Going strictly from memory, most references to calibers in the 1700s ran around 48 to 53 caliber. Usually expressed as X number of balls to the pound of lead. No doubt some small caliber small game rifles were made but I think they would be unusual. Assuming most people would have only one rifle, a circa 50 caliber would be more useful for hunting and protection.
As more responses come in, I'm curious to see if my vague impressions hold up.
Hey Jeff......Most of the few references to caliber on the frontier of 1800 agree w/BullRunBear. In one of the books I have , it is stated that common calibers seen on the eastern woods are 47 up to 60. It is stated that .47 was thought to be the smallest cal. useful for hunting or war.
I have a curiosity about smaller caliber rifles of the post indian war, say 1810 and beyond in the Appalachian Mountain range south of Pittsburgh , Pa.. That's where I grew up.
From what I read , Pittsburgh was a large center of m/l rifle building . Custom small game rifles could be ordered if needed to protect farm crops from massive invasions , of squirrels , ground hogs , raccoons , etc. , .. Also , shooting matches were common entertainment as lead and powder were not scarce , so .25 to .45 may have been popular. Their accuracy is well known then and today.
Clark carried one of his personal rifles with the Corps of Discovery 1804 to 1806. Confusion is easily applied to this rifle perhaps made by John Small of Vincennes, Ohio or was it just because compared to other rifles carried, it was a small rifle. It is also documented that Clark's Small rifle was a 100 to the pound rifle (36 caliber).
I remember reading some years ago that a fellow took the caliber measurement from all the American flint rifles know at the time and it averaged out at .42 caliber. How he was able to do that I don't know. That seems kind of small, especially when you consider that many of those rifles had been freshened, probably more than once, as iron is pretty soft, so the number was probably closer to the .38-.40 range.
At one time, .40 caliber muzzleloading rifles were a lot more common than today's muzzleloading shooters and hunters might imagine. During the late 1700's and early 1800's, before baseball, before basketball and before football, shooting was the American pastime. On just about any Saturday or Sunday afternoon, weather permitting, good old fashion muzzleloader shooting matches were held all across the country. As often as not, they were just for the fun of shooting, but when things got serious there could actually be a cash prize, or the shooters may have competed for a quarter or half of a cow or pig...or for that matter a whole one!
From what I have read, calibers were what the rifle became when it was finished. The mold was made to fit the rifle barrel diameter. Prior to 1800, lead and powder was sometimes hard to find in the rural areas. Thus the calibers tended to be only as large as necessary for deer, turkey, and defense. Bullets: Early Bullets
LePage Paris 1820, double rifle, .36 cal, ".36 caliber with many deep-V grooves, absolutely brilliant bores, and retaining most of the original brilliant black finish. Interestingly, the right barrel is straight-rifled while the left barrel is twist-rifled at I turn in 25”. Maker’s name inlaid in gold on the top rib. Touch-holes are gold lined. " As SmokeyP noted many show up around 1840, very few before 1800.
Can,t remember where i read a story years ago , about an old time hunter during the percussion era somewhere in the southern Appalachian Mtn,s . He was noted for killing 600+ black bears . He hunted w/ dogs to bring the bears to bay , but his gun was the fascinating part. It was a side by side percussion rifle in .36 cal.. Must have done a lot of neck or head shootin'. My hat is off to him. I wouldn't want to get that closed to a pissed off bear. oldwood
There was a study years ago about Rev War era rifles and most were in the 50 cal. range. As Crow Feather mentioned, the caliber result using the same equipment would came out differently because they the barrels were made by hand forging.
That involved heating up wrought iron and hammer welding a flat piece of iron around a mandrel - by far the most laborious part of the process. Then the mandrel was removed and the hole was reamed to make it straight and round. Next came the rifling stage, which was another laborious process. At the end of that, the gun maker would make a ball mold to cast the lead ball that would fit that particular rifle. A .50 cal. mandrel could result in a .50 through about a .55 caliber rifle and anywhere in between.
The cost of a rifle was equal to a longhunter's yearly income from harvesting deer and working his farm. So you had to be very wealthy to have more than one rifle. Now, if you're going to only have one rifle, are you going to make it a squirrel gun? Probably not when that rifle was being used to feed and protect the family.
And if you were in Virginia, you may very well use it for 6 to 9-months out of the year to harvest deer for deer hides that were being shipped back in a rawhide state to England. They finished the tanning in England and turned them into very soft clothing, which was quite the rage in England and Europe until the Rev War started. Deer hides were the #2 export from Virginia behind Tobacco until the war started and shipments to England ceased.
Also, bear in mind that American longrifle calibers were much smaller than the smoothbore fowlers and muskets of the time. So although they sound large to use, they were small by comparison to the common firelock found in New England. Typically the fowlers were from .62 to .75 caliber (20ga. to 12ga.). Fowlers were commonly used in New England because you could take deer, squirrels and fowl with them - a real "all-around" firearm. Limitation was range and accuracy.
The first rifles that showed up in America were the Jaeger rifles made by Moravians who had immigraded from Germany. These Jaeger rifles were typically around .62 caliber or so. So even a caliber in the .50 neighborhood allowed you to make a LOT more round balls out of pound of lead than the muskets, fowlers, or Jaeger rifles did.
After the Rev War as you get into the late 1700's and early 1800's is when the calibers really started getting smaller and you saw a lot of .45 and .40 caliber rifles. A .45 rifle could still take deer reliably although a .40 depended a lot on proper shot placement. That's why modern deer hunting regulations in most states require a minimum .45 cal rifle to hunt deer. Another driving force is that the Eastern Bison, started disappearing from the Eastern US around 1730 and disappeared during the 1770's, so you didn't need the larger calibers to hunt them...they weren't there anymore.
No longer needing to shoot at targets that were shooting back at you with .69 caliber lead balls, and the reduction in the size of game such as the loss of the Eastern Bison had a lot to do with the reduction in size of rifle calibers over those years. Economy of use also had a part to play, but lead was easily available throughout the War and rifles already got a lot more round balls out of a pound of lead than muskets did. Rifles stayed expensive until Remington invented the barrel drilling machine in the 1840's that could consistently turn out identical rifled, straight barrels and even then they weren't cheap.