ScotWars - Scottish Military History and Re-enactment
Smoothbore Musketry

By Larry Irons


Many wargame rulesets are designed for the period of the smoothbore musket, for example, English Civil War, Seven Years' War, and the Napoleonic Wars. However, most of these rules do not include information on how the casualty system was devised. This article analyzes the factors related to the smoothbore musket that should be addressed in wargame rules and simulations for this period.

Early Smoothbore Musket

The smoothbore musket was a long-ranged firearm derived from the earlier arquebus (or hackbutt) during the 16th century. The musket was initially heavier than the arquebus, requiring a wooden rest to aim, and had a length of 6 ft compared to the arquebus's 4 ft. Calibers of the weapons varied from 0.50 inch to 0.75 inch. The musket also had a longer range and higher muzzle velocity than the arquebus. The arquebus was preferred by some, because of its easier handling (skirmishers preferred the arquebus) and faster rate of reload (2 or more minutes for the musket versus 1 to 2 minutes for the arquebus). The heavier musket also absorbed more of the recoil at discharge. However, the lower muzzle velocity of the arquebus did not always penetrate armor, which was still worn by pikemen and cavalry. In the Spanish and Imperialist armies, there were bodies of both arquebusiers and musketeers.

The bayonet was not invented yet. Arquebusiers and musketeers depended on bodies of pikemen to defend themselves from cavalry charges. The musketeers and arquebusiers also carried swords for fighting hand-to-hand. However, their firearms were usually used as clubs in melees.

Both weapons used a matchlock to fire the weapon and were muzzle loaded. To load the weapon, the shooter would unplug a wooden container called an apostle (because there were 12 of them) from his leather bandoleer. He would then pour a pre-measured amount of loose gunpowder from the apostle into the muzzle of the barrel. Then a lead ball from a sack was placed into the muzzle and rammed home into the chamber with a wooden scouring stick (a.k.a. ramrod). The powder pan on the side of the musket barrel was opened and loose gunpowder from a powder flask was poured into it. A glowing match made from cord soaked in saltpeter was placed in the hammer of the lock. The shooter would aim his weapon. The trigger was pulled forcing the match into the pan igniting the powder. The flash from the pan would travel into the chamber through a hole and ignite the powder. The expansion of gases would force the ball on its way to the intended target.

The powder in the chamber ignited slowly. Too much powder resulted in the ball leaving the muzzle before all of the powder had been ignited. A correct balance between charge size and length of barrel was important to ensure that all of the powder was ignited before the ball left the muzzle of the barrel. The correct relationship between charge size and barrel length maximizes the muzzle velocity of the ball. In general a higher muzzle velocity results in greater range and accuracy, and better penetration into armor.

Reloading took a long time, involving some 48 distinct movements. Elaborate methods were designed to provide a continuous stream of fire. Troops were deployed in formations of 6 or more ranks to deliver their shots one rank at a time. After one rank of shooters fired a newly reloaded rank would move in front of the them (fire by introduction) or the recent shooters would move to the rear and reload (fire by extroduction), exposing a loaded rank.

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries many Protestant armies experimented with lighter muskets that were easier to handle and load. This decreased the reload times down to 2 or less minutes. In some cases the musketeer did not need a musket rest. The arquebus was dropped in favor of the lighter muskets. The lighter muskets still had good armor penetration power. This and the increasing effectiveness of light artillery caused armor usage to diminish.

The Protestant armies, armed with their lighter muskets, experimented with salvo fire. This involved the fire of two or more ranks simultaneously. The Huguenots of France under Henry of Navarre first used this method during the French Religious Wars. The Dutch in their war of independence also used this method against the Spanish. Finally the Swedes under Gustavus Adolphus used salvo fire very effectively. A Swedes brigade is reported to have stopped seven Imperialist cavalry charges with salvo fire at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631) during the Thirty Years' War.

Another major contribution by the Swedes was the adoption of the paper cartridge. A musketeer was equipped with a cartridge box that contained pre-made rounds of powder and ball. The musketeer would grab a cartridge from the box, then bite down on the ball and tear the cartridge open. He would pinch off a small amount of powder in the cartridge and pour the remainder into the muzzle of his musket. The remaining powder was placed into the pan. The ball was retrieved from his teeth and placed into the muzzle. Then he rammed the ball down the barrel until it was well seated into the chamber. The musketeer then fired his weapon as before. The Swedish combination of lighter, handier muskets, with paper cartridges, and salvo tactics enabled the Swedes to reload at one-minute intervals.


