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Source: October 1994 Volume 32 Number 4, Pages 147–157

The Revolutionary War Musket

Bob Goshorn

Page 147

The principal weapon of both the British and American armies during the Revolutionary War was the smooth-bore, muzzle-loading, flintlock musket. It has been described by several authorities as the "workhorse of the Revolution".

Introduced into the Spanish army in the late 16th century by the Duke of Alva, it was originally fired from a rest, but during the 17th century the weapon was much improved and the rest was no longer needed. (Prior to the development of the musket, the military historian George C. Neumann has observed, "Europe's standard infantry arm was the long spear or pike, wielded by a massed array of well-drilled and closely aligned pikemen.") During the reign of Queen Anne in England [1702-1714] the musket was adopted for use by the British army, some say at the urgings of the Duke of Marlborough, and by the eve of the Revolutionary War, it is noted by two other authorities, Ian V. Hogg and John H. Batchelor, that "the flintlock mechanism [of the musket] was in the peak of its perfection, a reliable and efficient means of ignition in well-trained hands".

The British army was equipped with the famed "Brown Bess" muskets, officially designated the "Land Pattern" musket. (Actually, there were two models of the Brown Bess: the "Long Land Pattern" musket, with a barrel 46 inches long, and the "Short Land Pattern" musket, adopted in 1768, with a barrel four inches shorter.) Under the British system for their manufacture, the Board of Ordnance negotiated with various manufacturers to produce the component parts of the musket, each part being made in accordance with a "sealed pattern" for that part made by a gunsmith under the direction of the Board of Ordnance.

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Thus various specialists each made his respective part, which was then sent to a "stocker" in London for assembly to finish the weapon. The completed musket was then checked against the sealed pattern and, if accepted, stored in the armories at the Tower of London or Dublin Castle until needed.

The American troops, on the other hand, were initially armed with muskets, usually made as a unit, from a number of manufacturers. Some of them were simply muskets which the soldiers owned and brought with them when they enljsted, made by a local gunsmith or perhaps retained after their service in the French and Indian War. In an attempt to achieve greater uniformity, others were manufactured according to specifications established by the Committees of Safety of the various colonies, though there were relatively few gunsmiths in the colonies capable of producing them in any quantity. (In a survey made as late as 1775, for example, it was found that in all the colony of Maryland there were only twelve gunsmiths who could manufacture as many as twenty muskets in a month.) Still others were obtained in Europe for their colonial troops by representatives of these Committees of Safety and imported from Holland or Prussia, frequently by way of the West Indies or Bermuda.

The obvious result of this variety of manufacturers, of course, was a serious lack of uniformity in the weapons which hampered both the training of the troops and the supply of ammunition for their arms. Col. James W. Wright, writing in the William and Mary Quarterly, for example, has noted that as late as the Battle of the Brandywine on September 11th, 1777 "many muskets could not be fired as the men were furnished cartridges and balls that would not fit their pieces".

In a further effort to provide greater uniformity and to obtain muskets in much greater numbers, in early 1776 Silas Deane, representing the Continental Congress, negotiated contracts to procure some 30,000 of them, of a half-dozen slightly different models, from the French government. Purchased through a dummy corporation set up for this purpose, the first shipment of them arrived in April 1776 and the last shipment, in November of 1777.

A musket weighed somewhere between 9 3/4 and 11 1/4 pounds, with the imported French models used by the American troops somewhat lighter than the British Brown Bess. Its component parts were the proverbial "lock, stock, and barrel".

The barrel of the muskets used by the American army were generally between four and five feet long, with a diameter, or caliber, of .69 to .80 of an inch. It was an iron tube, with a smooth bore.

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The manner in which the barrel was fabricated is described by Edwin Tunis in his Colonial Craftsmen:

"No tool of the time was exact enough to open a straight hole lengthwise through a four-foot gun barrel, so the gunsmith had in effect to wrap the iron around the hole. To do this he welded a quite thick strip spirally around a rod and then drove the rod out. Two feet was the pactical limit on this. He couldn't get his mandrel out of a longer tube, so he made two short lengths and welded them end to end, He forged a swage to compact the hot metal and at the same time to give the outside of the barrel an octagonal shape.

"After he joined the two ends, the smith bored the inside, using a small square cutter of steel welded against a long iron arbor which he turned either by water power or, laboriously, with a hand-cranked machine. Before boring, the gunsmith put the barrel against a grindstone and smoothed out its eight flats. Te hole always came out a little crooked and the gunsmith checked it with a tight bowstring and carefully straightened it by tapping the outside with a hammer. The bore still had to be reamed to exact size and to a high polish with the same machine that did the boring. The smith made his reamer by squaring one end of an arbor and [then] welding a thin strip of steel against one face of the square to serve as a cutter. He pinned a polished oval of hickory to the opposite face to give his reamer a guide that wouldn't scratch the surface of the bore."

