Another Look At Timothy Murphy

If you are familiar with the Revolutionary War and especially the battle of Saratoga you’ve probably heard of Timothy Murphy. According the story, Murphy, one of Daniel Morgan’s riflemen, shot British general Simon Frazier off his horse with a double-barreled rifle at a distance of 300 yards, thereby winning the battle and perhaps even saving the revolution. Nice story, but how much of it is actually true?

In the past I’ve looked a Civil War controversies regarding the shooting of various generals, including John Sedgwick and John Reynolds, only the find that the facts are considerably murkier than most stories would have it.

As it turns out, this is true of Murphy as well. Hugh Harrington takes a skeptical look at the story, and finds most parts of it hard to verify. While it’s well established that Murphy was one of Morgan’s riflemen, that he was at Saratoga, and that Simon Frazier was killed by an American riflemen, that’s about all that we can be positive about.

Harrington found that the first published account of the incident was in 1835, 58 years after the battle, by someone who claimed to a veteran of it, and does not mention Murphy. Not until ten years after that, in 1845, is Murphy tabbed as the shooter. After that the story gained “legs” and after that his name became permanently attached to the incident. Harrington details how other details like the double-barrel rifle and the extreme (for the day) range were gradually added later.

Like many other historical tales, this one doesn’t hold up very well under scrutiny, yet it’s quite current as exemplified in this recent article by sniper authority John Plaster, and—full disclosure—I used it myself in my sharpshooter book.

The longer version of this article, which appeared in the Journal of Military History, and which includes ballistic data, is here.



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