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A Primer on French Firelocks Supplied to the Continental Army

Courtesy of Bob McDonald

1766 French musket (Pedersoli Arms)

This question was posed in an online discussion page centered on the War for
American Independence, 1775-1783.
10 August 2002
Question: What models of French muskets, shipped as military aid or purchased by
independent buyers, were most likely to have been in use by the Continental Army?
Considering the fact that many French regiments (especially in the Caribbean i.e
Gatinois)were still using the older 1754 model is it plausible that the French would ship
the newer models then in need for their own regiments?
Bob McDonald’s reply:
“IMO, the bottom line answer is that the models 1763, 1766 and so-called M1768
predominated within the American shipments. In that only quite minor differences appear
across these three models (one-quarter inch lockplate length, lower barrel band held by
friction versus a retaining spring, etc.), they have frequently been referenced en masse as
"the Model 1763" in all but the most specialized literature. Just as the French muskets are

generically cited as "Charleville", even though the American shipments were probably as
likely to be a quite even mixture of the production of the Charleville, Maubeuge and St.
Etienne armories, so also the model designation of "a '63" has become somewhat generic.
The finest available source in print on the entire topic of AWI longarms is "American
Military Shoulder Arms, Volume I, Colonial and Revolutionary War Arms" by George
D. Moller, University Press of Colorado, 1993. This remarkable landmark work provides
complete measured specifications for each model of each nation's production, supported
with hundreds of museum-quality photographs, and, importantly, in-text and appendix
presentation of the remarkably scarce period documentation of arms acquisition and
production. (The photos illustrating the chapter on French arms -- in itself over 80 pages - are predominately based on the collections of the Musee de 'Armee and the Musee
D'Manufactures, St. Etienne. These absolutely mint, brilliantly bright, sharp-edged pieces
will be astounding to anyone who had never known just what has been maintained for
centuries in European armory collections.)
Appendix 5 of Moller's is entitled "Shoulder Arms Known Imported During the
American Revolution." Therein is a charting of 27 shipments arriving between Feb. 1776
and May 1783, the totals yielding 117,661 muskets, 155 fusils and 2,125 carbines. (A
footnote cites that this total excludes approximately 14,000 muskets known to have been
shipped from France through Oct. 1776 but having no other detailed data, as well as
excluding 15,000 muskets purchased by Franklin for Massachusetts and delivered in
1775.) Importantly, six of these shipments account for well over one-half the total,
providing a perspective on the time at which large quantities of French muskets appeared
in the field:
March 17, 1777
March 24, 1777
April 20, 1777
June 11, 1777

Portsmouth, NH 11,987
Philadelphia 11,000
Portsmouth 12,000*
Portsmouth 13,333**
August 1781 Boston 13,200
August 1781 Boston 13,179
* Oddly, (and certainly erroneously) listed on manifest as "rampart muskets."
** An additional 25,000 muskets imported for Mass. within this shipment.

Obviously, the four spring 1777 shipments provided for the first major "burst" of the
French arms for the Continentals, the eight preceding shipments between Feb. 1776 and
Nov. 1776 having delivered only 10,021 muskets. Thus, the main and northern armies
were assuredly dominated by the French muskets by the time of the concurrent
Philadelphia and Saratoga campaigns. Almost assuredly, the timing of this concentration
of shipments was a key factor in facilitating the latter half of 1777 seeing the largest
American forces in the field at any time during the war.
As to your specific question of the distribution by model, the documentary data available
for these twenty-seven shipments of more than 100,000 muskets cite a specific model for
only <<one>> shipment of a mere 250 arms arriving at Portsmouth on Oct. 4, 1776, those

being of the Model 1763 pattern. Since the archival data are insensitive for the question,
surviving examples "bearing the appropriate markings" >> provide the sole basis for
analysis. As to that emphasized criterion, the two relevant categories are 1) the New
Hampshire battalion barrel breech stampings and 2) the "U.STATES"/"UNITED
STATES" stock branded muskets within institutional and private collections.
As a side benefit of the great concentration of shipments arriving at Portsmouth, the state
of New Hampshire applied for and was granted by the Continental Congress the authority
to retain a portion of one of the large shipments of early 1777 for its own three battalions
in Continental service, the April 20 shipment believed to have been the source. Upon
receipt and before shipment to the battalions, each of these allocated muskets was
stamped on the barrel, in the area opposite the touch hole, with a unit designation and
individual serial number. As to the format and numeric range of these markings:
- Within Neumann's "Battle Weapons of the American Revolution" is illustrated, as figure
43.MM, a M1766, Maubeuge, marked "NH 3B No. 288"
- I'm honored to be the temporary custodian of a M1763, St. Etienne, stamped "NH 1B No. 289"
- Within Moller's, in Plate 035.8-A, is a M1766, Maubeuge, stamped "NH 3B No. 668"