The rear end of the barrel, or breech, was closed by a plug, held in place by screws or by welding. At this end, on the right hand side, just above the plug, was a vent or touch-hole, through which the fire from the priming pan of the lock entered the barrel to set off the powder charge in the barrel.

At the muzzle end was a stud that was used in affixing the bayonet and to hold it in place. With the bayonet attached, the musket could be used either as a firearm or, at closer range, as a spear or pike.

The stock was made of wood, whittled out of walnut, striped maple, cherry, or, sometimes, from persimmon or other local woods. It extended under the barrel to within two or three inches of the muzzle, the barrel being attached to the stock by bands or by pins. On the under side of the extension of the stock was a groove, in which the ramrod, or rammer, was seated. The ramrod was usually made of metal, with a brass cap at one end.

The lock, or flintlock, was the firing mechanism, and was located on the right hand side of the stock at the rear end of the barrel. It consisted of the trigger; a cock, to which a flint was affixed; a pan, into which the priming powder was put; and an L-shaped hammer, now known as the frizzen, which covered the pan.

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Although it sounds something like a Rube Goldberg creation, the way in which the firing mechanism worked was relatively simple. When the trigger was squeezed, the spring holding the cock in firing position was released and the cock, with the flint affixed in vise-like jaws, flew forward in an arc. As it moved forward, the flint struck the metal frizzen, causing a shower of sparks. The impact of this collision also drove the frizzen forward, uncovering the pan and allowing the sparks to fall into the priming powder in the pan, igniting it. The flame from this ignited priming powder then passed through the vent or touch-hole at the base of the barrel, igniting the powder charge in the musket's breech, discharging the ball or bullet.

Actually, eighteen separate motions were required to prime, load, and fire the weapon. They are described in the Revolutionary War drill manual prepared by Baron Frederick William Augustus von Steuben for use in training the Continental army. [The manual was officially approved by Congress on March 29, 1779 and became known as the army's "Blue Book"; it remained the official United States military guide until 1812.]

Here -- in military parlance, "by the numbers" -- are the steps involved in firing the musket, as described by Baron von Steuben:

"Half cock -- Firelock! One motion. Half bend the cock briskly, bringing down the elbow at the butt of the firelock.

"Handle Cartridge! One motion. Bring your right hand short round to your pouch, slapping it hard, seize the cartridge, and bring it with a quick motion to your mouth, bite the top off down to the powder, covering it instantly with your thumb, and bring the hand as low as the chin, with the elbow down.

[The cartridge contained the bullet, a round ball of lead weighing about an ounce, and about six drams of loose black powder, both enclosed in a cylindrically-shaped paper wrapper. As Harold Peterson has noted, most of the cartridges used by the American army "were probably made in special laboratories" in Philadelphia, but from time to time the soldiers made their own cartridges in accordance with specifications set forth by Co. Timothy Pickering, Washington's adjutant general.]

"Prime! One motion. Shake [a small amount of] the powder into the pan, and covering the cartridge again, place the three last fingers behind the hammer, with the elbow up.

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"Shut Pan! Two motions. 1st. Shut your pan briskly, bringing down the elbow to the butt of the firelock, holding the cartridge fast in your hand. 2d. Turn the piece nimbly round before you to the loading position, with the lock to the front, and the muzzle at the height of the chin, bringing the right hand up under the muzzle; both feet being kept fast in this motion.

"Charge with Cartridge. Two motions. 1st. Turn up your hand and put the cartridge into the muzzle, shaking the [remainder of the] powder into the barrel. 2d. Turning your stock a little towards you, place your right hand closed, with a quick and strong motion, upon the butt of the rammer, the thumb upwards, and the elbow down.

"Draw Rammer! Two motions. 1st. Draw your rammer with a quick motion half out, seizing it instantly at the muzzle back-handed. 2d. Draw it quite out, turn it, and enter it into the muzzle.

"Ram down Cartridge! One motion. Ram the cartridge well down the barrel, and instantly recovering and seizing the rammer back-handed by the middle, draw it quite out, turn it, and enter it as far as the lower pipe, placing at the same time the edge of the hand on the butt-end of the rammer, with the fingers extended.

