I first heard the term “musket-shot” many years ago in a video about the Battle of Valcour Island. Having participated in Revolutionary War living history for years, I knew well the modern talk of the inaccuracies and poor range of the musket so I assumed the term meant something like 50 to 100 yards. The expression slipped to the back of my mind until I went to work at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, the producer of the video, and I began to search for its definition.
I soon discovered that the phrase in the video comes from a letter written by Benedict Arnold (commander of the American fleet on Lake Champlain) to General Gates. In it he says, “Some of the enemy’s ships, & all their Gondola’s beat, & row’d up within musket shot of us.”[i] Reading other accounts of the battle did little to modify my assumption and I wanted a more definitive answer so I widened my search.
The answer eventually appeared while researching an unrelated topic in Lewis Lochee’s Elements of Field Fortification. His first use of the term gave no detail but did provide hope of finding a firm definition so, with anticipatory vigor, I continued reading. The answer soon emerged when Lochee declared, “the range of musket shot to be 300 yards.”[ii] I now had a much better idea of how close the two fleets had closed at Valcour Island.
Lochee later refined the definition when he wrote, “the point blank of our firelocks, when attention is paid to the loading, is known to be about 300 yards.” [iii] This comment raised two questions: What is “point blank” in the 18th century? and, What happens when care is not taken during loading? Addressing the first, I searched out a definition in Captain George Smith’s 1779 dictionary:
POINT-BLANK, of a gun, is the distance she throws a shot in a supposed direct line; the gun being laid at no elevation, but levelled parallel to the horizon. We say, supposed direct line, because it is certain, and easily proved, that a shot cannot fly any part of its range in a right line strictly taken; but the greater the velocity, the nearer it approaches to a right line; or the less crooked its range.[iv]
Based on this definition and Lochee’s comments, it would seem a musket could deliver its ball much farther than is typically thought today.
In addition to addressing the second question, I wondered if any other writers claimed musket-shot to be 300 yards. Indeed, I encountered several others who did. For example, in his military dictionary, George Smith wrote that “[c]ommon experience, together with some of the greatest artists in fortification, unanimously agree” on the distance. He added that while a musket will carry no farther point-blank, it will still wound and kill out to 360 yards.[v] Even the French held the same view of musket capabilities.[vi] Clairac, the author of a major French book on fortification, referred to musket-shot as 300 yards on more than one occasion. Interestingly, he also included a comment about a musket’s minimal capabilities placing “the smallest range of a musket” at 160-200 yards.[vii] It is ironic that a primary source includes a description of minimal capability that is beyond what many today believe to be the maximum.
As I continued exploring, the answer to the second question became clear and is essential to an understanding of the term in question. One would expect the typical range of musket shot to be somewhere between the two extremes of 160 and 360 yards and, as it turns out, there are several sources that support the idea. According to Lochee, 300 yards is under the best of conditions, “yet it will be prudent to rate it [musket-shot] at much less, considering that men stationed behind works, pay so much attention to the fire of the enemy, as to give very little to the effect of their own fire.”[viii] He went on to say that this effect prompted others to reduce the range to 200 to 250 yards.[ix] For example, Thomas Simes, the author of a number of volumes on the military, placed “the ordinary range of a firelock” at 240 yards.[x] Virtually all authors maintained 300 yards as quite possible but 240 yards as more probable based on the inattentiveness of the soldiers.
But for two factors, it would be easy to dismiss references to musket-shot being 300 yards—or even 240 yards—as merely an exaggeration or an effort to put the best light on the subject. The first factor, which can be seen from the above discussion, is that it appears to be a designation commonly accepted by several writers covering a large period of time. Secondly, the distance becomes much more difficult to dismiss when one realizes it is used to design, build, and attack fortifications—the practical application of the notion.
There are numerous examples of musket-shot being used in fortification construction. Of primary significance is its application as part of a rule that states angles of a fortification should not be more than a musket shot apart to allow for mutual protection.[xi] It is also used to help deal with undefended areas. Lochee’s first use of the term came as he described how to determine just such a zone in front of a salient point (an angle pointing away from a fortification). He drew a line perpendicular to the end of each face at the point of the angle and carried it out musket-shot, connected the two end points with an arc, and calculated the area within that arc as in illustration [Lochee redoubt].[xii] The design of the fortification must attempt to cover that area by fire from another position less than musket-shot away. It is important to note that while oblique fire would reduce that undefended area, all of the period writers commented that soldiers tended to fire directly to their front and that oblique fire proved ineffective. Therefore, they made all calculations based only on fire perpendicular to a face.
Lastly, those attacking fortifications also used musket-shot as part of their calculations.. Writers on siege warfare often commented that the engineers should first use their knowledge of how far shot would reach to determine those areas of the defensive position with the least protection and then begin the trenches to approach that point. Rather than simply digging randomly, “[a]ll parts of the trenches should mutually support each other, and those which are farthest advanced ought not to be distant from those which are to defend them, above one hundred and twenty, or one hundred and thirty fathoms [240 or 260 yards], that is, above musket-shot.”[xiii]
That the 18th century considered musket-shot as 300 yards seems to fly in the face of modern sentiment regarding the firelock’s capabilities. However, it is difficult to argue against primary source documentation and this statement has much from the period to support it. First, look at the qualifications of the writers. For example, Lochee is not just some minor officer trying to make a name for himself by putting his thoughts in a book—he served as the head of England’s Royal Military Academy from 1770 to 1789. As with Lochee, Smith is not some obscure officer but, rather, served as Inspector at the Academy and conducted extensive ballistic tests with both cannon and musket. Similar backgrounds can be found for many of the others. Secondly, there is such a preponderance of material placing musket-shot at 300 yards that it cannot be dismissed. Today, musket-shot appears to be, at best, a little-known term or, at worst, entirely disregarded. In the 18th century, however, it served a key role in the military. Given the number of writers who applied it in numerous situations, it is not something that should be ignored and should be accepted as factual. It is clear that 18th-century musketry could be effective at 300 yards.