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How Musketeers Worked

The Musketeers' Musket

A discussion of old-school weapons might conjure up images of knights in armor hacking at each other with swords, battle-axes and lances. That's the way wars were fought in the Middle Ages. Then gunpowder came along, originating in China around the year 1000 [source: Kelly]. Inventors found that when they packed gunpowder into a metal tube open at only one end and introduced fire through a tiny touchhole, the resulting explosion produced a quantity of hot gases that could hurl a bullet at high velocity.

Gunpowder weapons transformed traditional warfare beginning in the 1300s [source: Kelly]. Cannons could blast holes in castles, making those structures obsolete as means of secure defense. Hand-held firearms eventually let soldiers hurl projectiles far more forcefully than they could using their own muscles or bows and arrows.

However, early firearms -- known as hand cannon -- were ineffective. Crudely made, with just a stick attached to the barrel, they were hard to aim and inaccurate. The bullets they fired usually didn't have enough force to penetrate armor. As a result, gunners had a hard time competing with trained bowman, who could fire arrows faster and more accurately. At first, the effect of firearms was mainly psychological: Loudly belching fire and smoke, they intimidated the enemy.

Gradual refinement led to the arquebus of the early 1500s. Equipped with a shoulder stock, this gun let the shooter sight down the barrel, so he could aim better than with a hand cannon. But arquebus bullets still didn't have enough power to penetrate the plate armor of a knight. This was also a matchlock weapon, which meant one fired it by touching a smoldering cord or match to the tiny hole that led to the gun's powder chamber.

During the late 1500s, the Spanish developed a firearm called the moschetto or "sparrow-hawk." This was a long-barreled gun so heavy that it needed a forked stick to support the barrel. Other countries quickly adopted it -- the French called it a mousquit, the English a musket. It used a matchlock mechanism to fire a heavy bullet with enough force to crash through steel. Armored knights on horses, who had long ruled the battlefield, were suddenly sitting ducks for musketeers. They quickly faded from warfare [source: Held].

A musketeer had to be strong to manage the unwieldy weapon, which could weigh up to 20 pounds (9 kilograms) and fire a ball almost an inch (2.5 centimeters) across [source: Held]. He also needed courage to master the complicated and dangerous process of loading and firing. He was a warrior to be reckoned with.

Musketeers became deadly threats to knights. They fought alongside pikemen, who carried 18-foot (5.5-meter) spears to protect the musketeers from men on horseback while they reloaded. Gunpowder was beginning to win the day.

The next major innovation was the introduction of the flintlock in the late 1600s. This mechanism struck a chunk of flint against steel to produce a spark. The spark ignited the gunpowder. This made it possible to shoot in wet weather and rendered the matchlock obsolete. With few armored knights to shoot, the guns didn't need to fire such heavy bullets, so their design became lighter and more maneuverable.

Then someone thought of adding a sharp bayonet to the end of the musket's barrel. Suddenly pikemen were no longer needed. By the early 1700s, most soldiers were armed with these firearms, which continued to be called muskets, even though they had changed radically from the early days of the Spanish moschetto. The new musket with bayonet was the weapon of most armies for more than a century. It's the firearm that was used in the American Revolutionary War.

Next we'll look at the Musketeers of the Guard, the gallant troops who were the inspiration for the Dumas novel.

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