How far is “musket-shot”? Farther than you think.

Musket volley. Source Saratoga National Historical Park.
Musket volley. Source Saratoga National Historical Park.
Musket volley. Source: Saratoga National Historical Park.

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.

Redoubt. Lochee. Elements, Plate II.
Redoubt. Lochee. Elements, Plate II.

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.

Field of Fire
Field of fire from redoubt. Lochee, Plate IV.

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.

 


[i] Arnold to Gates, Papers of the Continental Congress, NARA RG360, M247, item 152, roll 167

[ii] Lewis Lochee. Elements of Field Fortification (London: T. Cadell, 1783; reprint, Oldwick, NJ: King’s Arms Press & Bindery, n.d.), 37 (page references are to reprint edition).

[iii] Ibic., 70.

[iv] George Smith. An Universal Military Dictionary (London: J. Millan, 1779), 206. Smith served as Inspector at the Royal Military Academy.

[v] Ibid., 98.

[vi] M. le Chevalier de Clairac, The Field Engineer, trans. John Muller (London: J. Millan, 1773), 5.

[vii] Ibid., 147.

[viii] Lochee, 70.

[ix] Ibid., 135.

[x] Thomas Simes. The Military Guide, for Young Officers, “Curtains.” (Philadelphia, 1776). 2:n.p.

[xi] J. Brindley. An Introduction to the Art of Fortification, “Fortification Regular,” (London, 1745). n.p.; Simes, “Curtains,” 2:n.p.

[xii]  Lochee, 6.

[xiii] LeBlond, 1:16.

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37 Comments

    • Wayne – Forget Tim Murphy. He never thought he’d hit Fraser…why should anyone else:)
      What this debate needs is a couple of days in the field! Now THAT sounds like fun. Nothing quite so pleasant as the smell of black powder in the morning….:) 🙂
      This is an excellent article.

      • Based on my research on gunpowder used in the Revolution I do not think using modern “black powder” will give you the same results as to what the results were in the Revolutionary era. The quality of powder varied which affected the range of any musket, rifle, or piece of artillery. The British almost certainly averaged better at first, but after the first half of 1777 most of the Americans were using French gunpowder which in my opinion was better than the British powder by the end of the war.

        So the range of a musket varied depending on the quality of powder and that varied over the course of the war. This also had a much bigger effect on artillery which needed a finer powder. My article on gunpowder should be hitting the Journal next week so we can discuss it there too.

  • I’m pretty sure we’ve got Colonel George Hanger of the British Army to thank for our concept of musket inaccuracy – at least in part, anyway. It was he who famously said (or wrote) what I’m sure many have us have come across in our reading:

    “A soldier’s musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many are), will strike a figure of a man at 80 yards; it may even at a hundred; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, providing his antagonist aims at him; and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you may as well fire at the moon and have the same hope of hitting him. I do maintain and will prove…that no man was ever killed at 200 yards, by a common musket, by the person who aimed at him.”

    I don’t know when he said it, or where it was first printed (or even who he was!) but countless writers and historians have used the quote (or variants) ever since, and most seem to have missed, ignored, or even deleted the subtlety of his statement: that he was talking about the maximum range of someone being hit WHEN THAT PERSON WAS AIMED AT – not the actual maximum distance a musket ball could go.

    It’s my opinion that over the years, the Colonel’s quote was codified in it’s misunderstood or edited form so many times, by so many different authors, that it became over time the standard answer as to the maximum distance a musket could fire.

    Happily, Mr. Barbieri seems to have set us back down the right path.

  • A very well-researched article, Michael. A highly respected and deeply mourned officer of the Middlesex County (Ma.) militia, Col. Thomas Gardner, was mortally wounded by a musket ball as he was descending Bunker Hill, leading his men towards Breed’s Hill. This unfortunate shot must have been in the hundreds of yards.

  • It should be agreed that to give Col Hanger and Lewis Lochee and George Smith their fair due is to get out to the range and conduct an exercise in accuracy. Granted it will be with more modern firearms and 20th century power but it is a great excuse to get out and put theory to the test. Please advise of the results and I will do the same. I do not think I ever took a shot out to 300 yards with blackpower firearm.
    Regardless I am better now to have a crystal clear description of MUSKET-SHOT and POINT-BLANK. It enhances my historical reading immensely. Thank you Mr. Barbieri.

