Patriots Day: Musket love: Japan and Italy supply today’s militia, which takes great pride in its weaponry

Bryan Mahoney

When given the order, a soldier firing his musket is deadly at 20 to 50 yards. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot.

Today’s musket, primarily used by battle reenactors and weapons enthusiasts, is very much the same as that used in the battles of the Revolution on April 19, 1775. They were primarily hunting weapons, since the farmers and tradesmen of the local militia were using their own stocks in the fight against the British.

But there’s a difference: The musket you see today is fired the same way, minus the bullet. It’s all flash and noise, but without the threat of harm.

It still produces results.

“Screaming babies, barking dogs and burglar alarms are success for the musket volley,” said John Denis, a Concord Minute Man and Lexington resident who is an expert on weapons for the Lexington Historical Society.

The muskets you see in a reenactment can be the most expensive parts of the uniform. They start at $900, and mostly are ordered from Italy or Japan.

If you’ve really got money to burn, you could in theory use the genuine article. But it’s not recommended.

“An honest-to-goodness musket in working order has a value in excess of $3,500,” said Bill Mix, president of the Lexington Historical Society and himself a reenactor. “You don’t want to go off and fire one of those things.”

An early Cold War?

Myth: Everyone had a bayonet attached to his musket in the Revolution.

Fact: Bayonets, like the muskets they were fitted on, were hand-made. As each musket was slightly different from one another, bayonets had to be custom-made for each weapon. That took time, money, and skill.

“Just going to Bayonets ‘R’ Us and handing them out in gross won’t solve your problems,” Denis said.

Lexington had no bayonets in 1775, though Mix said the town did appropriate some money for them. At the battle at Concord Bridge, only the Acton Minutemen were fashioned with the weapons because their captain, Isaac Davis, was a blacksmith, according to Mix.

Fastening a bayonet to a weapon was only half the task; you needed to know how to use it. Since many companies went without them, so too did they dispense with the training.

The real function of the bayonet became psychological.

“If you drop your bayonets horizontal and charge shoulder-to-shoulder, that hedgehog … encourages [your enemy] to break and run,” Denis said.

Lock, stock and barrel

A standard musket has three parts: a lock, stock, and barrel. The lock is all business, holding the trigger and firing mechanism for the weapon. The barrel is the metal shaft from which the ball (or bullet) is fired, and the stock is the wooden end.

The musket has three safety features. One involves the half-cocked position, wherein the hammer containing the flint is pulled back and locked halfway. Another is a flash-guard, which prevents powder from flying out. The third is the hammer stall, a sheath that fits snugly over the frizzen (which is struck by the hammer) to prevent a spark.

Denis says a properly loaded musket will work “better than you think they do.” The myth is that you can’t use a musket in the rain, but Denis says humidity is really a musket’s worst enemy. Gunpowder will suck in moisture, producing a grease that will prevent the flint from making a spark after only a couple rounds.

“It makes you wonder what would have happened in history if it had been raining on April 19,” Denis said.

Ready, aim …

Men fired their muskets as a unit, and often received orders through the sounds of drums and bugles that carried better over the din of war.

They started in the half-cocked position, then the command was given to “prime and load.” At this point they took the charge, a paper packet filled with the powder and ball, and ripped it open with their teeth so their hand was free to hold the musket.

Mix said this step was so important that it was a requirement of soldiers to have a set of two opposing teeth to bite the charge.

“If you’re trying to gum it, you’re going to have a major problem,” Mix said.

The next command is “About.” Powder is put down the barrel and, if you’re really looking to fire, a ball is placed inside. The soldier has to be aware of how he handles the musket at this stage.

“When you’re doing a fair amount of firing, the barrel can get so hot that you’d burn yourself if you’re not careful,” Mix said. “And that indeed does happen from time to time.”

Next, the soldier will “Make Ready” and go into a full-cocked position, remove the hammer stall, and fire.

When the ball is shot it bounces around inside the barrel. By the time it exits it is hard to determine where exactly it will go, so “you point these things; you don’t aim them,” Mix said.

This is different than a rifle, which will have a spiraled groove on the inside of the barrel that will spin the bullet and add accuracy and range to the shot, Denis said. A musket is only good to about 50 yards; this was one of the reasons each side fought close with these weapons.

Fire enough muskets, and you’re bound to hit something.