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18 September 2014
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From Musket to Breech Loader

By Professor Richard Holmes
Smoke and fire

Image of smoky Napoleonic battle field
Battle of Ratisbon, 1809 ©
Although the flintlock musket was certainly an improvement over the matchlock, it was an inherently primitive weapon - slow-firing, unreliable and very inaccurate.

Recognition of these facts encouraged commanders to emphasise the importance of getting as close to the enemy’s line as possible, and striving to maintain discipline, which would both maintain the volume of fire and discourage men from running away.

'The battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars were smoky places ...'

Burning black powder gave off dense grey-white smoke with a distinct bad-egg stink, and on a damp or still day the smoke hung about, obscuring men’s vision and further reducing the effectiveness of their fire. A trained soldier might get off four shots a minute, but this soon shrank to three or even two as the weapon became clogged with the residue left by burnt powder.

The Royalist Captain Richard Atkyns gives a good description of the effects of the smoke generated by musketry. On 5 June 1643 he rode up Lansdown Hill, just outside Bath, towards the infantry, which was fiercely engaged in one of the battles of the Civil War.

'When I came to the top of the hill, I saw Sir Bevil Grinvill’s stand of pikes, which certainly preserved out army from a total rout, with the loss of his most precious life: they stood as upon the eaves of an house for steepness, but as unmovable as a rock; on which side of this stand of pikes our horse were, I could not discover; for the air was so darkened by the smoke of the powder, that for a quarter of an hour together (I dare say) there was no light seen, but what the fire of the volleys of shot gave ...'

The battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars were smoky places, and even early breech-loading weapons still used black powder. Private George Mossop, who fought in the Zulu War of 1879, described how:

‘We were armed with Martini-Henry rifles charged with black powder, and each shot belched out a cloud of smoke; it became so dense that we were almost choked by it - and simply fired blindly into it. There was one continuous roar from cannon, rifles and the voices of men on both sides shouting.
'The smoke blotted out all view. It made every man feel that all he could do was to shoot immediately in front of him - and not concern himself with what was taking place elsewhere.’


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