In the late 16th century, the firelock was invented. This invention eliminated the glowing match and replaced the match mechanism with a flint. The flint struck against steel over the pan, emitting sparks. The flintlock decreased the reload time, but was more expensive than the matchlock mechanism. The abundance of gunpowder in the artillery train prohibited the use of burning objects (glowing match) in the vicinity and the firelock became the preferred weapon for the artillery train guards. The firelock was also known as a fusil, and this is the origin of the term fusilier. Flintlocks became more popular over time as the cost diminished and reliability improved. During the Malburian wars of the early 18th century, the matchlock was completely replaced by the flintlock. Another advantage of flintlocks over firelocks is formation. Matchlocks require more distance between individuals because of the glowing match and the necessity of moving ranks after each salvo, whereas the flintlock allows a close ordered formation.

Volley Fire

In the late 17th century, the English and Dutch armies adopted volley fire, coinciding with the adoption of the flintlock musket. Volley fire differed from salvo fire. Salvo fire involved the simultaneous fire of entire ranks of the battalion. Volley fire involved the simultaneous discharge of all men in one sub-unit, called a platoon, which was deployed in three ranks. The entire battalion would be divided into 8 or more platoons. Each nation adopted different firing orders of the platoon. One popular method involved the platoons alternating their fire, first from the outside, right then left, and continuing the firing order toward the center of the battalion. This allowed a continuous fire to be presented to the enemy and minimized the obscurity of the target caused by smoke. Also there was no need to exchange ranks as in salvo fire. Therefore there was less confusion after discharging the musket prior to reloading.

All European nations adopted the volley fire method by the end of the Malburian Wars in the early 18th century. The Prussians made modifications to the method to allow troops to reload while marching during the War of the Austrian Succession. However, this decreased the accuracy enough that such volleys were ineffectual. The British perfected volley fire to a science during the Napoleonic Wars. A well-trained musketeer of the British army during the early 19th century could reload in 30 seconds or less.

Misfires and Fouling

Misfires happened due to a number of circumstances. The method of loading the musket introduced inaccuracies in the amount of powder used, causing variations in the performance of the weapon. The firing mechanism, with its crude method of priming, was also by no means reliable and misfires occurred frequently. Laurema (1956) states that at the end of the eighteenth century 15 percent of musket shots misfired even in dry conditions. The incidence of misfires must have been appreciably higher in the wet conditions which so many battles were fought in Western Europe. It would therefore seem likely that nearly a quarter of the musket shots misfired.

Gunpowder leaves a residue after igniting inside the chamber of a musket. This residue continues to accumulate during the heat of battle. This increases the reload time and increases the chance for a misfire. Also flints are brittle and can break, requiring replacement. During a battle a battalion will tend to increase its reload time and deliver less shot as the fouling increases over time. Therefore the most effective volley will be the initial volley and the early subsequent volleys. Some wargame rules give a bonus for the first time a unit shoots. Depending on the time scale of the ruleset, this is a valid factor.


Although the bayonet is not a firearm, after its general introduction, it becomes an integral part of the smoothbore musket. In the 16th and 17th centuries, musketeers sometimes adopted defensive weapons to protect themselves from cavalry. The most portable weapon was the Swedish feather (a.k.a. swine feather). The Swedish feather was a pointed stake and musket rest combination. The stake was planted pointing toward the enemy to act as a defensive obstacle. Gustavus Adolphus's Swedish army used Swedish feathers against the Polish Army, which had a high percentage of cavalry. During the Thirty Years' War, the Swedes did not use Swedish feathers to any great degree, probably because the terrain offered better cover against cavalry and there was less cavalry in Germany than Poland.

In the latter half of the 17th century, French musketeers started to use plug bayonets. The bayonet literally plugged into the muzzle of the musket. This had the unfortunate side effect of no longer allowing the musket to be neither reloaded nor fired. Later still the ring bayonet was invented. This was a bayonet with a ring to allow it to be attached to the barrel. This allowed the musket to be reloaded and fired while the bayonet was attached. However, during melees the ring bayonet was known to sometimes fall loose.

Finally the socket bayonet was invented in the late 17th century. This allowed a bayonet to be securely attached to the barrel of the musket. This also eliminated the need for pikemen to support the musketeers. The last pikemen disappeared from the rolls of the regiments in the early 18th century.

Iron Ramrods

The next major invention for the smoothbore musket was the iron ramrod. Prior to the mid-18th century, ramrods were made of wood. A musketeer had to be careful in the heat of battle not to push too hard with his ramrod or risk breakage. The windage had to be increased to allow the ball to be seated home. This decreased the accuracy of the musket using the wooden ramrod. Frederick the Great prior to the War of the Austrian Succession (1744-1748) implemented the iron ramrod. This invention helped Frederick's Prussians to increase their overall reload speed as well as accuracy. Other European nations adopted the iron ramrod after the War of the Austrian Succession.


