The Wall Gun

If you’ve visited Colonial Michilimackinac, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen the interpreters demonstrating a cannon or musket during our daily programs. There is another 18th century weapon that gets fired occasionally, and it’s an interesting cross between a cannon and a musket. Let’s take a look at our wall gun.  

Wall Gun vs. Musket


A wall gun is essentially just a supersized musket. As the name implies, wall guns were intended to be fired resting on a wall or the railing of a ship, and many original weapons were fitted with a yoke or swivel similar to an oarlock to facilitate easy mounting. Such a rest was necessary given the weight and size of the weapon. Wall pieces were typically .91 caliber, had four and a half foot-long barrel (although some were as long as six feet), measured over six feet long in total, and weighed between 35 and 40 pounds. Constructed in only limited quantities, primarily in the 1740s and again in the 1770s, wall pieces were intended to function as artillery pieces in situations were even the smallest and lightest of cannons were impractical. Although unwieldy, a wall gun could be positioned and fired by just one soldier. Firing a 2¼-ounce ball, they could apparently hit targets 500 to 600 yards away, and were ideal for use during sieges, when they could be moved around to fire on enemy engineers and sappers. During the American Revolution, Captain William Congreve of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, a noted artillery innovator, suggested employing wall guns as a secondary weapon alongside field guns. Under Congreve’s plan, wall guns mounted on two-wheeled carts accompanied artillery detachments and were deployed alongside the cannons. A vertical wooden mantlet, or shield, attached to the cart protected the two soldiers serving the guns. Despite their size, wall guns remained a muzzle-loading flintlock weapon, and as such were loaded and fired in much the same way as a normal sized musket.


Although the British military only produced wall guns in limited numbers, two of them found their way to Michilimackinac in the 1770s. Classified as ordnance along with the garrison’s cannons and mortar, the walls guns were apparently intended to serve in detached positions outside the main palisade wall. In 1768, Captain-lieutenant Frederick Spiesmacher of the 60th Regiment requested permission to build a blockhouse on a sandy hill outside the fort. He wanted a blockhouse large enough for six men and two wall guns. Spiesmacher probably never built the blockhouse, as a decade later Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair ordered a blockhouse built overlook and command hollow ground behind a sand hill which the troops could not reduce,” which would also flank the trader’s houses in the suburbs outside the palisade. When the blockhouse was finished in early 1780, Sinclair noted that it contained positions for three artillery pieces, but the wall guns could also have been used there. The guns were moved to Mackinac Island with the rest of the fort by 1781, but disappear from the Fort Mackinac ordnance returns soon after. Whether they were sent away or merely no longer recorded with the larger artillery pieces is unclear.

Today, our reproduction wall gun is occasionally fired for demonstrations, sometimes taking the place of the cannon or mortar for an artillery firing. An original wall gun is also on display in the underground powder magazine and Firearms on the Frontier exhibit. Be sure to see the original piece next time you visit Colonial Michilimackinac, and you might be lucky enough to see the reproduction fired on the parade ground!

 

A Short Land Pattern Musket of 1769

A musket firing demonstration at Colonial Michilimackinac.

When you visit Colonial Michilimackinac, you’ll probably see a few historical interpreters representing British soldiers of the 8th Regiment going about their daily routine of demonstrations and tours. Every day, they fire their muskets for demonstration. Many people call these weapons a “Brown Bess,” but that name is overly generic and not necessarily appropriate for the 18th century. Let’s take a closer look at one of these muskets, properly referred to as the New Pattern Short Land Musket for Line Infantry.

Beginning in the 1720s, British soldiers were issued muskets manufactured to a standardized pattern. The Board of Ordnance contracted with individual gunsmiths to create various musket components such as locks, barrels, and brass furniture, which were assembled into completed weapons by Ordnance workers in the Tower of London or Dublin Castle. Contracts were let and weapons made up on an as-needed basis, and the economically-minded Board of Ordnance always tried to use up existing stores before using new ones, so there were always multiple versions of similar weapons in use at the same time. That being said, several distinctive musket patterns emerged over time, with unique variants for line infantry, mounted dragoons, artillerymen, noncommissioned officers, the militia, and sailors and marines. The Land series muskets were intended for infantry soldiers, with new patterns authorized in 1730, 1740, 1742, 1748, and 1756. Each model somehow improved upon its predecessors (such as the steel ramrod incorporated in the 1748 pattern), but these weapons all featured 46-inch-long barrels. There were experiments with shorter-barreled weapons, as in 1759 when Lt. Col. John LaFausille of the 8th Regiment supervised firing tests with muskets having half-length (23 inch) barrels in England. He reported that the short weapons had just as much penetrating power as the standard arms, and were less awkward for shorter men to handle. Despite his findings, British muskets remained long for the rest of the 18th century, in part because longer weapons, combined with a fixed bayonet to transform them into a pike, were more effective at repelling enemy cavalry.

