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Basic Information

The musket is a precursor to the rifle, a smooth bore, muzzle loading long firearm. The musket was first introduced in the 15th Century as a modified hand cannon, similar to the arquebus.

Early versions were matchlock weapons, meaning that the powder in the gun was ignited by applying a piece of burning rope (the "match") to a touchhole at one end of the barrel. This was extremely dangerous, as it carried the possibility of the lighted match coming in contact with the gunpowder at the wrong time. The matchlock was eventually superseded by wheellock and flintlock weapons which used sparks from flints to ignite the powder.

Unlike modern longarms, muskets were loaded by first pouring a quantity of powder down the muzzle of the barrel; then the ball, a round lead bullet1; then some wadding to keep it all from accidentally spilling out. The whole thing was then packed down the barrel with a ramrod. By the 18th Century, the ball and a measured amount of powered came pre-packaged in paper cartridges, which doubled as the wadding, which helped streamline the process a bit; but reloading was still a complicated procedure. Military drills were instituted to train soldiers to load and fire their weapons quickly and efficiently.

The standard tactic that eventually arose was to have the soldiers in three lines. While the first line fired, the next two would be reloading and readying their muskets. The first line would then move to the back, and the next line would be ready to fire.

As rates of fire improved the three deep line was gradually phased out in favour of a two deep line, greatly increasing the firepower available to a regiment at any given time, and innovations such as platoon firing - whereby the regiment fired and reloaded half a company at a time - could allow a near constant stream of fire from well drilled troops.

Early muskets were smooth-bore, lacking the grooves, or rifling, in the interior of the barrel which impart spin and stability to the bullets. Within about 50 yards, they were reasonably accurate; beyond 75 yards, not so much. Most armies did not even try for accuracy, but rather used a line of musketeers firing at once to shoot volleys, so as to be guaranteed of hitting something. Although rifling improved the musket's accuracy, the grooves tended to become fouled with residue from each firing, requiring frequent cleaning during use. Rifling did not become practical until the development in the mid-18th Century of the miniƩ ball, which had a more conventional bullet shape and could be easily loaded, even in a barrel that had been fouled by previous firings.

In the 19th Century, breech-loading rifles were developed, rendering the musket obsolete. They continued to be used during the American Civil War, because the military was afraid the new technology would encourage soldiers to waste ammunition. As the new rifles came into general use, some European powers sold or traded the old muskets to technologically less-advanced native populations.

See Also



Game and Story Use

  • If your campaign is set anywhere between the 15th and early 19th Century, your adventurers will probably be armed with muskets.
    • We generally associate musketeers with swords, not firearms; but they got their name because they carried muskets when they went into battle.
      • It should tell you something that an elite firearms unit were better known for their swordplay…
    • The musket was used during the Colonial and Revolutionary War period in America and was the weapon of choice for frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.
      • Noting of course that those were very much rifled muskets they were using.
  • If your PCs are armed with muskets, don't forget to keep in mind the long reload time; the poor accuracy; and the dangers of accidentally igniting loose powder.
    • In early days, musketeers were supported by pikemen who could defend them while they were reloading. Encourage the PCs to work out a similar system.
    • When handling a muzzleloader, continuous practice could make a real difference to rate of fire - but over strict adherence to the drill book had a tendency to slow a man down. Parade ground troops and gentlemen more used to sporting conditions that rapid fire are likely to be left standing.
    • For reference, the British Army around 1800 reckoned five rounds a minute could be expected of crack troops under good conditions starting with a clean, loaded weapon. Bad weather and fouling would cause this to fall off rapidly to the extent that an elite unit (the Experimental Corps of Riflemen) selected men on the thumbnail rule that they should be able to "march, shoot and fire three rounds a minute in wet weather" … three rounds smoothbore that is…
    • Still, for irregular troops such as pirates, highlanders and …well, PCs … most muzzle loaders are a "fire and forget" weapon: fire it once and then forget about that idea until the next fight. You'll be in melee by the time you would have been able to reload. Standard drills were to move forward into musket range, give a volley and then charge (or possible run up to pistol range, fire again and then charge).
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