbore. In the Territory where there was a lot of open ground I hunted Buffalo & wild boar with a .50 calibre rifle. Here in New England I use a .60 calibre/20 gauge flintlock fusil with a 42 inch barrel in forest & woodland & hunt small game such as rabbit & larger game like goat & wild boar.

The smoothbore is more versatile than the rifle, in that it is easier to load, you do not have to wipe the barrel in between shots, you can use bird shot, swan shot (buckshot), or round ball, or any combination of two of these. You do not need to use a patched ball, in fact the smoothbore was not originally shot with patching. It uses wads or wadding which is easier to come by in a wilderness situation. If for some reason you were to run out of lead, then you can use other projectiles wrapped in leather or cloth to protect the bore. Disadvantages of the smoothbore are: not as accurate over long distances. Maximum accurate range is generally accepted as being 50-75 yards. I have never shot game at a distance greater than 30 yards with my fusil, & usually the distance is from point blank to 25 yards. But in target practice I have shot accurately out to at least 50 yards.

The author’s firelock English fusil in .62 cal/20 gauge with a 42 inch barrel.

The rifle is generally accepted as being accurate out to 100 yards, some claim accuracy out to 200 yards. Even with a rifle I have never shot game at these distances, I prefer to get in close. Just as the smoothbore comes in a variety of bore sizes, so does the rifle. A good middle of the road calibre in my opinion is a .45 fullstock. This calibre with good placement will take small game such as rabbits, & larger game such as goats & wild boar. For larger game such as buffalo I recommend a .50 or .54 calibre. I have a lovely little .32 calibre flintlock which will take small game like rabbits, or larger game like goats, but I would not take on large pigs with it at any distance. However, it is very economical using very little lead, & only requires about 14 grains of 3FG gunpowder.

Disadvantages of the rifle are: harder to load, you need to wipe the barrel on most rifles between shots or it is possible to get a ball stuck in the barrel, unless you are prepared to sacrifice some accuracy & reload with just a ball & no patch. You can’t use shot in a rifle without leading up the rifling, & you are limited to what you can use as a projectile should you run out of lead. Rifles have heavier barrels & tend to be heavier to carry than a fusil but probably no heavier than a large musket such as the Brown Bess.

Author’s .32 calibre Mountain Rifle with double triggers & an extended ramrod.

Survival Note: Someone suggested that in a modern day self defence/skirmish situation they would rather have a modern firearm than a flintlock gun. Given the choice I would tend to agree, but there are other considerations. (1) other aspects of the flintlock make it a more viable proposition as a survival firearm, (2) one must also consider all of a woodsrunner’s equipment & take it into account. And (3) no matter how fast a person can shoot, it all comes down to one shot in the end. If your first shot does not count, then there is a good chance that the rest of the magazine won’t do any better than the first if fired rapidly with no clear view of the target. If I were using a modern gun against a muzzle-loading gun in a skirmish, I would not consider myself any safer just because I had a modern gun.


Jenny said...

You might this from Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia" interesting -

The law requires every militia-man* to provide himself with the arms usual in the regular service. But this injunction was always indifferently complied with, and the arms they had, had so frequently been called for to arm the regulars, that in the lower parts of the country they are entirely disarmed. In the middle part of the country a fourth or fifth part of them may have such firelocks as they had provided to destroy the noxious animals which infest their farms; and on the western side of the Blue Ridge they are generally armed with rifles."

- Query IX, "The number and condition of the Militia and Regular Troops, and their Pay."

This looks like one of the pieces that was compiled during the Revolution, c. 1780, so I think the lower absolute numbers among non-combatants at that time makes sense.

Also, remember he's explicitly talking about Virginia. I suspect the Carolinas and maybe Maryland wouldn't be that different, but New England might be.

That said, there does look to be a wild country/big game role and a settled country/farm chores role, for what it's worth. Does that square with your direct experience?

* "Every able-bodied freeman" ages 16-50

Lori Benton said...

Hi! Great information here. I'm curious about how an 18th century hunter would carry a long rifle on horseback. I know it can be carried crosswise on the knees, but if they needed their hands free, where did they keep the rifle? In some sort of scabbard? I've seen modern scabbards. If they had them, where on the saddle were they, and were they called scabbards or something else?

I'm thinking the rifles were too long to be slung across their backs?

Le Loup said...

Sorry Jenny but your question went right over my head, not your fault I am sure, I just don't understand it. Getting old!

Lori, no they are not too long to sling on the back. I use a heavy leather tie which can be quickly removed if needs be. There were no scabbards to my knowledge for non military use, but the long gun is easily carried across the saddle and the reigns held in one hand. You only need one hand for the reigns, or no hands if you guide with your knees.