  • In experimenting with this at a range, bear foremost in mind what has been mentioned in various ways above:
    This definition of Musket Shot pertains to lethality, not accuracy – groups of soldiers firing from a fortification will be able to damage groups of soldiers at 200 to 300 yards, but that doesn’t mean an individual is likely to hit a specific target at that range. At these ranges, volley fire is effective because some of the balls are bound to hit – and those that hit can be lethal. The closer the enemy gets, the more balls are likely to hit.

  • Do any of you shoot muskets with live ammo at targets or game? Actual experience may temper your opinions as to the effective range of a smooth bore musket. I’m not talking about how far it can throw a ball, but the distance of its effective accuracy. You might consider looking at: http://www.willegal.net/iron_brigade/musket.pdf

    With respect to the definition of point blank, note that it is the distance the ball goes in a straight line without elevating the muzzle above the horizontal. A bullet begins to drop as soon as it exits the bore. At 300 yards (refer to the url) a musket ball fired at a muzzle velocity of 1000 fps has dropped about 20 feet. That means to hit the target one has to aim 20 feet above it — the barrel is no longer “levelled with the horizon.” It is elevated at a significant angle above the horizon. So it no longer meets the definition of point blank. What appears missing from the definition, although one assumes it is implicit, is that the shot is intended to hit the target. Otherwise what’s the point of firing?

    Consider a present-day definition of point blank: “In external ballistics, point-blank range is the distance between a firearm and a target of a given size such that the bullet in flight is expected to strike the target without adjusting the elevation of the firearm. The point-blank range will vary with the firearm and its particular ballistic characteristics, as well as the target chosen. A firearm with a flatter trajectory will permit a farther maximum point-blank range for a given target size, while a larger target will allow for a longer point-blank range for a given firearm.[”

    The smaller the target fired at with a given charge the closer the point blank range. The point blank range with a musket ball fired at about 1000 fps to hit a six foot man anywhere from his head to his feet is closer than 150 yards. This presumes that the musket is fired by a man standing on level ground and the musket is about 5′ above the ground. If you define the target as the chest, the point blank distance is closer. If you define the target as the heart, it is closer yet.

    Now if the musket is fired from a wall 20 feet above the ground the point blank range is 300 yards. If from a 40 foot wall, the point blank range is greater. But this is a ridiculous argument and serves no purpose for the discussion.

    The effective distance for musketry, in my view, both from extensively shooting muskets and muzzleloader rifles for years and from 18th and 19th century battlefield accounts is well under 300 yards. Why did troops not engage at 300 yards, if that was an effective range for musketry? The effective range, meaning a reasonable probability of hitting a man at whom you aimed, is under 150 yards as practical experience.

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating — go out and do some shooting. Try it for yourself.

    • The muzzle loading forum I belong to has members that have done some very interesting ballistic testing with a chronograph with his Brown Bess reproduction musket, and loaded with a 90 grain charge of 2F Goex powder and a .735 patched ball he was able to get 1635 fps at the muzzle.

  • Herman,
    I think you’re leaping to some conclusions. Some of us do live fire muzzleloaders – rifles, muskets and pistols – and have for years. I do and I believe that the author of this piece does as well.
    Your comments about the term point blank range are the modern definition – note that in the article the author is using an 18th century definition with different interpretation.
    You may find a July 15th article of mine of interest.
    http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/07/the-inaccuracy-of-muskets/ I used Sierra Bullets Infinity 6 Exterior Ballistics software to make my calculations. But, remember my loads were not necessarily what was actually used in the 1770’s.
    There are many, many factors involved in accuracy – especially when you’re talking about muzzleloaders – muskets in particular. The ballistics of a roundball are not anything like modern projectiles as you well know. Sights, or lack of sights, are another major problem.
    Also, we really don’t know the load that was used in the 1770’s. Was the powder comparable to the black powder available today? More powerful? Less? And, just how much was being used in each load? We don’t know the muzzle velocity of the 1770’s. We don’t know the windage (difference between the diameter of the ball and the inside of the barrel). So many factors are involved and we can experiment/test/calculate only a few….and may not have them right.
    Please don’t think that the writers of our articles are all Ivory Tower types who don’t have any basis for what they write. That’s not the case. The author of this particular piece has vast experience.
    I’d welcome the opportunity for a group of us to do some field testing….but, not knowing exactly what a period musket’s load and performance data was we still would not have definitive answers.
    Hugh T. Harrington

