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A musketeer with a fork musket in the Thirty Years War

The musket ( English musket , French mousquet ; actually sparrowhawk , based on the shape of the rooster) is a heavy, long muzzle-loading rifle with a smooth ( draft-free ) barrel .


Matchlock musket and accessories, 1st half 17th century ( HGM ).
A musket from the American Civil War is fired for the film Gods and Generals
A typical musket, here a Brown-Bess with a bayonet

From the end of the 16th century the musket gradually replaced the arquebus as an infantry weapon and in the 18th century it became the main weapon of the foot troops (" musketeers "). The musket differs from the arquebus mainly in its greater length, which gave the projectile a higher muzzle velocity and thus increased range and penetration power. Often the caliber was also larger, which at that time was not yet standardized and could also be considerable with arquebuses. Higher quality muskets were also provided with a wheel lock in the 17th century . Most of the preserved muskets from the period before 1700 are valuable hunting weapons with this type of ignition (e.g. in the armories in Dresden, Vienna or Madrid).

After introduction of the stone castle .. As Schnapphahn castle called in the course of the 16th century and its development as a battery lock called in the early 17th century the name gun - because of the ignition instead of the fuse used flint (Flint) - common.

The first modern mass production of muskets was essentially introduced by the regulations of the English Board of Ordnance and a little later by the French Honoré Le Blanc and the American Eli Whitney .

In the English-speaking world, the name musket was a long, large-caliber muzzle-loading rifle with a smooth and even rifled barrel ( rifled musket ) until the second half of the 19th century ( Model 1861 US Percussion Rifle-Musket 1855 in the USA and Enfield Rifled Musket in Great Britain).


Wheel lock of a musket from the 17th century

For one shot, the gun was loaded with black powder , the spherical projectile and initially with a gun plaster and the whole thing was tied up with the ramrod . The ramrod was usually carried in a sheath under the barrel. Because of the heavy dirt deposits from the black powder used, the ball had to be smaller than the inner diameter of the barrel so that it could roll into it. In combat, the plaster was not used because it allowed shooting faster. You just dropped the bullet into the barrel.

At the rear end of the barrel an ignition pan was attached to the outside , which was connected to the inside of the barrel by a hole. Approx. 1 grain (= 0.0648 grams) of finely ground black powder (so-called ignition herb ) was poured onto the ignition pan . The priming powder was in the shot with a burning fuse, in the later models Steinschlosspistole ignited by the sparks of the flint. The flame of the ignition herb strikes through the bore in the barrel up to the propellant charge of black powder (depending on the caliber up to 160 grains) and ignites it. The ball is driven out of the barrel by the expanding gases.

Since a musket originally weighed up to 15 kg and therefore you could not shoot hands-free, you leaned it on the fork of the fork stick when firing . In later times the weapons became lighter, so that the use of a fork became superfluous in the course of the 17th century.

Tactics and Effect

Historic use: pikemen flank the musketeers

Since 1500 the use of small arms had spread in the European armies. In field use, it was mainly half-hooks or arquebuses. Due to the low rate of fire, the riflemen still had to be covered by pikemen against the cavalry. Towards the end of the 16th century, so-called “shot-free” breastplates , helmets and bags , which required greater penetration, became widespread to provide better protection against the effects of firearms . This led to the field use of heavy double hooks or muskets, the use of which had previously been limited to the fortress war.

The musketeers initially formed only a small part of the riflemen. However, their numbers grew over time. According to the Spanish Ordinance of 1638, the musketeers should be a third of the riflemen and line up at the two outer ends of the battle formation. The pikemen formed the middle and should be a (further) third of the total strength. However, these figures were only theoretical and were seldom met. According to this ordinance, a musketeer should receive 6 Spanish escudos per month, an arquebusier 5, a pikeman 3. It was similar in other armies.

