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18 September 2014
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From Musket to Breech Loader

By Professor Richard Holmes
Brown Bess

Image of soldier firing a Brown Bess musket, 1804
A soldier fires his musket, 1804 ©
The proportion of musketeers to pikemen grew during the 17th century, but it was not until 1705 that the British army abandoned the pike altogether.

It was cumbersome, and the invention of the socket bayonet, which fitted round the muzzle of the musket so that the weapon could be used with its bayonet fixed, meant that each musketeer was now, in effect, his own pikeman, with a shock weapon attached to his firearm.

'To load and fire the flintlock musket the soldier had to carry out a set sequence of movements.'

The musket was transformed by the improvement of its firing mechanism, with a spark produced by flint striking steel igniting the priming powder which fired the main charge. This meant that soldiers no longer needed to have a length of smouldering cord to hand if they wished to fire their weapons, and made muskets a little more reliable in windy or damp weather.

In 1722 regiments were given an order to the effect that any new muskets should conform with the standard pattern, and from then till the 1830s various variants of what became known as Brown Bess were the standard British infantry weapon.

To load and fire the flintlock musket the soldier had to carry out a set sequence of movements. First, he bit one end off a paper cartridge containing powder and musket-ball. He dribbled a small amount of powder into the priming pan, and clicked the steel (a metal plate which the flint would strike) back to cover it.

Then he drew the ramrod from beneath the musket’s barrel, inserted powder and ball into the muzzle, following this with the paper cartridge as wadding. The whole was firmly rammed home.

'In wet or windy weather the priming powder might not ignite ...'

To fire, he drew back the cock, whose steel jaws held a flint, and then pressed the trigger. As the cock flew downwards the flint struck the steel, producing sparks. The steel moved forward, exposing the powder-filled flash-pan to the sparks. There was a brief pause while the powder in the pan ignited, and then the main charge fired, sending the musket-ball on its way. So much, at least, for theory.

In wet or windy weather the priming powder might not ignite, and sometimes even if it did there would be ‘a flash in the pan’ which would not set off the main charge. Ungainly soldiers might forget to remove their ramrods and fire them off. And it was not uncommon for a man whose musket failed to function to believe, in the chaos of battle, that it had in fact fired, and to set about reloading.

A subsequent ignition would be likely to blow the weapon to pieces, but some weapons were loaded repeatedly and never actually fired. A well-rammed charge gave the weapon a heavy kick. A man who wished to reduce the kick, or who wanted to fire as quickly as possible, might omit the ramming altogether, simply seating the ball onto the powder by rapping the musket-butt sharply against the ground.

The practice not only reduced the force of the ball when it emerged from the muzzle, but might even cause it to trickle out of its own accord, especially if the firer was aiming downwards.

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