Generalities about Muskets

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Introduction

For several armies, we propose specific articles on weapons and equipment of various arms. However, there are some generic observations applying to types of weapons.

In the present article, we gathered some of these generic observations which pertained to weapons during this period. The initial version covers only muskets.

Description of Muskets

Generalities about Muskets

Nearly all European military muskets of the period were flintlocks. Initially, these were introduced to soldiers assisting the gunners (known as fusiliers) in the 17th century, where the lack of need for an open flame from the match made it much safer to operate than the matchlocks of the day, and its cheaper cost made it preferable to the (more reliable) Wheel-lock. It was also introduced to dragoons, who simply couldn't carry lit match on their persons while on horseback. Gradually, another benefit of the mechanism was discovered: as it didn't rely on an open flame, it was suited to use in night-fighting, sentry duty, and in ambushes. These advantages led to flintlocks replacing the matchlock by c. 1700 in all major armies in Europe. Later, the simplicity of the flintlock design allowed for tighter formations to be used, as the weapon did not require the open space needed to operate the matchlock. This was combined with one other innovation, which became indispensable to European infantry and dragoons. This was the adoption of the bayonet, starting in France in the 1670's. These were initially simply knives, plugged into the muzzle of the weapon. This kept the weapon from firing, and so a better model was sought, whcih allowed for both firing and hand-to-hand combat--especially against cavalry. By 1705, this had been developed, in the shape of the socket bayonet. This became the standard form of bayonet for the next 150 years. The combined introduction of the flintlock and bayonet, rendered the pike obsolete, and allowed the armies of Europe to issue standardized weapons for their armies, while massively increasing their firepower. Standard musket patters were thus introduced in 1717 in France, 1720 in Britain, and 1722 in Prussia. This simplified the logistics of equipping an army, and so allowed for ever larger armies. The increased firepower of a battalion also demanded shallower formations, to allow as many muskets to fire at once. This led to the introduction of 2 or 3-rank linear formations, which dominate warfare in this period.

However, the old matchlock design was still used in India, and the a lesser extant, the Ottoman Empire, where its greater reliability was preferred (as noted by William Windham). All muskets of the day--regardless of mechanism--were susceptible to humidity and rain, as they relied on methods of ignition which can potentially expose the powder to the elements.


Basic Construction and operation of European military muskets

Simply put, all muskets are composed of three primary components: a lock--the device which ignites the charge; the barrel, which contains the ball and charge, and which allows for the better harnessing of the energy of the charge; and the stock, which houses the two other components, as well as the rammer. Additionally, most muskets of the period also came with leather slings, with which soldiers could carry their weapons while on the march; these were originally so that grenadiers could sling their weapons as they threw their grenades, but by 1750 they were standard issue. Rammers were originally made of wood (birch or ash) capped with brass, but starting with the Prussian Army, iron ramrods began to replace wooden version. These earliest versions were simply metal copies of the wooden version (as with the M1722/40); later models used thinner rammers, as the technology of producing metal rammers improved. Metal rammers have the advantage of durability and strength, which allowed for soldiers to increase their rate of fire, without breaking their rammers (as with wooden ones). However, if the metal rammers were not made properly, they could be too brittle (and break anyway), or too soft (and so bend). This issue was one reason Metal rammers arrived late in the British Army (1750). Other armies adopted the technology as its efficacy was demonstrated, over the course of the 1740's. Thus all armies by the Seven Years War used this rammer, to varying degrees.

Muskets were generally around 1.5 m long, and weight ~4-4.5 kg. Earlier flintlock models were held in place by pins and screws (Brown Bess series; M1722/40 muskets); more up-to-date muskets (the French 1728/46/54 musket, Austrian M1745 and M1754, various Russian and Spanish muskets), were held together by screws and barrel bands, which were kept in place by springs inserted into the stock; this latter arrangement proved superior in strength, reliability, and simplicity of maintenance, and would quickly catch on outside of Britain. Fittings could be brass or iron, with the former less prone to rust, though the latter was simply cheaper. Brass' resistance to corrosion made it preferable for naval service, even in countries where the muskets were generally fitted with iron (e.g. France).

