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"How common were pistols with the light infantry?" Topic

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perfectcaptain21 Feb 2021 9:20 a.m. PST

I have read a few light infantry manuals from this general period as well as personal journals, but I have found almost no reference to pistols except in the hands of an officer. Does anyone know of accounts where pistols were carried by irregulars, provincials, or even regular light infantry? Not that they were issued by the government, but were they acquired and used in North America? They seemed to be carried by irregulars in the Balkans.

Just Curious

doc mcb21 Feb 2021 9:46 a.m. PST

How long did the Highlanders keep theirs?

Eumelus Supporting Member of TMP21 Feb 2021 9:53 a.m. PST

Pistols were fragile, difficult to keep loaded on the march, and above all heavy. Irregulars (and pirates and bandits and the like) might so encumber themselves, as they were typically operating either from home or from a mountain camp not far from the intended raid. But AFAIK, regular light infantry who have to make long marches day after day either never had pistols or got rid of them pretty soon.

(Officers are an exception, as they have horses to carry their pistols and a batman to maintain and load them.)

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP21 Feb 2021 9:54 a.m. PST

Very few pistols were manufactured in the colonies, and pistols are not a particularly practical weapon for a soldier. Pistol ownership would have been pretty low.

I don't think that you can compare irregulars in the Balkans with soldiers in America. If I had to come up with an analogy on the fly, I'd say that the Balkan irregular was more like a cowboy than a regular soldier, so they had their own needs.

Look at the ACW infantrymen who started out with pistols and other impedimentia that they quickly ditched.

historygamer21 Feb 2021 1:07 p.m. PST

Are you specifically asking about the AWI?

The reason I ask that is people often post to the wrong, or multiple boards.

perfectcaptain21 Feb 2021 4:24 p.m. PST

I was really thinking of the period from 1755-1815 to be honest.

Bill N21 Feb 2021 8:49 p.m. PST

A pistol was, for lack of a better term, a gentleman's weapon. Unlike the fowler or rifle it wasn't something the typical famer or trapper would find useful. Even a blunderbuss might be more useful. In the aftermath of Moore's Creek it was reported that the victors seized 1500 rifles, 350 guns with shotbags, and 150 swords and dirks. I have seen no mention of pistols seized.

historygamer22 Feb 2021 9:27 a.m. PST

"I have found almost no reference to pistols except in the hands of an officer. Does anyone know of accounts where pistols were carried by irregulars, provincials, or even regular light infantry?"

Speaking for British for F&I and AWI – That's because most officers fought on foot, not on horseback. If they carried pistols, they had to be on horse, as that is where their pistol holsters were to be found.

Most officers carried a fusil for personal defense, not pistols – though larger scale sculptors like the look of a pistol waiving officer as it looks cool, but has little fact behind it.

historygamer22 Feb 2021 10:55 a.m. PST

Sorry, I missed this part:

"Not that they were issued by the government, but were they acquired and used in North America? "

Where would they have carried it, and how would they acquire ammunition for it? Not practical.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP22 Feb 2021 11:39 a.m. PST

"larger scale sculptors like the look of a pistol-waving officer" Sadly true. I'm stuck with several I'd like to replace. And as far as I'm concerned whoever was responsible for that old Revel sculpt holding both pistol and musket has a lot to answer for--though maybe not as much as the IMEX person who had cavalry firing carbines on a galloping horse.

historygamer22 Feb 2021 12:28 p.m. PST

I am guessing the put a pistol in their hands so they have fire power in a skirmish game.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP24 Feb 2021 2:49 p.m. PST

So much the worse for the skirmish game. A commissioned officer shooting people himself is an officer doing the work of a corporal.

perfectcaptain01 Mar 2021 8:21 a.m. PST

I found something interesting in the journals of Robert Rogers on the subject. It is in a letter he included from a "Gentleman of the army" who was a volunteer (seemingly a regular officer training with the rangers) on a long range patrol who, after a lost battle wandered for several days in the woods with two companions. This was in the dead of winter near Ft. Carillon in four feet of snow, and he had lost his coat in the rout. He had also lost his snowshoes.

