Gun Wiki

Musket firing from a recreation of a Thirty Years' War battle.

The Musket is a type of firearm that typically featured a long, smoothbore barrel and fired either a musket ball or (from the 1840s) a Minie ball. The 'Musket' was developed from the smaller arquebus in the 1500s and was developed through its history into an ever more effective weapon until the mid 1800s. The name "musketeer" is applied to a soldier armed with a musket.


The earliest reference to a hand held gun is found in China in 1260. This weapon was a simple tube with a hole by which its user lit the powder and is referred to as a hand cannon. This device originally fired what was effectively a firework, before the design was refined to include a primitive stock for the user to hold. It was not very effective but was good for frightening the enemy. The weapon spread west until in the early 1400s it reached Europe, where it was developed into the arquebus, the light precursor of the full sized muskets that appeared in the 1500s.

The arquebus was a light, smoothbore, muzzle loaded, matchlock weapon. Because of the arquebus the armor of pikemen increased from 15kg to 25kg. In the 1500s, infantry called arqubusiers would be mixed with pikemen to combine the offensive power of firearms with the defensive power of pikes. As these formations evolved, the musket appeared. The musket was based on the arquebus but was much heavier and more powerful and the early musketeers had to use a stand to support them. They were combined with the arquebuses in the infantry units, but in time muskets that were lighter were developed and replaced arquebuses in European armies in the 17th century. In the late part of the century, the bayonet was invented for the musket, and the use of pikes faded away.

The matchlock mechanism was the first standard firing mechanism of muskets but was sometimes replaced by a wheellock mechanism. The wheellock utilized a steel wheel which was spun to produce sparks to ignite the powder in the breech. This was an improvement on the matchlock and the first instance of a firearm being capable of self-ignition but it was expensive and was never widely used. With the invention of the flintlock mechanism, the matchlock and wheellock mechanisms slowly disappeared in the 1600s.

The snaplock was the first flintlock style mechanism and appeared in the 1540s. Eventually flintlocks became standard in European armies by the end of the 17th century. The flintlock mechanism used a piece of flint held in the hammer which (when the hammer was pulled) would strike a steel plate above the flash pan, igniting the powder in the flash pan which would then ignite the charge.

The Charleville Model 1766 Musket of French origin

Famous examples of the flintlock musket include the British Brown Bess, the longest serving firearm in history, and the Charleville Musket (which would form the basis of other designs for well over a century). The earliest rifles also began appearing in the era of the flintlock musket, around 1750 in Europe, with new units commonly named "Jägers" ("Riflemen") using them, but rifled muskets quickly fouled and so smoothbores were the main military weapon until the time of caplock weapons in the mid 1800s.

Flintlocks were eventually replaced, after more than 200 years of use, by the cap/percussion lock, which used a percussion cap (struck by the hammer) to ignite the powder charge, rather than the sparks of the flintlock mechanism. Along with the percussion lock mechanism came, almost immediately, the rifled musket using a rifled barrel to use (from 1847) the Minié ball, designed specifically for use in rifled barrels, greatly improving accuracy.

The Dreyse Needle gun of Prussia

The era of the musket ended with the emerging use of breechloading, cap fired rifles, which began to appear in the 1840s (the Norwegian made Kammerlader and Prussian Dreyse needle gun to name two of the earliest widely used examples). Although the M1819 Hall rifle had been developed in the 1810s, it was not until the Dreyse needle gun dominated the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 that the breechloading rifle came to the fore. Although the name musket was applied to the earliest breechloading rifles, this stopped as the era of the rifle began.

Another musket related war was the Musket Wars in New Zealand, 1810-1830.

Musket types[]

The musket saw centuries of development. From the early 13th century with the hand cannon, to the "rifled muskets" of the mid 19th century, the Musket was developed continuously during the ages, with various types emerging.


A matchlock rifle.

The matchlock musket effectively used a slow burning twine, clamped in a vice, which was ignited (via a match) which would touch the powder in the flashpan when the lever (or later trigger) was pulled. This was a simple design and unreliable at best, but showed the potential of the musket, and prompted its development.


A wheellock rifle.

The wheellock was a design which used a high-friction steel wheel to generate sparks (when it was spun) to ignite powder in the flash pan. Appearing in the early 1500s the wheellock was a more complicated, yet more reliable, alternative to the matchlock mechanism, improving the versatility of the musket. but it was too expensive for ordinary soldiers and officers.


The snaplock was the first to use a flint sparking mechanism to ignite the powder.


The snaphance is the little known, short lived step between the Wheellock and Flintlock mechanisms. Virtually identical to the flintlock mechanism, the Snaphance used a flint clamped to a cock that would strike (when the hammer was pulled) a steel plate and ignite the powder in the flash pan. This design formed the basis of the flintlock mechanism and was among the first weapons to feature some forms of safety to prevent accidental firing (albeit limited to later models).

