The British Short Land Pattern Musket would be the primary arm of the Continental Marines in their early days
Born in a Philadelphia bar called Tun Tavern, the Continental Marines- direct predecessor to the United States Marine Corps, would form under the command of Captain Samuel Nicholas. Commissioned by the Continental Congress to assemble two battalions of Marines, the enlistees would be armed with the contemporary muskets of their day. Like most Continental forces, the Marines would initially draw their arms heavily from the British and their Brown Bess Musket. There were several “patterns” of the Brown Bess in use, most differentiated by length. The Long Land Pattern and Short Land Pattern would be the mainstay shoulder fired weapons, with the Sea Service Pattern being issued to British Naval and Marine forces in 1778.
Tun Tavern in Philadelphia was an old brewhouse with exceptional history, most famously known for being the birthplace of the Marine Corps.
The efforts of American statesmen petitioning on behalf of the newly formed United States would see the French M1763 Charleville quickly become the standard issue musket of the American fighting man. A special naval version that had brass trimmings to limit corrosion, the M1766 Charleville would also be drawn by Marines from the ships they were stationed on.
M1763 Charleville musket with Naval motif on powder horn (Tim Plowman collection)
Imported in large numbers due to the tireless efforts of American statesmen like Benjamin Franklin, the Model 1763 Charleville would be the first “standard” U.S. long arm. Continental Marines would duly be supplied with the M1763 as the war progressed. A naval version with brass fittings to limit corrosion, known as the M1766 Charleville, would be used by sailors and Marines alike.
A landing party of Continental Marines. Their small arms wold vary throughout the war.
Initially, the Continental Marines would serve under Commodore Esek Hopkins and his First Squadron in the Caribbean. The Marines were quite successful amphibious raiders, seeing action in Nassau during several operations. Captain Nicholas would be promoted to major upon the Marines’ return to Rhode Island, and in December of 1776 his Marines were attached to General George Washington’s Continental Army. On January 3rd, 1777 the Marines and Washington’s army would defeat the British regulars at the Battle of Princeton.
Entering service in 1778, the Brown Bess Sea Service Pattern Musket was tailor-made for sailors and the Royal Marines. As such, the Continental Marines were savvy to use acquire them when possible.
After serving under Washington, the Continental Marines would resume their traditional naval duties. As their ranks grew in order to outfit new frigates, the Marines would next land on Nautilus Island and the Majabagaduce peninsula in Maine during the failed Penobscot Expedition. In a brutal beach landing and frontal assault, the Marines would suffer heavily, particularly due to the Naval commander’s failure to maneuver his ships into a support position. This failure allowed the British to bombard the pinned down Marines, dooming the landing. The failed expedition would come at the price of all American ships destroyed, and the American force having to retreat back to friendly lines on foot. After this disastrous affair, the Continental Marines would regroup and take part of the Willing Expedition. The Willing Expedition consisted of US forces attacking down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, eventually making their way to the Gulf of Mexico and raiding British forces in Florida. Further actions would include the Marine detachments sailing under famed naval leader John Paul Jones. Jones would achieve fame for launching raids on British soil, and other engagements as far away as the West Indies.
Another long arm used during the Revolutionary War period would be the Nock gun, a particularly nasty seven-barreled smoothbore flintlock that was meant to neutralize naval gun crews in one firing. It’s severe recoil could seriously injure the shooter, and its use was minimal. The Royal Navy would procure 500 Nock guns; it is unclear if any were used by the Continental Marines.
Of note to Marine Corps lore, the long lasting nickname of “Leatherneck” would emerge during the American Revolution. This new moniker would bear reference to the high leather collars that Marines would have on their green uniform coats, the purpose being protection from cutlass slashes in combat. The nickname is still popular today, making it the most venerated of many sobriquets bestowed upon the Corps.
