AskDefine | Define musket

Dictionary Definition

musket n : a muzzle-loading shoulder gun with a long barrel; formerly used by infantrymen

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musket (plural: muskets)
  1. A species of firearm formerly carried by the infantry of an army. It was originally fired by means of a match, or matchlock, for which several mechanical appliances (including the flintlock, and finally the percussion lock) were successively substituted. This arm has been superseded by the rifle.
    Soldier, solider, won't you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum.


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Extensive Definition

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the kind common during the Crimean War) became obsolete by the late 19th century, as cartridge breechloading repeaters superseded them.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). A soldier primarily armed with a musket had the designation musketman or musketeer.


According to the online Etymology Dictionary, firearms were often named after animals, and the word musket derived from the French word mousquette, which is a male sparrowhawk. An alternative version is that as French mousquet, from Italian moschetto, means "little fly"--from the shape of the crossbolt--the English word is actually a diminutive of 'fly' with the proto-Indo European root *mu.

First evidence

Used by the Ming and Qing dynasties of China from at least the 14th century, Muskets seem to have made their first appearance in Europe in Spain in the 1500s.
The famous Janissary corps of the Ottoman army were using matchlock muskets as early as the 1440s. 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.


By the late 15th century a minority of foot soldiers were already equipped with hand cannons; these were, however, inaccurate and difficult to load and fire. In the 16th century the handheld firearm became commonplace and during the 17th century it superseded the pike as the main infantry weapon. The most common musket in the 16th century was the arquebus. In this period the musket proper referred to a heavier weapon, firing a heavier shot, which had to balance on a rest. 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 (50 yards), slow to reload, and often caused accidental ignition of gunpowder stores. The paper powder charge was first introduced in Europe by 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. A Swede, 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. Later the musket's accuracy was improved by Rifling -- grooves put in the barrel of the weapon which cause the projectile to spin, stabilizing its flight.


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:
"''They used for arms, swords, lances, arquebuses, which all the soldiers carry and use; their arms are also superior and better tempered than those of any other nation. The barrels of the arquebuses are generally six spans long, and carry a ball little less than three ounces in weight. They use them with such facility that it does not hinder them drawing their bows nor handling their swords, keeping the latter hung at their saddle bows till occasion requires them. The arquebus is then put away behind the back so that one weapon does not impede the use of the other.''"
The Ottoman Empire, centered around Turkey and extending into Arabia used muskets to conquer Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and were one of the earliest users of muskets in a major war.
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).

Loading and firing

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.


Muskets took time to reload and many were very inaccurate, so army tacticians typically deployed musket-men in formations to maximize firepower.
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.

Obsolescence and replacement by the rifle

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.

Outside Eurasia

Muskets were the firearms first used by many non-Eurasians. With the introduction of the rifle to European armies, thousands of muskets were sold or traded to less technologically advanced societies in the 19th century. Inequality in adoption of access to muskets could lead to large changes in political and social structure, for example amongst the Māori of New Zealand due to the Musket Wars.
musket in Bulgarian: Мускет
musket in Catalan: Mosquet
musket in German: Muskete
musket in Spanish: Mosquete
musket in French: Mousquet
musket in Korean: 머스켓
musket in Indonesian: Musket
musket in Icelandic: Framhlaðningur
musket in Italian: Moschetto
musket in Hebrew: מוסקט
musket in Lithuanian: Muškieta
musket in Hungarian: Muskéta
musket in Dutch: Musket
musket in Japanese: マスケット銃
musket in Norwegian: Muskett
musket in Polish: Muszkiet
musket in Portuguese: Mosquete
musket in Romanian: Muschetă
musket in Russian: Мушкет
musket in Slovenian: Mušketa
musket in Serbian: Мускета
musket in Serbo-Croatian: Musketa
musket in Finnish: Musketti
musket in Swedish: Musköt
musket in Vietnamese: Súng hỏa mai
musket in Thai: ปืนคาบศิลา
musket in Ukrainian: Мушкет
musket in Chinese: 火枪

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

automatic, blowgun, blowpipe, firearm, flamethrower, gat, gun, handgun, heater, peashooter, piece, pistol, repeater, revolver, rifle, rod, sawed-off shotgun, shooting iron, shotgun, six-gun, six-shooter
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