The Small Arms and Weapons of the Alamo Defenders

by John Bryant

The arms and weapons of the Alamo defenders were wide and varied, as diverse as the defenders themselves. Hollywood would have us believe that all the men were buckskin clad frontiersmen armed with their Kentucky/Pennsylvania longrifles. The truth is most of the men used what they had. Some were issued arms from the stores of guns captured after General Cos surrendered at the Battle of Bexar in December 1835.

That there were Leatherstocking clad frontiersmen in the garrison, there's no doubt but they were definitely in the minority. There were Anglo, Tejano, a freed black and slaves. From doctors, lawyers, farmers and ranchers, tradesmen and ministers, every walk and station in life was represented. More often than not, what arms they carried would have reflected this. The more well-to-do may have used imported sporting weapons. The hunter carried his longrifle while farmers and tradesmen probably used shotguns and fowlers.

We know Travis was armed with a double-barreled shotgun and advocated the arming of the Texas Army Cavalry with just that weapon. Itís likely that some of the cavalry he brought with him to Bexar may have been similarly armed. One must look at the guns that were available in 1836 and realize that there was a wide array available and many of these may have made their way inside the walls during the siege.

According to the DRT, there unfortunately is only one surviving gun from that period, that may have seen action at the siege. It is the Jacob Dickert rifle on display in the long barracks museum and even its origins are questioned. The Dickert rifle would also fall into the longrifle category.

There were two types of ignition systems in use on guns at this time, the flintlock and the caplock or percussion system.

In 1836, the flintlock was the more established and prevalent of the two, yet there were probably more caplocks involved in the siege than is currently acknowledged. In 1830, the percussion system was unusual, but by 1840 had become quite common. By the middle of the decade these weapons had gained fairly wide usage.

The Pennsylvania/Kentucky rifle was a graceful long barreled weapon that had evolved from German Jaeger rifle. The Jaeger rifle was brought to this country by early German settlers and improved by Pennsylvania gunsmiths. They took the German design and made the barrel longer, adding fancy patchboxes and brass and silver inlays.

These guns were of smaller caliber than the Jaeger (.60 and larger caliber). Their size ranged from the light .32 caliber to the heavy .58 caliber with the average size being in the .45 to .50 caliber range.

The longrifle was an excellent hunting weapon wonderfully suited for the North American forests. The Mountain rifle was another longrifle made in the southern regions of the country. Basically, it was a plainer sturdier version of the Pennsylvania/Kentucky rifle. Instead of brass, it was fitted with iron and a grease hole replaced the patchbox.

Recent research suggests that the New Orleans Greyís were armed with rifles instead of muskets. If this is true, then their guns may have been the U.S. Common Rifle of 1817. In common use by 1836, this military rifle was one of the few U.S. military guns to use a paper cartridge with a lubed ball. Made under contract by Henry Derringer and Simon North, the lock on the rifle and had a detachable brass pan.

The Trade rifle, developed for the Indian trade and bigger game of the west, undoubtedly saw some use. These guns were shorter and plainer, made with a full and halfstock and were of a heavier (.45 caliber or larger) than the Kentucky/Pennsylvania rifle. Yet these were made by the some of the same gunsmiths (J. Henry, Leman and J. Dickert) as the longrifle. It was a practical gun that saw wide acceptance among the civilian population because it was fairly inexpensive and could stand much harder use than the more delicate longrifle.


Baker Rifle

The British Baker rifle was an excellent light cavalry weapon. Used by several companies in the Mexican army, this .61 caliber gun provided excellent service during the napoleonic wars. The Baker rifle was reportedly the weapon that killed Ben Milam during the siege of Bexar. Some of these guns may have been left behind in Texian hands after Cos' surrendered. The Baker rifle could be fitted with a bayonet and had twice the rate of fire as contemporary military rifles. It was lethal at ranges up to 270 yards. MORE

The East India pattern musket or Brown Bess, a .75 caliber British made surplus weapon, was the standard arm of the Mexican army. It becomes obvious that the defenders used it. José Enrique de la Peña reported that each man in the Alamo had three or four of these guns stacked up for their use.

