Muskets and Musketry

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Muskets and Musketry

MUSKETS AND MUSKETRY. The principal infantry projectile weapon of the eighteenth century was the muzzle-loading flintlock musket. Using a complex double-ignition system, this smoothbore firearm threw a lead ball weighing about an ounce and up to three-quarters of an inch in diameter with an accuracy and rate of fire that suited the linear tactics used by western European armies and their colonial descendants in this period. Personal firearms had been introduced on a mass scale in the sixteenth century and incorporated into the linear tactical formations that were then dominated by thrusting and cutting weapons. As incremental improvements in the technology of firing the weapon were developed (the manner of igniting the gunpowder went from using a slow-burning match to striking flint on steel), firearms gradually replaced pikes and pole arms. The most common firearm, and the prototype of most other military firearms of the period, was the British army's famous Long Land Service musket, colloquially known as the Brown Bess.

Authors writing after the development of rifled military firearms have denigrated the musket for its inaccuracy at ranges much above fifty yards. By modern standards, it certainly was an imprecise weapon. But it is also true that the smoothbore musket was deeply intertwined with the history and technology of infantry combat of the period, as well as with social attitudes about who should fight and how they should be organized to succeed in battle. Rather than viewing the smoothbore musket as the ineffective precursor of subsequent improvements, it should be recognized as the most effective infantry combat weapon of its day, both influencing and being influenced by contemporary infantry tactics, an integral part of how societies and their leaders went about achieving the ultimate goal of prevailing on the battlefield.


The smoothbore musket was designed to be fired on command in massed volleys by soldiers standing upright shoulder to shoulder in lines several ranks deep. Volley fire could be based on groups as small as a platoon (say, at full strength, perhaps twenty-five men) or as large as a battalion, in numbers approaching a thousand men. Recognizing that bringing the maximum number of muskets to bear was the best way to impose one's will on the enemy, beginning in the seventeenth-century commanders gradually thinned down their lines from the eight or ten men deep appropriate for combat with pikes and pole arms to three ranks. The first rank of musketeers, with bayonets fixed, would kneel before firing and might remain in that position without reloading, partly because it was difficult to reload a muzzle-loading musket while on one knee and partly to offer with their bayonets protection for their colleagues against a charge by cavalry or infantry. At the same time, the men in the second and third lines would stand and fire, the third line firing in the gaps—next to the shoulders—of the men in the second line. In a well-organized, full-strength battalion, commanders might reserve another line of "file closers," drawn up at a short distance behind the third line, men who would step up when soldiers on the firing line fell wounded or killed. The British army was generally better trained than its European competitors in firing volleys by platoons, a more flexible tactic that gave fire all along the face of a battalion while ensuring that a portion of the soldiers were always loaded and ready to fire against any unexpected approach by the enemy.

At a range of fifty yards, volleys fired by soldiers arrayed in line would lay down a pattern of fire—more like that from a shotgun than from a precision firearm—that could have a devastating impact on a group of enemy soldiers similarly arranged. The key to success in battle was creating a larger volume of continuous fire than your enemy could produce. If a projectile struck a soldier, its low muzzle velocity meant that it would splay and produce an exit wound far larger than its point of entry. Firing as fast as one could reload in the general direction of the enemy line produced a hail of bullets that could unnerve a foe, almost regardless of how many projectiles actually struck home. No soldier would consciously want to take the chance of being hit; only the most rigorous inculcation of discipline could allow a soldier to suspend rational thought, as it were, and to keep reloading and firing in the hope that, if enough of his colleagues did the same thing, they might overmatch the enemy's musketry and simultaneously be safe against a bayonet charge from opponents who were, after all, only fifty yards away, perhaps obscured behind the cloud of gun smoke that hid them from observation.