Muskets stocks became less ornate over time, with earlier musket models exhibiting various decorations and extra pieces, which had things such as the monarch's cypher, or scrollwork and floral patterns. Stocks at the time generally had a relatively long grip, strong drop, and large cheek-piece. The result was that the soldier typically didn't need to tilt his head as much as with modern firearms in order to aim.

Prussian Musket M1740, illustrating a typical style of stock from this time - Source: T. Karpiński, Broń armii austriackiej i pruskiej w bitwie pod Małujowicami 10 kwietnia 1741 r. [in:] Wokół bitwy pod Małujowicami. Studia z dziejów XVIII-wiecznego Brzegu i ziemi brzeskiej, Brzeg 2017, p. 165-196
The aim position in the Prussian Army; note his head is not leaning as much as done in later firearms
Source: Pagan's collection

As only front sights were found on most muskets, the soldier would line up the rear of the barrel with the sight. When one considers the taper of the barrels, this causes the shots to land high. As a result, soldiers were taught to aim low at close range; experiments with the M1730 musket confirm this. However, soldiers often over-compensated and fired too low, with the situation exacerbated by the addition of the bayonet, which served to make the weapon front-heavy.

All flintlocks operate as follows: when the trigger is pulled, a spring is engaged, which releases the cock of the musket held under considerable tension. This has a piece of flint or rock quartz (typically 1-1.5" square, with a finely-knapped edge; the author cut his thumb badly from one such specimen), wrapped in leather or lead, and held in place via a vise which digs into the lead or leather. The flint strikes the hardened metal of the hammer covering the pan with force, and scrapes down along it (it also simultaneously pushes the hammer away, to expose the pan). The scraping action creates sparks (red- to orange-hot pieces of metal), which then land in the exposed pan. This then (ideally) ignites the powder in the pan, which will generate a flame, which then travels through the touch-hole, to ignite the charge in the barrel that propels the projectile. This method of ignition is safer than that of the earlier matchlock, as it does not involve an open flame. It was also faster than a matchlock. However, there is still a perceptible delay between the moment the trigger is pulled, and the launch of the projectile, which can throw off the aim--a problem universal to muskets prior to the introduction of mercury fulminate (1809). This can be mitigated by using a finer powder to prime the pan, though this was not followed by most soldiers in the war, who used cartridges to both prime and load. This delay can be exacerbated by pouring excessive quantities of powder, which could lead to a greater "hang" in the fire (it can also weaken the shot itself). Additionally, since the load used in the cartridge is used both to prime and load the weapon, the muzzle velocity also tends to be inconsistent: our tests with a replica M1730 Brown Bess gave muzzle velocities between 910 and 950 feet per second with 120 grains of black powder (the mean was 940 fps). For safe carrying of the weapons, flintlocks came with a "half-cock" mode; this mode was (theoretically) designed so that you cannot pull the trigger, or failing that, cause the cock to strike the hammer with insufficient force. However, personal experience by the author demonstrates that it is not always reliable, and premature discharges were not unheard of on the parade ground.

With regards to the ignition source, flint is better than rock quartz, as the micro-crystalline structure of the former creates a sharper edge, which is more efficient at scraping the metal of the hammer. The higher the quality of the flint, the more shots could be fired, and the more sparks are generated. A good flint will generally last 20-30 shots before it becomes too dull to generate sparks. Poor-quality flints can shatter, due to the presence of microscopic cracks. They can also contain impurities which can compromise the ability of the flint to generate sparks. The nature of the flintlock's operation means that the hardening of the hammer will eventually be scraped off or worn out. This will in turn compromise the weapon's ability to generate sparks, and with it, the reliability of the weapon. In any case, the best way to secure the flint to the cock was via a sheet of lead, which allowed the vise of the cock to grip the flint tightly, without wearing out of the sheet (as would be the case for leather). It was also more durable against the elements, and lasted longer.

