From Musket to Breech Loader

By Professor Richard Holmes
Follow the evolution of the rifle - from musket to machine gun - and discover how the pikeman became today's modern soldier.
British infantry, 18th century 

Character of an army

Tactics, the art of fighting battles and engagements, is in great part a reflection of the weapons in use at any one time, and it affects not simply what happens on the battlefield but the character of armies more generally.

' ... its bullets are spun by rifling to impact with greater accuracy.'

During the lifetime of the British army there have been various major changes, and one of the most significant was the development of the breech-loading infantry rifle. It is so called because its metallic cartridges are contained in a magazine below the breech, and its bullets are spun by rifling to impact with greater accuracy.

Arms and the man

Image of Matchlock and rifles from the 17th century
Matchlock and rifles from the 17th century
For much of its history, Britain's army has been divided into three main combat arms. The largest was the infantry, who fought on foot. Then came the cavalry, who fought primarily on horseback. Then there was the artillery, who deployed an assortment of cannon whose spectacular rise in effectiveness was to dominate most battlefields from the early 20th century.

These were backed by services responsible for things like transport, supply, communications and medical support, although these did not really become part of the army proper until the 19th century was well under way.

'It was easier to move troops and to deliver physical shock in columns ...'

Success in battle often focused on the combination of the combat arms, with artillery preparing the way for attack by the infantry, and cavalry seeking intelligence, preventing a force from being surprised, charging on the battlefield and pursuing a beaten enemy.

Weapons were divided into those like longbow, musket, rifle and field gun, which achieved their effect by fire, and others, like pike, sword and bayonet, which accomplished physical shock. Often the two effects were merged. A line of infantry might charge after firing, with the implied shock inherent in its bayonets producing a psychological effect which caused its opponents to seek an urgent appointment elsewhere.

It was easier to move troops and to deliver physical shock in columns, formations which were deeper than they were broad, but to deliver fire in line. Armies moving into battle would deploy from column into line, a process in which drill and discipline were important.

Until the end of the 19th century, combat was a centralised process, with men fighting standing up, under the eye of their leaders and often within touching distance of their comrades. One of the consequences of the rise of the infantry rifle at the end of the 19th century was a more formless battlefield, with combatants more spread and often lying down. This tended to make formal discipline less useful than it had been in the past, and to emphasise individual qualities like initiative and determination.

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!’

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 [/history/trail/wars_conflict/weapons/musket_to_breech_fact_file.shtml] 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.

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 [/history/trail/wars_conflict/weapons/musket_to_breech_fact_file.shtml] .

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.’

Drills and formations

Image of mounted infantry honing their skills, 1894
Mounted infantry hone their skills, 1894
The flintlock musket imposed its iron logic on training and battle alike. The armies of the age were generally composed of men from the bottom of the social heap, officered (and here the generalisation is very broad indeed) by gentlemen.

First the soldier learnt to drill without his weapon. Men who could not tell left from right often had a wisp of straw stuck under a bootlace to remember which was the ‘straw foot’. Then he was taught ‘manual exercise’, learning how to load and fire his musket, graduating from this to ‘platoon exercise’, blending his own drill into that of a small body of men, and finishing up with larger ‘evolutions’.

'For a typical battle, infantry would advance in a column, their movement screened by cavalry, and then deploy into line.'

Throughout the period there were fierce debates over the best formations to adopt, with some theorists arguing that the musket was so unreliable that it was always best to form up in column, attempting to shatter the enemy by physical impact or to undermine his morale by the threat of such attack.

For a typical battle, infantry would advance in a column, their movement screened by cavalry, and then deploy into line. The Duke of Wellington took particular care to shelter his line behind the crest of a suitable hill, and many clashes between French columns and British lines came when the French collided with a line that had hitherto been out of sight.

Thomas Bugeaud, a French infantry officer in the Peninsula, who was later appointed Marshal of France for his services in Algeria, gives a classic description of the meeting of column and line.

‘The English generally occupied well-chosen defensive positions having a certain command, and they showed only a portion of their forces. The usual artillery action first took place. Soon, in great haste, without studying the position ... we marched straight in, taking the bull by the horns. About 1,000 yards from the English line the men became excited, called out to one another, and hastened their march; the column began to get a little confused.
'The English remained quite silent with shouldered arms and from their steadiness appeared to be a long red wall… The contrast was striking; in our innermost thoughts we all felt that the enemy was a long time in firing, and that this fire, reserved for so long, would be very unpleasant when it came. Our ardour cooled. The moral appearance of steadiness, which nothing can shake (even if it be only appearance), over disorder which stupifies itself with noise, overcame our minds.
'At this moment of intense excitement the English wall shouldered arms: an indescribable feeling would root many of our men to the spot; they began to fire. The enemy’s steady, concentrated volleys swept our ranks, we turned round seeking to recover our equilibrium; then three deafening cheers broke the silence of our opponents; at the third they were on us, pushing our disorganised flight.’
The Campaigns of Napoleon, by David Chandler (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1995)

Holding the line

Image of Duke of Wellington at the seige of Badajoz, 1812
Duke of Wellington accepts surrender at the seige of Badajoz, 1812
Military historians do not always contribute to real understanding of what happened in battle. In an eagerness to present a coherent narrative, battles are often depicted as unfolding with precision and according to plan.