Accuracy, in the sense of aiming at a particular individual soldier on the opposite side and actually hitting your target, was not a significant part of the system of linear tactics. George Hanger remembered that:

A soldier's musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many of them are), will strike the figure of a man at eighty yards; it may even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, provided his antagonist aims at him…. I do maintain … that no man was ever killed at 200 yards, by a common soldier's musket, by the person who aimed at him. (Peterson, p. 163)

Greater accuracy at longer ranges was, of course, possible. Gunsmiths had long understood that cutting slightly twisting grooves along the interior length of a gun barrel would impart spin to a projectile that had been wedged tightly enough on top of the powder charge that it deformed slightly when the powder exploded, thus enabling it to grip the lands (as the grooves were called) and go spinning down the barrel. The projectile had enough velocity to be effective at a range of up to three hundred yards. Riflemen were superior to musketeers on certain special missions but were no match in a linear battle because of their slow rate of fire and because their rifles lacked bayonets. Their marksmanship was less astounding than claimed at the time or than is popularly assumed.


The primary aim of military discipline was to produce soldiers who could endure the enormous physical and psychological strain that was part of fighting in a line, while simultaneously performing properly and efficiently the dozen or so motions necessary to reload their muskets. Constant practice was essential in giving the soldier the confidence and experience to fire and reload faster than an opponent who was going through the same motions trying to kill or incapacitate him. An average soldier might be able to fire two rounds a minute, while a nimble and well-trained man might be able to get off as many as four or five shots, meaning that he took only twelve to fifteen seconds to reload. (It was alleged, by Prussians no doubt, that Frederick II's troops could fire six rounds per minute, a remarkable figure that accomplished its objective if it induced nervous Austrians, Russians, and Frenchmen to glance about for a line of retreat even before coming within range of the rapid-fire Prussians.) In battle, speed in reloading was, according to the historian Harold L. Peterson, "everything. Speed for the defending force to pour as many bullets into the attacking force as possible; speed for the attacking force to close with its adversary before it had been too severely decimated to have sufficient strength to carry the position" with the bayonet (Arms and Armor, pp. 160, 162).

High rates of fire were possible only because the musket was designed to have enough windage (the gap between the spherical projectile and the inside of the barrel) so that the bullet essentially fell into place at the bottom of the barrel. Ramrods (thin, wooden, dowel-like sticks) were carried by every musketeer and used to tamp the bullet tightly against the powder charge in the barrel, thereby creating a tighter seal that maximized the propulsive force exerted on the bullet. The first volley in any battle always tended to be the most effective because soldiers would take time before going into action to load and carefully ram the first round in place, time they would not have to seal the second and subsequent rounds. If tactical circumstances required the soldier to fix his foot-long bayonet on the end of the muzzle of his firearm (held in place by a lug that doubled as the only aiming device the weapon possessed), then reloading would become a more complex process. It was said that one of the marks of a battalion that had been in a stiff firefight was the scraped and bloody knuckles of soldiers forced to reload with bayonets fixed.


A rate of fire of even two rounds a minute was bound to decline quickly in battle. Black powder, the only available propellant, combusted incompletely and left a residue that clogged the touch hole (the vent whereby the explosion of the priming powder in the pan, ignited by the striking of flint on steel, communicated itself to the main charge in the barrel). The flints themselves were held precariously in a set of steel jaws called a cock or a hammer; the soldier had to tighten a small screw to clamp the flint in the proper position, with enough of an edge exposed so that it would produce a shower of sparks when the soldier pulled the trigger that released the spring which snapped it down against the steel (also called the frizzen or the battery). Flints were fragile and susceptible to cracking and flaking. They would have to be replaced if broken, or reset if misaligned; we can only begin to imagine how difficult that process must have been in the heat of battle.