Due to the need for durability, as well as the crude manufacture, the tolerances of the military muskets were such that the trigger pull was quite heavy by today's standards; for example, the Brown Bess replica used in our tests has a trigger pressure of ~12 pounds. This explains the various manuals' instructions to "pull briskly" (i.e. essentially jerking the trigger). This can also throw off aim, in this case by causing the weapon--and with it, the shot--to veer; in our tests, this was typically to the left.

Military muskets of the period exhibited considerable windage--or difference between the bore and bullet diameters; the most common bore size, for example was ~0.72 calibre, with the ball size ~0.65 calibre (e.g. Prussia, Austria). This reduced the velocity and accuracy of the musket, but was necessary to minimize the effects of fowling, and increase the rate of fire; another feature typical of musket barrels, and also meant to minimize the effect of fowling, was that they swelled toward the breech. The greater surface area which resulted would then ideally catch more of the fowling, and keep it away from the muzzle.

The windage was partly mitigated via the use of the cartridge paper--still wrapped round the ball--as a crude sabot, though accuracy still suffered, as the windage is only a secondary source of inaccuracy. As a result of the windage, the fowling – when using a military load – does not become a serious issue for several dozen shots. In our tests, we emptied all 21 rounds in our cartridge-box without experiencing any particular difficulty in ramming down the cartridge, though the fit did become tighter (the gain in accuracy was minimal). Much more dangerous was the over-heating of the barrel, which could cause the barrels to explode--particularly if the barrels were of poor quality--a common issue at the time. Additionally, though the touch-holes of the muskets during the war were too small to allow for self-priming (self-priming is another post-war invention), they were still large enough to allow excessive quantities of gas (and with it, energy) to escape from there, rather than propel the round forward.

Even firing two shots in rapid succession will result in a heat-haze around the barrel, as the outside of the barrel climbs to ~50 Celsius; this will affect the aim, as it obscures the foresight. Just ten shots are sufficient to render the barrel untouchable due to heat: rate of fire will decrease rapidly as a result. This confirms accounts by Ulrich Bräker (a soldier in Itzenplitz Infantry), who noted his barrel was hard to touch after a short time.

As mentioned previously, most military muskets of the day used cartridges: these consisted of a ball, wrapped in cartridge paper, then filled with powder. The ends were twisted or folded off, to keep the powder and ball together. Additionally, the ball itself was generally separated from the powder via a choke--usually a wetted linen or hemp cord, tied round the paper at the base of the ball; a second cord tied the ball end of the cartridge. Additional pieces of linen or hemp cord could be used to tie off the powder end. The charge used for the cartridges varied, but generally ranged from a quarter to a third of the weight of the ball itself. The cartridge paper was quite thin, often to the point of translucence. This was necessary to allow the soldier to quickly bite open the cartridge. All armies used cartridges the same way: the end containing the powder was bitten open, and part of the charge poured into the pan to prime it. The pan was then shut, and the musket was cast about. The rest of the powder would then be poured down the muzzle. The ball (still wrapped in paper), would then be inserted after the powder, and the whole rammed down.

Rate of fire, and general performance

The best rate of fire that we attained during our test was 22 seconds per shot, and most of the time it was closer to 25-30 seconds (before the barrel over-heats; afterwards, it’s closer to 1 shot per minute). This specific test has been made using the British 1757 manual exercise as loading procedure. The shortening of the rammer with the belt-buckles – universal to all manuals of the period – was initially the cause of this limitation. Removal of this step allows for 3 shots a minute (using the method prescribed in the British 1764 manual exercise), though this cannot be sustained for long. Another limiting factor is how exhausting the loading procedure is, especially with the bayonet fixed (a standard practice in war); the bayonet will cause the musket to become front-heavy, and so harder to load, as the barrel naturally tilts away from the user, when held in the loading position.