In fact there was usually a fair measure of chaos, and the winner was often the side that managed to make the best of this dangerous and confusing world.

Strict discipline permeated the armies of the age for this very reason, for an individual’s failure might swell into a collective panic. Often there was a brief firefight, with both sides shooting at one another at close range, but usually one side gained the ascendancy - as much moral as physical - quite quickly, forcing the other to retreat. There were, however, some battles where the infantry slogged it out with unusual ferocity.

'There were, however, some battles where the infantry slogged it out with unusual ferocity.'

On 16 May 1811 Marshal Nicolas Soult advanced on the French-held fortress of Badajoz, in western Spain, in an effort to force the British, Spanish and Portuguese force to give up their siege of the town. Sir Patrick Beresford moved out to meet him, and gave battle on a low ridge outside the village of Albuera.

French cavalry skilfully attacked Beresford’s right flank, fortuitously charging just as a sudden rainstorm swept the field, making it almost impossible for the British to fire, and doing terrible damage. Columns of French infantry then came forward. By now the rain had cleared, and muskets would fire.

Captain Moyle Sherer of the 34th Regiment saw the smoke thin for a moment to reveal:

'The French grenadier caps, their arms, and the whole aspect of their frowning masses. It was a momentary, but grand sight: a heavy atmosphere of smoke again enveloped us, and few objects could be discerned at all, none distinctly… This murderous contest of musketry lasted long. We were the whole time progressively advancing and shaking the enemy.
'At a distance of about twenty yards from them we received orders to charge; we had ceased firing, cheered, and had our bayonets in the charging position, when a body of the enemy’s horse was discovered under the rising ground, ready to take advantage of our impetuosity. Already, however, the French infantry, alarmed by our preparatory cheers, which always indicate the charge, had broke and fled.'
Recollections of the Peninsula, Moyle Sherer (Spellmount, 1996)

The French attack was checked. Soult declared angrily: ‘There is no beating these British soldiers. They were completely beaten and the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’

Smokeless powder

Image of soldiers marching with rifles in World War One
The march to World War One
Towards the close of the 19th century a series of developments transformed the weapon carried by the footsoldier, and with it the whole character of battle. Within a generation the muzzle-loading musket was replaced by the breech-loading rifle, and the effect on the fighting man was immediate and deadly.

Infantry weapons became more accurate, and could be fired more rapidly than before, and reached out to longer ranges. Groups of determined men making skilful use of the ground became more important than the steady lines of yesteryear, and the need for concealment saw the British Army replace its traditional red coat by the less conspicuous khaki in the 1880s.

'In the 1880s the advent of smokeless powder ... helped make ammunition even smaller.'

The pace of technical change [/history/trail/wars_conflict/weapons/musket_to_breech_fact_file.shtml] increased. A veteran of Malplaquet (1709) would have been able to use a musket on the field of Waterloo (1815) without difficulty, but a veteran of Waterloo would have regarded the rifle used at the battle of Mons (1915) with utter disbelief.

In the 1880s the advent of smokeless powder, which enabled a smaller quantity of powder to impel a bullet with even greater force, helped make ammunition even smaller. It also greatly reduced the amount of smoke on the battlefield, and made it easier for men to remain concealed when firing.

The British Army adopted the .303-inch Lee Metford rifle, which had a magazine containing eight rounds, and was loaded by drawing back and then pushing forward the weapon’s bolt. The Lee-Metford initially used black powder while a smokeless cartridge was developed, and this necessitated further changes, culminating in the adoption of the Lee-Enfield rifle. This used a similar bolt to that in the Lee-Metford, but with rifling designed at the government’s arms factory at Enfield Lock [/history/trail/wars_conflict/weapons/musket_to_breech_fact_file.shtml] .

Brothers in arms

Image of volunteers signing up in 1915
Volunteers signing up, 1915
Even though weapons had changed substantially in the early 20th century, the men who used them had not. The British army that went to war in 1914 would have been recognisable to the men who had fought at Waterloo almost a century before.

