How Musketeers Worked

Musketeers took their name from the musket, a firearm that revolutionized warfare after it was introduced in the late 1500s. See pictures of military leaders.

"Lifting his hat with one hand, and drawing his sword with the other," a gallant soldier called D'Artagnan leads his three companions in a blade-clanging charge against five guards of Cardinal Richelieu, the evil opponent of the King of France. The young D'Artagnan, his heart beating as if it would burst, parries the blows of Jussac, one of the cardinal's skilled swordsmen. If he cannot overcome this experienced duelist, he may lose his dream of becoming a musketeer. He may even lose his life.

This thrilling scene early in Alexandre Dumas's novel "The Three Musketeers" is one of many in a story crammed with fighting, adventure and lovemaking. "My heart is that of a musketeer," says D'Artagnan, the apprentice warrior from the sticks. By the end of the novel, he has joined the "three inseparables" -- Athos, Porthos and Aramis -- as a member of the Musketeers of the Guard under French King Louis XIII.


The novel is a classic, and the motto of its musketeers ("All for one, one for all") is widely known. But the story of musketeers -- real musketeers -- began long before they made their literary debut.

In his novel, Dumas used history for his own ends, much the way Shakespeare incorporated actual events and people into dramatic plays. Dumas wrote "The Three Musketeers" in 1844, more than two centuries after the actual events depicted in the story took place.

The real Musketeers of the Guard were a group of soldiers who served as bodyguards to the king of France in the 17th century. The group takes its name from the musket, which was then an advanced form of military technology. In the 1600s, gunpowder weapons like the musket were expensive and sometimes elaborately decorated. They served as a prestigious emblem for the king's guard, making the group a formidable force, even though for everyday dueling, the musketeers were also skilled with a more traditional weapon: the sword [source: Nevill].

By the 1840s, the Romantic Era was in full swing, and audiences ate up tales from an age of daring soldiers, duels and Renaissance costumes. This article will take a closer look at the real men these stories were based on, including who they were, what they were fighting for and what they had in common with their fictional counterparts. On the next page, though, you'll learn more about the weapon from which the musketeers took their name.

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.

The French Musketeers of the Guard

Technically, all soldiers armed with muskets were musketeers. But the ones who wore the designation as a badge of honor were the personal household guards of French King Louis XIII. The king formed the Musketeers of the Guard in 1622, a few years before the novel's plot begins [source: Dumas].

The musketeers of Louis XIII were soldiers who served as a combination of secret service and special forces. Their main duty was to protect the king and his family. In a time of frequent plots and conspiracies, this was no small task.


The early 17th century was a troubled time in France. French Protestants, known as Huguenots, opposed domination by the Catholic crown. Bitter religious wars broke out. The struggle for power among the king, the nobility and the Church was constant, and assassination attempts were not uncommon. In fact, Louis' own father, Henri IV, had been assassinated in 1610.

Louis XIII became king of France when he was only 9. After assuming full power, he besieged the Huguenots in the port city of La Rochelle in the 1620s. The Musketeers of the Guard fought in that conflict, which is vividly depicted in the novel.

The musketeers were formidable warriors in battle. Their training and esprit de corps afforded them a decided edge. In later years, they wore elaborate uniforms trimmed with gold lace. The sight of their distinctive silver-embroidered blue tunics, not to mention their skill with powerful muskets, gave their enemies pause.

To become a Musketeer of the Guard, it helped to be an aristocrat or nobleman -- not necessarily rich, but connected to the French ruling class. Over their long history, the number of musketeers in service varied from 150 to 300 men. The group served the French monarchy almost continuously until 1816, when it finally disbanded thanks to a lack of funding [source: Smith].

As a soldier, a Musketeer of the Guard was a specialist in the use of the musket. But did he always have one at hand? Certainly not. This large firearm had little role in protecting the king on a daily basis and was never used in the duels that the musketeers fought at the drop of a feathered hat. The sword was actually the common dueling weapon of a gentleman until it was replaced by the pistol in the late 18th century [source: Held]. The musketeers would have carried elegant rapiers at their sides. The Dumas novel is full of sword fights; it mentions musket firing only a few times.

Read on to find out how this small band of 17th-century guards became famous for their chivalry and adventures.

The Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas was the grandson of a French nobleman and a Creole woman from Haiti (because his son was also named Alexandre, the author of "The Three Musketeers" is referred to as Dumas, père). He began his career as a dramatist in Paris in the 1820s and went on to become one of the most popular novelists of his time.

"The Three Musketeers" was first published in serial form in the French magazine Le Siècle in 1844 [source: Rafferty]. This partly explains the cliff-hanger predicaments that end many of the chapters. The book became an instant success.


Dumas adapted the story from an obscure, semifictional memoir about a musketeer named D'Artagnan. The real D'Artagnan joined the Musketeers of the Guard in 1632, later than his fictional counterpart, and served mostly under Louis XIV, who became king in 1643. He became commander of the Musketeers and was killed in war in 1673 [sources: Scott, Necessary]. The other main musketeer characters also had real-life counterparts, with names similar to those used in the novel. Dumas transformed the complicated history of the period into a story of love and adventure.

In the novel, D'Artagnan comes to Paris from rural Gascony bent on becoming a prestigious Musketeer of the Guard. He falls in with the three musketeers and becomes their close comrade. The musketeers are then drawn into a complicated intrigue involving the Cardinal, the English Earl of Buckingham, King Louis XIII and Queen Anne. A secret agent known as Milady emerges as D'Artagnan's nemesis. The book abounds in tales of war, travels, romance and adventure, with D'Artagnan becoming an official Musketeer along the way.

Like some modern authors of best-sellers, Dumas churned out books on an industrial scale. He wrote so voluminously that he had to employ assistants to help him. "But," as critic Terence Rafferty points out, "if Dumas was a hack, he was a hack with genius. His storytelling never seems the least bit mechanical: no assembly line, then or now, could ever turn out a narrative as joyful, as eccentric, as maddeningly human as "The Three Musketeers" [source: Rafferty].

"The Three Musketeers" has been adapted over and over into movies and stage productions. There have been comic versions, silent versions and Technicolor extravaganzas. One of the latest big screen renditions is a 2011 3-D film starring the actor Logan Lerman [source: Internet Movie Database].

If you're wondering how modern audiences could be drawn to so many different renditions of the same classic tale, just refer back to the scene -- that fight between D'Artagnan and the cardinal's soldier Jussac -- examined in the first paragraph of this article. How did it play out? The impatient Jussac sprang forward, allowing the young musketeer wannabe to skewer him -- and then proceed to his next adventure.

Read on for lots more information about musketeers.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • BBC News. "Musketeers carry Dumas to Pantheon," November 30, 2002. (September 26, 2011)
  • Dumas, Alexandre. "The Three Musketeers." Everyman's Library/E.P. Dutton, introduction by Marcel Girard, 1966.
  • "3 Musketeers Candy Bar." (September 26, 2011)
  • Held, Robert. "The Age of Firearms." Harper & Brothers, 1957.
  • Internet Movie Database. "The Three Musketeers." (September 26, 2011)
  • Kelly, Jack. "Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics." Basic Books, 2004.
  • Necessary, Ryan. "The Real Musketeers," (September 28, 2011)
  • Nevill, Ralph. "Musketeer History," Swashbuckling Press. (September 26, 2011)
  • Rafferty, Terence. "All for One," New York Times, August 20, 2006. (September 28, 2011)
  • Scott, Richard Bodley "Wars of Religion: Western Europe 1610-1660." Osprey Publishing, 2010.
  • Smith, Alex. "The Musketeers,", April 18, 2011. (September 26, 2011)