Ferguson Breechloading Flintlock (Video)

Patrick Ferguson was a British inventor and Army officer who developed a breechloading flintlock rifle in the 1770s (his patent was granted in 1776). He impressed British Army ordnance officials with a remarkable demonstration of the gun’s speed and reliability, and was granted permission to organize an experimental unit of 100 marksmen armed with his rifles to fight in the American colonies. They first saw action at Brandywine, with indifferent results (100 men out of 30,000 redcoats would be hard-pressed to dramatically impact the outcome of a battle no matter how advanced their weapons). Ferguson himself was seriously wounded in the battle, and the unit was disbanded while he convalesced, never to be reformed.

The Ferguson rifle was not the first breechloading flintlock, but it was the first that was made to military standards and formally used in combat. The major innovation of Ferguson’s was to machine his breech threads so that a single revolution of the breech would open it enough to reload (instead of requiring multiple revolutions). A rate of fire of 6 shots per minute or better was easily possible for a well-drilled shooter, and this from a weapon with the accuracy of a rifle. Other weapons at the time required choosing between the accuracy of rifling or the loading speed of a smoothbore. The Ferguson offered both – actually being faster than a smoothbore to reload, and allowing that operation to be done prone, behind cover to boot.

So why did the Ferguson disappear from use after Brandywine? The most immediate reason was the death of Ferguson himself in 1780 at the Battle of King’s Mountain. His direct and personal advocacy was the driving force behind its use, and there was nobody to replace him in that role. In addition, the Ferguson rifles were necessarily much more time consuming and expensive to manufacture. Equipping the entire British Army with such weapons was simply not feasible financially.

The Ferguson I am using in this video is a magnificent museum-grade reproduction made by a man named Ernie Cowan (the same fellow also makes Girardoni air rifles, among other things). It was patterned exactly after one of the intact remaining original Ferguson rifles. There have been other reproductions of these guns made, most notably 250 made by Narragansett Arms of Indianapolis. Judging from the one review I found of that version, I suspect the Cowan guns (and in turn, the originals) are better made. My experience was that after 3 or 4 rounds fired, the breech screw would become sticky, but only insofar as it would require a sharp smack to initially open. The tapered nature of the breech plug (which perhaps Narragansett Arms did not duplicate?) meant that once the breech was opened very slightly, it immediately became completely loose and presented no resistance opening the rest of the way. Certainly any black powder weapon of this design would suffer from fouling fairly quickly, but I believe the action of the Ferguson would have remained functional without cleaning for as long as its barrel.


  1. Back then this would be much like one’s first encounter with a fully automatic machinegun during the period prior to WWI or a company of infantry armed with the Girardoni which not only had an unbelievably (at the time) rapid rate of fire, produced no cloud of smoke obscuring the view of the riflemen and produced a much lower audio signature than the conventional arms of the period. Another comparison would be the Trap-Door vs the first Henry and Winchester lever guns.

  2. I seem to remember reading an older American Rifleman review of a Ferguson replica that was supposedly based on the Durs Egg blueprints. The author noted that the fouling issue was dependent upon the relative humidity. On dry days, it would seize, and on moist days, it would work fine. The author speculated that the humidity was keeping the fouling soft.

  3. IIRC, the Ferguson’s other advantage over its predecessors (the Le Chaumette and Warsop screw-breech types) was that its breech screw was “captive”, i.e. you had to do something specific to remove it from the rifle entirely.

    The other two had “loose” screws (I know, bad pun) that could be removed completely by just turning them all the way out. Which meant that in adverse conditions, they could be lost fairly easily, like the spanner on a wheel-lock.

    This wouldn’t be critical on a hunting arm (which I gather the Warsop was mainly intended to be), but on a military arm it could get a soldier killed.

    As for Ferguson’s unit at Brandywine, they apparently were used as single formation. If they had been distributed across the British front as sniper/spotter teams, tasked with the termination of Colonial officers, they might have had more effect.

    This isn’t really a modern idea, BTW; during the early phases of the post-French Revolution wars in Europe (before Napoleon), the Directory’s army used “franc-tireurs”(roughly translates to “free shooters”), to do this to cause as much confusion in the enemy’s ranks as possible before the mass of French infantry (peasant volunteers or, later, conscripts) rolled over the enemy ranks by sheer weight of numbers. (See Connections by James Burke.)