"Return Rammer! One motion. Thrust the rammer home, and instantly bring up the piece with the left hand to the shoulder, seizing it at the same time with the right hand under the cock, keeping the left hand at the swell, and turning the body square to the front.

"Poise Firelock! Two motions. 1st. With your left hand turn the firearm briskly, bringing the lock to the front, at the same instant seize it with the right hand just below the lock, keeping the piece perpendicular. 2d. With a quick motion bring up the firelock from the shoulder directly before the face, and seize it with the left hand just above the lock, so that the little finger may rest upon the feather spring, and the thumb be of an equal height with the eyes.

"Cock Firelock! Two motions. 1st. Turn the barrel opposite to your face, and place your thumb upon the cock, raising the elbow square at this motion. 2d. Cock the firelock by drawing down your elbow, immediately placing your thumb upon the breech-pin, and the fingers under the guard.

"Take Aim! One motion. Step back about six inches with the right foot, bringing the left toe to the front; at the same time drop the muzle, and bring up the butt-end of the firelock against your right shoulder; place the left hand forward on the swell of the stock, and the forefinger of the right hand before the trigger; sinking the muzzle a little below a level, and with the right eye looking along the barrel.

Page 152

"Fire! One motion. Pull the trigger briskly, and immediately after bringing up the right foot, come to the priming position, placing the heels even, with the right toe pointing to the right, the lock opposite the left breast, the muzzle directly to the front as high as the hat, the left hand just forward of the feather-spring, holding the piece firm and steady; and at the same time seize the cock with the fore-finger and thumb of the right hand, the back of the hand turned up."

Fortunately, the "manifold evolutions of loadinq a muzzle-loading flint-lock and firing it", as Hogg and Batchelor described the procedure, takes much longer to describe than to execute! In fact, the speed with which the musket could be loaded and fired was one of its major assets. A well-trained infantryman could load and fire fifteen rounds in three and three-quarters minutes, or at a rate of one shot every fifteen seconds.

Despite the improvements that had been made in the musket and its firing mechanism during the 17th and 18th century, however, the weapon still had its drawbacks.

For one thing, it wouldn't always fire. This could be because of several different things.

The flint, for example, might not strike the frizzen properly to cause the shower of sparks required to ignite the priming powder in the pan; Col. Wright has pointed out that the flint "would normally misfire about once in twelve discharges". About an inch square, with one side flat and the other side beveled, it obviously had to be locked into the jaws of the cock with precision so as to strike the frizzen a glancing blow at the proper angle. After each firing it was necessary to examine it to be sure that it remained in good condition and in its proper position. As Neumann has observed, it might lose its edge on the first strike -- or it might not need any adjustment for as many as thirty rounds or more. It could be placed in the cock either side up, and Peterson has observed that "it was [often] the practice to use the flint in one position until it no longer produced a good spark and the [to] turn it over". Most of the flints used by the American army came from France, and each infantryman armed with a musket usually carried a half-dozen to a dozen extra flints with him in his cartouche, or cartridge, box.

Another cause of a misfire was a by-product of the black powder that was used at that time. It was composed of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulphur, and after several firings a gummy residue would form inside the barrel of the musket. This residue would also frequently clog up the touch-hole at the base of the barrel, and on such occasion the flame from the priming powder ignited by the striking of the flint against the frizzen could not pass through the touch-hole to ignite the propelling charge in the barrel. (It is from this occurrence that the expression "a flash in the pan" originated.) Each infantryman therefore carried with him a small wire tool which he used to clean out any such residue and to keep the touch-hole clean.

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The powder was also highly hygroscopic and adversely affected by rain, dampness,or even high humidity, to the extent that the priming powder in the pan under such circumstances could not be ignited by the sparks produced by the flint, still another possible cause of a misfire. In wet weather the musket simply could not be fired. (This has led one local observer to comment that Revolutionary War battles were in one respect like baseball games -- you won some, you lost some, and some were rained out.)

(An example of the effect of rain and wet weather on the functioning of the flintlock musket is the so-called "Battle of the Clouds" that did not take place in East Whiteland on September 16, 1777. As the British army approached the American position, along the high ground where Immaculata College is now located, a tremendous cloudburst descended; as a Major Bauermeister in Gen. Knyphausen's Corps later wrote, "I wish I could give you a description of the downpour, it came down so hard that in a few minutes we were drenched and sank in mud up to our calves." Although General Washington had already decided to withdraw his troops for tactical reasons, in any event the muskets could have not been fired because of the wet powder. It has been estimated that some 40,000 cartridges that had been issued to the American soldiers prior to the expected battle were rendered useless by the storm, as a result of poorly designed and poorly made cartridge boxes.)

