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Yorktown sheds olde light on modern gun debate

Yorktown museum puts gun control in a new light
Credit: John Bordsen for USA TODAY
Bittner demonstrates for visitors the step-by-step process of loading and firing a musket. A well-drilled soldier or militiaman could fire three times per minute.

YORKTOWN, Va. – Just what were they thinking?

Arguments over gun control and gun rights lead to the United States Constitution’s Second Amendment – 27 words approved in 1791 that are still being sifted through by legislatures and courts.

But at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, you can get a handle on what the Founding Fathers had in mind when drafting and approving the Bill of Rights. Of the 39 who signed the Constitution, most had participated militarily or politically in the 1775-1781 revolution. Among them were Gen. Alexander Hamilton, a Yorktown combat veteran, and James Madison, who represented Virginia at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia while the Battle of Yorktown effectively brought the Revolution to a close.

Here you can see, hear and smell the bang, boom and roar.

On a fast-warming June morning, grizzled interpreter Glenn Bittner is dressed as one of the outraged Shenandoah Valley farmers who followed Virginia Gen. Dan Morgan to New England in 1775. He holds up his musket and goes through the steps:

1. Make a quarter-turn away from the British, your muzzle still pointed toward the enemy.

2. Half-cock your musket’s hammer; open the dinky pan underneath.

3. Use your free hand to reach into the shoulder-slung cartridge box. Withdraw a sealed paper cartridge, a load containing gunpowder and one musket ball. Bite open one end of the cartridge.

4. Pour the gunpowder into the open pan. Close the pan.

5. Put the cartridge wad, containing the musket ball and remaining gunpowder, in the barrel.

6. Withdraw the ramrod attached to the underside of the musket barrel. Use it to ram the wad deep into the musket barrel.

7. Return the ramrod to its place.

8. Raise the musket vertically; pull the hammer back fully. You’re ready.

9. Lower the barrel toward the enemy. Aim. Fire.

It gets tricky. All of this is done without the butt of the musket touching the ground. In company formation (60 to 80 men), an officer would bark step-by-step commands to orchestrate a devastating volley. There was always a chance your 10-pound musket would not fire.

Exploded black gunpowder in those days created a lot of acrid smoke. Though a well-trained unit could fire three times per minute, an enemy could suddenly appear through the smoke – the literal “fog of war.” There should have been a bayonet at the end of your barrel, for piercing or slicing him. It would be good to also have a hatchet or knife slung from your belt, for hand-to-hand combat.

Outside and indoors

The Museum of the American Revolution, in downtown Philadelphia – where independence was declared – is a worthwhile attraction.  But the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is near the National Park Service-owned battlefield where American and French forces effectively won the revolution after a three-week siege that resulted in British Lord Cornwallis surrendering his trapped army on Oct. 19, 1781.

More: Philly, Yorktown: Tale of 2 American Revolution museums

Yorkown’s museum opened the same year as Philadelphia’s – 2017. But its semi- rural location allows staff interpreters on the expansive grounds to load and fire replica long guns twice daily for visitors. Spring through fall, weekends on the grounds often feature encampments of re-enactment groups.

When artillery displays are offered, you experience the firing of unloaded replica fieldpieces maybe 15 feet away, behind a rope line. You’re warned to cover your ears, but the boom is often followed by the wails of startled infants.

From the outside, the one-story, 80,000-square-foot museum looks like a large, upscale motor inn. The permanent galleries show roughly 500 artifacts; displays and mini-theaters tell how 13 English colonies came to chafe under long-distance imperial rule, how decrees and incidents led to rebellion, independence, a  post-war confederation, the Constitution and westward expansion.

Cool interactive flourishes include a wall projection of silhouettes of armed men heading off to war. Kids passing it are amazed to see their own shadows projected into the montage.

Start to finish, permanent galleries show the fluidity of the times – how victories and defeats were often chancy.

A special exhibition, “Blast from the Past” (through Jan. 5), explores how iron or brass cannon, howitzers and mortars work, how they were manufactured in the 1700s, and how the disadvantaged revolutionaries had to rely on artillery captured from the British or shipped from France.

“Before the revolution, it was illegal for colonists to manufacture artillery for their own purposes,” says exhibit curator Sarah Meschutt. “Only one cannon foundry operated – and that was for the British army.”

Patriot casting efforts weren’t always successful, given the steep learning curve for forging artillery. One reject on display, a 6-pounder forged in Maryland, was found buried in someone’s garden.

Also on display are unexploded mortar balls excavated in the 1970s from the Yorktown battlefield. They were still filled with 1781 gunpowder and had to be defused.

Visual gems in the show are French-issue bronze cannons sporting carefully worked decoration.

Weapons of less destruction

Independence led to a loose confederation with myriad problems. Hamilton and Madison pushed for the 1787 convention that group-wrote the federalizing Constitution for a “more perfect union” and co-authored the Federalist Papers that greased the skids for its approval. The initial amendments were 1791 add-ons to coax ratification from the 13 wary states: Having recently won independence, they didn’t want to surrender key rights to a new central government.

 “The Second Amendment has to do with concerns about the federal government controlling state militias,” says Kevin Hardwick, a colonial history professor at Virginia’s James Madison University. “Pretty much all agreed that a standing army in times of peace was a bad idea: It could be misused to put the government in a more authoritarian direction. How do you protect against this? According to the theory of the time, you rely on citizen militia, like what is now the National Guard.

“In slave states, they took this pretty seriously; they were always worried about slave insurrections. But all states had their own militia.”

In 2008, Hardwick notes, the Supreme Court affirmed in District of Columbia v. Heller that Second Amendment militia protection extends to individuals who own/use weapons lawfully for self-defense.

So, how effective were those Revolution-era muskets?

“They were effective for 100 yards – the length of a football field,” says T.J. Savage, assistant supervisor in the Continental Army encampment at the Yorktown museum. “A musket ball could carry 200 to 300 yards, but you’re not going to hit what you’re aiming at. Hit rates are abysmal.”

Muskets were effective in volleys: “The key is putting a lot of lead down-range.”

Flintlock pistols, used by mounted troops and sailors, had a range of about 25 yards, according to Savage.

Norman Fuss, a veteran re-enactor now with the museum interpretive crew, owns 10 French, American or British uniforms. In an outdoor tent in full redcoat dress, he was trying to convince a purple-haired 14-year-old to enlist in the “Corps of Engineers, Kings Army in America.”

Like Savage, he also owns some pieces classified as antiques, not weapons. Fuss says he was a competitive target shooter for 40 years but is now focused on old guns “because I was bitten by the black powder bug. It’s too much fun.”

At home, he keeps his weapons under lock and key, unloaded.

A sign at the museum entrance notes that guns are not allowed on the premises. Its director, Peter Armstrong, says “Virginia is an open-carry state, but by law no weapons are allowed in state facilities. In the four years I’ve been here, there have been no hassles about this with visitors.”

Both he and curator Meschutt previously worked in England at the Royal Armouries, where centuries of weapons are preserved and displayed.

They both are British.

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