Muzzle-loading shoulder firearm developed in 16th-century Spain. Designed as a larger version of the harquebus, muskets were fired with matchlocks until flintlocks were developed in the 17th century; flintlocks were replaced by percussion locks in the early 19th century. Early muskets were often handled by two persons and fired from a portable rest. Typically 5.5 ft (1.7 m) long and weighing about 20 lbs (9 kg), they fired a ball about 175 yards (160 m) with little accuracy. Later types were smaller, lighter, and accurate enough to hit a person at 80–100 yards (75–90 m). The musket was replaced in the mid-19th century by the breech-loading rifle.
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A musket is a muzzle-loaded, smoothbore long gun, which is intended to be fired from the shoulder. The date of origin of muskets remains unknown, but they are mentioned in Chinese military books such as Huo Long Jing as early as the late 14th century. Muskets were primarily designed for use by infantry. Improved with the introduction of rifling around 1800, muzzle loading rifled muskets (of the kind common during the Crimean War and the American Civil War) became obsolete by the late 19th century, as cartridge breechloading repeaters superseded them. However, rifled muskets were the most common weapon used up until the late 1870s. Typical musket calibres ranged from 12 mm to 20 mm (.50 to .80 inches). Depending on the type and calibre, it could hit a man's torso at up to 200 m (218 yards), though it was only reliably accurate to about 60 m (70 yards). Percussion cap rifled muskets were significantly more accurate, with the ability to hit a target at up to 500 yards in the mid 19th century. A soldier primarily armed with a musket had the designation musketman or musketeer.
Used by the Ming and Qing dynasties of China from at least the 14th century, The famous Janissary corps of the Ottoman army were using matchlock muskets as early as the 1440s. Muskets seem to have made their first appearance in Europe in Spain in the 1500s.
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.
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 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 – it was inaccurate at over 50–m, slow to reload, and often caused accidental ignition of gunpowder stores. The paper powder charge was first introduced in Europe by the King of Poland, Stefan Batory. Often muskets were unreliable, and sometimes (such as in the English Civil war) were found to be of more use as clubs. 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 1600s, 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 Aderman 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 Minie ball.
The Mughals introduced muskets to India in 1519 and were since then widely used 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 made of the finest 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.
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:
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.
As booty from Japanese invader, 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 (see Battle of Hutong).
The 18th century musket, as typified by the Brown Bess, was loaded and fired 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 already be up.
Upon the command "Handle Cartridge", the soldier would draw a cartridge. Cartridges consisted of a spherical lead bullet wrapped in a paper cartridge which also held the gunpowder propellant. The other end of the cartridge away from the ball would be sealed with a twist of paper.
The soldier then ripped off the paper end of the cartridge and threw it away, keeping the main end with the bullet in his right hand. (The idea that the ball itself was somehow bitten off the top of the cartridge and held in the mouth is a myth invented by modern historical novels).
Upon the command "Prime", the soldier then pulled the dogshead back to half-cock and poured a small pinch of the 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 dropped to the ground and the soldier poured the rest of the powder from the cartridge, followed by the ball and paper cartridge case into the barrel. This paper acted as wadding to stop the ball and powder from falling out if the muzzle was declined. (The myth of spitting the ball into the end of the barrel from the mouth is easily disproved - as soon as it is fired, the barrel becomes extremely hot; it would be extremely painful to place the lips anywhere near the hot metal.)
Upon the command "Draw ramrods", the soldier drew his ramrod from below the barrel. First forcing it half out before seizing it backhanded in the middle, followed by drawing it entirely out simultaneously turning it to the front and placing it one inch into the barrel
Upon the command "Ram down the cartridge", he then used the ramrod to firmly ram the wadding, bullet, and powder down to the bottom followed by tamping it down with two quick strokes. The ramrod was then returned to its hoops under the barrel.
Upon the command "Present", the butt was brought back up to the shoulder. The soldier pulled the cock back and the musket was ready to fire, which he would do on hearing the command "Fire". When the men fired they usually didn't hit a specific target, but the volume of fire was deadly within 20 meters.
This process was drilled into troops until they could do it by instinct and feel. The main advantage of the British Redcoat was that he trained at this procedure almost every day using live ammunition. A skilled unit of musketeers was able to fire three rounds per minute. This was the limit whilst loading to order as above, however an experienced individual could manage four rounds a minute if firing at will, such as in a skirmish situation.
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 so 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. However, they had to be fairly close for the fire to be effective.
The British Army was famous for being the only army that fought in two ranks rather than three. This allowed every single man to fire his musket without the need for the front rank to kneel. Another famous 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.
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. The French Army was somewhat exceptional in this regard, as many of their officers preferred the a prest attack - a rapid charge using swords or bayonets rather than firepower. However, British General Charles Grey became known as "no flint" Grey because of his fondness for bayonet attacks.
By the 18th century a very experienced soldier could load and fire at a rate of around three 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 manipulated to the fullest by King Frederick William I of Prussia in the early 18th century. Prussian troops under his leadership could fire in some cases a shot every 15 seconds with almost unrivaled discipline.
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. 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 inevitably 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. Through this strategy, the British were able to defeat the French column time after time. 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.
Because of the heavy casualties that could be inflicted (or suffered) in a short period of time in a close-range musket battle, combined with the amount of training that went into each professional soldier, a single battle could result in the loss of thousands of man-years of training. As a result, a considerable amount of 18th-century generalship was actually the avoidance of these pitched battles, with frontal assaults used when necessary.
By today's standards, muskets are not very accurate due to the windage (gap) between the projectile and the barrel. A rifle bullet will spin, ensuring greater accuracy. Owing to this inaccuracy, officers did not expect musketmen to aim at specific targets. Rather, they had the objective of delivering a mass of musket balls into the enemy line. This massed-muskets approach has been likened to a "linear shotgun". 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, from the Napoleonic Wars onwards, the British created a specialized Rifle Brigade.
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 rifle as weapon for the common infantryman and by the time of the American Civil War (1860s) most infantry were equipped with muzzle-loading rifles. These were far more accurate than smoothbore muskets and had a far longer range. 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 and early 20th centuries 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, they were not widely adopted for various reasons. For 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.