Start of the Revolution: Who Shot First? — The Americans!

Paul Revere’s Ride, April 18, 1775, mural painting by Robert Reid in the Hale House, Boston (Digital ID: 112560, courtesy of New York Public Library.)

Through the night of April 18, 1775, a British column marched westward from Boston, their objective to raid a Yankee store of weapons hidden in the nearby town of Concord. But unbeknownst to the column, William Dawes and Paul Revere rode out ahead, alarming the countryside along the way, sent by forgotten Revolutionary War hero Dr. Joseph Warren.

At about dawn on this day 236 years ago (April 19, 1775), the British reached Lexington, a town about two-thirds the way to Concord. There they found the local militia company waiting for them, all armed and formed on the central Lexington Green. Considering it a challenge, at least the first and second companies of the British column rushed onto the Green, instead of taking the road beside it, only to taunt the Americans. Some reports say the Americans immediately began to disperse, but some Yankees doggedly remained. Both sides shouted at one another, while officers on both sides tried to keep their men in check. And then… a shot rang out! An unordered and scattered British volley rang out in response, and almost simultaneously, some of the Yankees fired in return.1 More scattered shots were fired until the officers on both sides gained control. The Battle (really a skirmish) of Lexington left 8 Americans dead, another 9 wounded, with the British suffering just one man wounded in the leg, plus a British horse slightly wounded in two places. This skirmish was the start of what would be a very bloody day, and it marked the start of the American Revolution. But the details of the battle have always been unclear. Who fired the first shot? No conclusive evidence exists, and each side blames the other. But there is circumstantial evidence, and it leads us to believe the Americans shot first!

An excerpt from Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book, 1775:

Where the shot came from, no one knows to this day. Americans swore they heard a pistol first, suggesting one of the British officers, but the British swore they saw smoke from several fired shots as the militia jumped over the hedge wall, while still other British saw smoke pour out the Meeting House. Undoubtedly, one or more Americans did indeed fire shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern. But whether these shots were the first to ring out that day is unknown. One can only speculate, based on the discrepant, sometimes fallacious, and often biased and exaggerated evidence, but there is a strong case that the Americans fired first, and that the first shots came from the Meeting House or hedge wall. Why the shot rang out is another question altogether. Perhaps, amid the confusion, someone had lost his cool. Equally plausible, some zealot had deliberately wished to begin a war. A third, just as likely, was that a musket accidentally fired. It was the most inopportune time for such an accidental fire, but most of the militia there had muskets kept as trophies from the last war. For the younger men, theirs was inherited from their fathers. Old guns usually had a nasty build up of soot in their barrels and sometimes faulty firelocks and springs. Misfires and accidents with those archaic guns were all too common. Whoever fired that first shot, and whether an accident or of malicious intent, it did not matter: the war was now on.

The Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775 (Plate I) by Amos Doolittle, c. 1775. (Digital ID: 54426, courtesy of New York Public Library.)

The circumstantial evidence against the Americans, that they fired the first shot:

  • The British accounts of the battle, including private diaries, either say the Americans fired first or that the affair was too quick to be sure (generally referring to the hedge wall or behind Buckman Tavern).
  • British accounts of the next skirmish of the day, at Concord’s North Bridge, admit the British fired first. So the British accounts of the second skirmish suggest they gave honest reports, thus why would they all intentionally lie about the Skirmish of Lexington? Even official reports to the British commander-in-chief admit British fault at Concord, yet why would they lie in such official reports about Lexington? We can reasonably believe that the British reports are at least not intentional lies.
  • Regardless of whether the Americans fired first, we must also note that every British accounts of the Skirmish of Lexington gives that the Americans fired at some point during the skirmish.
  • In contrast, the majority of the various American depositions2 taken days after the battle, deposition intended to prove the British fired first, depositions sent to England for publication in American-friendly newspapers, claim the Americans never fired at all. This despite the British reports that claim Maj. Pitcairn’s horse was grazed by two shots, and a casualty report that one musketball slammed into the leg of a private soldier named “Johnson” of the 10th, possibly Thomas Johnston.
  • Thus, we know that the American depositions immediately after the battle are heavily biased, though considering they were taken for the express intent to sway the British people, we can understand why.
  • If we were not yet convinced, we have several depositions of 1825,3 at the 50th anniversary, which admit that the Americans did fire shots in the skirmish. Now we must take any evidence from fifty years after the fact, from the memories of old veterans, with a grain of salt. But such an important detail, that the Americans did in fact fire on the British, is not something that fades with age. As an example, William Munroe, who fought at the battle, reported in 1825 that American shots did ring out from the Meeting House, though he denies these happened before the British fired first. He also mentions those from the tavern. Thus, Munroe admits fifty years after the fact that the Americans fired into the British, and in doing so, proves that the 1775 depositions are false in their claim that the Americans did not fire at all.