The smoothbore musket is not a very accurate weapon by today's standards. It was said that an individual, aiming at a target the size of a man at a range of 150 yards, had as much chance of hitting the target as he did of hitting the moon. However, from the earliest use of the musket target formations were in close order. The still medieval-like bodies of troops deployed on the battlefield to enhance melee effectiveness. The fighting of melees was still the major method of winning battles. Infantry had to deploy in dense and deep formations to prevent from being run down by the heavily armored cavalry. Musketeers had to stay close to the pikemen for defense against the cavalry. Therefore deploying an army in close order formations was a necessity.

The inaccuracy of the musket was less of a disadvantage, because aiming at a formed body of troops had a reasonable good chance of hitting somebody. It is also easier to control a body of troops in formation than it is in open order, therefore a formed group of musketeers could deliver more shots in a given period of time than an unformed body. During the period from the late 16th century to the early 19th century, the primary method to deliver fast and effective fire was dictated by keeping the musketeers formed.

The accuracy of the weapon is partly dictated by the windage, the difference between the interior barrel diameter and the ball's diameter. The windage also affects the speed of reloading and the muzzle velocity. The greater the windage, the easier it is to ram home the ball into the barrel. This also allows more gas to escape from the barrel without pushing the ball out of the barrel. Therefore less windage will yield a higher muzzle velocity and higher accuracy. The tactics of the time influenced the armies to have more windage to increase the reload speed. More volleys meant more casualties. Accuracy was not a factor.

The use of skirmishers during the period of the smoothbore musket to harass the enemy was not uncommon. Typically the skirmishers used the same weapon as the formed troops. Though shots at longer distances were inaccurate, an aimed shot at 50 yards could hit an intended, individual target.


Despite the inaccuracies of the smoothbore musket, studies were made by various nations in the 18th and 19th centuries to determine the effectiveness of a body of musketeers against the enemy. At the trials a group of musketeers would aim and shoot at a target the size of a battalion or company and count the number of hits at one or more known ranges. Also there were trials to determine how many volleys could be delivered over a given length of time. Prussian trials in 1810 found that a musketeer could deliver 2 to 2-1/2 rounds per minute, which is comparable to the British rate of fire. However, the Prussian trials also showed that there was a lot of variability in the reloading rate.

Hanoverian experiments in 1790 showed that when fired at various ranges against a representative target (a placard 6 ft high and up to 50 yd long for infantry, 8 ft 6 in high for cavalry) the following results were achieved at the ranges show:

Percentage of musket ball hits on a fixed target

  Target Type
Range (yd.)

The weapon used was an infantry musket firing a 3/4-oz ball and the shooters were able to aim each shot. Obviously the cavalry target received more hits because it was a bigger target.

Another experiment described by Mueller (1811) involved the use of aiming versus no aiming. Infantrymen in the aiming group were encouraged to aim their muskets as hunters would instead of just pointing it roughly ahead and pulling the trigger. Each group fired 1,000 rounds against a cavalry target. The results of this experiment are shown below:

Range (yd.)
Aimed shots
Unaimed shots

These results demonstrate that aimed fire is significantly better than unaimed fire, even for a smoothbore musket, especially more significant at longer ranges. This indicates that skirmishers using aimed fire from long range can actually cause significant casualties. However, skirmishers also tend to shoot less often than formed volley shooters, roughly canceling out the increased benefit of aiming. British infantry of the Napoleonic Wars were taught to aim their volleys. Aimed fire and the excellent British reload training would explain the factors contributing to the renowned British, superior fire discipline.

It must be emphasized that these trial results are for laboratory-like conditions. There was no stress upon the shooters as would be expected on the battlefield. Also the targets are solid placards. Infantry and cavalry are composed of individuals with gaps between them. Therefore, actual battlefield effectiveness would be much less than the above results.

However, one can make an inference from these data on accuracy versus range to target. It appears that the accuracy is inversely proportional to the distance. In other words, the accuracy at range R is double that of range 2R, or double the range and cause 1/2 as many casualties. Greener (1881) gives the following figures for a percussion musket, which was only marginally better than the flintlock as regards range and accuracy, as follows:


Range (yd.)
Percentage of hits

These results were against a target, which was 6 ft high by 20 ft long.

