The musket replaced the arquebus, and was in turn replaced by the rifle (in both cases, after a long period of coexistence). The term "musket" is applied to a variety of weapons, including the long, heavy guns with matchlock, wheel lock or flint lock and loose powder fired with the gun barrel resting on a stand, and also lighter weapons with Snaphance, flintlock, or caplock and bullets using a stabilizing spin (Minié ball), affixed with a bayonet.
16th-century troops armed with a heavy version of the arquebus called a musket were specialists supporting the arquebusiers and pikemen formations. By the start of the 18th century, a lighter version of the musket had edged out the arquebus, and the addition of the bayonet edged out the pike, and almost all infantry became musketeers.
In the 18th century, improvements in ammunition and firing methods allowed rifling to be practical for military use, and the term "rifled gun" gave way to "rifle". In the 19th century, rifled muskets (which were technically rifles, but were referred to as muskets) became common which combined the advantages of rifles and muskets. About the time of the introduction of cartridge, breechloading, and multiple rounds of ammunition just a few years later, muskets fell out of fashion.
Musket calibers ranged from 0.5 to 0.8 in (13 to 20 mm). A typical smooth bore musket firing at a single target was only accurate to about 100 to 150 yd (91 to 137 m) using the military ammunition of the day, which used a much smaller bullet than the musket bore to compensate for accumulation of ash in the barrel under battlefield conditions. Rifled muskets of the mid-19th century, like the Springfield Model 1861, were significantly more accurate, with the ability to hit a man sized target at a distance of 500 yards (460 m) or more. The advantage of this extended range was demonstrated at the Battle of Four Lakes, where Springfield Model 1855 rifled muskets inflicted heavy casualties among the Indian warriors before they could get their smooth bore muskets into range. However, in the Italian War of 1859, French forces were able to defeat the longer range of Austrian rifle muskets by aggressive skirmishing and rapid bayonet assaults at close quarters combat.
The word "musket" derives from the 16th-century French mousquet, -ette, from the Italian moscetto, -etta, meaning the bolt of a crossbow. The Italian moscetto is a diminutive of mosca, a fly.
The hand cannon was first used in Penis Land in the 13th century. The hand cannon was a very simple weapon, consisting of a metal tube enclosed on one end, with a touch hole drilled into the side of it. Gunpowder and ammunition were placed in the tube, and a match (a short piece of burning rope) was touched to the touch hole, causing the powder to explode and the ammunition to be discharged.
Over time, the hand cannon evolved intho the matchlock musket. Hand cannons had a crude handle, or no handle at all. A wooden stock was added, allowing the weapon to be more easily held and fired. Early musketeers just held on to the rope match, or attached it to their belt, which was dangerous since the match could accidentally contact the touch hole as the musketeer moved around while loading the weapon in battle. The matchlock mechanism was a simple solution to this problem, and placed the match in a clamp on the end of a lever. When a trigger was pulled, the lever would rotate and allowed the match to come in contact with the touch hole, discharging the weapon.
Musketeers were utilized in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and the 14th-century Chinese military treatise Huolongjing describes a s-shaped serpetine matchlock. In Zhao Shizhen's book of 1598 AD, the Shenqipu, there were illustrations of Ottoman Turkish musketmen with detailed illustrations of their muskets, alongside European musketeers with detailed illustrations of their muskets. There was also illustration and description of how the Chinese had adopted the Ottoman kneeling position in firing while favoring European-made rifles.
As musket technology rapidly improved in Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire, China often imported muskets, eventually losing the arms race to the West by 1750. When the rifle was invented in the West, the musket lost its status as the dominant weapon.
The Mughals introduced muskets to India. The guns came into wide use by not only the Indian Mughal Empires but also by rival South Indian kingdoms. The muskets that the Mughals and the rest of India used were often made of the high quality wootz steel. These Indian muskets were manufactured by the thousands and could even use stones instead of balls if needed. The superior strength of the steel allowed Mughals the ability to use more gunpowder than their European counterparts.