    • Hugh, you seem to have missed my point. Although it seems to me that your July 15 article makes my point. Although, it’s not clear if you actually test fired at the distances you talk about. In my youth I calculated page after page of exterior ballistics tables, but I had only a slide rule 🙂 and then I went to the shooting range. The 18th century and present-day definition of point blank are essentially the same. Both state that the barrel of the firearm is parallel (levelled) to the horizon. The 18th century definition apparently recognizes that bullets drop (it can’t fly in a straight line) and that the higher the velocity the less it will drop over a given distance (the less crooked its range). A musket ball can go much further than 300 yards as I’m sure you well know and any serious shooter knows. But the barrel has to be elevated; the physics are the same for a modern high velocity cartridge. The velocity of the ball, sighting, and the other variables you mention are irrelevant to my point (yet reinforce it). Velocity differences with respect to point blank range are covered in the present-day definition. The same holds for, and is stated in, the 18th century definition.
      The critical factor is that the barrel is level to the horizon (ground). The bullet must begin dropping immediately. Perhaps I don’t understand the point of Barbieri’s article. His argument seems to rest entirely on the definition of point blank range, which as I said is essentially the same then as today. The point blank range for a musket is much less than 300 yards. (I may have a look at the original sources to help clarify this discussion for myself.) That’s a physical fact then and now. By elevating the muzzle the ball can go much farther than 300 yards, but that’s not its point blank range. As someone who has shot and hand loaded both smokeless and black powder cartridges for over 50 years and fired at targets up to 1000 yards (in some cases with an original 1874 Sharps .40-70 BN), that a musket ball could travel 300 yards was no revelation. Moreover, I don’t see how that is at odds with “modern sentiment regarding the firelock’s capabilities.” As I stated none of my experience (which seems to be consistent with your July 15 article) or period battlefield accounts suggests that musket fire could be effective at 300 yards. The key word is effective. Musket balls can easily reach 300 yards, but hitting anything is pure chance. By elevating the muzzle even more the ball will travel farther (I know there’s a limit). So if the ball travels 500 yards is that the effective range? And so forth. I won’t discuss the effective distance of a muzzleloader when hunting. I’m sure you know muzzleloaders are short range firearms. As I said perhaps Barbieri’s point went over my head. One last comment. Nothing wrong with the Ivory Tower. The best of all worlds is combining the analysis and scholarship of the Ivory Tower with practice. Those people I call scholar practitioners. Until retirement I was a professional USGS research scientist for over 30 years. If you are interested, I’ll send you offline a manuscript I wrote comparing flintlock rifles and smoothbores over different distances. I also build from scratch flintlock longrifles. I too would be interested in doing some long range testing. A problem is that I probably can’t see out to 300 yards!

      • The problem still lies with the differences between gunpowder two centuries apart. At the time of the Revolution they didn’t know what saltpeter was made out of in chemical form. Making niter was an imperfect science to say the least. American made gunpowder was inferior to almost all European powders and that had a wide range of quality as well.

        Today’s black powder (by the way, that term didn’t even exist in the 18th century) is a far better quality than probably the best gunpowder at the time of the Revolution. That means all musketry calculated today is nowhere near what it was in the 18th century. They used an average based on their experiences and those differed because of the gunpowder quality.

        We haven’t even factored in the differences that would have resulted in what powder was used to ignite the powder in the barrel. If they had to use a lower quality powder then it’s rate of burn would have been slower and that would have meant the shooter would have had to hold their aim (with no sights on a moving target) longer.

    • Oh, I meant to mention that instead of “effective range” perhaps “danger zone” would be more appropriate (see the Willegal article referred to in my original post). Even if the chance of being hit by the ball is remote there is still the danger of being hit.

      Herman Karl

  • Well, the discussion has gone pretty much as I expected–using modern experience(s) to debate the article. Problem is that what I or Hugh Harrington or Herman Karl or Jimmy Dick or Arnold Stang or Quigly Down Under can do today really has nothing to do with my presentation. According to several reputable 18th-century sources, “musket shot” was 250-300 yards–period. If one wants to debate that conclusion, then similar primary sources of information should be used. So far, the only one that has been presented is Hanger’s and his comments are based on a one-on-one condition–something neither I nor the writers I explored claimed.

