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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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