In the first half of the 17th century, the proportion of arquebuses decreased rapidly. In the Thirty Years' War the arquebus was practically only found as a bandolier arkebuse or carbine as a rider weapon. During the Thirty Years' War the muskets (first with the Swedes) also became lighter, the fork stock fell away, the caliber decreased and the weapon was now rather lighter than earlier arquebuses. Nevertheless, the term musket prevailed. Until 1700 there were no more pikemen to cover the battlefields; the invention of the bayonet had made them superfluous.

Due to the smooth run and the spherical shape of the bullet, the accuracy is comparatively low at distances of over 100 m. The trackball used by the military - which is smaller than the barrel diameter for easier loading and is not guided - has reduced this again. It was hoped that a large number of shooters would nevertheless achieve the required effect. John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, developed the tactic of letting the enemy troops get within 75 meters and then achieving the desired effect by means of mass fire. It is known from the infantry of Frederick the Great that the companies took turns in fire in order to keep musket fire at all times; first the first company fired, then the third (while the first was reloading), then the second (while the first fired the ramrod brought back to the place), finally the fourth, after which the first company could immediately dock again.

Since the loading time was of eminent importance, Prussia, for example, introduced a musket with a conical ignition hole so that the application of the ignition herb to the pan could be dispensed with.

In studies of well-documented battles between England and France under Napoleon, for example in Spain, it was found that normally only 5-7% of all shots fired had an effect on the target. It was therefore concluded that only increasing the rate of fire would bring benefits in combat. Hit rates determined under ideal conditions were:

  • 75 m - 60% hit
  • 150 m - 40% hit
  • 225 m - 25% hit
  • 300 m - 20% hit

A Prussian shooting attempt from 1810 came to the following results (number of hits with 200 shots each):

weapon 75 m 150 m 225 m 300 m
Rifle 1780 ap 92 64 64 42
Rifle 1780 mod. 150 100 68 42
Prussian Nothardt rifle M / 1801 145 97 56 67
New Prussian infantry rifle M / 1809 149 105 58 32
French musket model 1777 151 99 53 55
British Brown-Bess 94 116 75 55
Russian model 1809 104 74 51 49

The target was 1.88 m high and 31.4 m wide. This corresponded to a three-man infantry company fighting in line tactics. 200 rounds were fired at each range.

Stress and visual impairment, moving targets, the lack of sighting devices, and sometimes a lack of training explain the low success rates in battles. Despite this, 10,000 shots fired meant 500 to 700 dead and wounded.

Because the accuracy decreased rapidly at distances of over 100 m, it was imperative to use as many muskets as possible at the same time. In the 18th century this was achieved through long, two-part formations ( line formations ) in which almost all soldiers could shoot at the same time. This required a very high level of discipline and training. With the French Revolution, the voluntary and conscript armies replaced the longer-serving professional soldiers and the corresponding drill was no longer possible or desired. Only the British Army, which continued to consist of professional soldiers and mercenaries, continued to use linear tactics.

The French, on the other hand, relied on deeply staggered columns , in which the front row was repeatedly filled by those standing behind it and so a constant number of muskets could be deployed. The firepower was less than that of the linear formation, but the cohesion and concentration of forces in close combat was considerably greater. Napoleon and his generals therefore relied more on direct confrontation with the bayonet after an artillery preparation than on an extended fire fight by the infantry. The opponents Prussia, Austria and Russia, defeated several times by Napoleon, largely copied the French model and deviated from line tactics. In the end, this was only used by the British and the Portuguese and Spanish troops based on their model.

Until the end of the 19th century, large contingents of troops who faced each other in battles also remained the determining main tactic. The spread of pulled muzzle-loaders ( Minié and Lorenz systems ) increased the range considerably around the middle of the century. So mass targets up to 1000 paces could now be fought effectively, while with smooth muzzle-loaders this was possible up to 300 paces at most. The introduction of breech-loaders (Prussian needle gun from 1848 and other systems from 1860) and finally of repeating rifles from 1870 increased the range and rate of fire so that the use of massed infantry formations led to extreme losses.

