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How Accurate Were Muskets?

How Accurate Were Muskets?

Early versions of the musket, particularly the smoothbore muskets, were not very accurate at all, even at close range, nor did they have a very long range. 

Future versions of the smoothbore musket that were used closer to the end of the 18th century were far more accurate and somewhat similar to modern handguns, and improvements in design nearly tripled their effective range. 

Origin – When and Why Were They Made?

To get the perspective of why muskets weren’t very accurate weapons, one must understand why they were developed in the first place. The smoothbore musket and rifles began from the harquebus [1], a rifle-looking weapon developed in 15th-century Spain. 

Heavy muskets, image produced 1664.
Heavy muskets, image produced 1664
Deutsche Fotothek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The purpose of the harquebus, and the following musket, was to be a portable cannon that could be used to deliver volley fire to a group of targets rather than attacking a man-sized target from a distance, which is the objective of modern rifles. 

Canons were difficult to move, expensive to build and operate, and required staff to operate. Harquebuses were more portable, but they used the same concept. The muzzle-loaded harquebus also had a stand near the tip of the barrel, which was used to support the weapon while the operator crouched down and fired it. 

Muskets were a larger version of the harquebus that did not need a support arm at the end of the barrel. They could be carried and operated by a single person (or a pair for the early models) and could shoot a rather large caliber steel musket ball that looked like mini cannonballs. 

Early Muskets 

Muskets started off as smoothbore weapons, much like the harquebus they were derived from, paired with the manual lighting system in which the operator had to manually put a lit matchstick to the barrel to ignite a spark that would propel the bullet. 

While the smoothbore setup worked great in cannons because the sheer impact was enough to overcome any inaccuracy in the shot, it wasn’t as effective in muskets, where the ball was much smaller and traveled with far less momentum. 

Moreover, the lengthy firing procedure made the process more time-consuming. However, since everyone was using the standard musket, it was a level playing field. 

Later on, the musket received a number of upgrades [2] in terms of the firing mechanism. The early matchlock and wheellock systems were replaced by flintlocks that made firing a little bit easier, and the operator didn’t need to have an assistant just to put fire in the barrel. 

Flintlock Mechanism.
Flintlock Mechanism
Engineer comp geek at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Flintlock systems lasted nearly 200 years, not because they were extremely effective but because there was no better solution around.

While they did help in increasing the firing rate of the weapon and made it easier for an operator to use the musket single-handedly, they did little to improve the accuracy and the range of the weapon. 

The cap/percussion firing mechanism came after the flintlock system and has been in use since then. It is the perfect kind of firing mechanism as it uses potassium chlorite [3], which can generate a powerful spark when struck with force by a pin rather than having to be exposed to a naked flame. 

This completely changed the way muskets operated because it eliminated the need for a flame and the weapon no longer needed to be muzzle-loaded. 

More importantly, the weapon could now use a magazine of bullets, much like modern firearms. These were known as repeating rifles, as they could repeatedly fire, but because of the high cost of ammunition, their use was limited.

Enhancements for Accuracy

At nearly the same time, the musket also received a major upgrade in the form of a rifled barrel together with rifled bullets, which had previously only been used for rifles. However, since the bullets no longer needed to be muzzle-loaded, the issue of the musket experiencing powder fouling was also eliminated. 

Parts of a Springfield Model 1822 flintlock musket.
Parts of a Springfield Model 1822 flintlock musket
Engineer comp geek at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This led to the development of breech-loaded muskets that used rifle bullets, rifle barrels, and percussion firing mechanisms. 

The result was a highly accurate rifled musket with a much higher maximum range. It could hit targets up to 300 feet away [4] as opposed to the early smoothbore rifles that only had a range of 75-100 feet. Naturally, better weapons also had an impact on infantry tactics.

The early smoothbore muskets were loaded with round metal balls (much like small cannonballs), and some gunpowder that was packed behind the ball was ignited to create the blast and then shot the ball through the barrel. 

The problem with this system was that the initial blast could shoot the ball out of the barrel, spinning in any direction. 

In most cases, the ball would spin reverse along its vertical axis, causing it to spin uncontrollably and eventually not keep its line when it exited the barrel. Only one in a few shots hit the target, not because the operator had bad aim but because the bullet wouldn’t maintain the right trajectory. 

With rifled bullets and rifled barrels, the shape of the bullet also evolved from round balls into the conical shape in which we see them today. Moreover, the grooves on the inside of the barrel and corresponding grooves on the sides of the bullet meant that it was spinning on its side rather than the vertical axis. 

This meant the bullet not only maintained its line much better but also that it didn’t face as much resistance through the air, which caused it to travel with more speed and cover a greater range. 

Around the American civil war era and during the Napoleonic wars, the improved firing mechanism provided a more consistent and controllable blast, so musket operators weren’t limited to how well they could pack the weapon with gunpowder before the shot. 

With the new firing mechanism, there was less smoke and no flash of bright light, helping the operator maintain visibility. 

At this point, the buck and ball load process had also been refined, which allowed an operator to deal more damage to a target as compared to the single-ball musket fire used in the past.

Conclusion 

The musket started off as a weapon that used brute force to tear through armor, injure humans and animals, and break the weaponry of the opposition. Gradual changes and developments in its technology laid the foundation for long-range weapons like modern missile weapons.

Over time, it developed into a weapon meant to discreetly hit specific targets from a long-range while also having the ability to be reloaded quickly and be light enough to be carried by a single person. 

Initially, these weapons had close to zero accuracies, but the final product was very similar to modern weapons today.