Actual Battlefield Results

At the Battle of Blenheim (1704) the British with five battalions attacked the French fortified positions along a front of 750 yds. The French had approximately 4,000 fusiliers deployed along 900 yds. The French opened fire at 30 yards with a single devastating volley causing 33 percent casualties to the British attacking force. This came to approximately 800 casualties. Therefore 20 percent of the French rounds were effective. If we assume that 15 percent of the French muskets misfired, this gives an effective rate of 23 to 24 percent of those muskets that actually fired.

At the Battle of Fontenoy (1745) five British battalions with a total strength of 2,500 men, less a few hundred men due to French artillery fire, let loose a volley at 30 yards against an attacking force of five French battalions. The British volley caused 600 casualties to the French. This would mean that the British muskets were hitting with an effective rate of 25 percent.

At the Battle of Minden (1759) Hughes estimates that the effectiveness of musketry by both British and French was less than two percent per volley. In this battle the French and British engaged at much longer ranges, 100 to 150 yards. At the Battle of Albuera (1811) a French divisional column attacked the British position. The British muskets averaged a two-percent effectiveness rating at that battle at a range of 100 to 150 yards. However, at the same battle on the French left flank, the average effectiveness was about 5-1/2 percent per volley for both sides. Hughes concluded that at Albuera the actual effectiveness dropped off rapidly with range between 30 and 200 yards. He also stated that smoke on the battlefield often obscured the aim of the shooters, which would lower the effectiveness dramatically. Hughes also concluded that the infantry of the first half of the 18th century are better trained than those of the later 18th and early 19th centuries. If true, then one would expect higher musket effectiveness for the earlier period.

Based on the above historical incidences, wargame rules should take incorporate a range attenuation factor. Range attenuation simulates the effectiveness of the smoothbore musket in battle. The first volley bonus has already been discussed. However, the effectiveness of infantry musketry is also affected by training, discipline, morale, and local conditions (smoke, cover, etc.).

Range of Engagement

Bodies of musketeers generally engaged in firefights at ranges of 100 yards. However, in the early period, it was not unusual to engage at longer ranges. During the 18th century, it was not unusual to fire an initial volley at ranges of less than 50 yards. Firefights between opposing lines of infantry tended to last no more than 15 minutes. At the end of this time one side or the other would give way due to morale loss. Wargame rules that use a first volley bonus cause a tendency amongst the players to withhold their fire until within the most effective range. This tends to simulate actual tactics of the period.


Clauswitz was a general in the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars. After those wars he wrote a famous treatise on warfare, "Clauswitz on War." One of his observations was that a body of troops can engage an enemy of frontage up to 50% of its own. Both sides would suffer the same casualty rate. His reasoning was that the smaller frontage unit would present less of a target area. The larger unit would present a greater target area, allowing more hits by the smaller unit. His premise was that one should deploy less troops on the line and hold back the rest in reserve. I have never seen a set of rules (other than my own) that takes into account the frontage of the target in the casualty calculations.

Most battalions engaged in firefight at a range of 100 yards. A battalion's front was about 200 yards. Based on these one can infer the approximate scatter angle for a smoothbore musket is about 22-1/2 degrees. Another corollary for wargame rules is that a unit firing at a larger target gets a "to hit" bonus that is roughly equal to 50% for a target(s) covered within its full arc of fire.

Illustration of Clauswitz's observation

Further Improvements

After the Napoleonic Wars, the next major innovation for the smoothbore musket was the invention of the percussion cap. The percussion cap eliminated the use of the flint. This invention further reduced misfires due to the flint failing. It also improved reliability in high winds, because there was no need for a firing pan with loose powder. It also decreased the reload time. Percussion muskets were also known as caplocks.

The caplock smoothbore musket was the ultimate weapon before the invention of the rifled musket. The invention of the greased patch and the rifling of the musket barrel in the 1850s ended the span of four centuries of the domination of the smoothbore musket in warfare.


The smoothbore musket was a firearm that dominated the battlefield from the 16th until 19th centuries. Wargame rules writers should look carefully at historical data to account for certain factors that influenced tactics on the battlefield. There is certainly hard evidence to give British Napoleonic infantry bonuses for their fire discipline due to greater rate of fire and aimed shooting. There is also evidence both from observation and mathematical analysis to support a bonus for shooting at a larger frontage target. Depending on the time scale of the ruleset, a bonus for the initial volley is appropriate. The first volley bonus tends to cause players to withhold the fire of their battalions until within effective range. However, the general effectiveness of musket fire is about 3 to 5 percent at ranges of 100 to 200 yards, which is far less than the theoretical maximum.


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