The musket also made its way into the little island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) though the approximate period where they had been first introduced remains disputed. the earliest date is put around the 14th century where a copperplate inscription of Parakarama Bahu IV (1302-1326) refers to two persons who were declared exempt from certain taxes which included "gun licenses". many also believe that it was the Portuguese who first brought over muskets during their conquest of the Sri Lankan coastline and low lands in 1505 as they regularly used short barreled matchlocks during combat. However, P.E.P.Deraniyagala points out that the Sinhala term for gun, ‘bondikula’ matches the Arabic term for gun, ‘bunduk.’ Also that certain technical aspects of the early Sinhalese matchlock were similar to the matchlocks used in the Middle East, thus forming the generally accepted theory that the musket was not entirely new to the island by the time the Portuguese came, but it was only in a short matter of time that native Sri Lankan kingdoms, most notably the kingdom of Sitawaka and the Kandyan Kingdom where Sinhalese muskets with a unique bifurcated stock, longer barrel and smaller calibre, which made it more efficient in driving out the energy from the gunpowder, were manufactured by the hundreds and mastered by soldiers to the point where according to the Portuguese chronicler, Queirós, they could "fire at night to put out a match" and "by day at 60 paces would sever a knife with four or five bullets" and "send as many on the same spot in the target." Despite initial reluctance, the Safavid Empire of Persia very rapidly acquired the art of making and using handguns. A Venetian envoy, Vincenzo di Alessandri, in a report presented to the Council of Ten on 24 September 1572, observes:
They used for arms, swords, lances, arquebuses, which all the soldiers carry and use; their arms are also superior and better tempered than those of any other nation. The barrels of the arquebuses are generally six spans long, and carry a ball little less than three ounces in weight. They use them with such facility that it does not hinder them drawing their bows nor handling their swords, keeping the latter hung at their saddle bows till occasion requires them. The arquebus is then put away behind the back so that one weapon does not impede the use of the other.
In Japan, muskets were introduced in 1543 by Portuguese merchantmen and by the 1560s were being mass-produced locally. Japan then was in the midst of civil war. Oda Nobunaga revolutionized musket tactics in Japan by splitting loaders and shooters and assigning three guns to a shooter at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. (Popular records stating he used a Maurice-style three-line formation are incorrect according to onsite evidence.) The total victory he won at this battle led other daimyo to acquire muskets in large quantities, and they proved highly effective during the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1590s ordered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, nearly 20,000 muskets were used, comparable to if not greater than the numbers employed on contemporary European battlefields. While many believe that during the Sakoku the political power of the samurai led to muskets being banned in Japan, this is a misconception brought on by romantic views. In actuality, the Japanese were fully capable of manufacturing their own muskets, and the shogunate even created several political positions to oversee their manufacture and inventory. However, it is indeed true that the feudal Daimyo, other than the Shogun himself, were forbidden from manufacturing or stockpiling firearms.
As booty from the Japanese invaders, muskets were introduced to Korea (Joseon dynasty). In the Manchu invasion of Korea (both in 1627 and in 1636) the musket troop of Joseon dynasty army impressed the Manchu army which consisted mostly of cavalry, despite the eventual total defeat of Joseon. Afterwards, the Manchu Qing dynasty asked the Joseon dynasty for its musket troop when there was a border conflict with Russia. In 1654 and 1658, hundreds of Joseon musket troops were dispatched by the request of the Qing Dynasty engaged Russians near Khabarovsk Battle of Hutong.
Hand cannons (handgonnes) were first used in Europe sometime in the early 14th century. They were more commonly used by the early 15th century, particularly in the Hussite wars. It is possible that the noise was at least as important as the missile, for the effect on the horses of the enemy knights. These were very short ranged, inaccurate and difficult to load and fire. The first European usage of the arquebus in large ratios was in Hungary under king Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–1490). Every third soldier in the Black Army of Hungary had an arquebus, which was an unusually high ratio in its era. Gradual advances in the empirical understanding of the corning of gunpowder made possible a more powerful explosive (dating is still uncertain from c. 1420 – c. 1550 and probably varied by country). The cost of gunpowder also gradually fell. By the 16th century the handheld firearm became commonplace, replacing the crossbow and longbow in all advanced armies, and known as the arquebus. Most infantry were pikemen who normally wore some armour, especially the front ranks, and gave protection against cavalry to the arquebusiers. The rise of firearms led to thicker and heavier armour, from 15 kg in the 15th century to 25 kg in the late 16th century. Armour 2 mm thick required 2.9 times as much energy to defeat it as armour 1 mm thick. The need to defeat armour gave rise to the musket proper referring to a heavier weapon, firing a heavier shot, which had to balance on a rest. The initial role of the musket was as a specialist armour piercing weapon; it therefore coexisted with the arquebus over the period c. 1550 – c. 1650. For example, from 1636 the complement of the Spanish infantry company, in Flanders, was 200 men, 11 officers, 30 musketeers, 60 arqubusiers, 65 pikemen with body armour, 34 pikemen without armour. The musketeers received double pay. The musketeers were the first infantry to give up armour entirely. As their heavy shot had a longer range, and without armour, musketeers began to take cover behind walls or in sunken lanes and sometimes acted as skirmishers. Sometime around 1630–60, at least in England, the musket barrel was cut down from 4 feet to 3 feet at about the same time the rest was given up. The arquebus seems to disappear as the musket got lighter. The number of musketeers relative to pikemen grew, partly because they were now more mobile than pikemen.
