A musket is a muzzle-loaded, smoothbore long gun that appeared in early 16th century Europe, at first as a heavier variant of the arquebus, capable of penetrating heavy armor. By the mid-16th century, this type of musket went out of use as heavy armor declined, but as the matchlock became standard, the term musket continued as the name given for any long gun with a flintlock, and then its successors, all the way through the mid 1800s. This style of musket was retired in the 19th century when rifled muskets (simply called rifles in modern terminology) became common as a result of cartridged breech-loading firearms introduced by Casimir Lefaucheux in 1835, the invention of the Minié ball by Claude-Étienne Minié in 1849, and the first reliable repeating rifle produced by Volcanic Repeating Arms in 1854. By the time repeating rifles became common, they were known as simply "rifles", ending the era of the musket.
According to the Etymology Dictionary, firearms were often named after animals, and the word musket derived from the French word mousquette, which is a male sparrowhawk. An alternative theory is that derives from the 16th century French mousquet, -ette, from the Italian moschetto, -etta, meaning the bolt of a crossbow. The Italian moschetto is a diminutive of mosca, a fly.
The first recorded usage of the term "musket" or moschetto appeared in Europe in the year 1499. Evidence of the musket as a type of firearm does not appear until 1521 when it was used to describe a heavy arquebus capable of penetrating heavy armor. This version of the musket fell out of use after the mid-16th century with the decline of heavy armor, however the term itself stuck around as a general descriptor for 'shoulder arms' fireweapons into the 1800s. The differences between the arquebus and musket post-16th century are therefore not entirely clear, and the two have been used interchangeably on several occasions.
The musket first came about as a variant of the matchlock arquebus, which was developed in Europe around 1475. The arquebus was used in relatively high ratios in Hungary under king Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–1490). Every fourth soldier in the Black Army of Hungary had an arquebus, which was an unusually high ratio in its era.
In response to firearms, thicker armor was produced, from 15 kg in the 15th century to 25 kg in the late 16th century. Armour that was 2 mm thick, required 2.9 times as much energy to penetrate armour that was 1 mm thick.
In 1521, the heavy arquebus known as the musket, was invented in Europe. During the siege of Parma in 1521, many Spanish soldiers reportedly used an "arquebus with rest," a weapon much larger and more powerful than the regular arquebus. However, at this point long-barreled, musket-caliber weapons had been in use as wall-defence weapons in Europe for almost a century. The musketeers were the first infantry to give up armour entirely. Musketeers began to take cover behind walls or in sunken lanes and sometimes acted as skirmishers to take advantage of their ranged weapons. In England, the musket barrel was cut down from 4 feet to 3 feet around 1630.
According to Sir John Smythe, muskets were first used around 1530 in Italy where they had been "devised to encounter heavily armed opponents, and for the defence of towns and fortresses."
The heavy musket went out of favor around the same time the snaphance flintlock was invented in Europe, in 1550. After the arrival of the snaphance and then the "true" flintlock in the late 17th century, the arquebus died out as a term for firearms and flintlocks are not usually associated with arquebuses. The term "musket" itself however, stuck around as a general term for 'shoulder arms' fireweapons into the 1800s. The differences between the arquebus and musket post-16th century are therefore not entirely clear, and the two have been used interchangeably on several occasions.
The number of musketeers relative to pikemen increased partly because they were now more mobile than pikemen.
Projectiles in smoothbore firearms are quite loose in the barrel. The last contact with the barrel gives the ball a spin around an axis at right angles to the direction of flight. The aerodynamics result in the ball veering off in a random direction from the aiming point. The practice of rifling, putting grooves in the barrel of a weapon, causing the projectile to spin on the same axis as the line of flight, prevented this veering off from the aiming point. Initially rifles were used primarily as sporting weapons and had little presence in warfare. However, by 1611 rifles were already starting to see some use in warfare by Denmark. From around 1750, rifles began to be used by skirmishers (Frederick the Great raised a Jäger 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 1849, ending the smoothbore musket era. 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 during close quarters combat.