 

A reproduction Pattern 1769 Short Land musket at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Fitted with an 18-inch bayonet, the musket could be an effective hand-to-hand or anti-cavalry weapons, but British tactical doctrine of the 1770s relied heavily on the bayonet as a powerful psychological weapon.

Although the Board of Ordnance never accepted such drastically shorted weapons, experience during the Seven Years’ War, and success with slightly smaller muskets issued to militiamen and aboard warships, convinced the Board of Ordnance to consider a new model weapon. After tests in early 1768, the board recommended a 42-inch barreled musket, which King George III formally approved in June. Contracts were let, and by the end of the year gunsmiths had delivered tens of thousands of components for the new muskets, which entered service in 1769. These weapons were officially known as New Pattern Short Land Musket for Line Infantry, or more concisely as the Pattern 1769 or Short Land musket.

Note the delicate scroll on the top of the cock comb (the large hammer-like piece at center, holding the flint), and the three-pointed trefoil at the end of the hammer spring (just to the right of the GR). Also note that the head of the top jaw screw, just above the flint, is solid. Pattern 1777 weapons had a hole bored through the screw head to provide more leverage when tightening the jaws down onto the flint. The piece of looped leather at right is a hammer-stall, an 18th century safety feature that prevents the weapon from misfiring by stopping the flint before it can hit the steel of the hammer to generate sparks. The brass flash guard is a modern safety feature.

 

The musket featured here is a nice reproduction example of a Pattern 1769 Short Land musket. It has a 42 inch, .75 caliber smoothbore barrel. The lockplate, similar to those introduced on the Pattern 1756 Long Land muskets, is engraved with TOWER, indicating that the weapon originated in the Tower of London. Individual gunsmiths were previously allowed to engrave their own names on the plates, but the practice was abolished in 1764. The engraved crown, GR, and broad arrow in front of cock all indicate government ownership of the weapon. Individual units could further mark their weapons, usually by engraving on the barrel, and each weapon was assigned a rack and company number to link it to a specific soldier. These numbers were typically engraved on the wrist plate. The comb of the cock is relatively ornate, and the finial of the hammer spring has a delicate trefoil design. The next model musket, the Pattern 1777 Short Land, simplified many of these features but retained the same basic look of the Pattern 1769 weapons.

Numbers identifying which company and soldier the weapon was issued to could be engraved on the brass wristplate just behind the lock.

 

It is important to note that while interpreters at Michilimackinac today carry and demonstrate reproductions of the 1769 and 1777 Short Land weapons, historically the soldiers of the 8th Regiment probably carried the Pattern 1756 Long Land musket. As noted above, the government’s preference for exhausting existing weapons stores before issuing new models meant that the shorter 1769 muskets did not immediately replace the 1756 Long Lands. The 8th Regiment received its last large scale-issue of new arms in 1766, when the 1756 musket remained the standard. The 8th did receive some new weapons in 1771, 1775, and 1778. However, the first two issues were to replace older muskets worn out in service, while the 1778 issue covered the “augmentation” of the regiment caused by raising additional recruiting companies in England. As such, although Pattern 1769 Short Lands may have made an appearance in the hands of some soldiers of the 8th by the mid-1770s, it seems highly likely that the majority of men continued to carry the 1756 Long Lands, perhaps until they returned home to England in 1785. Indeed, the Pattern 1756 Long Land remained the standard issue weapon for grenadier companies (including the grenadiers of the 8th, posted at Michilimackinac) and guards regiments until the late 1780s, and the older weapon was never fully replaced by the Short Land weapons.

In any case, the weapons carried and fired by our interpreters today make up an important part of the daily programming at Colonial Michilimackinac. Be sure to ask the interpreters about their muskets when you visit. For tickets and more information please visit our website, and be sure to check out Mackinac Associates, which makes programs and exhibits possible throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks’ sites.

A Model 1884 Springfield Rifle

The .45-70 Springfield Rifle.

The Buffington sight. A second adjustment screw (not visible) swiveled the entire sight left or right.

During the summer months, visitors to Fort Mackinac are able to see a real piece of history in action every single day. Historical interpreters representing soldiers from the 23rd Regiment of Infantry perform rifle firing and drill demonstrations throughout the day. The weapons they carry, the .45-70 Springfield rifle, are all 19th century originals, making them at least 130 years old. Let’s take a closer look at one of these fascinating weapons.

 

Introduced in 1873, the .45-70 remained the standard issue arm of the American army for 20 years. A single-shot weapon, the rifle derived its name from the cartridge it fired: a .45 caliber bullet propelled by 70 grains of black powder. Over the course of its service life, the army refined the rifle several times, making almost yearly changes to the design to reflect the realities of daily use and at the suggestion of officers and enlisted men. Only rarely did these design changes cumulatively result in the designation of a new model, but in 1884 the army approved a “new” design incorporating improved features.

 

The improved cleaning rod, with tapered button tip.

Note the knurling on the trigger and on the hammer.