The Continental Marines, like the Navy, were disbanded following the British surrender and war’s cessation. In 1794, both would be reestablished to ward off shipping harassment by French factions, as the French Revolutionary Wars left the nation in a state of turmoil. Most actions would again take place in the Caribbean, against both French and Spanish forces. The “riflemen from the sea” would now be armed with the first American-made standard issue musket, the Model of 1795. Made at the U.S. arsenals at Springfield Armory and Harper’s Ferry, the M1795 was for all intents and purposes an American copy of the M1763 Charleville. As with the M1763, the M1795 fired a .69 caliber round, considerably smaller than the .75 caliber Brown Bess used by the British. The most famous military action of the M1795 era would occur against the Barbary pirates at the Battle of Derne, when Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and eight M1795e quipped Marines, accompanied by several hundred mercenaries under the command of army Lieutenant William Eaton would capture the city’s battery. The decisive victory at Derne would lead to a favorable treaty, and bring the First Barbary War to an end. It was during this action that Marine lore holds Lieutenant O’Bannon was presented with a mameluke sword, which is worn by Marine officers in keeping with tradition to this day.
U.S. Marines aboard the USS Wasp engage the crew of the British HMS Reindeer during the War of 1812 (painting: SSgt John F. Clymer, USMC).
With the turn of a new century, the Marines would again find themselves squaring off against the British and their Brown Bess equipped forces during the War of 1812. Borne of the Napoleonic Wars and the British Royal Navy’s blockading of France, the War of 1812 would be fought on US soil and in Canada. The U.S. Marines would fare well in the war, successfully defending American ports against British assaults along the Great Lakes, and earning a reputation for marksmanship during the naval duals that would take place in the same region. The M1795 possessed an advantage in range and accuracy, and Marine riflemen would develop a keen reputation for an ability to snipe Royal Navy commanders during the frigate battles of that war.
US Marines holding the line during the Battle of Bladensburg.
The reputation of the Marines as fierce fighters further was bolstered at the Battle of Bladensburg, during the British march on the American capitol. Due to ineffective communication, the 103 Marines and 300 sailors in the brigade of Commodore Joshua Barney would not be given the order to fall back, but nonetheless would repulse British frontal advances, causing heavy casualties to the Red Coat infantry. Eventually, the Marines would be enveloped by the much larger British force, and overrun. According to tradition, it was this brave stand that led to the British sparing the Marine barracks and the Commandant’s house in Washington D.C., though like many traditional claims from that era, is unfalsifiable oral tradition. The battle however was still an unmitigated American disaster, and one of the darkest chapters in American military history as the White House was burned and Washington D.C. captured by the British.
The main U.S. musket of the War of 1812, the Springfield Armory M1795 was for the most part a direct replica of the M1763 Charleville that was imported during the American Revolution.
The Marines would be heavily engaged during the Battle of New Orleans, where their prowess as excellent marksmen would be tested in a delaying action during the Battle of Lake Borgne. Terribly outnumbered, the small American force was tasked with holding the approaching British invasion force for as long as they could in order to give General Andrew Jackson enough time to organize his defenses. Aside from the delaying action, Marines under the command of Major Daniel Carmick would hold the center of Jackson’s line, devastating the British attackers with accurate musket fire. The battle would occur after a peace treaty between the U.S. and Britain had been signed, but the news of such would arrive too late. The ensuing unnecessary British defeat would however do much to restore American pride after many stinging losses in a war that would end in stalemate.
The Marines held the center of General Andrew Jackson’s line during the Battle of New Orleans, the last significant combat in the War of 1812.
The M1816 musket would be the primary American long arm for over thirty years, and see combat with the Marines in conflicts in the Caribbean against the Spanish, the American interior against Native Americans, and in Mexico.
During the War of 1812, the M1795 musket was improved upon and updated, creating would would be called the Model of 1812 musket. Minor fixes to the stock, metal mechanisms, and parts interchangeability were the focus, and production of the M1812 would begin in 1814, making nearly all too late to make it to the American front line units fighting the British. Further refinements would birth another musket: the Model of 1816. The M1816 would have a more robust lock plate and improved stock, amongst a host of other small changes. M1816s would be continuously improved, with the Model of 1822, Model of 1835, and Model of 1840 all falling underneath the general M1816 umbrella. While official ordinance documentation would make a distinction between these models, the service branches and individual units would refer to them all as M1816s. Operationally, the M1816 would be issued to soldiers and Marines in the years following the end of the War of 1812, and would be used heavily during the Indian Wars of the early 18th Century.
Above: The US Marines in action during the Second Seminole War. Below: The Model of 1819 Hall breechloading rifle was used by the Marines briefly during the Seminole wars, alongside the standard issue M816 musket.