A lighter alternative to either the arquebus or the musket was the caliver, which was often used at sea, or by irregular troops. Almost all muskets in this period were fired by the matchlock mechanism, where a length of smouldering rope ignited the gunpowder in the weapon's pan, causing the musket ball to be fired out of the barrel. An alternative to the matchlock in the earlier period was the wheellock mechanism. The matchlock had several disadvantages due to it being slow to reload and the occasional accidental ignition of gunpowder stores. The paper powder charge was first introduced in Europe by the King of Poland, Stefan Batory. The widespread use of muskets nevertheless changed the face of warfare (see gunpowder warfare).
The arquebus and caliver were phased out in the 17th century as the musket became lighter and more portable, and "musket" thereafter became the generic name for long-barrelled, handheld firearms. The musket went through further evolution in the 17th century, the most important of these changes being the introduction of the flintlock firing mechanism, where the gunpowder in a musket's pan was ignited by a flint suspended on hammer, which struck the pan on pulling the trigger. Sven Åderman is credited with advancing the rapidity of firing and was awarded Halltorps estate by the King of Sweden. The flintlock (which succeeded the similar but more complicated snaphance) was a major advance on the matchlock in safety, accuracy, and loading time. It became standard issue for European infantrymen by 1700. Around the same time came the invention of the bayonet. There was now no need for two types of infantry and the pike disappeared.
The ball in smoothbore firearms was quite loose in the barrel. The last contact with the barrel gave the ball a spin at right angles to the direction of flight. The aerodynamics meant that the ball veered off in a random direction from the aiming point. Rifling, grooves put in the barrel of the weapon which cause the projectile to spin on the same axis as the line of flight, prevented this veering off from the aiming point. Rifles started as sporting weapons and had little use on the battlefield. From around 1750 rifles began to be used by skirmishers (Frederick the Great raised a Jager unit in 1744, from game-keepers and foresters, armed with rifles) but the very slow rate of fire of muzzle-loading rifles restricted their use until the invention of the Minié ball.
In the 18th century, as typified by the English Brown Bess musket, loading and firing was done in the following way:
- Upon the command "prime and load", the soldier would make a quarter turn to the right at the same time bringing the musket to the priming position. The pan would be open following the discharge of the previous shot, meaning that the frizzen would be tilted forward. If the musket was not being reloaded after a previous shot, the soldiers would be ordered to "Open Pan".
- Upon the command "Handle cartridge", the soldier would draw a cartridge from the cartridge box worn on the soldier's right hip or on a belt in front of the soldier's belly. Cartridges consisted of a spherical lead ball wrapped in a paper cartridge which also held the gunpowder propellant. The end of the cartridge opposite from the ball would be sealed by a mere twist of the paper. The soldier then tore off the twisted end of the cartridge with the teeth and spat it out, and continued to hold the now open cartridge in his right hand.
- Upon the command "prime", the soldier then pulled the hammer back to half-cock, and poured a small amount of powder from the cartridge into the priming pan. He then closed the frizzen so that the priming powder was trapped.
- Upon the command "about", the butt of the musket was then lowered and moved to a position against the soldier's left calf, and held so that the soldier could then access the muzzle of the musket barrel. The soldier then poured the rest of the powder from the cartridge down the muzzle. The cartridge was then reversed, and the end of the cartridge holding the musket ball was inserted into the muzzle, with the remaining paper shoved into the muzzle above the musket ball. This paper acted as wadding to stop the ball and powder from falling out if the muzzle was lowered.