The "New Hampshire Charleville's" (though most are not of that armory) have been long
known within the arms collecting community but documented and correctly understood
only quite recently. For years before the indisputable provenance documentation was
found, these marks were considered to post-date the AWI by such a giant in the American
arms field as Norm Flayderman. Within the past decade or so, several key archival
documents have been recognized to unquestionably refer to these arms, one being a quite
irate letter from an officer of Poor's NH Brigade complaining to the state powers that a
few of these muskets had been observed in the possession of troops of the New York
Line. Perhaps most alluring, the roster of the men to whom specific serial numbered arms
were issued has been found, but only for one company of the 3rd NHB.
These New Hampshire French arms are unique from at least two perspectives in being,
firstly, one of only two examples of regimentally marked Continental Army muskets (the
other being evidenced by two surviving Wilson contract Long Lands stock-branded to the
1st NY), and, secondly, being more than a century ahead of the norm for US martial
long-arms by bearing serial numbers. Within the past few years, I was contacted by a
fellow developing an in-depth study of these muskets and a literal census of surviving
specimens. Based on his yet to be published work:
- Approximately 30 to 35 of these muskets are believed to survive.
- The unpublished data tend to support a virtually equal division of the known guns across the
three armories, as would be suggested by random probability of issuance and survival rates.
- To the point of your key question, the overwhelming majority of the 30-35 muskets are of the
M1763 and the 1766 and 1768 variants thereof.

Turning to the perhaps more widely familiar "surcharged" weapons, an initial explanation
is required for the earlier emphasis on stock-branded examples. The basic concept of
marking the army's muskets arose from the objective of recovering US-owned arms
carried off by deserters or, more optimistically, dissuading men bound over the hill from
taking their firelock with them. In early 1777, the Congress instructed General

Washington that all arms should be marked as public property, the C-I-C's
correspondence immediately thereafter containing several letters to subordinates which
refer to the acquisition of "brands." Within the diary of Sergeant Jeremiah Greenman, 2nd
Rhode Island Regiment, is a mention in April 1777 that the men had been ordered to
march into Morristown to have their muskets marked. This "first generation" of marking,
that is, was conducted "in the field" rather than at an arsenal, workshop or other central
source. Although the army, of course, did have brigade armorers among the enlisted men,
expediency and pragmatism was better served through these markings being executed in
the wood rather than as would be later done on the lockplates and barrels.
These markings of 1777 take the form of 1) "U.STATES", being most often stamped in
the bottom surface of the buttstock, in rear of the triggerguard, and 2) "UNITED
STATES," in either one or two lines, stamped on the buttstock face. Assumedly for the
potential purpose of being easily recognized if any arms appeared in private possession,
these surcharges are large and bold, the letters being typically at least one-quarter of an
inch tall and quite deeply struck into the stock. Although the marking devices are
consistently referred to as "brands" in the 1777 army correspondence, the actual process
was clearly executed through use of a mallet and a hefty whack, and not burning
per a branding iron. (Although the depressed surfaces of the letters on most surviving
examples are quite black, this is almost assuredly due to two-plus centuries of protected
aging. Also, in several examples, it is very evident that the marking was multiply struck,
slight shifting yielding a somewhat double impression.)
Much more commonly seen in public and private collections are AWI-period longarms
bearing large and usually deeply struck "US" markings in the tail of the lockplate and/or
in the barrel breech. In discussing the surcharging of the army's muskets, the Moller book
provides summaries of the archival records of the Philadelphia Continental "gun factory"
and repair shops, from which the most supportable interpretation is that these lock and
barrel stampings began to appear in 1780 and continued throughout and after the war.
That point of post-war marking of the arms imported from France is the key point of the
strong emphasis on stock-branded examples as the most valid data source for the analysis
of model years issued to the Continentals.
Although the popular interpretation is that any AWI-period French or British musket
stamped with a large "US" on the lockplate tail and/or barrel qualifies as being in use by
the Continental Army, there is, in fact, a subtle factor which makes that interpretation not
quite valid. Having myself been of that belief, the data presented by Moller and the
logical interpretations thereof were pretty startling. As an example, the quantities of "new
French muskets" which can be documented to have been stamped by Continental contract
armorers are summarized as follows:
1782 1,578
1783 313
1784 15,000
1785 13,108

Beyond the eye-opening fact that 94% of these muskets were stamped after the war, the
second key point in the above is the category of "new" French arms. That is, at the
minimum, about 1 out of every 4 of the French muskets imported for the war remained
unissued at its conclusion. Importantly, there is a gap in the documentation following that
for 1785. Thus, we have no way to know whether the stamping of unissued French
import arms continued during one or more later years nor any basis to even roughly
estimate the quantities.
Another researcher has been gathering data for what will hopefully be the definitive
published study of AWI and Federal period arms surcharging. From his to-date
observations, perhaps three dozen examples survive of the 1777 period stock-branded
French muskets which are undoubtedly associated with Continental Army usage. Specific
to the central question of pattern distribution, upwards of <two-thirds> of those
specimens bearing proven wartime markings are of the M1763 pattern or the 1766 and
1768 variations thereof.
I sincerely hope that this information is of benefit.
Bob McDonald
For Superb Primary Resources: “
See also: Bob McDonald, “’The arms and accouterments belonging to the United States
shall be stamped …’: Markings on Continental Army Muskets”