The Guns of the American Pilgrims

The Guns of the American Pilgrims

The 1621 harvest festival we now know as the first Thanksgiving wasn’t the first meeting between the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors. Their first “meeting” was a firefight.

When the Mayflower arrived in New England in 1620, the settlers sent a group of armed men to find a good location for their new village. This scouting party had seen several groups of American Indians (historians believe they were part of the Nauset tribe of the Wampanoag Nation), but they had all fled into the woods.

That changed dramatically a few days later when, according to William Bradford (the colony’s governor), the men heard a “great and strange cry” as arrows began “flying amongst them.” The English scrambled to recover their firearms, which some had left down by the shore, and began to return fire. Bradford says they discharged four “muskets” in the first salvo until the other men could retrieve their guns and “let fly amongst them,” which “quickly stopped their violence.”

But one Indian warrior continued to fight. Bradford describes him as a “lusty man, no less valiant” than the English, who stood behind a tree and fired three arrows at the musket-wielding assailants. He stood his ground through three volleys of musket fire until one shot hit the tree squarely and “made the bark or splinters of the tree fly about his ears.”

He fled but appears to have survived–Bradford doesn’t record any deaths on either side of the skirmish.

matchlock A .56 caliber German matchlock rifle from the early 1600s. (Photo: Cody Firearms Museum)

The Muskets

What kind of “muskets” did Bradford’s men use to repel the attack?

Handheld firearms had been around for nearly 300 years (at least) by the time the Mayflower sailed into Plymouth, but ignition systems were still rudimentary. Danny Michael of the Cody Firearms Museum told MeatEater that the Pilgrims would have likely had matchlock, wheellock, and snaphance firearms available to them.

A matchlock uses a burning piece of cord or twine that is touched to the powder charge by means of a trigger or lever. Wheellocks, the next advancement in firearms technology, used friction-wheel mechanisms to create a spark and ignite the powder charge (not unlike modern lighters). Snaphance firearms are similar to flintlocks, but use a more complicated, less reliable mechanism to drive a piece of flint against a striker plate, which creates a spark and ignites the priming powder.

All of these ignition systems were eventually replaced by the flintlock, but that type of firearm wasn’t widely available in 1620.

Sporting and hunting arms often featured rifled barrels and set triggers, but Michael thinks the Pilgrims and other early colonists would have used smoothbore matchlock muskets that were military in style and meant for the colony’s militia. (Even though the Pilgrims are often depicted with the bell-shaped blunderbusses, Michael says this is an anachronism.)

Other historians agree. Harold L. Peterson writes in “Arms and Armor of the Pilgrims” that most of the Pilgrims’ firearms would have been smooth-bored matchlocks in calibers between .69 and .80. These could fire single round lead projectiles or several balls of lead shot, depending on what the user intended to shoot.

If the Pilgrims were using lead balls in their skirmish with the Wampanoag, their matchlock muskets were likely accurate enough to hit their targets at close distances along the beach. Ballistics testing of modern-day matchlocks indicates they were capable of torso-sized groups at 50 yards. The fact that they didn’t hit any Native soldiers–including a stationary soldier firing from behind a tree–is likely due more to the fast-paced nature of the engagement than the inadequacy of their firearms.

Peterson also points out that in other accounts of that first skirmish, Captain Miles Standish is said to have a “snaphance ready.” As the captain of the expedition, he would have had one of the best rifles, and his snaphance mechanism was ready to fire as soon as the Indians attacked. The other members of the party had matchlocks that, according to this account, had to be relit with a firebrand before they could join the fray. Matchlocks often went out, and Bradford says some of the men wrapped their firearms in their coats during the night to protect the matches from dew.

Likely due to this unreliability, Peterson reports that snaphances and flintlocks soon replaced matchlocks in the Pilgrims’ arsenal.

“The campaigns of that war, forays into the wilderness, night attacks, ambushes, battles in the rain, and encounters between individuals which required snap-shooting indicate clearly that the ‘snaphance’ was the principal weapon,” Peterson writes.

In fact, in 1677, the Plymouth General Court outlawed the matchlock completely as an acceptable firearm for the colony.

wheellock A .61 caliber English wheellock rifle from the early 1600s. (Photo: Cody Firearms Museum)

The Fowling Pieces

The Pilgrims didn’t bring firearms only for fighting. They would have hunted deer and other large game with their muskets, but they targeted birds with “fowling pieces.” For these types of firearms, the rule was simple: the bigger, the better.

The idea, according to Peterson, was that a longer barrel would increase a gun’s range (sound familiar?). Writing to prospective colonists in England, Edward Winslow advised, “let your piece be long in the barrel, and fear not the weight of it, for most of our shooting is from stands.”

There was no standard barrel length, but some could be five-and-a-half or six feet long and were loaded with what the Pilgrims called “swan shot.” One Plymouth settler, John Thompson, had a fowling piece that is preserved in the Old Colony Historical Society Museum at Taunton, Massachusetts, according to Peterson. It measures 88.5 inches overall and sports a 73.5-inch barrel of .84 caliber. That’s a lot of swan shot.

snaphance A .63 caliber German Snaphance rifle from the early 1600s. (Photo: Cody Firearms Museum)

Last Shot

While it’s easy to assume that the Pilgrims’ firearms gave them an incredible military advantage over the Native Americans, they were lucky to have survived that first encounter unscathed. The Natives could fire their bows far more rapidly than the English could reload their muskets, and a prolonged fight could have easily turned in favor of the Nauset warriors.

Fortunately for the Pilgrims, they were able to mend relations with their new neighbors after that first fiery meeting–in part, perhaps, because their muskets were ineffective against the attack.

Featured Image: Het vertrek van de Pilgrims uit Delfshaven, 1620. A. Willaerts. Public Domain.

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