As Neumann summed up the effectiveness of the flintlock musket, he noted that it "functioned surprisingly well -- in dry weather".

Another drawback to the musket was its lack of accuracy at other than short range.

When its shot hit its target, the musket was a formidable and lethal weapon. As Col. Wright described it, "The musket, owing to its large, round lead ball, would have smashed through the bones, torn the flesh and caused considerable shock."

Unfortunately, however, its accuracy was limited to an effective range of about 80 yards or less. "A soldier's musket," Col. George Hanger of the British army, wrote in 1814, "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; and as to firing at a man 250 yards [away] with a common musket, you may just as well fire at the moon and have the same hopes of hitting your target. do maintain, and I will prove, whenever called on, that no man was ever killed, at two hundred yards, by the person who aimed at him." (Hence the admonition at the Battle of Bunker Hill not to fire "until you see the whites of their eyes".)

The soldiers, Peterson has noted, "could never become marksmen with the smooth bore musket. It just was not an accurate weapon". In fact, most muskets were not even equipped with a rear sight.

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This inaccuracy was due in part, of course, to the smooth bore, as compared with the greater accuracy of a weapon with a barrel whose bore was rifled or spirally grooved.

It was also, however, again in part a by-product of the black powder that was used in the musket. As noted earlier, after a few rounds had been fired, a gummy residue began to build up inside the barrel; in addition to clogging up the touch-hole, it made it difficult to load the musket and ram the cartridge down the full length of the barrel. To allow for this build-up, an undersized bullet was frequently used, the diameter of the ball in the cartridge less than the caliber of the musket. While this facilitated loading, at the same time it made the musket even more inaccurate. As Neumann pointed out, "when fired, [this practice permitted] much of the powder's force to escape and then allowed the bullet to glance from side to side in its travel through the barrel, which affected its final trajectory -- depending upon the side hit last at the muzzle".

The tactics developed for use by troops armed with muskets were designed to take advantage of the speed with which the musket could be loaded and fired and to offset the drawbacks of possible misfires and inaccuracy at ranges of more than 80 yards or so. To employ them with success required training and great discipline.

Known as the "linear system", these tactics called for the troops to be deployed in two lines, with reserves in the rear in position to move into either line as needed to replace men who were killed or wounded by the enemy's return fire. Firing was done in volleys by squads at fairly close range, with the troops advancing towards the enemy all the while. (The attack frequently culminated in hand-to-hand combat with bayonets.)

The sequence in which the battalions, divisions and platoons were to fire was set forth by Baron von Steuben in the drill manual:

"Firing by Battalion. Caution. Take Care to fire by Battalion!

"Battalion! Make ready! Take Aim! Fire! If there be more than one battalion to fire, they are to do so in succession from right to left; but after the first round, the odd battalions fire as soon as the respective battalions on their left begin to shoulder [their arms]; and the even battalions fire when the respective battalions on their right begin to shoulder. ...

"Firing by Divisions and platoons. Caution. Take Care to fire in Divisions!

"Division! Make ready! Take Aim! Fire! They fire in the same order as is prescribed for battalions in Article I [above].

The firing by platoons is also executed in the same order in the wings of the battalion, beginning with the right of each; that is, the first and fifth platoons give the first fire, the second and sixth the second fire, the third and seventh the third fire, and the fourth and eighth the fourth fire; after which they fire as before prescribed."

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As indicated, all loading and firing were done on command, and the steady barrage that resulted was imposing, to say the least. Its effectiveness, of course, stemmed from the rapidity and speed with which each wave of firing succeeded the previous one. And by firing as a unit, even if there were one or two misfires in the volley they were hardly noticed.

It should also be noted that while the linear system had not proved to be effective in the French and Indian War, fought on a still heavily-wooded frontier, it was well adapted to warfare on the more open ground of the eastern seaboard, where many of the battles of the Revolutionary War were fought and which the Americans had to control to protect the sources of food and supplies for their troops. (As indicated on a marker in Phoenixville, that was the farthest west that the British army penetrated in this area.)

There were also a relatively few companies in the Continental army whose troops were armed with muzzle-loading rifles. Unlike thesmooth-bore musket, the bore of a rifle, as noted earlier, was spirally grooved.

Each rifle was made individually and by hand, many of them by gunsmiths in Lancaster County. (Because of this they were often referred to as "Pennsylvania rifles".)

