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When Were Muskets Last Used?

When Were Muskets Last Used?

Historians differ on what they consider ‘the last use.’ Some are of the opinion that only instances where a weapon is used in a real war count as ‘last use,’ while others believe that even if the weapon is kept by an army or a division of the army, and it isn’t part of the weapons that are currently being used, it is considered to still be in use.  

Muskets were last used during the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the American Civil War (1861-1865) [1]

They are not officially kept for military use by any army now. Rifles have evolved so much, and war tactics are so different now that they simply aren’t useful on the battlefield. 

However, many people still own muskets in private collections. These are battle-ready weapons that can still be used today if needed. 

Muskets in the Crimean War and Civil War

During the mid-19th century, muskets, primarily smoothbore muskets, were the weapon of choice by armies all over the world. Rifles did exist, but their limited performance made them an inferior choice in battle. They were used primarily for sport and hunting. 

British Pattern 1853 Rifle.
British Pattern 1853 Rifle
The Smithsonian Institution, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These early rifles were also muzzle-loaded, which meant that the rate of fire was low, but the bigger problem was the issue of powder fouling [2]. The bore of the rifle would fill up with gunpowder, making it increasingly difficult to load the musket ball properly, and it would be nearly impossible to make the musket fire correctly. Eventually, the entire bore would need to be manually wiped clean for the weapon to operate properly. 

Muskets did not face this problem which made them more effective in war situations. However, the musket, particularly the smoothbore musket, had limited accuracy due to the smoothbore musket barrel design. 

Around Crimean War and Civil War era, a new barrel design introduced the Minie ball, a rifled bullet for muskets. These were far more accurate and had a much longer range. 

This development of bullet and barrel design had a big impact on battle tactics, and armies were forced to change the kind of formations they used in battle and even how they encountered the opposition on the battlefield. 

By the time of the Civil War, rifled muskets had become the norm – the high reload rate, combined with the improved accuracy and longer range, made them a devastating element in war. 

The design of the musket’s barrel allowed it to fire a wide variety of ammunition. The simplest of these were lead musket balls or simple metal balls, which were very easy to manufacture.

It only required an ammunition iron ball mold to be filled with the desired metal. In times of war, a simple production process for the manufacture of ammunition was a huge strategic advantage.

Firing Mechanisms

Muskets were used in armies from the late 16th century till the late 19th century and even into the early 20th century. Throughout the military history of European armies, the musket played a pivotal role and went through several changes and upgrades.

Together with the barrel and bullet design, the loading and firing mechanism of the smooth-bore muskets played an important role in their performance. During this long period, they went through several iterations for the firing mechanism and eventually came across the breechloading design, which is still used in modern handguns. 

Initially, the musket had to be manually lit by the operator or with the help of an assistant. Later on, the matchlock mechanism [3] was developed, which was usable but still not very efficient in a war situation. During the matchlock musket era, there was also a wheellock [4], but this was far more expensive to manufacture and was never used on a large scale for armies or in wars. 

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

In the late 16th century, the flintlock was developed as a superior means of ignition for the musket. By the end of the 17th century, the flintlock musket [5] had become the norm, and armies exclusively used them. 

The flintlock was a very successful technology, and these superior military-style muskets reigned for nearly 200 years until they were superseded by the cap/percussion lock [6]. The percussion lock’s design and mechanics made it possible for the muskets and rifles to move from being muzzle-loaded to breech-loaded.

Once rifles could be breech-loaded, they instantly became superior to muskets as their issue of fouling and slow rate of fire were solved. 

From then on, muskets started to fade away, and rifles became the weapon of choice for armies and individuals alike.  

Muskets in WW1

Italian Soldiers in Trench World War 1, 1918.
Italian Soldiers in Trench World War 1, 1918
Italian Army, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

All the technical progress in muskets and rifles was made by engineers and scientists in Europe. 

The European world and North America had the financial strength to invest in the research necessary and could produce these high-end weapons, while nations in other parts of the world could not afford the latest weapons. They still relied on older muskets, and it took them a lot longer to upgrade their artillery. 

In World War I, forces from Yemen and Belgium still used previous-generation Enfield Musket Rifles. Naturally, this hindered their performance against forces that were better equipped, but more importantly, it made them incapable of handling the tactics that the opposition used due to their superior weapons. 

Financially-capable nations invested in top-tier weapons for their front-line soldiers. The main approach to the war was to be aggressive and always be attacking. Back-up forces, reserves, and defensive units still used older-generation equipment, including muskets. 

After the first world war, armies realized the potential of the breechloading rifle and had no other option but to upgrade to the latest weapons. By WW2, muskets were no longer used in warfare. 

Conclusion

Muskets, and the technology used to power these weapons, laid the foundations for modern arms, whether small handguns like the Glock or larger weapons like the double-barrel shotgun.

Muskets had a long run spanning nearly 300 years, and during this phase, they went through several evolutions. The breechloading mechanism and the percussion lock are still used in nearly all handheld firearms.

The concept of muzzle-loaded weapons is now nearly nonexistent, and superior weapons such as the RPG have taken their position.