What does all of this mean? The original 1775 American depositions are known to contain falsehoods, at least with regard to the Americans not firing. They did fire, as they later admitted, and the British suffered one soldier and one horse wounded. Such a glaring falsehood casts a great tarnish on the American depositions, and must make us doubt the rest of the American claims. In contrast, the British accounts seem to generally accept their role in the day’s affairs, and yet all British reports admit either that it was unclear who fired first, or that the Americans fired first.

So who fired first? We cannot know. Circumstantial evidence is not proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. We can only guess, and my guess is that the Americans fired first, from either the hedge wall or from behind Buckman Tavern. The Americans had the most to lose by admitting they had fired first, such as support from other colonies or the British people. The Americans also felt the greatest degree of trepidation and pent up frustration, which would suggest they were more likely to fire without orders. In contrast, the young British soldiers were rather disciplined (and so not likely to fire without orders),4 and quite detached from the political debate (and so did not care much about the grander principles of the Revolution as the Yankees did). But we cannot know. Mine is just a theory, and unless new evidence surfaces, my theory will remain just that.

Perhaps we should leave it as two British officers wrote it. Captured British officer Lt. Edward Gould gave (perhaps under duress): “which party fired first, I cannot exactly say”.5 The second account in Lt. Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary gives: “Shots were immediately fired; but from which side could not be ascertained, each party imputing it to the other.” 6


This article has been expanded upon and clarified in my article at Journal of the American Revolution

Click To Read It!

Side note: I suspect some zealous New Englanders may think me an Anglophile for trying to give an honest presentation of the events above. I am no Anglophile, merely a lover of truth. I think this is well evidenced by my considerable former service to the US Air Force, and my ongoing service to the US Air Force Reserve. We have moved beyond the years immediately after the Revolution where our history books were thick with an unreasonably biased American perspective. As in all wars, the Americans misstepped at times, and the British did too. I of course think that on the grander questions of the Revolution, the British were unquestionably in the wrong.

  1. There is little credible evidence to support former claims that the British officers ordered their men to fire.
  2. 1775 American Depositions, in Peter Force’s American Archives series 4 in 6v. (Washington, DC: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1837–1846) 4:2:486–501. (British depositions and field reports cited throughout the notes of Chapter 5 of my forthcoming 1775.)
  3. Late American Depositions, 1825, in Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle at Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th April, 1775 (Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825) 31 ff.
  4. Not to say the Lexington Militia Company was not disciplined—they were. But some did not disperse as ordered. And what about the Yankee spectators? Were they so disciplined?
  5. Force 4:2:500–01.
  6. Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary (Apr 19), in A British Fusilier in Revolutionary Boston, ed. Allen French (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1926) 62 ff.
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37 Responses to Start of the Revolution: Who Shot First? — The Americans!

  1. Pingback: From a Rare Old Print | Boston 1775

  2. Adam D says:

    This is a subject which I wrote about at length earlier this year, and I find myself mostly in agreement with you.

    I think you’re right that statements made by the participants may be in error for a variety of reasons, and despite the very strong claims made by some Americans, the evidence that a British officer deliberately ordered his men to fire is quite thin.

    I agree with you also that the first shot could have been deliberately fired by one of the American militiamen or an accidental discharge.

    One point on which we seem to disagree is this:

    “Undoubtedly, one or more Americans did indeed fire shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern.”