The Portuguese may have introduced muskets to Sri Lanka during their conquest of the coastline and low lands in 1505, as they regularly used short barreled matchlocks during combat. However, P.E.P.Deraniyagala points out that the Sinhalese term for gun, 'bondikula' matches the Arabic term for gun, 'bunduk'. Also, 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. In any case, soon native Sri Lankan kingdoms, most notably the kingdom of Sitawaka and the Kandyan Kingdom, manufactured hundreds of Sinhalese muskets, with a unique bifurcated stock, longer barrel and smaller calibre, which made it more efficient in directing and using the energy of the gunpowder. These were mastered by native 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."
Arquebuses were imported by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) at an uncertain point, but the Ming only began fielding matchlocks in 1548. The Chinese used the term "bird-gun" to refer to arquebuses and Turkish arquebuses may have reached China before Portuguese ones. 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 muskets.
Despite initial reluctance, the Safavid Empire of Persia 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, observed:
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, arquebuses were introduced in 1543 by Portuguese merchantmen and by the 1560s were being mass-produced locally.
In Korea the Joseon dynasty underwent a devastating war with newly unified Japan that lasted from 1592 to 1598. The shock of this encounter spurred the court to undergo a process of military strengthening. One of the core elements of military strengthening was to adopt the musket. According to reformers, "In recent times in China they did not have muskets; they first learned about them from the Wokou pirates in Zhejiang Province. Qi Jiguang trained troops in their use for several years until they [muskets] became one of the skills of the Chinese, who subsequently used them to defeat the Japanese." By 1607 Korean musketeers had been trained in the fashion which Qi Jiguang prescribed, and a drill manual had been produced based on the Chinese leader's Jixiao Xinshu. Of the volley fire, the manual says that "every musketeer squad should either divide into two musketeers per layer or one and deliver fire in five volleys or in ten." Another Korean manual produced in 1649 describes a similar process: "When the enemy approaches to within a hundred paces, a signal gun is fired and a conch is blown, at which the soldiers stand. Then a gong is sounded, the conch stops blowing, and the heavenly swan [a double-reed horn] is sounded, at which the musketeers fire in concert, either all at once or in five volleys (齊放一次盡擧或分五擧)." This training method proved to be quite formidable in the 1619 Battle of Sarhu when 10,000 Korean musketeers managed to kill many Manchus before their allies surrendered. While Korea went on to lose both wars against the Manchu invasions of 1627 and 1636, their musketeers were well respected by Manchu leaders. It was the first Qing emperor Hong Taiji who wrote: "The Koreans are incapable on horseback but do not transgress the principles of the military arts. They excel at infantry fighting, especially in musketeer tactics."
Afterwards, the Qing dynasty requested Joseon to aid in their border conflict with Russia. In 1654, 370 Russians engaged a thousand-man Qing-Joseon force at the mouth of the Songhua River and were defeated by Joseon musketeers. In 1658, 500 Russians engaged a 1400 string Qing-Joseon force and were defeated again by Joseon musketeers. Under the Three Branch System, similar to the Spanish Tercio, Joseon organized their army under firearm troops (artillery and mueketeers), archers, and pikemen or swordsmen. The percentage of firearms in the Joseon army rose dramatically as a result of the shorter training period for firearms. In addition, the sulfur mines discovered in Jinsan reduced the expense of producing gunpowder. Under the reign of Sukjong of Joseon (1700's), 76.4% of the local standing army in Chungcheong were musketeers. Under the reign of King Yeongjo, Yoon Pil-Un, Commander of the Sua-chung, improved on firearms with the Chunbochong (천보총), which had a larger range of fire than the existing ones. Its usage is thought to have been similar to the Afghanistan Jezail or American Kentucky Rifle.
In the 18th century, as typified by the English Brown Bess musket, loading and firing was done in the following way:
(At no time did the soldier place the musket on the ground to load)
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.
