There’s nothing like a good detective story. When coupled with the history of an American Revolutionary War weapon, it gets even more interesting.
In a rack atop the 19th-century glass-front bookcase in the Varnum Commander’s Office is a rare English Carbine, a scaled-down version of the British Land Pattern Musket, commonly known as the “Brown Bess”. From 1722 to 1838, the British Army used the Land Pattern worldwide and some were used by colonists as well.
In the colonies, if you needed a musket, you were pretty much on your own. Fortunately, there were upwards of 3,000 gunsmiths scattered about the colonies and a number were here in Rhode Island. Many guns were made from parts of other weapons or from castings based on (or “patterned after”) earlier weapons. In fact, hanging on the wall just above the English Carbine is a pre-Revolutionary war era fowler (a musket used primarily for hunting) owned by Thomas Gould of Quidnessett. It is a perfect example of a gun made from various parts of different weapons. However, the story of the Gould fowler is for another time.
Smooth-bore flintlock muskets in this period were not particularly accurate over distance. At a range of up to 50 yards, they could hit a man-sized target (weapons with rifled barrels had a much longer range and greater accuracy). Muskets were relatively easy to load and could be fired up to four times a minute by a skilled foot soldier. Many variations were produced, including lighter-weight models called carbines, many of which were carried by non-commissioned officers.
Prior to the introduction of these weapons, up through the 17th century, a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in a European army would usually carry a weapon called a halberd or pike, a two-handed pole-arm. They were essentially a symbol of rank, but as evident by the sharpened tip on the example displayed in the Varnum Armory’s Commander’s Office, they could also be used to prod a recalcitrant soldier into action or as a weapon in its own right. During the French and Indian War, sergeants would frequently cast aside their halberd and take up the more practical musket. Since NCOs were charged with maintaining order in the firing lines, they were often in positions of close combat.
Hence, the need for a smaller, lighter weapon (which was not fitted with a bayonet). In 1770, a new Pattern Carbine was developed for non-commissioned officers in British grenadier and light infantry companies (again, the term “pattern” simply means the weapon was replicated from an original design, although mass production as we know it was still not in use). In a typical British regiment of 500 men, only about a half-dozen carbines were issued.
Our carbine belonged to the 24th Regiment of Foot, one of the British units that fought in the Battles of Saratoga. Originally formed in 1689, it was initially sent to Quebec in 1776 following the outbreak of war in America. By 1777, the regiment was part of the British effort to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies.
A complicated series of campaigns culminated with the Battles of Saratoga (September 19 and October 7, 1777) in which the British were defeated. British General John Burgoyne led his force down from Canada with the intention of joining with other forces marching northward and eastward and cutting off the New England colonies, but those troops never met up with him. Thus, cut off by a superior colonial force under General Horatio Gates, Burgoyne surrendered some 5000 English and Hessian troops who remained prisoners until the end of hostilities in 1783. At the surrender, the British troops stacked their weapons and marched away, leaving behind a trove of muskets for the colonial forces. Among those weapons was the carbine which is the subject of this story.
So, what do we know about our carbine? Quite a bit: still visible on close inspection of the lock is a stamp with a crown over the letters “GR” and “Dublin Castle”. This tells us the weapon was made in the Dublin Castle Armory in Ireland. The barrel is stamped with “24 REG” (later called the South Wales Borderers). The carbine weighs 7.2 pounds (as opposed to 10.4 pounds for a long Land Pattern musket) and fires a .68 caliber projectile (as opposed to a .75 caliber ball used in the standard-length weapon).
On our carbine is an oval escutcheon on the top of the stock behind the lock marked with a “4” over “2”. This identifies the carbine as belonging to the 4th company of the regiment with a rack number of 2. Since we know the 24th Regiment fought at Saratoga, it is likely that this weapon was one that was captured at that time. Now, our detective story gets even more interesting.
Rhode Island historian and author Don Hagist has a particular interest in British soldiers who fought in the American Revolution. Thanks to his research, assignment of the carbine can likely be traced down to one of three NCOs in the 24th Regiment of Foot. On a visit to the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum one day, Don noticed the carbine hanging on the wall. Recognizing that he was looking at a rare weapon, he asked to take a few photos and then started investigating. “I found this to be a rare Pattern 1770 Grenadier Sergeant’s Fusil, one of only a few thousand made at the Tower and Dublin Castle Armories,” he told us. Only about 100 of these carbines would have been among the thousands of muskets surrendered at Saratoga. What makes this weapon especially interesting are the two numbers on the wrist plate, as explained above. “British commanders were financially responsible for arms issued to their companies. Marking the weapons identified their unit assignment facilitating accountability,” Don explained.
Don used a muster roll of the 24th Regiment to trace the likely user. “There were ten companies in the regiment,” he said, “composing grenadier, light infantry and artillery.” Don noted that grenadiers were usually larger and stronger and were often used in assault operations. They were considered elite units as such. “The grenadier company was fourth in seniority (in the regiment), based on the rank and commission date of the company commander,” he said. The number “4” on our carbine corresponds to this fact. There were three sergeants in the grenadier company when the carbine was issued in 1771. The second of the three, according to the muster roll, was James Hughes. He was most likely issued the carbine marked “2”. “By 1777,” Don said, “Hughes was the company’s First Sergeant. There is no reason to think that he would have given up this weapon with his change in seniority.” While there is certainly some possibility that Sergeants Thomas Ford or Henry Fogg might have carried carbine 4/2, Don’s investigation indicated Hughes to be the most logical individual. He also found that Hughes was captured at Saratoga and repatriated to England after the war. Records indicate he applied for a soldier’s pension in 1784 at the age of 52, following some 29 years in the British Army.
One unanswered question is exactly how our Pattern Carbine came into the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum’s collection. No organized Rhode Island forces fought at Saratoga. However, it is possible some individuals from this area were likely there. The carbine could have come home with them or with one of the many other New Englanders who participated in the battles. Needless to say, with our Museum’s outstanding collection, there are countless stories yet to be told.
Special thanks go to Varnum Armory VP and Museum Curator Patrick Donovan, to Varnum member and arms expert Russell Malcolm, and to American Revolutionary War historian Don Hagist for their help on this story.