Towed front and rear loaders were introduced only hesitantly. In the Crimean War of 1853–56, Russian units were still armed with smooth muskets, while the British and French had rifled rifles. In 1870–71 ( Franco-Prussian War ), reserve and militia units were sometimes given smooth muzzle-loaders, and even later in small-scale wars overseas.

The clear lessons from the Wars of Unification, the American Civil War, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War took hold very slowly, however, and even at the beginning of the First World War, mass infantry attacks took place in line or column formation.


The fuse, which was also used in the cannons of that time, was soaked with chemicals ( lead acetate ) and therefore gave off a very strong and distinctive smell when burned. This smell was one of the reasons for the introduction of the flint for powder ignition, because together with the glowing of the fuse it often betrayed a planned nocturnal fire attack, so that the element of surprise was lost. The saying “someone smelled a fuse” can be traced back to this fact.

The later expression " throwing the gun in the grain" refers to the behavior, which was widespread among the mercenaries (especially in the wars of the 17th and 18th centuries) , always when it became serious not to fight, but to save your own skin and throw away the gun.

The saying “have something in the pan” referred to the shot that had not yet been fired: the detonator was still unburned in the detonator and the gun was still loaded.

Museum reception

In the Military History Museum in Vienna muskets and firearms are issued all kinds and eras. Particularly noteworthy is a showcase in which a matchlock musket from the Thirty Years' War is exhibited together with the original accessories such as powder bottles for both coarse and fine primer, ball pouring device (ball tongs), balls, musket fork and bandolier. A video shows visitors how the matchlock musket works. Furthermore, a figurine of an imperial musketeer around 1620 is on display. Of particular interest in this area are those rotating picture stands that show a large number of copper engravings by Jakob de Gheyn . The engravings come from the work Waffenhandlung von den Röhren, Musquetten und Spiessen , an instruction for the handling of early firearms that was created in The Hague . Since the soldier of the 17th century was generally illiterate , he had to be taught how to use the light hand pipe , the heavy musket and the pike using pictures.

In Graz Landeszeughaus , the largest surviving arsenal in the world, a very large number of muskets and firearms from the 16th and 17th centuries are on display. In the court hunting and armory , which is subordinate to the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien and is housed in the Neue Burg , almost all western European princes from the 15th to the early 20th century are represented with armor and splendid weapons. The weapons on display here are not those used by the common soldier, but rather show weapons with the finest etchings , engravings , inlaidings and inlaid ivory . These include some very curious weapons such as the hunting rifles of Emperor Ferdinand III. who, due to an eye problem, had his weapons fitted with a chimney over the ignition pan.

In Emden has in Emden Armory an armory of the 16th century received presents mainly firearms of the 16th and 17th centuries, including many muskets. The collection prides itself on being unique in northern Germany in terms of the number and type of weapons.


  • BP Hughes: Firearms. Use and effect. 1630-1850. Ott, Thun 1980.
  • Georg Ortenburg (Hrsg.): Army of the modern times. Bernard & Graefe, Koblenz,
    • Volume Dept. 2, Vol. 1: Weapons and the Use of Weapons in the Age of Cabinet Wars. 1986, ISBN 3-7637-5463-6 ;
    • Volume Section 3, Volume 1: Weapons and the Use of Weapons in the Age of Revolutionary Wars. 1988, ISBN 3-7637-5807-0 .

Web links

Commons : Muskets  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: musket  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Torsten Verhülsdonk, Carl Schulze: Napoleonic Wars. Units - Uniforms - Equipment, VS-Books 1996, ISBN 3-932077-00-8 , p. 68.
  2. ^ Georg Ortenburg: Weapons and the use of weapons in the age of the Wars of Unification , Bernard & Graefe, ISBN 3-7637-5809-7 .
  3. ^ Manfried Rauchsteiner , Manfred Litscher (Ed.): The Army History Museum in Vienna. Graz, Vienna 2000, p. 11.
  4. Johann Christoph Allmayer-Beck : The Army History Museum Vienna. Room I - From the beginnings of the standing army to the end of the 17th century. Salzburg 1982, p. 26.