Musket Vs Rifle: “A letter on the defence of England by corps of volunteers and militia”, 1852

A Letter on the Defence of England by Corps of Volunteers and Militia by Sir Charles James Napier, Lt. General, is a short essay advocating for the retention of the “tried” musket, rather than the adoption of the “untried” minie rifle. The subject is not strictly related to Bows Vs Muskets, but we do get a valuable point of comparison between the attitudes towards the musket at the beginning and the end of its service life in England. Like the latter 16th century partisans of the longbow were proven wrong by history, so was Sir Charles Napier. We see some similarity in the rhetoric, in appeals to past victories with the old weapon fought long before the new one came into existence. The defense of the obsolete weapon is accompanied by defense of other obsolete ideas: John Smythe railed against soldiers wearing less armor and using longer swords. Napier defends the bright red uniform while doubting the military usefulness of trains.

Here are some of the most interesting sections.

“I fought in “The Bush” in America: so thick it was, that we could hardly pierce its denseness; my regiment was opposed to Kentucky riflemen. We had muskets, and we beat them. We had red coats—they had brown coats; yet we slew more of them than they did of us. We are told that, at the Cape, the Kafirs lie hidden till our soldiers come within a few feet! Then what do we want with a rifle? The Cape corps were armed with short carabines, not with rifles, and are said to have done better service than any other corps, while the men were faithful.”

“I saw about a dozen of these Affreedees (who are generally supposed, perhaps with reason, to be excellent marksmen), fire a volley with their jezails at about eight or ten British staff-officers, who were in a cluster about two hundred yards distance, and not one of those officers was touched, nor one of their horses! The same number of our musketeers would have killed and wounded half the party. The Jezailchees were hidden in the rocks; they took deliberate aim in perfect security to themselves, and, having fired, were off before we could get a shot at them, for they understand that work. In short, in those five days, of skirmishing, and also on more serious occasions, I never saw anything in war, as regards weapons, more marked than the superiority of the musket over the jezail and matchlock, or any rifle that I ever saw.”

“This is no trial of weapons fit for war!— firing in a dark night, rainy weather, tired soldiers, clumsy fingers, made more stiff by cold, empty bellies, not a drop of champagne to wash the experiment down! but a stern will to shoot all “foreigners” the moment they become “distinguished” in the gloom of the night, or the dawning of the day! We do not want fire-arms, in the infantry, for individual combat, but for combat in masses, where the nice aim of the deerstalker is not wanted, and human nature will not take it till men grow old in war, and become more calm in danger than those who are less practised; and even then the veteran cannot see through the dense smoke of battle: he knows well that to level low and to load quick is his game.”

The letter itself:

Exerpts from A Treatise of the Rifle, Musket, Pistol, and Fowling-piece, by N. Bosworth, 1846

“There is scarcely anything so little understood as a gun. The musket, in the hands of one who has studied its properties, will throw a ball with an accuracy that would surprise a large portion of those who are in the habit of using it.”

Yesterday I was told, by someone who thought himself well-informed, that a musket would miss any target beyond three paces. Not even thirty. Three. Realizing that I have a lot more work to do, I’m back to updating. Here’s A Treatise of the Rifle, Musket, Pistol and Fowling-piece:

In this book, Bosworth advocates for the military adoption of the rifle, and makes many recommendations to improve the accuracy of the military musket (primarily by reducing the charge to as little as 1/8th). Bosworth goes into great detail on the difference between the ballistics of a smoothbore and rifled barrel, and from his experiments we can get some interesting data on what kind of accuracy a smoothbore weapon is capable of.

In his first experiment, Bosworth commissioned an excellent gun, finished as a rifle in every way except that the barrel was left smooth. Testing against a target forty yards distant, the shots averaged a distance of 3.5 inches from the center of the target. Bosworth then had the gun rifled, and this time the balls formed a single hole when the weapon was tested again. Clearly the rifle is the more accurate weapon, but even so, most people wouldn’t believe that a smoothbore gun could achieve that kind of accuracy even at 40 yards.

While the inaccuracy inherent to a smoothbore firearm is often falsely attributed to the ball “bouncing down the barrel and flying off in a random direction”, Bosworth gets it right: “Were it possible to make a smooth-bored gun perfectly straight, a ball perfectly round, of equal density in all its parts, provided it did not turn upon any axis, and kept the same side to the front throughout its course, the ball in such case would fly with the same accuracy as a rifle-ball; but all balls from smooth-bored guns, and all shot, even down to a charge of drop-shot, are liable to turn more or less upon an axis at right angles to their course. This is the cause of the irregularity in the flight of balls from smooth-bored guns.”

Bosworth gives these tips for achieving tolerable accuracy- a perfectly straight bore, a perfectly round ball, a moderate charge, good sights, and a lock that is not too powerful. “By attending closely to these points, a good French musket may be prepared, that would hit, on an average, one turkey in four, at continuous shooting, at the distance of a hundred yards.”

Even so, Bosworth considers the muskets then in use the worst for accuracy- “It is out of proportion in point of size, the calibre being too great for the weight of the piece, and the strength of men, reckoning their average weight as admitted, to be one hundred and fifty pounds. A ball projected with a full war-charge, can not be relied upon for any kind of accuracy; and the recoil is too severe for the strength of an ordinary soldier.” Perhaps the heavy, thick-barreled muskets of the 16th century would have been much better for accuracy than the light muskets of the 19th.