The development of volley fire — by the Ottomans, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Dutch — made muskets more feasible for widespread adoption by the military. The volley fire technique transformed soldiers carrying firearms into organized firing squads with each row of soldiers firing in turn and reloading in a systematic fashion. Volley fire was implemented with cannons as early as 1388 by Ming artillerists, but volley fire with matchlocks was not implemented until 1526 when the Ottoman Janissaries utilized it during the Battle of Mohács. The matchlock volley fire technique was next seen in mid 16th century China as pioneered by Qi Jiguang and in late 16th century Japan. Qi Jiguang elaborates on his volley fire technique in the Jixiao Xinshu:
All the musketeers, when they get near the enemy are not allowed to fire early, and they're not allowed to just fire everything off in one go, [because] whenever the enemy then approaches close, there won't be enough time to load the guns (銃裝不及), and frequently this mismanagement costs the lives of many people. Thus, whenever the enemy gets to within a hundred paces' distance, they [the musketeers] are to wait until they hear a blast on the bamboo flute, at which they deploy themselves in front of the troops, with each platoon (哨) putting in front one team (隊). They [the musketeer team members] wait until they hear their own leader fire a shot, and only then are they allowed to give fire. Each time the trumpet gives a blast, they fire one time, spread out in battle array according to the drilling patterns. If the trumpet keeps blasting without stopping, then they are allowed to fire all together until their fire is exhausted, and it's not necessary [in this case] to divide into layers.
In Europe the volley fire countermarch technique was illustrated by the Spanish captain Martín de Eguiluz in his Milicia, Discurso y Regla Militar written in 1586 and first published in Madrid in 1592. His most significant contribution to early modern warfare rests on his detailed description of the countermarch which the Spanish derived from a maneuver described in De Re Militari conducted with javelins. This complex battlefield maneuver consisted of lining up three files of soldiers five ranks deep to shoot and then yield their place at the front to those who had been behind them and then to load again and continue in order to maintain a steady rate of fire. Most historians, including Geoffrey Parker, have ignored Eguiluz, and have erroneously attributed the invention of the countermarch to Maurice of Nassau, although the publication of the Milicia, Discurso y Regla Militar antedates Maurice's first letter on the subject by two years. Nassau copied the maneuver and taught it to Dutch troops in the Eighty Years' War. Eguiluz also stressed constant drills and training.
The difficulty of reloading was diminished by making the musket ball much smaller than the internal diameter of the barrel to adjust for accumulated soot. 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).
In the 19th century, a new tactic was devised by the French during the French Revolutionary Wars. This was the colonne d'attaque, or attack column, consisting of one regiment up to two brigades of infantry. Instead of advancing slowly all across the battlefield in line formations, the French infantry were brought forward in such columns, preceded by masses of skirmishers to cover and mask their advance. The column would then normally deploy into line right before engaging the enemy with either fire or bayonet. This allowed the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic infantry a much greater degree of mobility compared to their Ancien Régime opponents, and also allowed much closer cooperation of infantry with cavalry and artillery, which were free to move in between the infantry columns of the former rather than being trapped in between the linear formation of the latter. The 'colonne d'attaque' was henceforth adopted by all European armies during and after the Napoleonic Wars. While some British historians, such as Sir Charles Oman, have postulated that it was the standard French tactic to charge enemy lines of infantry head on with their columns, relying on the morale effect of the huge column, and hence were often beaten off by the devastating firepower of the redcoats, more current research into the subject has revealed that such occasions were far from the norm, and that the French normally tried deploying into lines before combat as well.
The musket had a smoothbore barrel and lacked rifling grooves in the barrel that spun the bullet, contributing to its accuracy. By modern standards, muskets are extremely inaccurate. Owing to this lack of accuracy, officers did not expect musketeers to aim at specific targets. Rather, their objective was to deliver massed fire into the enemy line.
Although rifling as a practice preceded the musket, it was primarily secluded to specialist weapons and limited in number. 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, smoothbore muskets remained the primary firearm of most armies until the mid-19th century. However, as early as 1611, rifles were already seeing limited usage in some parts of Europe such as Denmark.
The invention of the Minié ball in 1849 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.
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 coarse 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 intertribal conflicts as a warrior.
The phrase "lock, stock, and barrel" refers to the three main parts of a musket.
Locks came in many different varieties. Early matchlock and wheel lock mechanisms were replaced by later flintlock mechanisms and finally percussion locks. In some parts of the world such as China and Japan, the flintlock mechanism never caught on and they continued using matchlocks until the 19th century when percussion locks were introduced.
In the latter half of the 18th century several improvements were added to the musket. In 1750 a detent was added to prevent the sear from catching in the half-cock notch. A roller bearing was introduced in 1770 to reduce friction and increase sparks. In 1780 waterproof pans were added.
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.
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.
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.
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