Even when the charge was properly loaded in the gun barrel and the flint was held firm and ready in the jaws of the hammer, a whole host of things could still go wrong that would prevent the soldier from using his weapon effectively. Black powder is hygroscopic, so even the smallest amount of moisture would destroy its explosive potential; a rainstorm in the middle of a battle would turn the contest into a bayonet fight. Moreover, its constituent ingredients separate and settle out over time and with motion, a characteristic seen more often when gunpowder was stored or transported in large wooden barrels. If, while loading, the soldier placed too little powder in the priming pan, failed to close the steel tightly over the pan, or did not examine and, if necessary, clean the touch hole, the initial explosion of powder would not ignite the main charge, a phenomenon known as "flash in the pan." The soldier would be left with a live charge in the barrel and a number of equally bad choices about how to fix the problem. A fumble-fingered soldier might not successfully extract the ramrod in time with his colleagues and, in order to maintain volley fire, be compelled to present arms and fire away his ramrod. The hammer normally rested in the ready position, where a notch on its sear exerted minimal tension on the spring while the musket was being loaded. Before firing, the soldier had to pull the hammer back to the point where a second sear engaged and exerted the maximum tension on the leaf spring so that when released by the trigger, it would snap forward with maximum force against the steel, a position called "full cock." At any point once the musket was loaded, the hammer might jump free from the ready position and strike the steel with enough force so that the weapon fired; this sequence of accidents became known as "going off at half-cock."

It is also worth remembering that fatigue played a role in reducing the effectiveness of the men who wielded the smoothbore musket. On a hot summer day in western Europe, soldiers dressed in wool coats would quickly begin to slow down and wear out as they constantly loaded and fired their weapons. If the air were still, they would soon be breathing an unhealthy amount of gun smoke. Even if water were available, there might be no time for the soldier to slake his thirst or rinse from his mouth the taste and grit of the gunpowder he ingested in the process of ripping open cartridges with his teeth. Finally, the musket was so barrel-heavy that fatigue might cause the soldier to lower the barrel to the point where his bullets struck the ground in front of his line rather than flying in a slow arc to impact on the enemy line.


The pinnacle of smoothbore-musket-based linear tactics was to coordinate an advance on the enemy so as to maximize the impact of one's musketry. With muskets loaded and bayonets fixed, the attackers moved forward, keeping their alignment, knowing that until within one hundred yards they were relatively safe from enemy musketry. Their officers tried to exert leadership and impose discipline so that they could induce the men to hold their fire. The object was to receive the enemy's first volley, absorb the losses, and continue advancing to a point so close to the enemy's line that one's own first volley produced many casualties, enough to make the enemy break and run. The British army brought to North America a reputation for battlefield success earned by the repeated application of these tactics, most notably against the French. When, for example, British and French commanders at the Battle of Fontenoy on 11 May 1745 invited each other to fire first, they were shrewdly trying to gain an advantage, not being naively gallant. French discipline broke first, and the British survivors methodically annihilated their opponent with coolly delivered volley fire.

The symbiosis between smoothbore musketry and linear tactics produced battles in western Europe that were complex ballets of coordinated motion. Every man on the field had a specific part in the dance, from the soldier with the courage to stand in line and the training to reload until disabled by bullets or fatigue, up the chain of command to officers who had to judge the right moment to maneuver the appropriate units over suitable ground to engage an enemy with the best chance of winning the fight. Even though most of the men in the ranks were illiterate, unhealthy, and destined for a cruel fate, they were not unthinking cogs in some aristocratic machine. Battle was a far cry from being a clash of faceless automatons marching soullessly toward the cauldron of fire created by an inept tactical system.


At the start of the hostilities with Britain, many influential American leaders, including George Washington, wanted to create a "continental army" based on European-style smoothbore muskets and linear tactics. Their desire was in large part the product of political and ideological calculations. They wanted to prove to their oppressors that they were a civilized people fighting for its rights and therefore worthy of respect, not a bunch of dirty, savage rebels taking potshots at their betters from behind trees because they were afraid to stand and fight. They recognized, too, that a European-style army was their best chance of winning a clear-cut victory that might shorten the war, reduce the enormous costs involved, and minimize the disruption and strain war would inevitably impose on American society.