On firing, The muskets will eject pieces of paper as far as 20 yards (~18 meters); these are often still burning. This confirms other observations that the muskets can cause fires that way. Additionally, the blast of the musket will hurl sand-sized grains of unburnt powder toward the target: during the tests conducted by the author, the weapon was used on a target at a range of under 10 yards; in addition to the bullet hole, dozens of smaller holes were noted on the target, as a result of these grains; these grains also led to the chronometer being positioned at that range, as any closer and the powder would disrupt the readings. Additionally, the weapon will generate a considerable quantity of blue-gray smoke, with a sulfurous odor, which in humid, windless days could hang in the air for quite some time. The presence of thousands of these weapons on any given battlefield, all blasting off, would have quickly covered in the field in smoke, adding to the inaccuracy of the muskets. The smoke can induce coughing and vomiting, when in sufficient concentrations. The better-made the powder, the whiter-colored and cleaner the gun-smoke.

The ball itself will be hurled with considerable force, sufficient to reliably penetrate 4-6” of pine, out to combat ranges (1-200 m), as shown in our tests; muzzle velocity ranged from 250-500 m/s, depending on the quality of powder, and the model of weapon. This confirms the description of the muskets of the period by Christopher Duffy. Additionally, the musket ball, which was made of lead, tends to flatten when it strikes hard objects (e.g. bone or metal). In some cases, the rounds simply tore apart. Additionally, the recoil of a typical musket would have been heavy, though less like the snapping kick of a modern rifle, and more like a push or punch.

Regarding the accuracy of the muskets, all the weapons were able to hit a man's figure at a range of ~75 meters. Beyond that range, it was increasingly unlikely that a shot will strike an individual target if aimed at; Instead, it was better to aim at the mass of men. Beyond ~190 m, the weapons were hopelessly inaccurate, and volleys fired at that range wasted ammunition. The main source of the inaccuracy is not the windage, but rather the lack of rifling, which if present would have stabilized the shots; windage further affects the accuracy, but not to the same extent as the absence of rifling.

The accuracy of the muskets at ~80 m explains why, Tellingly, no firefight experiment from the period tested anything closer than 80 yards (see Military Experience in the Age of Reason, by Christopher Duffy). Based on the data from the range, firefights – at least typical ones described by Prussian and Austrian sources – generally didn’t seem to happen at ranges below 120 yards, and more typically at 150 yards. Anything closer would have led to heavy casualties in the space of minutes, rather than the accounts of men running out of ammunition first--which are quite common; the devastating Austrian volleys at Hochkirch were indeed likely fired at ranges under 50 yards, as Christopher Duffy suspected. This considers the effects of fear, exhaustion, and smoke: under ideal conditions, the destruction wrought in that fight could have been achieved at 100 yards (One implication of this is that the French did not fire at too far a range at Quebec: the distance they used was typical of the time. It was the British who opened fire at an unusually close range).


Quality, and maintenance of weapons

Armies of the time would have had boards of ordnance, which inspected the weapons as they were produced. Barrels were tested using a proofing charge, which was four to six-times heavier than the battle load (the British, for example, used 642 grains of powder for the Infantry Brown Bess, starting in 1775). However, the quality of powder was often unpredictable, and it wasn't unheard of to fail to properly inspect the weapon. As a result, many weapons were issued with various faults, such as cracks in the barrel, bulges, or other imperfections. When the British began to use a superior quality of powder in 1792, all existing stocks were re-tested: many failed. Consequently, the quality of muskets during the Seven Years War was inferior to muskets from later wars--particularly the Napoleonic Wars.

