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More on the Origins of “Sharpshooter”

I’ve addressed the origins of the term “sharpshooter” several times, and it seems to be a popular one for commenters. Lately I’ve dug up a few more comments on its origin and first use in America.

One of the more intriguing units in the Revolutionary War is the Althouse Sharp-Shooters, which was a spin-off of Emmerick’s Chasseurs. Andreas Emmerick was a Hessian who fought in the Revolution as a Crown mercenary, raising a mixed company of American Loyalists and former German jägers. “Jäger” and “Chasseur” mean the same thing—“hunter”—in German and French respectively, and both were light infantry. An informal distinction of the time was that jäger applied to an independent light infantry unit, while a “chasseur” outfit was generally part of a larger unit like a battalion. Initially formed in 1777 in New York as a rifle company on the jäger pattern, Emmerick’s command eventually grew to a mixed unit of several companies of light cavalry, light infantry, and riflemen. Unfortunately Emmerick himself proved, like Hiram Berdan, to be a divisive figure, and by 1779 the unit was near mutiny, whereupon it was broken up and the men transferred to other commands.

That September John Althouse recruited a rifle company from them, which seems to have been mostly of British Loyalists rather than Germans. In fact, looking more closely we find that John Althouse was actually Johann Althaus, who apparently Anglicized his name to better fit with the New York Volunteers, a Tory infantry regiment. Althaus/Althouse was a former German jäger himself who had apparently served under Emmerick. Thus it’s a pretty good bet that the company was armed, equipped and trained like the jägers, and wore a green uniform. Althouse was also at least acquainted with Captain Johann Ewald, whose journal, published as Diary of the American War, is a wonderful source of information about the American Revolution and of light infantry in the 18th Century as well. Ewald mentions Althouse, calling the unit “Althouse’s Sharp-Shooters.” Since Ewald’s diary was written in German, this is almost certainly a translation of the term “scharfschutze,” meaning the same thing. The rolls of the New York Volunteers simply call it a rifle company, but I think it likely that “sharp-shooters” was an informal title. If so it makes sense (especially considering that the commander was German himself and quite familiar with the rifle), since in German the word was well-established and quite similar.

So…not definitive, but strongly suggestive, and it fits with how the word would have come into English.

More to come….

This section about sharpshooters appears in The Regimental Companion by Charles James (London 1811).

If the raising of the proposed corps should be considered in the light of a burthensome augmentation to the British army, those means might assuredly be adopted by which a certain proportion of each battalion might be trained, disciplined, and exercised with the rifle. This principle has been attended to in one of our militia corps. During the late war there were two companies, consisting of men who were called sharp-shooters, attached to a regiment of that establishment. In justice to Lord Dundas, who, as far back as the year 1795, not only saw the necessity of introducing companies of rifle-men into our militia establishment, but brought his notions to bear with regard to the North-York regiment, which he now commands, and of which he was then lieutenant-colonel, I cannot omit paying a just tribute to his indefatigable zeal for the service in general, and acknowledging his early adoption of a measure that is now universally recommended.* Every writer upon our military system is an advocate for sharp-shooters. Among those authors, I particularly notice Captain Sterling, and Colonel F. P. Robinson, Inspecting Field Officer of the London Recruiting District; and among the practical encouragers of a system, so laudably introduced by Lord Dundas in his own regiment, I find Lord Yarmouth at the head of the Cumberland sharpshooters, and Captain Bessel, formerly of the war office, together with many other gentlemen in the different counties of the United Kingdom. These individuals will bear testimony to the propriety of my own suggestions upon the subject, and although those suggestions originally grew out of what I had seen at the commencement of the French Revolution, they are not the less valuable because they owe their birth to the prior practice of an enemy. Colonel Robinson, in his letter, to a general officer respecting the recruiting service, and on the establishment of rifle corps in the British army, makes the following observations.

“A few years ago the British nation shuddered at the idea of introducing rifle men into our service; and every attempt in favour of the system was rejected with horror: at length fatal experience taught all Europe, that the French owed their important victories, and the whole Continent its subjugation, not more to their inexhaustible supply of men, than to the introduction of novel tactics, one great feature in which was, covering their front with swarms of sharp-shooters, who, dealing destruction among the officers of their opponents, frequently decided the fate of the day before the action could be said to have been fairly begun.”

In another place he says: “A company of riflemen ought to be attached to every infantry regiment, as a part of its establishment, to be posted in two bodies, in the rear of the flank companies, ready at the sound of the bugle to cover the line or column with the best effect, unattended with the danger arising from the chasm in every line which, the advance of the light company must occasion, unless previously posted in the rear. Such an arrangement would leave the rifle regiments, or large detachments from them, more usefully disposable in the order of battle, or in immediate action, as exigencies might require.”

* The formation of two companies of sharp-shooters in the North-York militia preceded every thing of the UK in the British army.

** This principle has been acted upon in the North York militia, ever since the year 1795.

Thus James puts formation of the first British sharpshooter units at 1795, showing that the term was by then well-established in the English language.



One response to “More on the Origins of “Sharpshooter””

  1. L Harper Avatar
    L Harper

    John Althause was my 7 x gr grandfather. The archives of Nova Scotia have a few letters written by him and one complaining about him , he left a guy with dinner and htel bill in a tavern lol!

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