This Model 1884 displays many of these design elements. The two most prominent “new” features are the sight and the cleaning rod. The sight, designed by Lt. Col. A.R. Buffington of the Ordnance Department, includes a leaf that can be flipped up and adjusted to sight the weapon at ranges up to 1,400 yards. It also includes an adjustment screw to compensate for windage- by turning it, the entire vertical leaf swivels right or left. The cleaning rod, meanwhile, incorporates the flared button head adopted in 1879 and put into widespread production in 1882. The breechblock is stamped U.S. MODEL 1884, although in reality these stamps were not added to new rifles until 1886, and weapons marked this way did not enter widespread service until 1887. The rest of the rifle incorporates several other design improvements adopted over the years, such as knurling on the trigger and hammer, which was intended to improve a soldier’s fingertip grip on these critical pieces.

 

The star symbol stamped next to the serial number (it looks like a flower) indicates that this rifle was probably rebuilt at an arsenal at some point.

The rifle’s breech in the open position. When opened after firing, the weapon automatically ejected the spent cartridge, allowing a soldier to quickly reload.

This particular rifle has a serial number in the 141000 range, indicating that it was probably originally produced in 1879 or 1880. How, then, can it incorporate features only authorized in 1884, and not actually put into service for a few more years? The small five-pointed star or flower next to the serial number most likely indicates that this weapon is an arsenal rebuilt. In 1879 the Springfield Armory began collecting older .45-70 rifles and using some of the parts to build new weapons, which were held in reserve or eventually issued to various state units (the forerunners to the National Guard). Furthermore, since the rifles were built using entirely interchangeable parts, after the weapons left frontline military service and entered the civilian market (which many did- they are still relatively easy for collectors to obtain) it was simple for gun brokers and owners to cobble together “new” weapons with a mixture of parts from different model years.

 

In any case, this rifle, and the others in daily use at Fort Mackinac, are truly history that you can see, smell, hear, and touch. Our interpreters carry rifles of both the 1873 and 1884 models, with many of the small variations added each year. We even have a few rifles equipped with ramrod bayonets, an experimental design attempted on three different occasions in the 1880s. These weapons had a small, sharpened metal dowel mounted under the barrel in lieu of a cleaning rod in an effort to eliminate the need for soldiers to carry a separate bayonet and scabbard. Historically, one of the two companies of the 23rd Infantry stationed at Fort Mackinac from 1884 to 1890 were issued the experimental ramrod bayonet rifles for evaluation. When you visit us at Fort Mackinac, be sure to ask the interpreters about their rifles- they’re a fascinating link to the past!

The Grenadiers’ “Mutiny” of 1780

The summer of 1780 was not a happy time at Michilimackinac. Patrick Sinclair, the lieutenant governor since October 1779, found himself at odds with most of the community he nominally governed. Much of the discord seems to have been of Sinclair’s own making (he was quick to take offense and vain about his prerogatives as lieutenant governor), but in mid-summer he faced a new problem: the grenadier company of the 8th Regiment, which made up half of Michilimackinac’s garrison, refused one officer’s order and started submitting petitions with grievances to another.
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Greatcoats: Another Cold Winter Garment

With winter descending on the Straits of Mackinac, it can be difficult to image what life was like here in centuries past. When guests visit Colonial Michilimackinac during the summer months, they see historical interpreters dressed for pleasant weather in the 1770s, but people often wonder: what did they do they when it got cold? (more…)

The Company of Fort Mackinac Descendants

Fort Mackinac ca. late 1890s

Genealogy, the study and tracing of one’s lines of descent or ancestry, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Document-rich sites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and MyHeritage.com, contain billions of records that help individuals discover their family roots. The resources created to serve genealogists are extremely useful to professional historians looking to learn more about the human history of their fields of research.  In writing The Soldiers of Fort Mackinac, An Illustrated History, Phil Porter, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director, spent countless hours on Ancestry.com looking for information about the men who served at the island fort.   (more…)

Fort Mackinac: A Century of Military Service to the Country

Veteran’s Day is the Federal holiday which encourages Americans to take a moment to reflect upon and honor the sacrifices of every generation of Americans that have served the country in the Armed Forces from its inception to the present. The holiday originated as a proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to commemorate the cease fire which signaled the end of the “war to end all wars,” World War I, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as Armistice Day. In the words of President Wilson, “the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…” This serves as a powerful  description of what the holiday today known as Veteran’s Day is intended to reflect in commemoration of those who have served the country and it’s ideals in the military not only during WWI but over the course of the nation’s entire history. (more…)

On This Day: Battle of Mackinac Island, August 4, 1814

American soldiers from the 17th, 19th, and 24th Infantry Regiments joined men from the Corps of Artillery, the Marine Corps, and the Ohio militia during the battle.

On August 4, 1814, war came to Mackinac Island. The island, which had been captured by the British in 1812, was now the focus of an American campaign to reclaim the region. That campaign reached its zenith as hundreds of American troops landed on the island’s north shore, marched inland, and encountered well-entrenched British, Canadian, and Native American troops. (more…)