Weapons additionally suffered from the lack of standardized parts; while standard models were issued, the parts were not interchangeable. This was because the weapons were hand-made, which inevitably created inconsistencies in the weapons. Thus to repair weapons, artificers had to be attached to the regiments, to repair weapons as needed. Interchangeable parts were not officially introduced until the French rolled out the M1777, though actual interchangeability was still limited (the Americans later did the same). As a result of the lack of interchangeability, soldiers were also not expected to do no more than clean and polish the barrel and the lock; anything more involved was left to the artificers. Cleaning was done simply with hot water, cloth, and soap; polishing of the weapon could involve abrasives such as brick-dust, which could damage the barrel. The use of the rammer to clean the inside of the barrel could also damage the muzzle crown, which adversely affects accuracy.

As mentioned, the gunpowder was of irregular quality: the inconsistencies resulted form irregularities in the charcoal, and impurities in the sulfur and saltpetre. Generally the ratio of ingredients was 75% Saltpetre, 15% charcoal, 10% sulfur. Saltpetre was either mined from arid regions, or extracted from manure. The latter process--described by Ulrich Bräker--involved leaching, then boiling decomposed manure in a vat. This created a solution of Calcium nitrate. Then potash and sodium nitrate was added to the mixture. This created Calcium Carbonate, which settled to the bottom, and the liquid left behind would contain dissolved saltpetre. This would be separated, and then cooled; this cased the saltpetre to settle out. The need for cool temperatures made Switzerland the best place to produce saltpeter in Europe, though any high-altitude (or latitude) area would be suitable.

Overall, the weapons are all unreliable by today's standards, with the Brown Bess for example, misfiring 1 in every 6 shots, when properly maintained. the most common cause of misfire is the failure of the priming charge to ignite the barrel charge. The result is "a flash in the pan". If the flints are of poor quality, or the hammer is worn, the lock can also simply fail to spark. Fouling from repeated firing can also clog the touch-hole, and prevent ignition that way. This is the reason pick were issued to soldiers of the day: these would be inserted into the touch-hole. The weapon can also fail to fire due to humidity ruining the powder.


Bayonets

All infantry muskets of the day could fit a bayonet; as mentioned, these were generally socket bayonets. These work as modern socket light-bulbs; the bayonets would have had a Z-shaped cut at the base of the socket, which would be inserted on the muzzle, till it engages the lug (or front site, depending on the model). The bayonet was then rotated (usually counter-clockwise) and pushed down. The bayonets were ideally tight-fitting, so that they simply didn't twist off, as the soldier developed his bayonet thrust; to that end bayonets were often built specific to the barrel they mounted on. However, this didn't always work--particularly if the bayonet were ill-fitted. As a result, locking rings and bayonet catches were introduced to further secure the bayonet, though these postdate the Seven Years War.

The bayonet blade was generally wholly or partially triangular in cross-section. This was to improve the strength of the bayonet, so that it didn't bend readily on impact with the target. As the steel was relatively soft, this still happened anyway. Ideally the length of the bayonet was supposed to be such that loading the musket was safe. The Counter-clockwise twist of the bayonet was also meant to aid this, as it kept the beyonet blade away from the user as he loaded his musket. However, some armies used bayonets short enough that the soldiers could still skewer their hands, or each other--a fact noted by Christopher Duffy.


Effect of musket on the user and target

As can be imagined from the above observations, these weapons--obsolete as they are--carried enormous power; the balls could penetrate shields, pine boards, and at very close range could blast through body army of the day (i.e. the Cuirass). Additionally, it was easily possible for the shot to pass through one person to kill or wound the person behind them (Hence Robert Roger's advice that the men should spread out, lest a single shot carry off more than one man). As the bullets were round and quite soft, their impact was more similar to a crushing, blunt blow. This, combined with the tendency of the soft lead to flatten and tear, could create ghastly wounds, with exit wounds much greater than the entry wounds. It could shatter bone (necessitating amputation in many cases), and it would often drag cloth and dirt into the wounds (making infection inevitable). In the days before antibiotics and blood-transfusions, many wounds proved rapidly fatal, with at least 25% of the wounded dying in the hospitals. Wounds to the belly were in particular invariably fatal: if the soldier didn't bleed to death, peritonitis would have soon killed them. A graphic illustration of these can be seen in the coroner's reports of the victims of the Boston Massacre:

