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18 September 2014
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From Musket to Breech Loader

By Professor Richard Holmes
Black powder

Image of musket and rifles from the 18th century
Muzzle-loading musket and rifles, c.1800  ©
The British army was born when battlefields were being transformed by the impact of black powder in the 17th century.

The musket that contained this explosive powder was easy to produce in large numbers, and could be used effectively by a soldier with a few weeks' training. It quickly replaced the longbow, which had to be manufactured by skilled artisans and used by men whose muscles had been strengthened by years of practice.

'... even contemporaries found these weapons unreliable.'

The infantry of the English Civil War consisted of pikemen and musketeers. The former carried the pike as their main weapon - a contract of 1657 specified that this should be 16ft long - and wore a steel cap and body armour, though the use of armour declined as the century wore on.

The latter used a muzzle-loading matchlock musket, so called because its charge was ignited by the ‘match’, a length of smouldering cord. But even contemporaries found these weapons unreliable. In his 1627 military manual Pallas Armata, Sir Thomas Kellie wrote:

‘A musqueteer may fail of his shot by sundry accidents, as by the rolling out of the bullet, an badde matche, an matche not right cocked, by evill powder, or wet powder in his pan; and I have often seen an ranke of musquetiers having presented and given fire that three or four of ten have failed of their shot, and ye must know that in service there is no time to prime againe or to right their match, for they must fall away with the rest of their ranke, and make place for the next ranke to give fire.'

The order ‘fire’ dates from this period. The musketeer ‘gave fire’ by pressing the trigger of his musket so that the smouldering match descended into the powder in his weapon’s priming pan. In the early 18th century, the order ‘Give ... fire!’ was replaced by the modern ‘Fire!’

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