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.