    My impression is that British accounts are quite inconsistent in describing how the firing began. Pitcairn mentioned the meeting house and a wall, Sutherland referred to Buckman’s tavern and a hedge, and Ensign Lister’s account implies the first shot was fired by Americans who were out in the open (“they gave us a fire then ran off to get behind a wall”).

    Given these strange inconsistencies (different British officers heard the first shot come from their left, their right, and their front), and the inconsistencies in the accounts by American spectators, I think it’s plausible that the first shot was fired away from Lexington Green. British officers recorded that shots were repeatedly heard in the countryside on their march towards Lexington. They took these shots to be a signal for the militia to assemble. Perhaps one of these shots was heard echoing around the green, and each party assumed it came from the other side. If this shot (or shots) was fired at a distance, the sound would have been somewhat muffled, and that might explain why Pitcairn and Sutherland thought the shots came from buildings or walls and why a handful of Americans thought it came from an officer’s pistol.

    Yet another possibility is that the Americans spectators were right that the first shot came from a British officer’s pistol, even if the British did not intend to open hostilities. Perhaps one of the mounted British officers fired a pistol in the air so as to goad the militia into dispersing, but in so doing he inadvertently triggered a volley by the regulars. Presumably this officer would have been behind Pitcairn, Sutherland, and the others, and none of the British were looking in his direction.

    Anyways, food for thought.

    • Derek Beck says:

      I thank you Adam for your always thoughtful comments to my blog. What I meant by the line, “Undoubtedly, one or more Americans did indeed fire shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern.” was that undoubtedly at some point shots came from those locations, as even Munroe admitted in 1825. I did not mean to suggest the first shot undoubtedly came from one of those spots, or both.

      Your theory on a signal gun is a good one, and something I had not considered, though I do write about other signal gun incidents prior to this skirmish. As for another British officer: apparently the only other mounted British there were the patrol sent out the night before, the men under Maj. Mitchell who had earlier that morning arrested and detained Paul Revere. It is possible one of them could have fired, but they had no command there, and they would have certainly been out of order to try to make such an overt action as firing a gun to gain control.

      But as you say, food for thought. Unfortunately, we can only guess.

      • Derek Beck says:

        Hi Adam, I recast the sentence that you interpreted differently than I intended, as I had poorly cast the original thought into two sentences. (You quoted only the first sentence, and thus the first part of my thought… my error, as it is my job to communicate more effectively.) The original thought, now recast as one solid sentence, is “Undoubtedly, one or more Americans indeed fired shots from the Meeting House, as they did from the back of Buckman Tavern, but whether any of these were the first shot, or simply shots fired in response to the first, is unknown.” Thank you for your note here, as I truly desire accuracy and clarity in the work 1775!

  3. Adam D says:

    Very interesting. You make a good point that these officers would have been out of order if they had fired a pistol at this point for any cause. I had Lieutenant Adair in mind when I made the comment about an officer possibly firing a pistol, but I didn’t name him as it’s unclear, to the best of my knowledge, as to whether any of the mounted officers that captured Revere was also on hand.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Adair was apparently on foot by Lexington, though he had for a time commandeered a chaise and was later on a horse, perhaps the one from the chaise. Those that had captured Revere met up with Pitcairn’s column somewhere east of Lexington Green, as reported by Sutherland.

  4. Pingback: The First Shots on 19 April 1775 | Boston 1775

  5. Adam D says:

    Thanks for clarifying regarding Adair et al.

    I saw J. L. Bell’s comment at Boston 1775: “I doubt anyone would have shot off an alarm signal so close to the Lexington green as to make the soldiers there think they were being shot at. The whole town was already alarmed, after all.”

    He is of course correct that it would make little sense for someone to fire off an alarm gun on the edge of Lexington Green with Parker’s men already assembled and the British closing in. But of course gun shots can also sound quite distinct at much greater distances, men throughout the area were still assembling at this time, and the knowledge that the British had reached Lexington was not yet widespread. This scenario is of course mere speculation, but I think it remains plausible.