Yet after five days he says when they were about to expire from cold and deprivation, they tried to light a fire using their last dry cartridge, and that he lit it by snapping his pistol over it.

So this Gent not only carried a pistol, but hung onto it when he lost everything else. He still had his rifle during his wandering but had just lost it before the pistol event.

This doesn't count for a lot of data, but it seems some people (at least one!) thought a pistol worth hanging onto in forest warfare.

historygamer01 Mar 2021 8:53 a.m. PST

Interesting find, indeed. It raises several questions How did he lose his (over?)coat and snowshoes since it was an ambush? One would assume he was completely clothed when first attacked and wearing his snowshoes? Where had the pistol been kept to that point a pack, or somewhere else? What type of pistol was it, as many of the Crown pistols were large and cumbersome, though there was also the smaller steel-handled pistol which is often associated with Highland troops?

perfectcaptain01 Mar 2021 10:18 a.m. PST

He claims he was not much at snowshoeing and that his came loose during the initial retreat. Their ambush was rather suddenly planned, but I'm going to guess that he took his coat off for freedom of action, an expedient which appears in many accounts, along with putting aside packs. He and his companions were very afraid of Indians, so they hung onto their muskets until he slipped near a waterfall and lost it.

As to the type of pistol I can't say.

John the OFM01 Mar 2021 11:03 a.m. PST

You describe him as a volunteer gentleman. I doubt very much that a unit would carry pistols.
They're bulky, and less accurate than a musket. Rifle in the FIW with Rogers? Highly doubtful. HIGHLY doubtful.
Not really proof, but I've never seen an illustration of LI or Rangers in that period with anything remotely resembling a pistol holster.

historygamer01 Mar 2021 12:09 p.m. PST

So gentleman of the army could mean a couple of things – but the most common understood usage at the time was that he was someone seeking an opening (commission), through combat casualties, as an officer. He could have been on half pay (not likely at that time), or he could have been an officer from a line unit serving with the Rangers to learn woodcraft.

Hard to imagine wear he would have carried a pistol though, except in a pack perhaps.

perfectcaptain01 Mar 2021 12:28 p.m. PST

In the spring of 1757 Gen. Abercrombie asked Rogers to train men (about 50) from a bunch of different regular regiments, and they are called "volunteers". IIRC they are all Sergeants and up in rank. On his various scouting missions Rogers mentions that volunteers would come along, going back to 1755.

Other accounts from the period have the same scenario- volunteers tagging along to pick up woodcraft skills or to get noticed for promotion purposes.

On several occasions I've read both for Provincial and ranger recruits that they would be supplied with firearms that were to be given back at the end of service. Other times, a bounty was provided if you brought your own weapon or you could even turn in your weapon for a better one. There are several mentions of men with rifles, but some accounts, even from generals, seem overblown (one contemporary officer claiming that entire companies of rangers were rifle armed).

It does seem possible that some might have brought a rifle or even a pistol along. While the provincials had their share of vagabond recruits, there were some that had money- men like John Stark who was at the upper end of frontier society.

historygamer01 Mar 2021 2:32 p.m. PST

I believe there is a difference between volunteer and gentleman volunteer. If the original wording is correct. I can reach to a couple of acknowledged Rogers Rangers experts if you like. I'll ask about pistols too.

perfectcaptain01 Mar 2021 2:46 p.m. PST

Thanks historygamer, that would be great! But don't put yourself out too much, again, it's just idle curiousity…

historygamer01 Mar 2021 8:12 p.m. PST

Mine too. No problem, as I am in contact with some of them on a regular basis. :-)

Phatt Rhatt02 Mar 2021 7:27 a.m. PST

May of 1781, the First Battalion of the 71st Regiment turned into Ordinance Stores in Charleston, 315 pairs of "horseman's pistols". Pg 218-219
Small Arms of the British Forces in America 1664-1815
De Witt Bailey Ph.D.

perfectcaptain02 Mar 2021 8:44 a.m. PST

Fascinating! At least ten of the Volunteers to the rangers in 1757 were from the 42nd (Highland) Reg't.

