Arming the Revolution
Amusettes Manufactured in Stafford, Virginia
A close-up of the lock, bearing the manufacturing stamp "RAP FORGE." The over-sized hammer, frizzen, and pan functioned in the same manner as any standard flintlock weapon. The hammer glanced a piece of flint against a steel upright frizzen that created a spark and ignited a small black-powder charge in the pan, which in turn ignited the main charge in the barrel via a small touch hole, causing the weapon to discharge.
By Dieter Stenger, Curator, CMH
March 28, 2013
Between 1776 and 1782, the Rappahannock Forge in Stafford, Virginia, manufactured pistols, muskets, and amusettes. Defined by the French as light artillery, amusettes also were called boat, rampart, or wall guns. Used for protection on boats or in fortifications, these large, semi-portable but usually stationary muskets bridged the gap between shoulder-fire muskets and artillery. They weighed about 50 pounds, were mounted on a steel swivel, and could fire a four-ounce or 1.2 inch shot.
When the American Revolution began in 1775, Virginia established a state-operated gun factory along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, called the Fredericksburg Manufactory. Initially the facility repaired firearms already owned by the colony. Although the facility began the production of muskets by mid-1776, to bolster the supply of weaponry, Virginia also contracted with the Rappahannock Forge, which lay directly across from the state facility on the Stafford side of the Rappahannock River. Also known as the Hunter Iron Works, it was privately-operated by a Scottish emigrant named James Hunter between May 1776 and April 22, 1782.
On February 4, 1776, Fielding Lewis, Commissioner of the Fredericksburg Manufactory, wrote to his brother-in-law, George Washington: "I propose making a Rifle next week to carry a quarter of a pound ball. If it answers my expectation, a few of them will keep off ships of war for out narrow rivers, and be useful in the beginning of an engagement by land. ..." Although wall guns were little used during the Revolutionary War, their effectiveness was attested by General Charles Lee, who wrote from Williamsburg in 1776: "I am likewise furnishing myself with four-ounced rifle-amusettes, which will carry an infernal distance; the two-ounced hit a half sheet of paper 500 yards distance."
A size comparison showing the complete amusette juxtaposed to a flintlock pistol.
There are no known surviving amusettes from the Fredericksburg Manufactory. However, four examples from the Rappahannock Forge survived the war and are in the U.S. Army historical collection. The massive rifles are brass mounted, roughly five feet long, full-stocked, with a sliding wooden patch box and wooden ramrod. The amusette shown here was made about 1777 and is the earliest American-made firearm in the U.S. Army Core Collection at the Museum Support Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The other examples are located at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois; Springfield Armory, Massachusetts; and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
- Ahearn, Bill. Muskets of the Revolution, 2005.
- Flayderman, Norm. Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms, 8th Edition, 2001.
- Gluckman, Arcadia and L.D. Satterlee. American Gun Makers, 1953.
- Neumann, George C. The History of Weapons of the American Revolution, 1967.
- Springfield Armory Museum Collection Record.
- Swayze, Nathan L. The Rappahannock Forge, 1976.