The M1816 would prove to be a solid musket, accurate and sturdy. The Marines would use the M1816 while protecting US interests against the Spanish and other foreign nations in the Caribbean, and while protecting trade routes. During this era, Marine Commandant Archibald Henderson would do much to expand the scope of the Marine Corps, and would use these conflicts, particularly the Second Seminole War as a vehicle to show the Marine Corps’ prowess as an expeditionary fighting force. Supplementing the M1816, the M1819 Hall rifle was a breechloading, single shot design that would be issued to the Marines during the Indian Wars. The Hall rifle was more accurate than the standard smoothbore musket, and the irregular warfare often encountered by the Marines would make this added accuracy a beneficial companion to Marine riflemen.
The Marines skill in combat at Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War would bolster their reputation as elite expeditionary force.
The Mexican-American War of 1847 would provide the Marine Corps further opportunities to distinguish themselves on the battlefield, and showcase their expeditionary value. Serving under the overall command of General Winfield Scott, the Marines would land near Veracruz on March 9th, 1847. Combat for the city would be vicious, but it would fall to American forces in two weeks. From there, Scott’s army would march to Mexico City. Here, the Marines would be tasked with capturing Chapultepec Castle, home to “the Halls of Montezuma” sung proudly as the opening lines of the Marine Corps Hymn. The fighting would be fierce, but at the end of the day the Marines would lower the Mexican flag and raise the Stars and Stripes to great fanfare in American media. The disproportionate losses suffered by Marine officers, both commissioned and non-commissioned, would lead to the incorporation of the “blood stripe,” the distinctive red stripe on the outside pant leg of the Marine dress blues uniform. From what ordnance documents show, the majority of the American forces in Mexico would be armed with M1816 muskets. However, it was during this time that flintlock ignition systems would become obsolete to those with percussion caps. The Model of 1841 “Mississippi Rifle” & Model of 1842, a percussion-fired version of the M1816, would be the first long arms of the percussion variety commonly used by American fighting men. While some regiments would be armed with percussion muskets, their use would be limited during the Mexican-American War. Sources for this era are admittedly scarce, however, and most simply mention the use of “flintlock muskets” in general. The Mexican-American War would be the last conflict the Marines would fight with the M1816, as U.S. armed forces as a whole began shifting to percussion muskets at the end of the decade.
The Model of 1842 musket would be the first percussion musket used by the Marines.
Amred with M1842 muskets, the Marines would be tasked with storming Harper’s Ferry after abolitionist John Brown’s seizure of the armory.
The tumultuous antebellum years of the mid-18th Century would culminate with the Marines playing a crucial role in one of the most noteworthy precursors to the war of succession. When abolitionist John Brown seized the armory at Harper’s Ferry hoping to spark an armed insurrection, the Marines would be tasked with storming Brown and his compatriots holed up inside. The Marines would carry their newly issued Model of 1842 muskets to Harper’s Ferry, and with bayonets fixed, would successfully storm the armory and capture Brown. The Marines would be led by Lieutenant Israel Greene, who would fall under the overall command of Colonel Robert E. Lee for the operation. Like so many other talented and experienced Marine leaders, Lieutenant Greene would resign and join the Confederacy, eventually serving as a major in the Confederate Marines.
The M1855 was the official primary arm of the United States at the onset of the American Civil War.
By the beginning of the American Civil War the M1842 had become obsolete, and the process of replacement was well underway. The Marines had received their first shipments Model of 1855 muskets in 1860, initially coming from Harper’s Ferry, a mixture having brass or iron tips on the stocks, and all having the iron patchbox included on the butt of the stock. A rifled musket in .58 caliber, the M1855 utilized the Maynard tape primer system and an internal percussion primer reel that was stored in the M1855’s lock plate. The M1855 was a fine musket, and was as good as any on the line. However, the Marine Quartermaster had not been successful in acquiring enough M1855s, ammunition for them, and bayonets to fit them to adequately supply the Corps. Thus, the large numbers of M1842s would be used heavily to supplement the lack of M1855s in the early years of the war.
The US Marines, armed with M1842 & M1855 muskets, would defend the Manassas Junction against the Confederate assault during the First Battle of Bull Run (painting by Staff Sergeant Kristopher J. Battles, USMCR).
