I got interested in long-range flintlock shooting in a roundabout way. Nearly 20 years ago, while I was researching an article on double rifles, I learned that the famous revolutionary war rifleman, Timothy Murphy, may have used a double-barreled rifle during the battle of Bemis Heights to shoot British general Simon Frasier. He made that shot from a range of 300 yards. I was impressed, and since then I’ve read everything on Tim Murphy that I could find.
I was surprised to learn that Murphy’s gun wasn’t a flintlock version of the classic British safari rifle, but, rather, it was a swivel breech rifle. This is an over/under style of rifle where there is one cock, but each barrel is equipped with its own frizzen and pan. This design gives a shooter two quick shots. You cock and fire the top barrel, then you hit a release that allows you to rotate the barrels, bringing the second barrel to the top where you can cock and fire a second time. Murphy’s swivel breech rifle was made for him in 1776 by Easton, Pennsylvania riflesmith Isaac Worly.
A couple of years ago I built myself a swivel breech rifle using one of the excellent kits made by David Price. And this past summer I was shooting that rifle, which I call, “Swivel Hips” at a small, rendezvous in north east Pennsylvania. Besides the usual woodswalk, novelty shoot and paper target matches, this event had a 22-inch steel plate set up at 250 yards, as a just-for-fun target. Twelve of us shot at it off-hand, and we all hit it, mostly on the first shot. It was a thrill to hear that steel ring after I pulled the trigger, but I felt that there was a lot of luck involved in making that shot. It made me wonder what it would take to consistently make that shot on a man-sized target.
I think it is fair to say that many of us use our rifles differently than our eighteenth-century forbearers did. Those of us who use our smokepoles for hunting often look for shots within 100 yards. And, in my part of the country, most muzzleloading competitions feature shots taken at ranges from 10 yards out to 80 yards. The close targets can be quite challenging, like cutting a playing card or breaking a piece of string, but they primarily test the rifle’s potential as a short-range precision instrument. And, most shots are made shooting off-hand. That was rarely the case in the 18th century. As the Reverend Joseph Doddridge said in “Notes on the Settlements and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1763-1783”:
“The current mode of shooting off-hand was not then in practice…Their shooting was from a rest, and at as great a distance as the length and weight of the barrel of the gun would throw a ball on a horizontal level.”
From what I’ve read, most shooting matches started at a range of 100 yards and went to successively longer ranges, with shooters being eliminated by misses, until only one marksman was left.
In warfare riflemen operated at ranges that were beyond the capabilities of muskets. There would be no point in using rifles otherwise. Rifles are very slow to load, and, without a bayonet, they were of little value in a close quarters fight. A man with a smoothbore, who takes pains with loading and aiming, can hit an opponent at 75 yards routinely, and at 100 yards more often than you would think. So, it stands to reason that military riflemen would be expected to operate at ranges in excess of 150 yards.
That seems to be the case. George Hanger, a British army colonel operating in America during the Revolutionary War said American riflemen were expected to be able to make head shots at 200 yards. He said, “I am certain that provided an American rifleman was to get a perfect aim at 300 yards at me standing still, he most undoubtedly would hit me, unless it was a very windy day.”
Even from a rest, that is darned good shooting!
It made me wonder how 18th century marksmen sighted-in their rifles. Most people I know sight their rifles in at 25 yards, which gives them a pretty effective shooting coverage from zero to 125 yards, with just minor hold-over or hold-under for precision shooting. For instance, most muzzleloaders sighted at 25 yards will shoot about four inches low at 100 yards, which makes it easy to hit the vitals on a deer-sized target, or on a 12-inch steel plate. But that same patched round ball will hit almost three feet lower at 200 yards, and it will hit a whopping 10 feet low at 300 yards.
I doubt that revolutionary war era riflemen were consistently making head shots at 200 yards by aiming three feet over their target. This is only speculation on my part, but my guess is that they were sighting their rifles to be dead-on at 200 yards. The reason for that is simple ballistics, and it is a technique employed by most knowledgeable, open-country hunters. I learned about it as a kid in the 1960s by reading Jack O’Connor’s articles in “Outdoor Life” magazine.
When you sight in at 200 yards you shoot your rifle at a higher angle than when you sight in at 100 yards. So, even though a 100-yard zero means your bullet drops three feet by 200 yards, when you have a two-hundred-yard zero you are dead-on at 200 yards, but you are only hitting about 16 inches high at 100 yards.
Practically that is a big advantage. With a rifle zero’d at 100 yards, you need to aim three feet high to make a 200-yard head shot, so your entire target is invisible to you at the moment of the shot, because it is obscured by the gun barrel. But with a rifle zero’d at 200 yards, you aim right at the head at 200 yards. And, if a closer shot presents itself, for example, a redcoat standing 100 yards away, you would aim 16 inches low, in this case about at the man’s sternum. If you do that you can still make that head shot. With a two-hundred yard zero, your target remains visible to you while shooting at all ranges, from contact distance out to 200 yards.