    There is a story that at Brandywine, Ferguson himself was detailed off to hunt down General Washington and take him out. As the story is related by W.H.B. Smith in early editions of Small Arms of the World, Ferguson did in fact find Washington, who was riding along one side of the battle area unescorted on a “private” scout.

    Allegedly Ferguson, being a gentleman, challenged Washington to identify himself. Washington supposedly did, and Ferguson simply didn’t believe that the Continental Army’s commanding general could be so arrogant- or a big enough fool- to be larking about without an escort. Ferguson held his fire, Washington went on about his business, and as they say, the rest is history.

    Well, that’s the story, anyway. Take it for what it’s worth.

    Another story Smith relates is that at King’s Mountain, Ferguson and the British regulars were confronting both a relatively small force of Continental Army regulars, and a considerably larger militia of frontiersmen from the area, the latter armed not with regulation muskets but mainly with “Kentucky” (or if you insist “Pennsylvania”) rifles.

    While the regulars were busy engaging the British force “correctly” (and largely getting shot to pieces due to being outnumbered), the “buckskinners” were more sensibly sniping, ambushing, and etc. from behind any available cover. And ironically, it was a bullet form one such rifleman’s “Kentucky”, rather than a musket, that ended the life of Major Patrick Ferguson.

    Again, that’s the story. Believe it, or not, as you wish.



    • I might be thinking of another incident, but the way I heard it is he identified Washington but refused to shoot because it would be ‘ungentlemanly’. Though the ‘surely he can’t be that big an idiot’ version is definitely more fun.
      Regardless, Ferguson sounds like he was quite the badass apart from being a genius inventor.

      Anyway, it’s stuff like the Ferguson rifle that makes me wonder how many other innovations got missed because they were just a bit to early to be practical. I mean, if it had been enough of a hit to still be around a few decades later, it would have made a very interesting cap fire conversion…

      • Well, Iggy, two of the big issues with the Ferguson were the “fragility” of the locking system, more specifically the stock surrounding the breech (which could in fact get broken a lot in combat), and how complicated and expensive the Ferguson was to manufacture by means of decentralized rural gun smiths. The American Hall Rifle would not fare any better… Ultimately the Dreyse Zundnadelgewehr and the Chassepot would steal the show before metallic cartridges became the norm in the armies of Europe (unless I’m wrong, of course).

        Voluntary weapon of choice questionnaire:

        Given a choice, which early breechloader would you take for potting a general behind enemy lines?

        1. Ferguson rifle
        2. Hall rifle
        3. Kammerlader
        4. Calisher and Terry carbine
        5. Dreyse or Chassepot
        6. Podewils conversion rifle
        7. Maynard breechloader
        8. breech-loading swivel gun or wall piece
        9. Screw all this and get the Canon de 75 modèle 1897 loaded with shrapnel! (There is no kill like overkill!)

        Notice: The questionnaire is not mandatory, answer it only if you wish to do so.

  4. In the summer of 1971 (which I spent at Fort Benning, GA)I drove up to look at the Kings Mountain and Cowpens battlefield. If the forest cover was anything then like it was two hundred years before, Ferguson was in a bad spot, pinned down on top the hill, while the colonial militia, made up largely of frontiersmen with experience hunting in the woods, were in their element. Kind of a little Dien Bien Phu in the Carolinas. Ferguson’s force, as I understand it, was largely Loyalist militia and it appears they were armed with regular flintlocks rather than Ferguson’s rifle, though I’m not clear on that point.

  5. Mr. Watters statement, “The author speculated that the humidity was keeping the fouling soft.” raises an interesting question indeed. Needless to say that I am interested in weapons of all sorts and have a particular proclivity for black powder weapons of all sorts. So this question has come up prior to this. I was born and raised in East Texas where the average relative humidity was about 50-60% with frequent excursions to West Texas (average 25-65%) and Arkansas. In the Marines I was blessed with an extended vacation at Twentynine Palms, California, where the average relative humidity was about 3-5% most days. I spent some time at cape Canaveral (75-95%) and now live in East Central Louisiana (55-995 with most days at 85%) so have experienced quite a variation in relative humidity. I have used black powder arms in all these localities. That being said, I have also tested Civil War powder taken from sealed cannon balls and have quite often found period powder still in loaded rifles, shotguns and pistols that were brought to me to work on. In none of these instances have I found the samples to be unignitable but quite often have verified great variations in burn rate. Testing these by firing test shots without any treatment and then with dehydrated samples of the same sample has brought me to the conclusion that the differences in muzzle velocity (the untreated being lowed than the dehydrated). I have also noticed that almost invariably the residue from the original samples have been noticeably “softer cake” than the dehydrated samples. The powder recovered from the cannon balls has not shown this variation in velocity nor in the residue texture. Parenthetically, powder from dry regions (high desert) has not shown these variations. Therefore it has been my long-standing belief that these variations are due at least in part to the absorption of moisture from the atmosphere prior to firing. In the case of dry powder being fired and then the cake becoming soft due to this element in the equation is dubious in my mind; the required air circulation down the bore of a hot barrel is improbable while the storing of a fired arm would allow the cake to soften over time (as well as corrode the rifling out of the barrel). These are my own personal beliefs based upon copious observations and controlled testing but they are open to contestation by others. However, the observation quoted is a valid one!

