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
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
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
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
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.
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of
Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
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