I found this site talking about how ubiquitous pistols were with highlanders, and not just officers. Seems there would have been hundreds floating around during the campaign.

42flanker02 Mar 2021 8:57 a.m. PST

My understanding is that 'gentleman volunteer' is not a period term. Young men of promise but without means who served with the rank and file of a regiment in the hope of being granted a commission should one fall vacant were described simply as 'Volunteers.' At any rate, that was the case with my forbear in 1776 and the amended Army Lists and Gazette tend to bear that out.

This would be distinct from an officer volunteering for detached service, though I would imagine the colonel and maybe the odd General might have something to say about that.

Was it not assumed that an officer was a gentleman until proved otherwise?

perfectcaptain02 Mar 2021 9:19 a.m. PST

Great point. Here's what Rogers wrote:

"A Gentleman of the army, who was a volunteer of this party, and who with another fell into the hands of the French, wrote the following letter".

18th century letters between officers seem to use language like "gentlemen" and "your servant" in ways we don't today or even a few hundred years before. "Gentlemen Volunteer" as it appears in the 16th and 17th century *might* be an anachronism by the 18th; he probably just means "an officer" (who was writing to his regimental commander and who Rogers didn't want to name).

Gen. Frederick Haldiman is quoted by Rogers as writing "My best compliments to Cpt. Williams and to all the GENTLEMEN (my caps)" who had just fought in a large skirmish, which included some regulars, rangers and Mohawks.

So calling someone Gentlemen here is probably what Shakespeare would have called "dialogue of compliment".

historygamer08 Mar 2021 10:43 a.m. PST

From my friend, who is a leading researcher on the period:

"Regarding the volunteer you mention from Rogers' Journal, I would submit that he was an officer from the 27th Regiment of Foot (Inniskilling or Blakeney's) by the name of Francis Creed who was an ensign having a commissioned date of 27 Mar '58. Note he also had a fuzee (fusil) which would have been appropriate for an officer, as did Rogers. It would be difficult for me to ascertain how prevalent a pistol would be in Rogers' Rangers"

"Another officer, Captain-Lieutenant Henry Pringle, who was at what is referred to the Battle of Rogers' Rock on 13 March 1758 and taken prisoner, wrote to Colonel William Haviland that he had carried a pistol. (letter dated March 28, 1758)"

In regards to: May of 1781, the First Battalion of the 71st Regiment turned into Ordinance Stores in Charleston, 315 pairs of "horseman's pistols". Pg 218-219
Small Arms of the British Forces in America 1664-1815
De Witt Bailey Ph.D.

These men had likely been carrying pistols while serving as mounted infantry, and thus had to give them back upon completely such service. Cornwallis mounted a good deal of his troops during the spring and summer, at different times.

42flanker08 Mar 2021 11:03 a.m. PST

"Horseman's pistols"

Would that have included holsters or perhaps that equipage would have been a component part of the saddlery. Horse pistols were muckle big things were they not? Not for tucking in the waistband.

historygamer08 Mar 2021 11:24 a.m. PST

They were big, at least the Tower pistols were. Makes sense about the 71st having them since they were mounted at times. I do wonder where they got them from though? Not like the Army carried around wagon loads of pistols.

42flanker08 Mar 2021 11:57 a.m. PST

It seems that by 1776 the 42nd RH had dispensed with both broadswords and pistols, although while the evidence regarding swords is reasonably reliable, the question of pistols less so.

historygamer08 Mar 2021 12:38 p.m. PST

I'm not sure they carried them in this war, though I believe some/many/most highland troops did in the previous war.

perfectcaptain15 Mar 2021 9:36 a.m. PST

Thanks for checking with your friends, Historygamer! I think I read that pistols were tucked into belts and tied in place, but I can't remember where… when I hike into the woods I often bring a 20" hatchet which I just tuck into my belt, or with a small length of leather thong tied in a Canadian jam knot. You can tighten or loosen it with two fingers without even looking at it. Even in rough terrain, I've never lost it or even dropped it (except once when I was chased by bees, and I was holding it in my hands).