- Upon the command "draw ramrods", the soldier drew the ramrod from the musket. The ramrod was grasped and reversed when removed, and the large end was inserted about one inch into the muzzle.
- Upon the command "ram down cartridge", the soldier then used the ramrod to firmly ram the wadding, bullet, and powder down to the breech of the barrel. The ramrod was then removed, reversed, and returned to half way in the musket by inserting it into the first and second ramrod pipes. The soldier's hand then grasped the top of the ramrod.
- Upon the command "return rammers", the soldier would quickly push the rammer the remaining amount to completely return it to its normal position. Once the ramrod was properly replaced, the soldier's right arm would be held parallel to the ground at shoulder level, with the right fingertips touching the bayonet lug, and lightly pressing the musket to the soldier's left shoulder. The soldier's left hand still supported the musket.
(At no time did the soldier place the musket on the ground to load)
- Upon the command "Make Ready". The musket was brought straight up, perpendicular to the ground, with the left hand on the swell of the musket stock, the lock turned toward the soldier's face, and the soldier's right hand pulled the lock to full cock, and grasped the wrist of the musket.
- Upon the command "present", the butt of the musket was brought to the soldier's right shoulder, while at the same time the soldier lowered the muzzle to firing position, parallel to the ground, and sighting (if the soldier had been trained to fire at "marks") along the barrel at the enemy.
- Upon the command of "fire", the soldier pulled the trigger, and the musket (hopefully) fired. A full second was allowed to pass, and the musket was then quickly lowered to the loading position, butt against the soldier's right hip, muzzle held off center to the left at about a forty-five degree angle, and the soldier would look down at his open pan to determine if the prime had been ignited.
This process was drilled into troops until they could complete the procedure upon hearing a single command of "prime and load". No additional verbal orders were given until the musket was loaded, and the option was either to give the soldiers the command "Make Ready", or to hold the musket for movement with the command of "Shoulder your firelock". The main advantage of the British Army was that the infantry soldier trained at this procedure almost every day. A properly trained group of regular infantry soldiers was able to load and fire four rounds per minute. A crack infantry company could load and fire five rounds in a minute.
This tactic was pioneered by Maurice of Nassau, who taught it to Dutch troops in the Eighty Years' War. It was originally known as the countermarch, where troops were arranged in lines up to twelve, but more usually eight or six deep. After the front rank fired it would file away to the rear to reload. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden made two important advances in the use of this tactic. First, he simplified and standardized reloading, then drilled his musketeers ceaselessly until they reloaded in action by reflex, without becoming distracted. Second, he pioneered the use of the volley or "salvo" as an offensive tactic for Swedish infantry in the Thirty Years' War.
Because of the musket's slow reloading time it was necessary until 1700 or later to use pikemen to protect them from cavalry. After the invention of the bayonet and flintlock musket, infantry were no longer equipped with the pike and their firing formations were reduced to three ranks deep. By having the front rank kneel, all three ranks would be able to fire at the same time. This allowed all the men in the unit to fire at the same time, unleashing a withering volley that would slam into the enemy. As muskets became the default weapon of armies, the slow reloading time became an increasing problem. The difficulty of reloading—and thus the time needed to do it—was diminished by making the musket ball much smaller than the internal diameter of the barrel, so as the interior of the barrel became dirty from soot from previously fired rounds, the musket ball from the next shot could still be easily rammed. In order to keep the ball in place once the weapon was loaded, it would be partially wrapped in a small piece of cloth. However, the smaller ball could move within the barrel as the musket was fired, decreasing the accuracy of musket fire (it was complained that it took a man's weight in lead musket balls to kill him). The only way to make musket fire effective was to mass large numbers of musketmen and have them fire at the same time. The tradeoff between reloading speed and accuracy of fire continued until the invention of the Minié ball.