Karl said...

Nice write up there Keith,

Too many people seem to have the idea that they need to be able to use max firepower down range in a defensive situation... that may work in the movies but its not real life.

As proven by modern warfare, a person armed with an obsolete bolt action rifle can stop a battalion of well armed soldiers in their tracks for hours if not days at a time, so long as that one person follows the basic precepts of shoot and scoot...

Survival is not warfare, too many people confuse the two, in a survival situation if you have to shoot your way out, you have made some pretty big mistakes to get into that situation... better to use stealth and cunning than rely on lead down range to keep you safe...



Lori Benton said...

Thanks Le Loup. You living history guys are such a great resource for writers!

jbt said...

In the Western USA, a .50 or .54 cal. rifle is a minimum. I prefer a .62 flinter. Wide open spaces and l-o-n-g distances seem to be the rule out here. The larger calibers will carry the energy further.

Le Loup said...

Karl. Absolutely right. Keep a low profile & avoid firefights whenever possible. Always difficult to qualify statements of this sort without disclosing personal information, which I have no intention of doing on the net.

Lori. I have been saying this for years, I even mention it on the back cover of my books. Maybe the general public don't notice, but for people like me it spoils the story when you read something that you know for a fact is either unlikely or not possible. It is so easy to find the correct information, so why guess at it or just assume.
Good to see a writer taking her work seriously & educating the public at the same time.

Le Loup said...

Ah JBT, but the bears are not so big here! But I agree, if I was there I would want a big calibre also.

Steve Florman said...

"If I were using a modern gun against a muzzle-loading gun in a skirmish, I would not consider myself any safer just because I had a modern gun."

Given the level of skill with which I have seen some shooters handle rifled and smoothbore muzzle-loaders (and I myself am a decent, if not great, shot at anything under 100 yds with a minie ball), I would agree with you completely. Now, up against a modern .308 with a serious scope where you could be sniped before you knew you had an enemy is one thing, but in a standard firefight, the AR-15-wielding modern shooter who scoffs at the blackpowder rifle does so at his peril.

Jenny said...

Loup - I'm sorry, I should have phrased that better.

I'm taking Jefferson to mean that along the frontier rifles were more popular because - at that time and place - big wild game was more prevalent. Contrariwise, in the more settled areas one would tend to be shooting at wild birds or troublemakers in the hen house instead of elk or deer or "wild beef." Hence fowlers being more common in the farmlands, rifles in the back country.

On the other hand, it could also be a cultural thing - I can say most all the Southern Appalachian back country stuff I see is usually fairly explicitly talking about rifles, but the reenactor norm seems more smoothbore.. I think that's because of a general bias towards the New England experience, which seems to have lots of subtle little differences.

So my question I suppose is - given that you've been using both - would you say the distinction between settled areas and frontier areas Mr. Jefferson mentions is predominantly a matter of practicality, or a matter of culture?

Le Loup said...

Jenny. I really don't know how popular the rifle was on the frontier before the Revolution. Rifles were more popular on the continent than in England (An Essay On Shooting 1789). The first rifles were loaded by driving the lead ball down the barrel with a mallet, no patch was used. In Germay they started using leather & cloth to patch the ball. Experimentation with rifling was ongoing,straight,twist, deep groove & shallow groove.
Most country people I think, especially from England, would stick with what they knew best, the smoothbore. Also it is more versatile making it practicle & it is much easier & quicker to load.
At what stage rifles in the New World became popular I can't say, but I think that the smoothbore never lost its popularity with settlers/farmers.
Sorry I can't give you a more positive answere. I chose the smoothbore because I prefere it, not just for its versatility & practicallity, but because the fusil is lighter than a big bore rifle, & it suits the game & the forest environment where I live.
Also as the smoothbore was easier to shoot, just point, it made it a good choice for family use & defence.

testit said...

Wow.. what a wealth of useful info. Any recommendations of where to purchase a smooth bore?

With emphasis of functionality and ease of use over tradition?

From what you've said,

.62 cal /20 ga is the way to go?

What about bbl length?
Brass over Steel furniture?
are rear sights preferable ? or just the front?

Keith H. Burgess said...

Testit. If you are in Australia, try Green River Rifle Works in SA.

For survival purposes the best is still flintlock.
.62 is my personal preference, so is the longer 42 inch barrel.
Furniture is a personal choice, I prefer iron over brass.
I point & shoot, so a rear sight is of no use to me. Again, personal choice. A front bead is always a good idea in my opinion.