Patrick Ferguson, the son of an illustrious Scottish family, joined the British Army in 1759 at age 14 when he was appointed Cornet in the Scots Greys. In 1768 he was bought a captaincy in the 10th Regiment of Foot and served with them in the West Indies before ill health forced him to return to England.
A student of firearms, he appreciated the range and accuracy of rifled guns and began to study existing breech-loading actions to make the rifle a faster firing weapon. Inspired by the boasted skill of American marksmen, Ferguson set out to produce a firearm which would excel the vaunted Pennsylvania long rifle. He developed a trigger guard which had its front end attached to a vertical screw which in turn passed through the gun's barrel. By pulling the guard handle to the side, then giving it a half to three quarter turn, the screw plug was rotated downward leaving a hole in the barrel into which the ball and powder were inserted. Unlike earlier breech-loading designs which had the opening at the bottom of the barrel in the front of the breech, Ferguson's opened so that the hole was in the top of the barrel at the back of the breech. Consequently, it did not have to be turned upside down to be loaded. Also, his plug mechanism was constructed so that it stopped when it reached the bottom of the bore, thus it could never be accidentally screwed out of the gun and fall during the heat of the battle.
Unlike the Colonists' rifles which were muzzle loaders of light .40 to .60 caliber which could be fired only about two or three times a minute, the breech-loading Ferguson could be fired as many as six to perhaps seven times in the same amount of time. It was also easier to handle because of its shorter barrel, had greater power because of its heavier .60 to .69 caliber and could be fitted with a bayonet. The lack of adaptability to accommodate a bayonet was a major failing of the Pennsylvania long rifle which forced the American rifleman to avoid open field tactics so typical of 18th century warfare.
Ferguson patented his invention in 1776 and personally demonstrated the weapon to military experts at Woolich and again in the presence of the Royal Family at Windsor. One of the best shots in the British army, he amazed his audiences with both his skill as a marksman and also the speed of loading and effectiveness of his weapon. The day of the test at Woolich was one of rain and high wind. Ordinary flintlocks would not have functioned at all under such conditions yet Ferguson's rifle performed marvels. Duly impressed, the army ordered production of 100 weapons of the Ferguson pattern and authorized the inventor himself to supervise their manufacture. In spite of this enthusiasm, the rifle was never seriously considered as a universal arm for the British army. Instead the Crown's ministers opted to employ mercenary German riflemen or Jagers for special service in the colonies and continue the use of the Brown Bess musket for the majority of its troops.
The new weapon was, however, to be given a chance to be tested in battle. The Secretary for War, Viscount Barrington, detached Ferguson from his regiment and ordered the inventor to create a corps of 100 men, many from the Light Infantry Companies of the 6th and 14th Regiments of Foot, all to be armed with his rifle. In March of 1777 the unit sailed for America to join in Genera; Sir William Howe's campaign against Philadelphia.
Serving with General Knyphausen's detachment at the Battle of The Brandywine, September 11, 1777, Ferguson and his unit acquitted themselves well but, unfortunately, the Scotsman received a wound which left him with a shattered right elbow and crippled arm. Now that their leader was out of action the rifle corps was disbanded and the men returned to the light companies of their respective regiments. The fate of the original 100 Ferguson rifles remains a mystery to this day. Some stories account for them being collected and stored in a New York warehouse while others indicate the men may have each taken their weapon with them when they returned to their original units.
After rehabilitation, during which he learned to eat, fence, and fire a gun with his left hand, Ferguson returned to duty in America serving with General Clinton's forces which raided into New Jersey. In October of 1779 he was appointed Major in the 71st Highland Regiment, but apparently remained on detached service as Commander of Loyalist Ranger units now campaigning in the Carolinas. There is no evidence that any of the inventor's later commands used the rifle of his design, although one story accounts for his obtaining 40 of them from storage for use by his best men.
Although not cruel by nature, Ferguson did allow his Tory troops to plunder and destroy rebel homes during his operations in the Carolinas because he felt it was his military duty. This made him the object of particular abhorrence and an officer singled out for retribution by the leaders of the American forces. While commanding from one of the detachments of Lord Cornwallis' army he was attacked by a force of rebel riflemen at King's Mountain, South Carolina, October 7, 1780. Failing to defend his position with bayonet charges, he was killed while trying to break through the American lines with a few of his officers.
Today many experts regard the Ferguson rifle to be the finest weapon of the American Revolution. Although only one of the original 100 weapons made for the inventor's rifle corps is known to exist today, several more were produced in England for various clients. The East India Company purchased several for use by its troops, some were acquired by volunteer companies and a few others were made a s personal arms or sporting weapons. We believe the rifle at Heritage Plantation was one of those made for a private individual. It is marked J. Harrison on the lock and Bidet Londine on the barrel.
In spite of the fact that a number of additional Ferguson type rifles
were produced, only a handful exist today, making the gun an object of
great rarity and an artifact truly worthy of the status of one of the premier
attractions in the museum's collections.
Taken from the Heritage Plantation publication, The Cupola, Summer 1994