But Americans could never create an exact duplicate of the British army. It took long enlistments and intensive training to make men proficient in linear tactics, and Americans were generally disinclined to undertake either. Instead, they created a hybrid version of war making, a version that combined elements of linear tactics with the experience they had gained over the course of a century and a half confronting Native Americans and European competitors. In general, they tried to avoid open-field, stand-up fights against British regulars early in the war because they understood they were unprepared to fight in that fashion. They largely succeeded in dodging that sort of combat, in part because the British army's vision of war making based on linear tactics did not offer it any easy ways of forcing a reluctant opponent to fight. As hostilities continued, American units gradually gained experience and began to venture into more stand-up fights, as at Saratoga in September and October 1777. At Valley Forge over the winter of 1777–1778, Friedrich Steuben began the process of regularizing, standardizing, and installing a stripped-down system of linear tactics for the Continental army. The improved performance of Washington's army at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse on 28 June 1778 demonstrated that American regular units were approaching a large-scale parity with the British army in America.

The colonists had no capacity to manufacture large numbers of new muskets in 1775. They began the war with a hodgepodge of firearms, mostly leftovers from shipments Britain had sent to arm provincial soldiers during the colonial wars, some still in government storage, but most in the hands of the men who had taken them to war. Privately owned guns from a variety of sources were a significant component of the firearms used before 1777. Many were remanufactured from parts salvaged from worn out or discarded muskets, including—in New England and New York—the recycling of weapons acquired in war and trade from Canada. Captured British arms were also part of the mix, whether sequestered from local royal sources (as in the raid on Fort William and Mary at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 14-15 December 1777) or captured by privateers from supply ships intended for British garrisons. The supply of firearms did not always meet the demand, and the pace of operations and the carelessness of American soldiers imposed a further drain on the number of serviceable muskets. Both the states and the Continental Congress immediately saw the need to acquire more firearms and did what they could to encourage local manufacture. Early in the war, committees of safety let contracts to local gunsmiths to produce muskets of a standard size and caliber; in the age before manufactured parts were interchangeable, all muskets were still the products of skilled craftsmen. There were centers of production across the colonies, including Harvard, Massachusetts, Goshen, Connecticut, Trenton, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, where the committee of safety led by Benjamin Franklin contracted for muskets from local gunsmiths in July 1775. That same month, Virginia established its own state arms manufactory at Fredericksburg. Congress later established its own Continental firearms factory at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, along with a shop that produced gunlocks in Trenton.

Despite herculean efforts to ramp up domestic manufacture, the demand for firearms could not have been met without supplies purchased from overseas. Individual states sent agents to Europe to purchase muskets, gunpowder, flints, and lead; the fruits of their efforts were smuggled into the colonies, mostly through the Dutch West Indies island of St. Eustatius. Congress itself sent Silas Deane of Connecticut to France in March 1776 with instructions to solicit clothing and arms for twenty-five thousand men. In May, France decided to supply military material to the colonies under the guise of the fictitious trading company Hortalez & Cie, run by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Eventually, over 100,000 high-quality French military muskets were sent to the Americans, firearms that provided a critical boost in the fighting power of the rebel armies. For example, thirty-seven thousand stand arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the spring of 1777, many of which armed the troops that stopped Burgoyne's army at Saratoga. The victory at Saratoga, in turn, was crucial in prompting France to enter into a treaty of alliance with the United States 6 February 1778, after which French supplies could flow openly across the Atlantic. The French muskets, of .69 caliber, were largely a combination of the 1766 model and upgrades of earlier models undertaken between 1768 and 1773. They were produced at the three royal arms manufactories of St. Etienne, Maubeuge, and Charleville, the last named becoming the common designation for all French muskets. The French model 1766 was chosen as the design for the first muskets produced in the United States after the war, the model 1795.

SEE ALSO Bayonets and Bayonet Attacks; Brown Bess; Fontenoy, Battle of; French Covert Aid; Hanger, George; Line; Marksmanship; Riflemen; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von.


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                                revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Muskets and Musketry

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