The main tactic for infantry attacks from 1700 or so was a slow measured advance, with pauses to fire volleys at enemy infantry. The aim was to break the enemy by firepower and leave the pursuit of them to the cavalry. If the defenders did not break and flee, however, a bayonet charge and hand-to-hand combat would be necessary. Many officers in the French army preferred the a prest attack – a rapid charge using swords or bayonets rather than firepower and British General Charles Grey became known as "no flint" Grey because of his fondness for bayonet attacks.
The British Army was the first army that fought in two ranks rather than three. This allowed the infantry soldier to fire his musket without the need for the front rank to kneel. Another British tactic was platoon fire. At the time a platoon was a half-company. The right-hand files of a company would form the first platoon and the left-hand files of that same company would form the second platoon. The platoon fire would begin at one of the flank platoons of the battalion or regiment, and one or two seconds after the platoon beside them fired, the next platoon would fire. The effect would be platoon volley after platoon volley rolling down the face of the battalion or regiment, and the result of such disciplined fire was a constant hail of bullets on the enemy formation.
By the 18th century a very experienced soldier could load and fire at a rate of four shots per minute. Soldiers expecting to face musket fire learned disciplined drills to move in precise formations and to obey orders unquestioningly. British soldiers in particular acquired a reputation for drilling until they could perform coolly and automatically in the heat of combat. Use of musket infantry tactics was utilized to the fullest by King Frederick William I of Prussia in the early 18th century. Prussian troops under his leadership could fire a shot every fifteen seconds with almost unrivaled discipline, and his finest infantry units could fire a shot every ten seconds.
In the 19th century, a new tactic was devised by the French in the Napoleonic Wars. This was the colonne d'attaque, or attack column. This tactic involved a large number of troops, from one regiment up to two brigades of infantry. These men packed close together in a tight column which, encouraged by the drums, marched slowly forward. The French Army at the time mostly consisted of conscript troops, who were not heavily trained. The column gave them confidence and a feeling of safety due to the huge number of men in the column. The amount of men in the column also made it more capable of sustaining enemy fire as well. The sight of a huge column slowly and inexorably making its way towards its enemy was often enough to make the enemy break and run. Disciplined troops who could fire fast enough into the column, however, could stop the column with its own fallen soldiers. Another flaw with this formation was the devastation that could be inflicted upon it by an opponent firing into the side(s) of the column, and artillery could also wreak havoc on the massed formation.
In New Zealand during the period 1818 to 1842 native Maori bought increasingly large numbers of Trade Muskets which were regularly used in inter tribal warfare. Maori developed a number of special techniques to over come their lack of professional training. The first was to enlarge the priming hole to ensure combustion with the course grain trade black powder that was available to them. The second was to do away with the ram rod altogether. The balls were inserted in the muzzle and then the butt thumped hard on the ground to settle the ball. In battle the barrel was never cleaned so progressively smaller balls were used to load the musket to compensate for lead and ash fouling. The balls were held between the fingers of the right hand. During this period Maori continued to use traditional weapons so the musket was important for psychological reasons rather than for accuracy.
Obsolescence and replacement by the rifle
The musket was not accurate because of its smooth bore barrel which had no rifling. Rifling are groves in the barrel in which makes the projectile spin in the barrel which makes it accurate. This pinpointing technology superseded the use of muskets. By today's standards, muskets are not accurate due to the gap between the bullet and the internal wall of the barrel. A rifle bullet will spin, ensuring greater accuracy. Owing to this inaccuracy, officers did not expect musketeers to aim at specific targets. Rather, they had the objective of delivering a mass of musket balls into the enemy line.
The disadvantage of the early rifle for military use was its long reloading time and the tendency for powder fouling to accumulate in the rifling, making the piece more difficult to load with each shot. Eventually, the weapon could not be loaded until the bore was wiped clean. For this reason, regular American units used smoothbore muskets. However, German regiments from many principalities fielded companies of riflemen known as Jäger, as early as the beginning of the 18th century. British armies during the Seven Years War, which was called the French & Indian War in America, formed rifle units, and these units were formed again during the American Revolutionary War. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the British created and maintained a rifle regiment.
