- Historic Sites
The End Of Formalized Warfare
Military science was very rigid in the 1600’s. It quickly changed when Americans began to fight Indians
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
The first English settlers who landed at Jamestown in 1607 came dressed and armed for battle. In the best European tradition of the day, they carried not only firearms but pikes, poleaxes and swords. Across the chest they wore breastplates; to protect their legs they had light metal skirts, and on their heads sat iron pots. To the red men who watched them furtively from the fringing forests off the beach, these heavily appareled pale men must have presented a strange appearance indeed.
They were in fact a traveling exhibit of the art of war as practiced in Europe in the early Seventeenth Century. It was an age only 200 years removed from the Middle Ages, when cavalry and the lance dominated warfare. The longbow and the gun had unhorsed the plumed knight and wrought a revolution in the military arts, but the vestiges of an earlier age were still evident.
The one weapon on which the settlers placed chief reliance and which would ultimately prove the undoing of the Indian was the matchlock musket. Only one step removed from the arquebus of the Sixteenth-Century Spanish infantry—the first hand-carried gun—the early matchlock was a muzzle-loading, smoothbore weapon, fifteen pounds in weight and six feet long. So heavy and unwieldy was the gun that it had to be propped up on a rest before firing, like the modern BAR. It used as much as two ounces of powder and went off with a Hash, roar, and cloud of smoke that were as effective in producing results as its lead ball projectile.
Loading and firing the first musket were no simple tasks. Standing upright, the musketeer poured the coarse black powder charge into the muzzle and followed it with the two-ounce lead ball bullet. Both he sealed into the barrel with wadding pressed home by a long iron ramrod. The firing mechanism was the matchlock, a metal clamp that held in place a slow burning fuse called the match. When the musketeer pressed the trigger the clamp dropped the match into a small pan of priming powder outside the barrel. The flame from the ignited primer then passed through a touchhole in the barrel to set oil the powder charge which, in turn, propelled the lead ball out of the muzzle in the general direction of the enemy. When, as often happened, the primer tailed to ignite the charge, the result was a cloud of smoke and a “flash in the pan.”
The effective range of the early matchlock in battle was only about fifty yards, less than that of the English longbow, which was also a more accurate weapon. The great advantage of the musket lay in the penetrating power and destructiveness of its lead bullet, which could drop a horse and smash any medieval armor. But much of its power was lost by the escape of gases through the touchhole. Aiming the piece, too, was pretty much a waste of time and some of the weapons did not even have sights. The bullet did not fit the barrel tightly and might come out high, low, or to the side. In wet weather the gun did not work at all, and as long as there was the prospect of a fight the musketeer had to keep his fuse lit at both ends. The smoke gave away his position and the sparks combined with loose powder often had grave consequences for him and those nearby.
To perform all the tasks required to load and fire his piece, the musketeer went forth to battle as fully accoutred as a modern mechanic. In addition to a corselet and headpiece, he carried sword and “snapsack,” the rest for his musket, extra matchcord, (lint and steel, priming wire, scrapers, bullet extractors, cleaning rags, lead to make bullets, and a brass mold for casting them. His powder he carried in ready-made charges in a bandoleer, with a reserve in separate flasks, one for the coarse grain and another for the primer. Standing guard at Jamestown, a musketeer was required to keep his match lighted, his piece charged and primed, “and bullets in his mouth.”
Despite these drawbacks, the matchlock continued in general use through most of the Seventeenth Century as the standard military weapon. It was inexpensive and rugged, and its mechanism was so simple that it could be produced more quickly and more cheaply than any other firearm of the period.
Efforts to improve the matchlock were continuous. An early variation was the caliver, several of which were taken to Jamestown. This gun used a standard bore so that the musketeer would no longer have to make his own bullets. Gradually the matchlock was made lighter. By 1626 the Swedish army under Gustavus Adolphus was using a musket weighing ten pounds, thus eliminating the need for a rest. From six feet, the piece was reduced to about four, the Massachusetts regulations providing for a musket between three feet nine inches and lour feet three inches.
Various ingenious devices were introduced to make the task of loading a matchlock safer and faster. One of the earliest was the bandoleer, consisting of about twelve wooden cylinders, each containing enough powder for a single charge. For its-first settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Company purchased “90 bandaleeres for the musketts, each with a bullet bag.” The development of the cartridge cut down the loading time even more by combining in a single paper packet the powder charge and lead ball. All the musketeer had to do was drop the contents into the muzzle when he got ready to fire. In the opinion of Governor Johan Rising of New Sweden, cartridges were “many times better in the rain and in the woods than bandoliers.”