There’s nothing like a good detective story. When coupled with the history of a Revolutionary War weapon, it gets even more interesting. Special thanks go to Russell Malcolm, Patrick Donovan, and Don Hagist for their help in telling this one.
Hanging on the wall of our Members Lounge in the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum (click here to book a tour) 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. Smoothbore flintlock muskets were not particularly accurate over distance. At a range of up to 50 yards, they could hit a man-sized target. Meanwhile, weapons with rifled barrels had a much longer range and greater accuracy. But muskets were relatively easy to load, required less cleaning while in action, 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.
In 1770, a new Pattern Carbine was developed for non-commissioned officers in grenadier and light infantry companies. 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 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 sent to Quebec in 1776 following the outbreak of war in America. In 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 in which the British were defeated. In October of 1777, General John Burgoyne surrendered some 5000 English and Hessian troops who remained prisoners until the end of hostilities in 1783.
So, what do we know about our carbine? Quite a bit: the lock is stamped 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). It weighs 7.2 pounds and fires a 0.68 caliber projectile. An oval escutcheon on the top of the stock behind the lock is marked “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.
Don Hagist has a particular interest in British soldiers who fought in the 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, 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. According to Don:
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 is the pair of 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 used a muster roll of the 24th Regiment to trace the likely user.
There were ten companies in the regiment,” he explained, “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.
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 probably was 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 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. Don also discovered Hughes was captured at Saratoga and was 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.
We’re still looking into how our Pattern Carbine came into the Varnum collection. While no organized Rhode Island forces fought at Saratoga, some individuals 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.
So, there’ll be more to come. Needless to say, with our outstanding array of weaponry, there are countless stories. Stay tuned.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin