It is a lamentable aspect of the human condition that we seem inexorably driven to destroy ourselves. We drape our culture and our society in the mantle of civilization, but we are not really all that different from baboons or jackals. Ours is a tribal species, and our response to affront or perceived injustice is typically violence, even this deep in the Information Age.
The numbers are frankly breathtaking. The warring powers during the Second World War produced enough bullets to shoot every human being on the planet forty times. If you took every penny spent by the US on defense from the end of WW2 to the end of the Cold War you could raze and rebuild every man-made structure in the United States. Despite our extraordinary capacity to reason and solve problems, we homo sapiens have become quite adroit at offing one another.
Modern combat is at its base simply infuriating. In the age of drone warfare, the enemies of our Great Republic are faced with quite the maddening lot. Day or night, fair weather or foul, it really doesn’t matter. Death comes for you out of the ether in the form of a Hellfire missile launched by an armed UAV piloted by some former cheerleader-turned-Air Force pilot operating out of an air-conditioned building in Nevada. That has got to drive those dudes crazy.
The traditional faceless killer on the battlefield is the sniper. Artillery always racks up the biggest numbers, but there is something viscerally horrifying about catching a sniper’s bullet from an unexpected quarter. For as long as there have been accurate rifles, there have been soldiers behind them sowing havoc. This was certainly true during the American Civil War.
The Making of a Killer
John W. “Jack” Hinson was born in 1807. A wealthy Scots-Irish farmer in Stewart County, Tennessee, Hinson was known as “Old Jack” to his friends. He was a prosperous slave owner who attempted to remain neutral in the face of the brewing Civil War. He lived on his tobacco farm with his wife and ten children and was known for his temper.
When the Federal General U.S. Grant rolled through the area with his army, Jack welcomed him into his home. In February of 1862 Grant moved on to attack Fort Donelson and Fort Henry. As he departed, however, Grant left a Federal garrison behind.
“Bushwhackers” was the term applied to unconventional guerilla fighters who attacked Union forces from positions of concealment. In the fall of 1862, Hinson’s sons 17-year-old Jack and 22-year-old George were out deer hunting near their homestead. They came across a Union detachment that mistakenly took the two boys for bushwhackers. The Federal soldiers tied the two young men to trees, shot them to death, paraded their bodies around town as a message to others, and then stuck their heads on the gateposts back at the Hinson homestead. This turned out to be a really bad idea. You’ll note a similar plot arc drives the Mel Gibson Revolutionary War epic The Patriot. However, unlike The Patriot, this really happened.
At age 55 Jack Hinson sent his family away to safety and contracted with a local gunsmith to build him a very special .50-caliber Kentucky Long Rifle. This custom-built weapon sported a 41-inch barrel as well as set triggers and weighed a whopping 18 pounds. Hinson used this weapon to engage in a one-man sniper war against the occupying Federal troops. He sniped Union soldiers both in garrison as well as in military columns and transports. He also engaged Union gunboats while they were slowly plying the waters of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. His first two victims were the Lieutenant and Sergeant responsible for murdering his two sons, both shot cleanly from ambush.
Hinson eventually fell in with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry mob and served as a local guide during their attack on the Union supply base at Johnsonville. Jack’s son Robert was of age and led a band of unconventional guerillas in the area of Tennessee they called home. However, this young man was killed by Union forces on September 18, 1863.
Using that obsolete muzzleloading long rifle “Old Jack” Hinson accumulated more than 100 kills. He sniped Union naval personnel off the decks of their warships and shot men out of the saddle as they passed by in supply convoys. His longest confirmed kill was nearly half a mile. Ultimately units from four different Federal regiments tracked him unsuccessfully.
The Kentucky Long Rifle was also known as the Pennsylvania Rifle or the American Long Rifle. At a time when men lived or died based upon their facility with a gun, the accuracy and firepower afforded by the Long Rifle was coveted indeed.
“From a flat bar of soft iron, hand forged into a gun barrel; laboriously bored and rifled with crude tools; fitted with a stock hewn from a maple tree in the neighboring forest; and supplied with a lock hammered to shape on the anvil; an unknown smith, in a shop long since silent, fashioned a rifle which changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately freed our country of foreign domination. Light in weight; graceful in line; economical in consumption of powder and lead; fatally precise; distinctly American; it sprang into immediate popularity; and for a hundred years was a model often slightly varied but never radically changed.”
— Captain John G. W. Dillin, The Kentucky Rifle
The Long Rifle was first developed in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. These early guns were crafted entirely by hand with little thought to interchangeable parts or mass production. When compared to the smoothbore muskets of the day these rifles were markedly more accurate. It was actually the advent of the rifled musket that facilitated the rise of the sniper on the modern battlefield.
The British Brown Bess musket that carried the Redcoats through the American Revolution was a smoothbore design with a 0.75-inch bore. The gun fired 0.69-inch balls. These intentionally undersized projectiles made the weapon notoriously inaccurate. However, given the profound amount of fouling that resulted from the crude black powder of the day, these dimensions ensured that the gun could remain in action through protracted firings without cleaning.
Rifled muskets like the Long Rifle offered much greater accuracy and velocities. These early rifles typically fired patched balls that were gripped tightly by the weapon’s rifling. However, the tight interface between ball and bore resulted in rapid fouling in action and demanded laborious reloading. The development of the Minie Ball helped alleviate this vice.
The Minie Ball was a cast lead hollow-based bullet designed by Claude-Etienne Minie. Minie Balls first saw widespread use during the Crimean War in the 1850s. The Minie Ball sported three grease-filled cannelures on the outside and a malleable skirt on the bottom. Upon firing powder gases tended to expand the skirt such that the bullet engaged the rifling without being unduly snug during loading. When carried in paper cartridges and fired through relatively precise weapons, like Jack Hinson’s Long Rifle, the Minie Ball afforded a decent rate of accurate fire as well.
The Rest of the Story
After the war “Old Jack” laid down his arms and returned home to Stewart County, Tennessee. He settled the estate of his son George, one of seven Hinson children who had succumbed to combat, occupying Union forces, or disease during the course of the war. While he bumped up against the law from time to time, for the most part, Hinson didn’t bother anybody and few people bothered him.
On April 28, 1874, Jack Hinson was at his new residence in Houston County, Tennessee, and complained of severe upper back pain. The local medical practitioner was summoned, and the usual treatments undertaken. Six hours later Hinson died. His presumptive diagnosis was meningitis. I obviously wasn’t there but given the rapidity of onset and tearing sensation between his shoulder blades I’d put my money on a dissecting aortic aneurysm myself. Old Jack was 67 at the time.
Jack Hinson’s shopworn .50-caliber Kentucky Long Rifle survives to this day. The gun bears the marks of 36 kills. However, the number of 100 or more seems more historically reliable based upon period sources. It has been suggested that Old Jack only documented the officers he shot on his deadly implement of violence.
The Finnish sniper Simo Hayha was likely history’s most successful sniper with more than 500 verified kills, all taken at fairly close range over the span of 100 days. Numerous Soviet snipers racked up counts in the hundreds during World War 2. The American Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle had 160 confirmed. However, each of these warriors used fairly modern equipment. Back in the 1860s, a Tennessee farmer with a grudge used a muzzleloading single-shot Kentucky Long Rifle to terrorize thousands of Federal troops. His exploits stand in bitter testament to the chaos that can be wrought by a single determined rifleman with a gun.