  6. Pingback: Brig. Gen. Robert Pigot and the Battle of Bunker Hill « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  7. Janet Uhlar says:

    Who shot first at Lexington–great mystery for so long. Keep two things in mind: the First Continental Congress agreed on support from the sister colonies IF the British were the aggressors. Paul Revere–member of the secretive Long Room Club, the ‘think tank’ of the American Revolution if you will, was on the green fetching Hancock’s trunk. After he accomplished this task, he would see Sam Adams and John Hancock, members to the next Congress. Question: is it possible that Revere, as active as he was in the inner circles of the patriot movement, failed to watch what was happening on the green? Certainly hard for me to believe. Was Hncock’s trunk really that important that he would be so consumed with moving it away that he would not witness, and report to Adams and Hancock, and later to Joseph Warren, what happened–in great detail? We can only guess at who fired the first shot in Lexington. My guess is that the Americans did.
    Janet Uhlar
    Author of:
    Liberty’s Martyr: The Story of Dr. Joseph Warren
    Freedom’s Cost: The Story of General Nathanael Greene
    Sceenplay: Liberty’s Martyr

    • Derek Beck says:

      Thanks for your reply. Interesting thoughts and questions you pose. I too think it unlikely that Revere did not see some interesting details, even if he failed to report them in his deposition. Perhaps, as you suggest, he omitted those facts because the Americans indeed fired first!

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  9. Bill Poole says:

    Thank you for your research and commentary. I wonder if perhaps you might have overstated that the 1775 depositions “claim the Americans never fired at all.” In reading the 1775 depositions given by those who took part in or witnessed the event, one finds similar wording repeated in the majority of them, such as ” The said Regulars fired a volley or two before any gun was fired by the Lexington Company,” “Not a gun was fired by any person in our Company … before they fired on us,” “the Regulars fired on the Company before a gun was fired by any of our Company on them.” “immediately they fired before any of Captain Parker’s Company fired.” The continued use of the word “before” might suggest that they did know that guns were fired by the militia, and would not make any explicit statement that “they did not fire at all.”

    • Derek Beck says:

      You may indeed be correct sir, I should re-read them to be sure. But certainly some of those depositions suggest they never fired at all, clearly preposterous. This blog post was a simplified version of what might have otherwise been a long post, so I didn’t specify which depositions said what, but again, I think you might be right, re-reading my post now, a year later. Perhaps I did overstate that, or generalize too much. Thanks for commenting! and for reading!

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  14. Sarah McCarthy says:

    could sam adams hancock, or paul revere cold have been the first to shoot of Lexington green?

  15. Pingback: The American Revolution, Part I: The Secrets Buried at Lexington Green | James Perloff

  16. George Quintal Jr. says:

    Derek, why do you slavishly accept the British accounts while totally dismissing the American ones?

    • Hi George. I wouldn’t characterize my acceptance of the British accounts as slavish (it is a theory only, and I can never prove it one way or another, given the insufficient facts), but the reason I prioritize them over the Americans is as follows. First, the American accounts are extremely biased, because they were taken to publish in newspapers in England as propaganda. They are also written mostly as group statements, so nuances or individual thought have been removed to come up with group statements (subject to “group think”) that sometimes a dozen men signed. Contrast that many of the British accounts were from private diaries or letters to Gen. Gage, and those same documents prove accurate for later in the day at North Bridge, where the Brits admit they fired first, without orders. Finally, the American statements include known false information, like hinting (or in some cases explicitly saying) that the Americans never fired, though we know they did, and the American statements 50 years later from the participants at the anniversary celebrations later admit this. See my Journal of the American Revolution article linked to above for a better construction of my arguments.

      • George Quintal Jr. says:


        I stopped reading the Journal long ago. It became readily apparent to me that the primary goal of the majority of contributors was to bash Patriots. They seem to scramble to outdo each other in that regard. The leftist, revisionist “historians” are in charge there. I want no part of it.

        In my 40 years of research, I’ve found that ten of the Lexington men fired back. Several of the ten were nearly alone when they did so. Is it any wonder that most of the men, in the heat of the battle, and retreat, with smoke and confusion everywhere, would not have known of others firing back?

        I am convinced, more than any time in my life, that no American fired first. They had strict orders not to. Every single man deposed till his last day on earth that no American fired first. Rev. Jonas Clarke talked to the end of his life of the “innocent blood” that was shed that day by the “bloody oppressors”. You’ve essentially called the American soldiers liars. Was Rev. Clarke a liar, too?