The grooves were cut into the bore by a broach. The way in which this was done is also described by Tunis:

"Broaching ... was a hand job done with special equipment on a long bench. The [octagonal-shaped] barrel was held horizontal in clamps. The cutter of the broach had four or five sawlike teeth, each minutely higher than the one ahead of it. This block of teeth rode one end of a hickory rod and the other end was guided by a sliding frame which the smith pulled to drag the cutter through the bore.

"Mounted lengthwise in the frame and free to turn on its axis was a cylindrical jig with two spiral grooves in it. This jig slid through an index block fixed to the bench. Lugs, projecting inward from the hole in the block, rode the spiral grooves and forced the jig to rotate as it passed them. Thus the broach, rigidly fixed to the jig, also rotated as it moved forward and scored the bore with a spiral groove. It took about a hundred passes to bring one groove to its full depth, the smith gradually shimming the cutter higher by slipping thin paper under it. Most barrels had eight grooves, indexed by the flats on the outside."

The barrel of the rifle was generally somewhat longer than that of a musket, while the diameter of the bore, or caliber, was smaller, about .45 of an inch. Most of the rifle stocks were made of curly maple, an extremely durable wood.

Page 156

The spirally grooved bore of the rifle gave the bullet a spinning motion as it traveled through the barrrel. (More technically, it made it "gyroscopically stabilized".) Coupled with the longer barrel, this made the weapon much more accurate than the musket. As Col. Hanger observed, "I have many times asked the American backwoodsman what was the most their marksmen could do; they have constantly told me that an expert rifleman, provided he can draw a good and true sight, can hit the head of a man at 200 yards. I am certain that provided an American rifleman was to get a perfect aim at 300 yards at me standing still, he most undoubtedly would hit me, unless it was a very windy day."

But despite its much greater accuracy, the rifle too had its drawbacks.

First, it could not be loaded and fired as rapidly as a musket. This, again, was due to several factors. For one thing, its ammunition was not normally "pre-packaged" in cartridges, as was that for the musket; to load the rifle the rifleman had to pour the powder for the propelling charge down the barrel, then insert the ball or bullet, an additional step in loading the piece before ramming the bullet home. It was also more difficult to ram the bullet down the barrel, as with the spirally grooved bore the ball had to be forced down to the breech rather than simply pushed down. To offset this problem, the bullet was placed onto (or sometimes wrapped in) a greased patch that would pass through the barrel more easily, but it nevertheless took more time to prepare a rifle for firing than it did a musket.

And second, the rifle could not be used with a bayonet. The role of the bayonet in the Revolutionary War is often underestimated. Not only was it relied on solely in the attacks at Paoli and Sony Point, for example, but, as noted earlier, it was essential in the closing hand-to-hand combat that often took place when the two armies had advanced to a point where they were at too close range to use firearms effectively. As Peterson observed, "The lack of a bayonet left the rifleman helpless in the face of a charge [by the enemy] and powerless to charge himself."

Because of these drawbacks, some commanders actively discouraged the assignment of riflemen to their units. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg, for example, "requested that [the] men of his command be uniformly armed with muskets"; and Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne, after the capture of Stony Point, similarly observed that he would like to see "rifles entirely laid aside" and that "I don't like rifles -- I would rather face the Enemy with a good Musket and Bayonet without ammunition".

And so, while riflemen made some very important contributions in special situations in which accuracy of fire was a particular consideration, it was the muzzle-loading, smooth-bore, flintlock musket that was "the gun that won the Revolutionary War".

It continued to be the basic infantry weapon until the Civil War.

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Boatner, Mark M. III [ed.] : Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York, Donald McKay Co., Inc. 1969

Hanger, Col. George C. : To All Sportsmen and Particularly to Farmers and Gamekeepers. London, J. J. Stockdale. 1814

Hogg, Ian V. and Batchelor, John H. : Armies of the American Revolution. Edgewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall. 1975

Neumann, George C. : "Firearms of the American Revolution 1775-1783". Washington, The American Ordnance Ass'n. May 1973

Peterson, Harold L. : The Book of the Continental Soldier. Harrisburg, The Stackpole Co. 1968

Tunis, Edwin : Colonial Craftsmen. Cleveland and New York, The World Publishing Co. 1965

von Steuben, Baron Frederick William : Baron von Steuben's Revolutionary War Drill Manual. New York, Dover Publications, Inc. [facsimile reprint of the 1794 edition] 1985

Wright, Col. John W. : "Some Notes on the Continental Army" [in the William and Mary Quarterly Historical Magazine, April and July 1931, Vol. XI", Nos. 2, 3] Williamsburg, Va. 1931


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