A Revolution in Everyday Carry

SigningJuly 4, 1776, not only marked the day the 13 British colonies officially declared their independence from Crown rule, it also laid the groundwork for the escalation of the battle that would shape the early days of America: the Revolutionary War. Suddenly trained soldiers and average citizens faced the beginning of a long, intense battle with the greatest fighting force the world had seen up to that point: the British army. But the colonists had their own fighting force. Made up largely of British army veterans and a handful of new recruits, the Continental Army had formed in early 1775 in direct opposition to King George III’s orders, a precursor of events to come the next summer. When war unofficially broke out in April 1775, the Continental Army found itself face-to-face with an overwhelming task: fight to separate the colonists from British rule or be hanged for treason. Clearly, the British army was better equipped for a war than the ragtag band of civilian militia and newly-formed Continental Army that had been tasked with carrying out this monumental task. So what did the Continental Army soldiers use to fight off the “redcoats”?


Today’s soldiers are issued a fully-automatic M-4 (an updated version of the Vietnam-era M-16) chambered in .223 caliber, a few hand grenades, a sidearm and an assortment of short bladed weapons. But that wasn’t the case 240 years ago. Back then, infantrymen lugged around single-shot muskets, some of them over five feet long, with a bayonet affixed to the end of the barrel. Each time the musket fired, it had to be manually reloaded with wadding, gunpowder from a powder horn on a strap and a rounded lead bullet. Reloading took close to a minute each time, often leaving the shooter vulnerable to enemy fire if he timed it wrong. The bayonet was usually used after all the bullets ran out and soldiers were left with no other choice but to charge the enemy, into lines of soldiers who also had bayonets at the ready. Most infantrymen didn’t have pistols, those being issued instead to officers; however, officers rarely fired them because they were too busy commanding troops to participate in much of the fighting.


While the British were well known for their bright red uniforms (thus the nickname “redcoats”), the American Continental Army had adopted a darker navy blue coatIn addition to his very formal blue wool coat, a typical Continental Army soldier was issued one linen or cotton shirt, a waistcoat, a pair of linen or cotton trousers, stockings and leather shoes or boots, depending on the soldier’s rank. But that didn’t last long after the American’s changed from the traditional lines of troops on the battlefield to the more strategic guerrilla warfare that allowed them to hide in among the trees and fire from cover. This required them to blend in better and look like their surroundings, birthing the modern application of camouflage as they ditched the blue coats and attached limbs and leaves to their uniforms. Many of the local militias didn’t even have uniforms, so they fought in their normal clothes, which proved to be an advantage because they were often dirty, hiding their presence further. The British soon realized the red coats made them easy to spot and therefore easy targets for American snipers. But thanks to rigid military regulations, they were not allowed to remove them.


Due to the newness of the Continental Army and the largely agrarian population, getting hard goods for the new army proved difficult. However, thanks to clever resourcing and a bit of thievery from British supply ships and storehouses, the standard issue for Continental infantry included such items as leather or tin ammunition pouches, a haversack to carry food and eating utensils – a fork, spoon, plate and cup – and a canteen for water. A soldier’s personal items, such as a razor for shaving, tinderbox for starting a fire and other miscellaneous items, were held in a knapsack.

Militia soldiers carried many of the same items as the army but in a different form. For instance, knapsacks were often made from scratch with materials from home. Instead of a knife, a militiaman might carry a tomahawk. One clever invention that came out of the militia was “patched bullets,” which were pre-wrapped in the required wadding to save a step when loading muskets. This allowed for less time reloading and more time shooting.


As much as soldiers today may complain about MREs, they are practically gourmet compared to army rations of the 1700s. While provisions were often hard to come by, sometimes the items soldiers ate were a bit unconventional by today’s standards. According to ncpedia.org:

In 1777 it was ordered that each soldier would receive one pound of flour or bread, one and one-half pound of beef or pork, and one quart of beer per day. Each week he would receive five pints of peas, one pint of meal, and six ounces of butter. Vinegar was issued on occasion and rum was issued to those men working around the camp and on guard duty. It was recommended that the men should always boil or roast their provisions.

Imagine being issued beer or rum today!

End of the War

Independence Day was just the start. By the time the war ended in 1781, over 25,000 colonialists had been killed. The effects on the country were devastating, but the patriots had gained their freedom and independence. The Declaration of Independence would stand. Today, the US military still fights to maintain those very same freedoms. They just wear very different uniforms and carry much more advanced gear.