        The British were in an extraordinarily foul mood. They despised the “rebels”, calling them among many other pejoratives “doodles”, ie. dimwits. The spies who had gone through reported that the Americans were buffoons who would fold and run at the drop of a hat. When the Americans stood their ground, there would be “hell to pay”, as they had said. They were gunning for Americans that day. The British got what they wanted: American blood. And they gave three huzzahs after getting it.

        I’m convinced that the British pistol shot that started the War was the shot in the back to an unarmed American civilian, Asahel Porter. British rage was repeated later that day by another unarmed (and disabled) American shot in the back. His name was John Raymond. You should know those names, if you don’t already. War crimes and “hell to pay”.

        That’s my take.


        • Hi George, thank you for your reply again, and I apologize for my delay. If you’ve been tracking my website or facebook page, you’ll know I’ve been busy finalizing the book, and this has taken up much of my time.

          Before I reply further on your comments, let me say again that my theory is just a theory, and the facts we have cannot convincingly prove anything one way or another. However, I think there are several details you are not considering.

          We know that an American did fire first at the Americans before the British reached Lexington Green, but that American’s gun “flashed in the pan” (misfired), and he ran off. More than one reliable British source confirms this. So, clearly, some Americans were willing to fire first.

          Once at Lexington Green, who shot first is uncertain, but I claim, based on all of the evidence, that a first shot likely came from the sidelines, be it the hedge wall adjacent the Green, or from behind Buckman Tavern or even the Meetinghouse.

          Now, I’m not calling the American liars, although they could have been, for I cannot know for sure. For the most part, those that gave the American accounts as depositions were participants, on the Green, and so when they said THEY did not fire first, I agree. I say, someone on the sidelines did. Maybe these Americans didn’t know who fired first, as everything happened so quickly. Or maybe they were confused. Or maybe they did know, and simply omitted this damning detail. After all, none of the depositions mention the shot(s) from the sidelines in the 1775 depositions, but strange that in 1825, one participant (Sgt. William Munroe) finally does admit that fact, 50 years later, even though that same participant said nothing of it in 1775. So, we have some serious inconsistencies then for our American depositions. Did they lie? Maybe, if you call an omission a lie. Or maybe they picked their words carefully. We have evidence that Americans lied in Concord regarding where warstores were hidden, so colonial Americans were indeed capable of lying, at least by omission if nothing else. You must also remember, the 1775 depositions were taken purely for propaganda purposes, to be published in England. So they inherently needed a pro-American slant. Some participants could have known of a shot from the sidelines but ignored it, and said truthfully THEY did not fire, that the British fired first, ignoring the activity from the sidelines. I cannot know for sure what went down, but the Americans are not as pure-hearted as we might wish they were, and they did have bias, and their stories are inconsistent. This much we know, which is why I give more weight to the British evidence, which has less bias and no obvious inconsistencies.

          In regards to propaganda, consider too another case. When Paul Revere engraved the Boston “Massacre”, we know he distorted the scene significantly to make the Americans look innocent. While Revere may not have “lied” either, and perhaps was not even sure how the scene unfolded since he was likely not a spectator of it, he certainly produced a widespread lie of sorts depicting a merciless British force shooting into innocent Bostonians, which never happened as such. So, Americans were capable of distorting the truth.

          As for Rev. Jonas Clarke, there’s no indication from his own narrative that he was a witness, so whatever he said was just repeating others, and is therefore no source at all.

          As for the British despising the Americans, while some surely were/did, there’s no strong evidence that this was the predominant feeling among the British force, at least not this early in the day. But with the Coercive Acts basically killing the local economy and putting many out of work, so too did the Americans have much reason to despise the British, perhaps more so. And whatever pejoratives the British called the Americans, the Americans also had their fair share of names for the British.

          But more importantly, there is no contemporary evidence to support the British were gunning for the Americans that day, or were out for blood. I’m not sure where you got the quote, there will be “hell to pay”, but I’ve not seen it, so cannot speak to it. But I do know that was not the predominant feeling among the British. If anyone felt that way, the Americans were the ones most invested at this point, and so more likely to say such a quote. But again, I’m not familiar with it.