The invention of the Minié ball solved both major problems of muzzle-loading rifles. The Crimean War (1853–1856) saw the first widespread use of the rifled musket for the common infantryman and by the time of the American Civil War (1860s) most infantry were equipped with the rifled musket. These were far more accurate than smoothbore muskets and had a far longer range, while preserving the musket's comparatively faster reloading rate. Their use led to a decline in the use of massed attacking formations, as these formations were too vulnerable to the accurate, long-range fire a rifle could produce. In particular, attacking troops were within range of the defenders for a longer period of time, and the defenders could also fire at them more quickly than before. As a result, while 18th century attackers would only be within range of the defenders' weapons for the time it would take to fire a few shots, late 19th century attackers might suffer dozens of volleys before they drew close to the defenders, with correspondingly high casualty rates. However, the use of massed attacks on fortified positions did not vanish overnight, and as a result, major wars of the late 19th century and early 20th century tended to produce very high casualty figures.
In the late 19th century, the rifle took another major step forward with the introduction of breech-loading rifles. These rifles also used brass cartridges. The brass cartridge had been introduced earlier; however, it was not widely adopted for various reasons. In the U.S. Army, generals thought their soldiers would waste ammunition, so they kept muzzle-loading black powder rifles until after the American Civil War. The introduction of breech loaders meant that the rifling of a weapon was no longer damaged when it was loaded, and reloading was a much faster process. Shortly afterwards, magazine loading rifles were introduced, which further increased the weapons' rate of fire. From this period (c. 1870) on, the musket was obsolete in modern warfare.
Muskets were the firearms first used by many non-Eurasians. With the introduction of the rifle to European armies, thousands of muskets were sold or traded to less technologically advanced societies in the 19th century. Inequality in adoption of access to muskets could lead to large changes in political and social structure, for example amongst the Māori of New Zealand due to the Musket Wars.
During the Musket war period in New Zealand between 1805 and 1843, at least 500 conflicts took place between various Maori groups - often using trade muskets in addition to traditional Maori weapons. The muskets were initially cheap Birmingham muskets designed for the use of course grain black powder. Maori favoured the shorter barrel versions. Some Maori groups took advantage of runaway sailors and escaped convicts to expand their understanding of muskets. Early missionaries - one of whom was a trained gunsmith - refused to help Maori repair muskets. Later, common practice was to enlarge the percussion hole and to hold progressively smaller lead balls between the fingers so that muskets could fire several shots without having to remove fouling. Likewise, Maori resorted to thumping the butt of the musket on the ground to settle the ball instead of using a ramrod. Maori favoured the use of the double barrel shot gun (Tuparra - two barrel) during fighting often using women to reload the weapons when fighting from a Pā (fortified village or hillfort). They often resorted to using nails, stones or anything convenient as "shot". From the 1850s Maori were able to obtain superior military style muskets with greater range. One of the authors was a Pakeha (European) who lived amongst Maori, spoke the language fluently, had a Maori wife and took part in many inter tribal conflicts as a warrior. By the 1860s, it was not uncommon for a warrior to have multiple muskets.
Parts of a musket
The phrase "lock, stock, and barrel" (which means "the whole thing") refers to the three main parts of a musket. The stock is the wooden base. The barrel is the tube where the musket ball (or other ammunition) accelerates and exits the weapon. The lock is the mechanism that causes the weapon to fire.
Most muskets were designed to be used with a bayonet, which is a triangular spike or blade designed to fit onto the end of the musket's barrel, allowing the musket to be used as a pike or spear. Bayonets in modern fighting are intended as last-ditch weapons which are only used in emergencies, but in muskets, bayonets played a much more significant role, typically accounting for roughly one third of all casualties on the battlefield.
Locks came in many different varieties. Early matchlock and wheel lock mechanisms were replaced by later flintlock mechanisms and finally percussion locks. The lock typically had a hammer of some sort, which was pulled back into position (cocked) and released by pulling a trigger. The hammer was often referred to as a dogshead or a cock due to the fact that it looked somewhat like a dog or chicken's head when viewed from the side. Flintlocks and percussion locks typically had a "half cocked" position, which was a "safe" position from which the weapon could be loaded but not fired. Only when the hammer was pulled back into the "full cocked" position could it be fired. The phrase "don't go off half cocked" has its origins in this type of weapon.
The stock was made out of wood. The rear end of the stock was called the butt. The stock of a musket was typically heavy enough and sturdy enough that the butt could be used as a blunt force weapon in hand to hand combat. Some muskets had small boxes built into the stock called a patch box, since it was used to carry small cotton patches which were used both for cleaning and for wadding when firing the weapon.