Doglock, Baltic lock[]



The British "Brown Bess" Long Land Pattern Musket

The flintlock Musket was, by far, the most famed and most widely used design of the musket. Like the Snaphance Muskets the mechanism used a flint, located in a cock/hammer to strike a steel plate (although the design of a flintlock was much less complicated with fewer moving internal parts and springs). The most well known Flintlock Musket, the Brown Bess, would become the longest serving long arm in military history, used from the 1820's until the late 1860's (in some form) by the British Empire. The Flintlock also had a cultural impact (un-surprising given its 200 years of use) with military terms such as "flash in the Pan" and "lock, stock and barrel" emerging with Flintlocks and lasting until the modern day.

Percussion lock (Caplock)[]

A close-up view of the percussion lock mechanism on the Springfield Model 1842 Musket

The percussion lock (or Cap lock due to the use of a percussion cap used to ignite the charge) was the last mechanism to be developed for the Musket, replacing the flintlock mechanism. Using a hammer attached directly to the trigger to strike a percussion cap (located on a hollow nipple above the charge in the breech) to ignite the charge, the Percussion lock mechanism was an improvement on the old flintlock mechanism, not least due to its wet-weather usage.

Rifled musket[]

The Minie Rifle of France, the first rifle to use the Minie Ball.

Emerging on a wide scale soon after the percussion lock was developed (although the first rifles had been built as early as the 1750s) the rifled musket was designed around a brand new ammunition named the Minié ball, which was designed to deform when the powder was ignited to engage with the rifling and cause it to spin, improving accuracy, massively, compared to older firearms. The earliest of these was the Minié rifle (designed for the Minié ball) which would form the basis of the majority of rifled muskets until they were replaced by breechloading rifles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


As muskets evolved during their life time the ammunition that they fired developed as well. From the original ball of stone or lead, launched by black powder (which was often poured into the barrel through a powder horn) to the use of metallic cartridges with specific bullet shapes, the musket provoked more development in ammunition as the musket itself developed.


A pattern image for the minié ball.

Muskets, in general, fired one of two types of ammunition. Originally muskets fired the appropriately named musket ball which could be made from stone or, most commonly, lead. This lead ball was soft enough to deform slightly when the powder (which was typically held in a paper cartridge) was ignited, before fully deforming when it struck the target.

Later, in the mid 1840's, experiments with soft-lead bullet designs led to the evolution of the rifled musket. The most popular and most widely known of these bullet designs was the Minié ball, which was designed to deform in a specific shape, allowing it to engage with the rifling in the barrel to enable the Minié ball to twist, granting better accuracy.

The last of the firearms that could still be loosely referred to as muskets would eventually fire metallic cartridges, particularly following the widespread use of breech loading. The most notable instances of this were the earliest "Trapdoor" Springfield rifled muskets (ie the Springfield Model 1866) which were chambered to accept the .50-70 Government cartridge (and the later the .45-70 Government, still in use today).


An antique Powder Horn

The Musket originally lacked any form of cartridge, with the powder being poured directly into the barrel with the ball being forced into the barrel using the ramrod. The powder was often poured into the barrel via a powder horn which was quite literally a bull or buffalo horn (which are naturally hollow) which effectively formed a funnel to better pour the black powder.

Later paper cartridges came into vogue in the mid to late 18th century, containing the blackpowder and occasionally contained the ball as well. The seal around the ends of the paper cartridge, particularly those that contained the projectile as well, was often lubricated and sealed with grease. This factor was instrumental in the India Mutiny of 1857 as a rumor surrounding the origin of the lubrication of the Minié ball used with the Pattern 1853 Enfield caused much distain.

Eventually metallic cartridges would emerge, with the last of the muskets utilizing them. It must be noted however that the majority of firearms using metallic cartridges could not be truly named muskets as they had rifled barrels and were loaded via the breech.


Photo of a flintlock igniter.

As more gunlock types were created, the overall shapings and forms of individual musket types were very different. The side of a wheellock rifle was normally larger since the lock plate had more parts in it, with older designs such as the Matchlock not having a trigger guard.

Later, with the introduction of rifling on a widespread basis, the term rifle and musket became rather blurred. Although units had previously been identified as riflemen (in Europe, particularly in Germanic territories, these men were named Jägers) once rifling became standard across virtually all firearms these units effectively evolved into modern day sniper units (a role which they fulfilled the equivalent of at the time). Manufacturers, particularly the Springfield Armory, continued to sell their products as "rifled muskets" right until the turn of the 20th century, while other manufacturers sold their designs as rifles.

The Springfield Model 1873 an example of a ("Trapdoor" Springfield) rifle, yet was sold as a "rifled musket"

Specifically a musket is often referred to as a smoothbore (ie lacks rifling), muzzle-loading firearm with a long barrel. Obviously a rifle is defined as a rifle because it has rifling cut into the barrel, although as mentioned above manufacturers would often ignore this fact, classifying their designs as muskets despite having fulfilled the definition of a rifle. In truth the classification of whether a firearm is a musket or a rifle is largely due to interpretation, with general consensus being that the musket was no longer in production or military use after the Great War (1914 - 1918).