  6. Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharp novels about the Napoleonic war have several mentions of redcoats taking advantage of a lull in the battle to urinate down the barrels of their muskets to loosen powder fouling. I suppose this “field expedient” technique would work with a Ferguson breech as well. I wonder how the Ferguson compares with the Hall breechloader of a couple of decades later. From what little I’ve read that was another design that was ahead of its time.

  7. “Better Living Through Chemistry” There were lots of designs that didn’t measure up to their potential because of the powder available at the time.

  8. Re: Urinating down the barrel of BP rifles: The same applied to the Buffalo Hunters on the Great Plains. Can’t you envision yourself doing this to your favorite .45-125 Sharps from your collection today? Better question would be of the accuracy of your aim at a half-inch bore while in proximity of a heard! But same was reported for water-cooled MGs in combat if you ran low on water. I personally would have drawn the line at the use of reportedly using French wine though!

  9. An interesting thing is that while we might think of flintlock ignition as primitive, lots of people that knew how to find and knap flints kept using them long after caps arrived at the local store.

    • The native American tribes kept using flintlock “trade fusils” right alongside their percussion and metallic-cartridge arms clear through the wars period. There were a substantial number of fusils used at Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) in 1876, judging by bullets recovered from the battlefield in archeological/forensic analysis work in the last three decades.

      As D. C. Cole explained in his article “Firearms In Apache Tribal Use” (Gun Digest 1975 ed.), the flintlocks required no cartridges or caps. Flints could be knapped, powder manufactured from local sources (sulfur springs, caves inhabited by bats, etc), and bullets cast in hand-carved soapstone moulds.

      Next to the bow, the flintlock fusil was the Apaches’ most important “guerrilla weapon”, i.e. the one that could be used to acquire a more advanced one by doing in its original owner. And of course, for everyday hunting and foraging, it made better logistic sense, allowing them to save caps, cartridges, etc. for serious occasions.

      In Africa, flintlocks lasted right through the colonial period due to laws prohibiting the locals form having modern weapons. They still are used in countries there where the locals are still under the same prohibition by their own governments, mostly of the “one man, one vote- once” or “We have the guns so we’re the government” types.

      In a recent issue of The Backwoodsman Magazine, one writer had an article on a gun he found that was common in Nigeria for dealing with feral dogs and other livestock pests. Basically a homemade, smoothbore percussion arm, but instead of a cap it was fired by a matchstick held with its head under the hammer and next to the touchhole by a blob of candle wax.

      He didn’t try to fire it, and I think I’d pass, too.

      clear ether


      • Eon – I remember as an adolescent gun nut having a ’71 or thereabouts “Guns Illustrated” (the abbreviated companion to Gun Digest – several hundred pages of full-page ads from various manufacturers and importers but with no articles/ advertorial “reviews”) and in the Stoger section there was a full-page ad for “trade muskets” using Napoleonic-surplus lock/ trigger mechanisms with newish (20th century, anyway) barrels and stocks. It’s been a long time but there were a dozen or so models, including a 4-gauge elephant gun (with a brass buttplate – ouch!)

  10. Great work on a very interesting rifle! For those interested, Louis L’Amour wrote a book called “The Ferguson Rifle”. It was in reading this book as a teenager that I first heard of the Ferguson.

    • I recently read that one because I knew about Ferguson and his rifle. It was one of the better of his books that I’ve read over the years – followed his usual formula for the most part but with just enough variation to make the book more interesting than yet another Sackett book. The introductory passage with the protagonist getting the rifle from the Major was in itself worth the price of admission.