The barrel of a musket was usually smooth bore. Rifled barrels were more accurate, but the black powder used at the time quickly fouled the barrel, making reloading slower and more difficult. This was not a problem for hunters, who often used weapons with rifled barrels, but musketeers could not afford to stop firing and clean their barrels in the middle of a battle. The minie ball, which came into use in the 1840s, allowed the use of rifled muskets. The front of the barrel was called the muzzle, and the rear was called the breech. The term "muzzle loading" therefore indicates that muskets were loaded through the front end of the barrel. A ramrod, made out of wood or metal, was used to push the ball or bullet into the barrel. Most muskets had a groove in the stock under the barrel, allowing the ramrod to be slid into place and stored there. Musketeers were trained to always replace their ramrods after loading so that they would not leave their ramrods on the field if they were forced to hastily retreat.
Barrel bands held the barrel to the stock. These were removable, so that the barrel could be taken off and cleaned. Barrel bands were typically held in place either with springs or screws. A large screw attached to the breech (called the tang screw) also held the barrel in place.
Most smooth bore muskets did not have sights. Rifled muskets, due to their longer range, were usually equipped with sights. The design and placement of these sights varied. For example, the U.S. Springfield Model 1861 musket used two flip up leaf sights, set for 300 and 500 yards, while the British Pattern 1853 Enfield used a flip up ladder sight, which was graduated from 100 to 900 yards in 100 yard increments (although realistically, hitting anything beyond 500 yards was mostly a matter of luck).
The simplicity of the musket design allowed it to fire a variety of ammunition. The simplest ammunition for musket was the round ball, which was literally just a round ball of lead. Round balls were intentionally loose fitting in the barrel so that they could quickly be loaded even after the barrel had been fouled by numerous previous shots. This loose fit, combined with the poor aerodynamics of the round ball led to the musket's inaccuracy beyond 50 to 75 yd (46 to 69 m) or so. Muskets could also fire smaller lead pellets called lead shot or buckshot, which struck a wider area but with less force than a single lead ball. Round balls could be combined with buckshot to produce buck and ball ammunition, which combined the wider area of attack of shot with the large mass of the round ball.
Musket balls were of a diameter considerably larger than today's modern rifles—the Brown Bess fielded a caliber of more than .75". With its soft, all-lead composition, the ball would easily flatten or burst on contact, much like a modern soft-point bullet. Together with its large size, this meant it could cause large wounds. The smooth bore muskets of the Brown Bess period had considerable hitting power and were able to penetrate the armor of the day, but had limited accuracy due to the lack of rifling in the barrel.
The Minié ball, which despite its name was actually bullet shaped and not ball shaped, was developed in the 1840s. The Minié ball had an expanding skirt which was intended to be used with rifled barrels, leading to what was called the rifled musket, which came into widespread use in the mid-19th century. The Minié ball was small enough in diameter that it could be loaded as quickly as a round ball, even with a barrel that had been fouled with black powder residue after firing many shots, and the expanding skirt of the Minié ball meant that it would still form a tight fit with the barrel and impart a good spin into the round when fired. This gave the rifled musket an effective range of several hundred yards, which was a significant improvement over the smooth bore musket. For example, combat ranges of 300 yards were achievable using the rifled muskets of the American Civil War. While rifled muskets can fire other ammunition like round ball or buck and ball without issues, they were generally only issued Minié ball ammunition. A rifled musket can also technically fire lead shot, but it does not pattern well due to the rifled bore. A smooth bore musket could also technically fire a Minié ball, but without the spin imparted by a rifled barrel the Minié ball would tumble and would not be accurate.
Musketeers often used paper cartridges, which served a purpose similar to that of modern metallic cartridges in combining bullet and powder charge.. A musket cartridge consisted of a pre-measured amount of black powder and ammunition such as a round ball, Nessler ball or Minié ball all wrapped up in paper. Cartridges would then be placed in a cartridge box, which would typically be worn on the musketeer's belt during a battle. Unlike a modern cartridge, this paper cartridge was not simply loaded into the weapon and fired. Instead, the musketeer would tear open the paper (usually with his teeth), pour some of the powder into the pan and the rest into the barrel, follow it with the ammunition (and the paper as wadding if not using a Minié ball), then use the ramrod as normal to push it all into the barrel. While not as fast as loading a modern cartridge, this method did significantly speed up the loading process since the pre-measured charges meant that the musketeer did not have to carefully measure out the black powder with every shot.
