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.