          Finally, you give weight that the Americans had strict orders not to fire, but so too did the British. And the British were generally just as well able to follow their training and orders under stress as the Americans. All the more reason to suspect a shot came from the sidelines.

          But without known facts, I can never disprove your theory, only point out certain facts that you may not have considered or been aware of. And mine is just a theory too.

          Kindest Regards,

          PS: On the Journal of the American Revolution, I have contributed to it several times, and while I cannot possibly read every article, there are so many, I can say that in general it is quite excellent. It is also peer-reviewed. And I happen to know more than one contributor is quite definitely not leftist. Perhaps you read one article that had such a slant that left you with a bad take on the Journal, but I’d encourage you to give it another try.

          • George Quintal Jr. says:


            You completely ignored Asahel Porter and John Raymond. Why? Both were unarmed civilians. Raymond was disabled. Both were afraid for their lives and were shot in the back, while trying to escape, by the British. They weren’t thugs. They had done nothing to provoke their captors. They were murdered by the British, in their rage. These were war crimes.


          • Hi George,

            (revised after my next comment below was placed)

            Well, we don’t know the exact circumstances of Porter’s death (see notes on Raymond below), any more than most details during this affair. In the heat of the fire, amid heavy smoke no less (those guns are very smokey!), if the British shot him down, how can we know it was deliberate? He could just as easily have been shot down by stray or poorly aimed/blind shot.

            Civilian casualties in a firefight do not, under modern international law, constitute a war crime. Civilians die in battles all the time, even today. If it’s deliberate, it’s a war crime, sure. But if the civilian was just unlucky and at the wrong place at the wrong time, it is not.

            If Porter found himself between the British and the Americans, or otherwise behind the Americans when the British shots began flying by, then he was in the wrong place. We cannot convict the British as guilty based on the fact that this unarmed civilian died, because we cannot be sure of the circumstances of his death. Moreover, and this is somewhat appalling to think, but we cannot be sure it was a British shot that killed him either… We just don’t know.


          • Well, actually, I had to remind myself of John Raymond, for the details were hazy to me. John Raymond was not killed on Lexington Green at the start of the shooting on April 19, 1775. He was shot much later in that day, as he was running Munroe’s Tavern. Therefore, Raymond is irrelevant for our discussion of who shot first at Lexington Green at dawn on April 19, 1775. However, Asahel Porter did die there at dawn, but again, we don’t know the exact circumstances.

            Side note: Raymond’s story has been proven to be skewed from repeated retellings. See J.L. Bell’s blog on the subject (and the comments!), which has two parts, (1) and (2).

          • Bill Poole says:


            You are correct that the militiamen in the later depositions appeared to be more forthcoming with respect to firing. Amos Locke testified that when he and Ebenezer Locke discovered Asahel Porter shot through the body out behind Buckman’s Tavern, Ebenezer leveled his musket and fired at the Regulars.So there was something going on out behind Buckman Tavern that involved someone on the British side firing at and killing Asahel Porter. Now the timing of this would be interesting, since Amos testified that they had heard a firing on the Common—meaning someone already had fired, Since everyone seems to agree that the shot did not come from the two lines confronting each other upon the Common then they would have been attuned to what would have happened off the Common, particularly a shot coming from the area behind Buckman,. Perhaps then the shot that killed Asahel might have been the precipitating shot of the whole engagement.


          • Thank you Bill for your comments! Your details illustrate how muddy the “facts” of the day are. They are hard to sort, for sure.

  17. Paul McMahon says:

    What difference does it make who fired the first shot? Had the British not marched on Lexington to dominate and intimidate the Americans without regard for the risk of starting a just revolution, there would not have been any shots!

  18. Please note that Frederick Mackenzie whom you have quoted in the context of Lexington action was in the second relief brigade and is quoting (hearsay) a fellow officer. Mackenzie’s actual account is awesome and fills in many holes. I would urge caution in quoting him in that circumstance. BTW decent work.

  19. ashley says:

    So where was y he site or place wich this happened

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