The superior accuracy and effective range of the Minié ball and rifled musket led to its rapid and widespread acceptance, while the simple musket ball and smooth bore musket gradually fell out of favor. The later development of the bullet cartridge accelerated the demise of the older technology. Despite this, musket balls continued to be used until well into the late 19th century, as regular armies and militias had accumulated vast stores of them over time.
Musketeers carried numerous special tools and accessories, many of which have no modern equivalent. Most musketeers carried some sort of specialized combination tool, usually consisting of one or two screwdriver blades and a small pick. The screwdriver blades were used to change the flint, remove the barrel bands, and otherwise disassemble the musket for cleaning. Later versions of the tool included a small wrench used to remove the percussion lock's nipple. These tools often came in a "private" version and a "sergeant" version, the difference usually being that only the sergeant version contained the necessary parts (like a spring vise) needed to disassemble the lock mechanism. Typically, the entire musket, with the possible exception of the lock mechanism, could be disassembled using only this one combination tool.
A cartridge box holding several pre-made paper cartridges was often worn on a belt. When percussion locks became popular, musketeers also carried another small box on their belt which held the percussion caps.
Some ramrods were equipped with threaded ends, allowing different attachments to be used. One of the more common attachments was a ball screw or ball puller, which was literally just a screw that could be screwed into the lead ball to remove it if it had become jammed in the barrel, similar to the way that a corkscrew is used to remove a wine cork. Another attachment was called a worm, which was used to clear debris from the barrel, such as paper wadding that had not been expelled. Some worm designs were sturdy enough that they could be used to remove stuck ammunition. The worm could also be used with a small piece of cloth for cleaning. A variation on the worm called the "screw and wiper" combined the typical design of a worm with a ball puller's screw.
A fouling scraper was another attachment that could go onto the end of a ramrod. Made out of brass to prevent possible problems with sparks, it was used to scrape powder fouling out of the barrel.
A cleaning jag was another attachment that could go onto the end of a ramrod. Some ramrods were flared, essentially having a cleaning jag built into them. Cotton cleaning patches could be wrapped around the end of the jag, which would then be run through the barrel for cleaning.
A powder flask or powder horn could be used to hold black powder. Powder measures were small tube-like devices used to measure out exact amounts of powder. Once measured, the powder could be loaded directly into the barrel, or it could be placed in a paper cartridge for later loading.
A tompion was a wooden plug inserted into the end of the barrel. This was used to prevent dirt from getting into the barrel and was removed prior to loading and firing the weapon. Nipple protectors were used with percussion lock weapons. This was a small cap, usually attached to a short piece of chain, which covered the nipple and protected it from dirt and moisture.
Modern replicas of many muskets are available, from manufacturers such as Pedersoli, Armi-sport, and Euroarms. Flintlocks such as the Brown Bess or Charleville musket are common, as are many of the muskets (both flintlock and percussion lock) used during the U.S. Civil War. These are used by historical reenactors and hobbyists, and are also sometimes used by hunters. The North-South Skirmish Association engages in matches, known as Skirmishes, which are not re-enactments of specific Civil War battles. Instead, N-SSA matches are concerned with promoting the accurate shooting of the firearms of the era.
Modern musket designs are also available, such as those made by Thompson Center, though they are often just called "muzzle loaders" or "black powder rifles" instead of "muskets". These are typically used by hunters during hunting seasons specifically for black powder muzzle loaders. They often use black powder pellets instead of loose black powder, and more modern ammunition such as sabots and maxi-balls.
"Muskets" based on breech-loading cartridge rifles that have been smoothbored and re-chambered for a shotgun-type cartridge have been used in some countries to arm police or security forces. The intent is to provide a military-type weapon that is less powerful and has a shorter range than the standard military rifle. An example is the single-shot conversion of the Lee-Enfield MkIII rifle to a single-shot musket chambering the .410 inch Indian Police cartridge. Many such conversions were performed in India during British colonial rule, some of these muskets remain in Indian and Pakistani police service to this day.
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