      I would dearly love a Ferguson reproduction but I doubt I will ever be able to afford one, alas.

  11. Some of the jungle tribes in Thailand will still hunt with percussion and flintlock shotguns and pistols. Normally home made with strike anywhere match heads for the cap in some models. The young men will take them into the jungle at night to hunt rats and monkeys etc with head lamps while the older men sit around the campfire and drink whiskey.

    • At least previously to them coming to the US, the Hmoung hunted in Laos with percussion rifles/muskets. Buying caps was one of the main reasons that they needed any money of went to ‘town’ to trade.

      I was told that they only bought 100 to 200 caps a year for hunting.

  12. What impressed me about the video was the slow motion shot which showed the priming powder just glowing for a moment before it really went up.

  13. One of Ferguson’s demonstrations was pouring water over the open breech and then load and fire. He was cleaning the fouling off the screw.
    Had an opportunity to shoot a replica. Some drawings of the screw show a hollow depression lining up with the bore when the action is closed. By placing tallow in the hollow every few shots it was blown back on the threads making the action easier to work.

  14. I have one of the 250 limited edition that my friend would like to sell. He bought it for an investment in 1998 for 3.000.00. Now almost totally blind, which is very sad he wants to part with it. He don’t need the money but thought that his kids wouldn’t appreciate it so passing it on.
    If not we will sell on Gun brokers.

  15. Patrick Ferguson’s encounter with General Washington was pure chance. It wasn’t part of some specific mission he was assigned. Ferguson was attached, at that point, to the Queen’s Rangers for use as skirmishers and for other light infantry duties, as befitted the nature of his troops. He only had a relative handful of men with him in the actual battle. He commanded a “Rifle Corps” (more like a company) of 100 men, but only about a third to a fifth of them were with him that day.

    But hey, don’t take my word for it. Take his. This is from a letter he dictated about 4 months after the battle:

    “Whilst Knyphausen was forming the Line within amile of the Rebells Camp to wait for G Howes attack, their Rifle men were picking off our men very fast by random shots from a wood some hundred yards in front as it is easy to do execution on suck large objects. I had only 20 men with me (a few having been disabled by the Enemy the rest from fatigue) who however proved sufficient for my lads first dislodged them from the skirts of the wood then drove them from a breast work within it after which our purpose being answered we lay down at the further skirt of the wood not unnessarily to provock an attack being so few without support. We had not lyn long when a Rebell Officer remarkable y a huzzar Dress passed towards our army within 100 yards of my right flank, not perceiving us – he was followed by another in Dark Green or blue mounted on a very good bay horse witha remarkable large high cocked hat. I ordered three good shots to steal near them and fire at them but the idea disgusted me and I recalled them. The Huzzar in returning made a circuit but the other passed within 100 yardss of us upon which I advanced from the woods towards him, upon my calling he stopd but after looking at me proceeded. I again drew his attention, and made signs to him to stop levelling my piece at him, but he slowly continued his way. As I was within the distance at which in the quickest firing I have seldom missed a sheet of paper and could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him before he was out of my reach I had only to determine but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself very coolly of hi duty so I let him alone. The day after I had just been telling this story to some wounded officers who lay in the same room with me when one of our surgeons who had been dressing the wounded Rebell Officers came in and told use that they had been informing him that Genl Washington was all morning with the Light Trooops generally in their front and only attended by a French Officer in huzzar Dress he himself being mounted and dressed as above described, the oddness of their dress had puzzled me and made me take notice of it – I am not sorry that I did not know all the time who it was.

    Further this deponent saith not, as his bones were broke a few minutes after-

    I am yr most

    p. F.

    Philadelphia Jan:31:1778”

    I transcribed it from my copy of “British Military Flintlock Rifles, 1740-1850” by De Witt Bailey, Ph.D., from Chapter 3: The Ferguson Rifle From Manufacture to the Battle of Monmouth Court House, 1776-1778.

    I couldn’t find an online transcription of the letter.

    After Ferguson was injured at Brandywine (the letter was dictated because his right elbow had been smashed by a ball in the battle), his men were dispersed back to their parent units, and the guns put in storage, with the reason given for the recall of the guns so that they could be “repaired”. Which is probably a specious reason with a grain of truth: The stocks on Ferguson rifles are weak around the lock and breech area because of the “swelling” of the breech to accommodate the breech block. They were prone to break there, and I believe most if not all of the existing military Ferguson rifles have had their stocks repaired in that area.

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