The first step in long-range shooting is to develop an accurate load. A lot of people I know do their load development at 25 yards. I have found that to be less than ideal for long-range accuracy. 25 yards just isn’t a long enough distance to see what a particular load is capable of. With most modern-made barrels, you could shoot a rock wrapped in a leaf, and still get a decent group at 25 yards.
I think 50 yards is the minimum distance for evaluating load accuracy, and 100 yards is better. Even if you have no intention of ever doing long range shooting, I still recommend you do your load development at 100 yards. After you find your best load, you can sight in at 25 yards.
When I sighted in Swivel Hips I used .530-inch round balls in all the loads. I did some preliminary shooting with 80 grains of 2Fg Graf’s black powder to determine what thickness of patch shot the best. I shot with three thicknesses of pillow ticking, all lubed with lamb’s tallow, 0.015-inch, 0.018-inch and 0.020-inch patch. Of the three, the 0.018-inch thick patches shot significantly better groups
With the ball and patch combination settled I started working on the powder charge. I was using Graf’s 2Fg powder. This powder is made in Germany by Wano. I find it to be very consistent, but it fouls pretty heavily, though the fouling is moist, so it is easily cleaned. I use 2Fg in all bores above .50 caliber. I know there are a lot of people who use 3Fg exclusively, and I think that works ok at lower powder charges, but when you start using higher powder charges to increase velocity, with 3Fg I find that marginal velocity drops off sharply, while pressure mounts very quickly. With 2Fg, I can continue to get big jumps in velocity as I increase the powder charge, and pressure remains much lower than with 3Fg.
And, for long-range shooting, I want all the velocity that I can get. With short-range shooting, a lot of people look for the lightest, accurate load, but I don’t think that is the best way to go for long-range shooting. Whatever your velocity is at the muzzle, by 200 yards, your round ball will have lost about half of its speed. The longer a ball is in flight to cover a specific distance, the more it will drop by the time it reaches that target. So, a ball travelling at 1,700 feet per second will drop 113 inches at 300 yards. If that same ball leaves the muzzle travelling only 1,300 feet per second, it will have dropped 143 inches at 300 yards, nearly three feet more drop than at the higher velocity.
When I was working up a load I tried four powder charges; 80 grains, 100 grains, 110 grains and 120 grains. As you can see from the charts, the 110-grain load produced a three-inch group at 100 yards. That was the best 100-yard group shot with that rifle. The velocity for that load was 1,681 feet per second. I wanted a load that would make 1,800 feet per second, but going up to 120 grains of powder produced a lousy group, and the velocity was only 1,712 fps…not that much of an improvement.
My swivel breech rifle has 32-inch barrels. That keeps the rifle pretty light. It weighs in at just eight and a half pounds, rather that the 12-plus pounds that most swivel breech rifles weigh. But, it does limit the velocity I can achieve. If you have a 42-inch barrel, you can get significantly higher velocity than I do.
Now that I knew what my load would be, I zero the rifle for 200 yards. I actually did this right on the 100-yard range. In order to do it, I needed a chronograph to measure the load’s velocity, and I needed a ballistics calculator. The calculator is basically a computer program where you enter the velocity, the ballistic coefficient and weight of the projectile, the height of the rear sight, and some environmental data and it will calculate bullet drop at different ranges.
When I ran the data for the 110-grain load into the calculator, I saw that I would be sighted in at 200 yards when my 100-yard point of impact was 16 inches above my 100-yard point of aim. So, I filed my front sight until I was hitting 16 inches high at 100 yards.
I don’t know how Tim Murphy set up his swivel breech rifle, but I decided that I would set up Swivel Hips so one barrel was zero’d for 200 yards, and the second barrel would be zero’d for 25 yards. That would allow me to shoot, with some degree of precision, in both short-range and long-range matches with the same rifle.
With that done, I trekked out to the 200-yard range. I brought a roll of life-sized B-27 silhouette targets, and I brought a steel plate that was 20 inches tall by 12 inches wide. I thought that plate would be a good analog for the vital zone of a man.
I set up a B27 target at the 200-yard berm, and went back to the firing line to fire Swivel Hips from the bench. My first three shots were aimed at the head of the silhouette target. After checking the target, I saw that I was still hitting a little bit low. I couple of licks with the a file on the front sight had me making 200-yard head shots from the bench routinely.
When I felt comfortable that I could hit what I aimed at from a rest, I set up the steel plate target. From the bench I hit that 20×12 inch target just about everytime. That made me feel pretty cocky, so I decided to try the same shot off-hand. That piece of steel looked a lot smaller when my front sight was waving in the breeze. But, when I squeezed off the first round, I was rewarding by a clear “DING!” as the 220-grain ball whacked the steel plate.
I thought I was quite the crack shot, but five misses in a row brought me back to reality. Ultimately, I hit three times out of 10, off-hand at 200 yards. That is hardly in Tim Murphy’s league, but good enough for me.