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No. 651:
Furgeson's Rifle

Today, Ferguson invents a rifle. Then he dies, outgunned. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

This quiet forest on King's Mountain Ridge in South Carolina is a somber place. Here, long ago, American fought American. No, this isn't a Civil War Battleground. This is where Tory met Whig in 1780. This was a turning point in the American Revolution.

Nine hundred English-trained loyalists took the high ground here under a Scottish major -- Patrick Furgeson. Then a circle of 960 ragged mountain men came up the hill and closed on them.

Furgeson was smart, arrogant, and personable. The English had meant to knock the Colonies off one by one. They began at Charleston. Furgeson rode north, charming settlers to the British cause. He came to King's Mountain with a small army of pro-British Americans. He'd taught them European formation fighting.

Out of the western hills came undisciplined settlers. They carried muzzle-loading squirrel rifles. It took 40 seconds to reload one -- to cram a ball down its rifled barrel. It could hit a man at 300 yards, but it was useless at close quarters. It had no bayonet attachment. It was too delicate to use as a club.

The Loyalists carried the Brown Bess, a smooth-bore musket. You could get off four shots a minute with it. It held a bayonet and it made a fine club. But it was accurate only for ninety yards. It was meant to lay down a field of fire at short range.

So the mountain men stood in the trees and picked off their cousins. When the Tories charged downhill, the mountain men backed into the woods and shot them -- one at a time.

In the end, Furgeson took a rifle ball. He died on the spot, and the battle ended. A hundred and fifty men died on King's Mountain. Eighty percent of them were Furgeson's troops.

A strange irony marked that day when American killed American, and England's fortunes turned. Furgeson himself was an inventor. He'd created a fine breech-loading rifle. It was lighter than the Brown Bess and twice as accurate. You could load and shoot lying flat on the ground.

The English made only 200 Furgeson rifles. Military conservatives blocked their use. If the Tories had carried them, King's Mountain could've been a different story.

Even Furgeson himself, wise enough to see how weapons would evolve, held the mountain men in contempt. Even he was sure that English tactics, behind an English flag, would be invincible.

So the inventive mind deceives itself. This place isn't sad just for lives lost and blood spilled. King's Mountain is also a warning against short-sightedness -- especially when it rides with the brightest and best among us.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lumpkin, H., From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. New York: Paragon House, 1981, Chapter IX.

Symonds, C.L., and Clipson, W.J., A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution. (City?:) The Nautical & Aviation Pub. Co. of America, Inc., Map No. 33.