Sunday, October 27, 2013

Things: The Musket

The Shot Heard Round the World

The weapon most closely associated with the American Revolution, that is, the times of the Yankee Doodle Spies, is the musket. Regardless who fired the first shot at Lexington Green in 1775, it most certainly came from the barrel of a smooth bore musket. The musket is an icon in American lore and its use during the struggle for independence (as well as before and after) has repercussions that continue right into today's politics and headlines.  Throughout history, certain peoples, certain cultures, certain societies have been linked to a specific weapon: the Romans carved an empire with the short sword from Iberia; the Mongols swept across Eurasia with the composite bow; Islam spread through the Middle East and North Africa on the edge of the scimitar.  And then there was the English longbow. The ubiquitous use of this simple yet elegant weapon not only presented English kings victories over more powerful opponents, it helped shape the status of the yeoman  and thus a helped forge a fledgling middle class of citizen warriors, in England. Ironically, the citizen warrior, transplanted to America would overturn a regime bolstered by paid professionals and hired mercenaries.

First Firefight: Lexington

What They Fired

Fast forward to colonial America. The culture of the long bow was forged into the consciousness of the Britons who settled America. Instead of of a six foot stave flinging yard-long arrows the settlers of the new world relied on the smooth bore musket using the French style flintlock firing mechanism.  These were at once  simple, yet complex weapons. By the second half of the 18th Century the most advanced flintlock muskets were made by the French but the English quickly followed their lead in design.  Then, as today, ease of manufacture and cost were factors affecting what type of weapon would be supplied en masse to troops in the field. In America manufacturing was restricted. The colonies were seen as sources of raw materials, not needed to compete with English shops and mills.  But America had plenty of gun smiths and a burgeoning gun industry was in place at the time of the revolution.  But the exigencies of war required masses of weapons as the older model muskets from the French and Indian wars wore out or became obsolete. Where the British had a robust supply chain, America relied on weapons smuggled from off shore or captured on the field of battle. Add the German muskets to the mix and one begins to see a war that featured a variety of weapons. When the French and Dutch entered the war, America's supply of quality European weapons of all types, but especially muskets, improved greatly. And Americans did make their own line of weapons, often from European parts.

The Minute Man relied on his musket

A Gun for All Seasons

I don't have the time to delve into the multiple types of weapons used so I'll profile two of the most noted.   The British began the war still using the Long Land Service musket, sometimes referred to as the Brown Bess. It had a barrel length of 46 inches, weighed over 11 pounds, had a caliber of .753 inches, and fired a 490 grain ball charged by a 124 grain powder charge (although some of the powder was used to ignite the charge described below).  Its overall length was 62 inches. This presented a clumsy and but reliable weapon.  But by the  1770s, the British began replacing this with the Short Land Service musket of similar construction and technology (sic) but shorter a 39 inch barrel and a smaller charge. It had better balance than the Long musket although it was only a few ounces lighter.  The French had several muskets in  use during the time of the revolution, many made at the famed Charleville works - all 60 inches in overall length. They were the 1773, 1774 and 1777 muskets.  Each weighed around 9 pounds and had a barrel length of 44 3/4 inches. The caliber was .69 and which, like the latter version of the Brown Bess, were carried by French   infantrymen through and beyond the Napoleonic Wars. There were many, many types of muskets used besides these and I haven't accounted for carbines, fusils, naval muskets and rifles.  More on all these later.

Short Land Service Musket

Charleville 1777 Musket

How They Fired

The weapon was simple but the firing process complicated.  Normally, the powder and ball (a lead bullet that ranged from a half to three quarter inch in caliber), were combine in a paper cartridge. The shooter began the process by biting off a piece of the powder end of the cartridge and pouring some of the black powder into the flintlock's firing pan. He then rams the ball and powder cartridge (powder side first) down the barrel, brings the weapon to his shoulder and pulls the trigger hoping that the hammer's flint, striking the firing pan's frizzen (steel plate) would actually spark and ignite the powder causing an explosion of the charge in the barrel and propelling the projectile down range (so to speak). Now, there were numerous other variables that could complicate an effective and accurate shot: like putting the hammer into full cock, following the rigid manual of arms (when with a trained body of men), weather conditions, powder build-up, smoke and, oh yes, enemy fire. Theoretically a well trained soldier could fire five such shots a minute.  In reality only two or three were achieved in the heat of battle. Accuracy was not a factor for the British who drilled their men to fire in volleys at masses of enemy.  But it was for the Americans, who had less resources and made every attempt to make each shot count. The British did however have light infantry units and Loyalists who tended to fight more like the rebels. How accurate could they be? A trained marksman could theoretically hit a target at 75 yards but the British line infantryman was trained to point his barrel at the enemy without aiming - the volley would take care of that for him! 


  1. Recent scholarship indicates that the British soldier WAS taught to aim, not just point.

    1. SEE

  2. I had read the All Things Liberty Article (afterwards)and it raises some interesting points. I based my piece on several sources, none recent. But they were fairly renowned military historians in their day. Obviously, the British needed soldiers who could aim but volley fire depended on mass fire at massed targets and speed and unison were key factors. One cannot fire a truly well aimed shot on command as in a volley. Once individual fire begins, the situation is different. And the British of course had marksmen and light infantry and the like as well. All trained to fire at individual targets.