Bill N15 Mar 2021 10:47 a.m. PST

I hate to throw a monkey wrench in the works, but in May of 1781 the 1st battalion of the 71st had been destroyed at Cowpens and the 2nd was with Cornwallis moving from Wilmington to Virginia after having embarked on a march unencumbered by baggage from South Carolina to the Dan River and then having fought at Guilford Courthouse. It is unlikely that in May of 1781 the troops of either battalion was in a position to directly turn in their pistols to the Ordinance Stores in Charleston.

This suggests two possibilities. The first is that the reference is misleading as to when the pistols were turned in to Ordinance Stores; that they were actually turned in earlier when the 71st was pulled from anti-partisan duties and returned to the field army. The second is that the pistols were put in regimental baggage when the 71st returned to the field army, and they sat in regimental baggage for several months before being turned in to Ordinance Stores. If it was the latter then it is possible the regiment may have had a wagon or two of pistols.

historygamer15 Mar 2021 5:47 p.m. PST

Yet, pistols were not standard issue to infantry.

Further, there is no practical way to carry a pistol as an infantryman, let alone the special cartridges.

42flanker16 Mar 2021 8:22 a.m. PST

+1 Bill N

Heedless Horseman19 Jun 2021 8:59 p.m. PST

NOT 'in the know', but my tuppeny worth thoughts.
Infantry… no… as historygamer says… and infantry subject to drill, regs… and on a 'raid', probably not to be trusted with the things.
Think 'Highland Pistols' were mainly for the 'well off' but 'romanticised' as 'collectors items' survived.
Militia… maybe? But pistols expensive… Tomahawk/ knife more likely, though 'loot' possible.
Officers… had deep pockets… uniform and financial.. so MY opinion is yes, they would have had some sort of 'back up'… Wouldn't You?

John the OFM19 Jun 2021 9:09 p.m. PST

No. Not unless my servant was carrying it for me. grin

historygamer20 Jun 2021 11:09 a.m. PST

I'll say it again. Unless you have horse with holsters, there is no practical way to carry pistols.

John the OFM20 Jun 2021 1:02 p.m. PST

Yup. They're heavy, less accurate than a musket, one shot, time consuming to reload….
An officer's "back up" is his sword.
He is not expected to engage in combat with the enemy. That is what the lower class is for. grin His job is to lead his men. If he needs to defend himself, that is what his sword is for.

Phatt Rhatt21 Jun 2021 6:38 a.m. PST

Colonel Taylor wore, as most officers did, at that time, a pair of large pistols, tied to a belt and generally stuck into the belt, called slung pistols.
"Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South"
- Joseph Johnson pg 542

Phatt Rhatt21 Jun 2021 6:58 a.m. PST

Those who had a pistol had it slung by a strap the size of a bridle rein hung down on the left side over the sword which was hung higher than the modern way of wearing them so not to entangle their legs when acting on foot. Joseph Graham, S6937, pension account

John the OFM21 Jun 2021 7:22 a.m. PST

Here's a practical use for a pistol.
YouTube link

historygamer21 Jun 2021 5:37 p.m. PST

Phatt Rhatt – sounds like a tall tale to me. Never heard of it before nor seen it in any reference book. There is no art work to support it or existing piece either – at least that I've seen. Further, even if you carried it that way, it would have to be unloaded as it would never survive the tussle.

Can you cite it in a more credible source? Any of Neumann's works or in Don Troiani's? Or something similar? Any period art work?

Phatt Rhatt22 Jun 2021 6:37 a.m. PST

I agree, seems like something fake from a movie. The pension account is a very credible source. The other source I don't know about, but ran across it mentioning the pistols with Col Taylor. I agree with what you say, unless you were mounted with holsters I don't think you carried a pistol.
In December, 1781, the Ordinace Storeship Juliana, arrived in Charleston Harbor carrying a cargo of small arms which included "for the artillery" 400 pairs of pistols in 21 chests. – Small Arms of the British Forces in America 1664-1815
De Witt Bailey Ph.D. pg 219

historygamer22 Jun 2021 7:36 a.m. PST

Now that is interesting. Pistols for artillery. Hmmm. I'll have to pull that thread. Let me ask around on that one.

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