This is a matchlock musket.
Doesn’t look like much? Well, technically it’s not – it’s essentially a tube with a small hole at one end and a big hole at the other. But this simple piece of steel and wood changed the face of warfare forever.
The musket is quite a basic weapon, but the process of loading and firing it was slow and dangerous. At the bottom of the barrel, a small hole lead to a ‘pan’, into which a small amount of gunpowder is poured. More gunpowder is then poured down the barrel, followed by paper wadding and a round lead musketball. These are compacted together using a long stick called a scouring stick, compressing the gunpowder so that it explodes with more force when ignited. Thin rope called match cord, impregnated with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) so that it burnt very slowly, is attached to the ‘serpent’ on the side of the barrel; this is connected to the trigger. When the trigger is pulled, it dips the burning match cord into the gunpowder in the pan, which in turns burns through the small hole and ignites the gunpowder in the barrel.
Musketballs were irregular in shape but packed a massive punch if fired close enough to a target. Unlike modern bullets which cut, musketballs punch their way through and splintered bone, leading to horrific injuries and often fragmenting and leaving scraps of lead in the wound. Most casualties from English Civil War battles died not on the battlefield but afterwards from infection and musket wounds played a major part in that.
The problem with the musket was that it was highly unreliable and inaccurate – the gun might fail to fire, or even blow up, and even if it did fire the lack of rifling and the irregular shape of the musketball would mean hitting a specific target at a long range was very difficult, so the only effective way to use them was to have rows of them shooting at the same time, creating a massed volley that would cut enemy soliders down. They were also slow to load – even skilled musketeers might only manage two shots a minute, and some training manuals of the time had up to 43 separate commands and moves for loading, presenting and firing! And they were vulnerable – when unloaded, musketeers had no means of defending themselves from cavalry attacks, so large blocks of pikemen had to be employed to protect them. They also had a tendency for blowing themselves up – with all those explosives and lit matchcords around there were innumerable incidents of people being blown skyhigh by their own side.
The main advantage of the musket, however, was its versatility. Whereas cavalrymen needed to know how to ride and pikemen needed to have strength and discipline, you could take an untrained man from a field or a town and have him firing on a battlefield in a matter of days.
The musket was the great leveller. Nobleman and commoner alike could fall to its fire. It was easy to produce and musketeers were relatively easy to replace. Warfare suddenly became a matter of firepower.
At the beginning of the first English Civil War in 1642, there were two musketeers for every pikeman. By the end of the third war, the ratio of musketeers was four or five. But it is not until the invention of the bayonet later in the 17th Century, enabling musketeers to defend themselves, that pikemen disappeared from European battlefields and the musket reigned supreme.
Here, our musket officer Dave Frederick and musketeer Martin Franks show the process of loading and firing a musket:
So, what’s like being a musketeer in the Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote? Well, we’ll hear from one of our musketeers, Denise, tomorrow but in the meantime, here’s a video showing our musketeers in action!