True, a workmanlike khaki uniform had replaced the scarlet of yesteryear, but most men who enlisted in the army still came from deprived backgrounds, and only half even laid claim to a trade when they joined. But there was a remarkably rich mixture in many regiments.

Young John Lucy [/history/trail/wars_conflict/weapons/musket_to_breech_fact_file.shtml] and his brother Denis were:

'Tired of fathers, of advice from relations, of bottled coffee essence, of school, of newspaper offices. The soft accents and slow movements of the small farmers who swarmed in the streets of our dull southern Irish town, the cattle, fowl, eggs, butter, bacon, and the talk of politics filled us with loathing.'

They joined the Royal Irish Rifles, and found it full of ‘scallywags and minor adventurers’, including:

'... a taciturn sergeant from Waterford who was conversant with the intricacies of higher mathematics ... an ex-divinity student with literary tastes, who drank much beer and affected an obvious pretence to gentle birth: a national school teacher; a man who had absconded from a colonial bank; a few decent sons of farmers.'
There's a Devil in the Drum, John Lucy (Naval and Military Press, 2001)

In contrast, well over half of the regular officers came from public schools, and two-thirds of them came from country backgrounds. It was extraordinarily difficult for an officer to live on his pay, which meant that many young men sought commissions in the Indian Army when they left Sandhurst, because it was infinitely cheaper to live in India than closer to home.

'Mad minute'

Image of soldiers in training in 1917
Soldiers in training near Mons, 1917
Throughout World War One most British soldiers were rifle-carrying infantrymen, and in its opening battles their skill with their rifles was a source of astonishment to the Germans.

In his annual musketry course the infantryman fired 250 rounds at targets up to 600 yards away, and this included the ‘mad minute’ in which men had to fire 15 rounds at a target 300 yards distant. Most could do rather better than that, and some could fire almost 30 rounds a minute with little loss of accuracy.

'... success in battle can only be gained by a vigorous offensive ...'

Compare this with the achievement of the flintlock musket only a century before, with its three or four rounds a minute, range of 100 or so yards, and high risk of misfires. But the development of sophisticated firearms was only part of the story.

Infantry training in 1914 [/history/trail/wars_conflict/weapons/musket_to_breech_fact_file.shtml] warned that wars were not won by standing on the defensive and, like its French allies and German opponents, the British infantry was told that ‘success in battle can only be gained by a vigorous offensive’. Infantrymen still carried bayonets, and were trained to use them.

For the first battle of 1914, however, British infantrymen found themselves confronting a vigorous German offensive, rather than attacking themselves, and they put their expertise with the rifle to good effect. John Lucy met the Germans near the little Belgian town on Mons on 23 August.

'For us the battle took the form of well-ordered, rapid rifle-fire at close range, as the field-grey human targets appeared, or were struck down. The enemy infantry advanced ... in "column of masses", which withered away under the galling fire of the well-trained and coolly led Irishmen. The leading Germans fired standing, "from the hip", as they came on, but their scattered fire was ineffective, and ignored.
'They crumpled up - mown down as quickly as I tell it - their reinforcing waves and sections coming on bravely and steadily to fall as they reached the first line of slain and wounded ... Such tactics amazed us, and after the first shock of seeing men slowly and helplessly falling down as they were hit, gave us a great sense of power and pleasure. It was all so easy.'
There's a Devil in the Drum (see above for details)

Power of the gun

Image of a machine gun
Machine gun
The summer of 1914 left no doubt of the efficacy of the infantry rifle, and the ability of fire to paralyse movement. But already even the killing power of the rifle was being eclipsed by that of the machine gun and, most significantly of all, by the power of artillery.

The fluid operations of that first summer of the war solidified into the trench warfare that came to dominate the Western Front for so much of the war, and at the First Battle of Ypres the fire of British regulars again checked determined German attacks. But the cost was terrible. In those battalions that had landed in August with perhaps 30 officers and 1,000 men, there remained on average just 2 officers and 20 men of the original compliment.

'... the machine gun is the weapon most often associated with the war ...'

Machine-guns, initially very primitive, had been in use for about 50 years. Each infantry battalion - around 1,000 men in theory, though often reduced by losses to around half that - had two belt-fed water-cooled machine guns, and the number of machine guns would rise astronomically as the war went on.

But although the machine gun is the weapon most often associated with the war, in fact the casualties it caused paled into insignificance before those inflicted by the war’s greatest killer, the shell. As British infantrymen braced themselves to meet repeated German attacks at Ypres in the autumn of 1914, their real enemy was not rifle-fire but the bowel-loosening, landscape-changing power of the gun.

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