Through the years the Bess has been disparaged and considered an antiquated and inaccurate weapon. In fact, they are very accurate at ranges under 70 yards, approximately. Familiarity with the gun was required to achieve great accuracy with the Brown Bess however, in that pre-dawn darkness, the Texians required little accuracy to fire into the massed troops of the Mexican army. Contrary to popular belief, the recoil from a Brown Bess is not much different than any other muzzle-loading gun. MORE


Tower flintlock carbine of 1812.

Another British-made musket that was used extensively in the frontier was the Tower flintlock carbine of 1812. This was a large caliber gun with a short twenty-two inch barrel. The Mexican cavalry used this gun until the 1850's. MORE

Several French weapons may have seen use at the Alamo. The Fusil fin was a long-barreled .65 caliber or larger gun. It was popular with traders and hunters and was used as a presentation weapon for Indian chiefs. The fusil de chasse or Tulle (named for the armory where it was made) a .69 cal. gun was very popular with the French inhabitants of this country.

The Charleville was another military musket, which after years of French occupation and colonization fell into civilian hands in great numbers. These guns were shipped to the Americas in great quantities and parts to them have been found from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Because several men of the Alamo garrison came to Texas from Louisiana, a former French colony (or had at least come through there) itís very possible that French-made guns played a part in the Alamo siege.

The Kentucky fowler was another common weapon of the period and like the smoothbore musket, it was not rifled. It was basically a long-barreled shotgun used for hunting.

In a pinch, just about anything could be used as a projectile. Even single lead balls were known to have been fired from it like a musket. These guns were made with octagonal to round barrels, .50 to .65 caliber with all the grace and beauty of the Pennsylvania/Kentucky rifles.

The Spaniards liked blunderbusses, another smoothbore weapon. Blunderbusses were used in the southwest in the form of pistols, carbines and swivel guns. They were a short smoothbore weapon with a belled or flared muzzle. Some of the Tejano defenders may have carried this easy to load weapon, which may have been passed down through their families from the time of Spanish Mexico.



Spanish Escopeta

The Escopeta, another possible Tejano weapon, was a short smoothbore musket using the Spanish Miguelet lock, a very durable system that was still being used in the southwest. Escopeta, while referring to a specific weapon has also come to be a generic term for any Mexican rifle or musket. Many Tejano's who joined the Texian cause were deserters from the Mexican Army and they probably took their army issue weapons and equipment with them. MORE

Pistols, while not common on the frontier were carried by some people and undoubtedly a number made their way to the Alamo. Though fewer in number than long arms, other weapons were also used at the Alamo. Had we been there, we would have seen Kentucky pistols, British horse pistols and Harperís Ferry pistols. These pistols could have been rifled or smoothbore with brass or steel barrels. There were probably many Spanish Pistola's that would have been of the type that featured the Miguelet lock.

In the deadly hand to hand fighting that occurred in the later minutes of battle; the Texians relied on their Bowie knives, tomahawks, Belduques and long knives. Though often associated with the Mexican Army, the Texians would have also used bayonets. A bayonet was standard issue and used with the Brown Bess and other military muskets. While the Texians were not as adept in its use, they likely employed it.

While we will never know for sure what weapons were used in the Alamo drama, these examples were some of the more common and readily available of the day. On April 29, 1836, José M. Perez listed 816 Muskets, rifles and pistols, 200 bayonets, 21 cannon, 14,600 cartridges and large numbers of solid and canister shot for use with cannon that were captured and sent to Mexico. Much of this list was comprised of the arms and equipment that had been captured by the Texians at the siege of Bexar.

Whether musket, rifle or pistol was used, the defenders sold their lives dearly and clearly made Santa Anna's victory worse than a defeat.


Glossary of Terms

Bibliography

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