From Crispus Attuck's autopsy: "I found two wounds in the region of the thorax, the one on the right side, which entered through the second true rib within an inch and a half of the sternum, dividing the rib and separating the cartilaginous extremity from the sternum, the ball passed obliquely downward through the diaphragm and entering through the large lobe of the liver and the gall-bladder, still keeping its oblique direction, divided the aorta descendens just above its division into the iliacs, from thence it made its exit on the left side of the spine. This wound I apprehended was the immediate cause of his death. The other ball entered the fourth of the false ribs, about five inches from the linea alba, and descending obliquely passed through the second false rib, at the distance of about eight inches from the linea alba; from the oblique direction of the wounds, I apprehend the gun must have been discharged from some elevation, and further the deponent saith not."

The bayonet was little better: the triangular cross-section, meant to strengthen the blade, also had the side-effect of creating jagged wounds, which were harder to treat compare to a sword thrust or cut. Since the bayonet was mounted at the end of a 4-4.5 kg weapon, the energy of the thrust meant that it was easily possible to over-penetrate the target, which would then cause the bayonet to get stuck in the enemy--with potentially fatal consequences for the user. As the thrusts were aimed at the belly and breast, the wounds would often prove fatal--and slowly so. Consequently, the bayonet was a particularly feared weapon. This is reflected in the surprisingly low casualties inflicted by this weapon: bayonet charges seem to have often ended with one side simply fleeing.

For the user, the weapon could still be quite dangerous--particularly if the weapon were of low quality, and/or the user were poorly-trained. If the weapon didn't fire (and the soldier didn't notice), he could reload the weapon anyway; a double load could potentially turn the musket into a pipe-bomb, strong enough to maim the user and/or his comrades. Additionally, in prolonged firefights, the imperfections of the barrel could lead to the weapon exploding, should the barrel overheat. The soldier could also blow himself up, should he not push the cartridge all the way down to the charge, or if dirt partly clogged the muzzle.

Aside from potentially blowing up the user, other dangers were present. The flint could shatter, and sent showers of flint particles into the unfortunate soldier's eyes; the flint itself, if the soldier were careless, could cut the soldier's fingers. And due to the comparative unreliability of the weapons, there's a good chance of a misfire; in close-range combat, this could prove fatal.

As mentioned above, a soldier could accidentally skewer himself or his friends, and in the smoke of battle, the soldier could easily aim lower (due to the bayonet making the weapon front-heavy), and accidentally shoot his own men in the back. As a result, It was estimated by the Austrians that 1 in 4 of their infantry casualties were from their own men (Duffy).

References

Bräker, Ulrich, Der Arme Mann im Tockenburg, 1789

By order of the Town of Boston, A short narrative of the horrid massacre in Boston: the 5th day of March, 1770, by soldiers of the 29th Regiment, with some observations on the state of things prior to the catastrophe, Edes & Gill, and T. & J. Fleet, 1770

Duffy, Christopher, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York City, NY , 1987

Miller, David P.: Ballistics of 17th Century Muskets, Cranfield University, May 2010

Scott, Douglas D.; Joel Bohy; Nathan Boor; Charles Haecker; William Rose; and Patrick Severts: Colonial Era Firearm Bullet Performance: A Live Fire Experimental Study for Archaeological Interpretation, April 2017

Roberts, N.A.; Brown, J.W.; Hammett, B.; Kingston, P.D.F, A detailed study of the effectiveness and capabilities of 18th century musketry on the battlefield, Journal of Conflict Archaeology, 2008

Windham, William; Townshend, George Lord Vice: A plan of DISCIPLINE for the use of THE NORFOLK MILITIA, 1759

Acknowledgments

User:Ibrahim90 and W.D.Liddell, for the initial version of this article and for ballistic tests of the M1730 Brown Bess Musket