The aforementioned loss of core leaders would play a direct result in the performance of the U.S. Marines (and American troops in general) during the First Battle of Bull Run. The Marine battalion would be comprised almost entirely of raw recruits, many having joined the battalion the prior week, with just a handful of experienced officers and noncommissioned officers to lead them. Tasked with holding the high grounding protecting a federal battery, the Marines would eventually be forced to fall back from their position when the 11th New York “Fire Zouaves” beside them fled. The Marines would regroup, and be the only federal unit to pierce the Confederate line as they attempted to retake the Federal guns. According to Daniel Conrad, the surgeon serving with the 2nd Virginia Infantry, “the green pines were filled with the 79th Highlanders and the red– breeched Brooklyn Zouaves, but the only men that were killed and wounded twenty or thirty yards behind and in the rear of our lines were the United States Marines.” The ability of the Marines to rally multiple times was somewhat overshadowed by the scorn of their battalion commander, Major John Reynolds. Major Reynolds was a veteran of the taking of Chapultepec, and the initial falling back of the Marines during the battle would be his sole focus; his report would not mention that his battalion was the only one to successfully regroup and penetrate the Confederate line.
Marines standing guard in Washington D.C. during the American Civil War (photo: USMC).
Adding more sting to the Federal defeat during the First Bull Run was the fact that while many Federal units had modern percussion muskets like the M1842 or M1855, the Confederate forces primarily had M1816 flintlock muskets or M1816s that had undergone a percussion conversion. Some Confederate arms were reportedly as old as the nation itself, including M1763 Charlevilles, Brown Bess muskets of various types, and M1795s. Ironically, the modern arms deficit the Confederate troops were dealt in the first two years of the war would see their greatest successes. The Confederate troops would be primarily armed with the excellent English Pattern of 1853 Enfield musket by 1863, but the fighting of that summer would see the high tide of their campaigns begin to recede.
For his steadfast rifle and canon fire during the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, Corporal John F. Mackie would become the first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Corporal Mackie and the rest of the Marines onboard the USS Galena were armed with M1855 muskets.
The backbone of the Union, the Model of 1861 fired Minnie balls through its rifled barrel with deadly effect. It would be used in larger numbers than any longer in the Civil War.
The rapid expansion of the Union army would take priority in regards to the shipment of weapons from the Ordnance Department in the first few years of the Civil War, and the Marines would make due with what they had. The Marine battalion would be armed with M1842s and M1855s, as were ship’s detachments who would see action during blockade duties and the occasional seizing of ports and coastal bases along the Southern coast. Marines stationed at Navy yards and at the Marine barracks in Washington, D.C. on guard duty would continue using the M1842 until supplies of the new Model of 1861 would be supplied Corps wide.
The final muzzle loading musket to be issued to the Marines would be the M1863, a refined version of the M1861 (Tyler Anderson/Ozark Machine Gun collection).
The Marines would see primarily naval and amphibious action during the majority of the Civil War, notably the poorly planned attempt to take Fort Sumter in 1863. Some land action would take place in the ending months of the war as well, notably the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, where five Marines would be awarded the Medal of Honor. The role of the Marines would change drastically following the cessation of the Civil War, as ships with sails, and the Marine marksmen that would man the rigging would now find modern navies using ships with engines instead. Naval vessels wouldn’t be the only drastically improved weapons of war, the advent of cartridge fired long arms would revolutionize rifles worldwide. The Marines, like always, would adapt and overcome.
A Marine, armed with a M1861 musket, guarding Lewis Payne, who attempted to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward at the same time President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated (photo: USMC).
The M1861/63 musket would see further combat with the Marine Corps following the end of the Civil War. The US expedition to Korea would see musket and Remington Rolling Block carbine armed Marines obliterate the Joseon Dynasty’s defenders during the Battle of Ganghwa in June of 1871. While these Marines were largely still outfitted with the older Civil War era Springfield M1861s, the adoption of rifles that used cartridges was well underway. The Remington Rolling Block rifle and Springfield M1873 Trapdoor rifle would bring an end to the days of muzzleloaders service wide amongst US forces.
Victorious Marines with captured sujagi (commanding general’s flag) after the Battle of Ganghwa. Six Marines would be awarded the Medal of Honor, including the three pictured at right (photos: USMC & USN).