    A question: Does anybody have period documentation of the muzzle velocity of a land pattern musket? Much of Herman Karl’s discussion is based on 1,000 fps and I’m curious if that is accurate for the 18th century.

    I must admit that I find it difficult to believe that distance but, by the same token, I find it even more difficult to deny numerous primary sources making the same point. As Jimmy Dick has pointed out, the powder is considerably different. Further, our repro firelocks are equally different–most smaller and lighter than originals as well as made of different materials. To top it off (and I think I mentioned this in a response to another article–Hugh’s?) they made 30-40 cartridges out of a pound of powder–that’s 175-230 grains per cartridge. I have yet to hear of anybody using charges of that size today so there is no way we can know what impact that has on range. With so many differences between original and modern conditions, it’s even harder for me to deny the period’s claims.

    • Mike and all,

      My last comment. I’m not talking about the range — the distance a musket ball can go. And I’ve already commented on “effective” vs. “danger zone.” In that light, designing fortifications to account for the “danger zone” of musketry makes sense. I’m not aware of any battles with troops in linear formation where musket fire commenced at 300 yards. It seems to me if that was the effective range firing would begin at that distance. But be that as it may. Of course, that brings up battlefield tactics and may further complicate the discussion. I rely on the eyewitness accounts more than the theoretical calculations for design of fortifications. And present-day experience does bear on interpreting the past. All bits of information need to be weighed and integrated to synthesize a strong interpretation. My comments have focused on the definition of point blank. Unfortunately, I confused that issue by introducing a present-day definition. I did that in an attempt to clarify the language in the 18th century definition (which obviously is archaic). As I explained the 18th century and present-day definitions say the same thing. Although, it seems to be at odds with “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.'” I’m checking the documents you cited so that I can learn for myself how he refined it. Jimmy Dick has stated that the “power” of 18th century powder was weaker than today’s (I look forward to his article). How much weaker who knows and what velocity was generated by 160-235 grains is not known. But that does not matter for the definition of point blank, which seems to be the lynchpin of your article. I’ve explained my view as best I can and there is no sense to repeat it. Clearly we disagree and I and the rest of the commentators are talking past each other. That’s fine. You’ve alerted me to a couple of good references, which I will now consult. Perhaps if somebody does some shooting at 300 yards it will help clarify the discussion? To that point — has anyone read the article I cited in my original post? It has a discussion of test firing that Prussians did at 320 yards. Albeit it Napoleonic war era, but it provides information relevant to this discussion. And the article states that the 1000 fps velocity used to calculate drop is lower than that reported for early/mid-19th century flintlock muskets, which in one case for a .69 cal. flintlock is 1500 fps but Willegal also points out that is not a significant factor. Perhaps powder had improved by then as the charge was 120 grains. If you want to disregard that as irrelevant to the discussion OK. Maybe Hugh using his software can calculate the drop at 300 yards for a .69 dia. round ball at various velocities? You might want to read the article as it informed my comments.

      • Mike, just to be as clear as I can since you keep coming back to the 300 yard range. I do not doubt that a musket ball in the 18th century could have a range of 300 yards. None of my friends that shoot black powder firearms doubt that. (Of course, that presumes a normal charge and not a squibb load). So the 300 yard range for an 18th century musket is not a revelation to me. Nor do I doubt that a musket ball could be lethal at that range and beyond. So if your only point is that a musket ball could travel 300 yards using 18th century technology I concur. And I would think it could go much further. The point I addressed as I’ve explained is point-blank and effectiveness. By effectiveness, I mean the probability of hitting a man-sized target (because we are talking about battle conditions) that you aim at. And that is clearly what Hanger commented on — not the greatest distance a ball could travel. For further clarification, when I state that I’m not aware of battles among troops in linear formation starting to fire at 300 yards, I’m not saying that the ball could no travel 300 yards — I’m certain it could. I am not saying that they waited until 100 yards, for example, because the ball would not travel farther than that. Using 1000 fps as an example, at 300 yards they would have to aim 20 feet above the target to hit it. At 100 yards the drop is about 2 feet (as near as I can read it off the graph in Willegal). A variation in velocity makes no difference to my argument. If you want higher velocity for the sake of argument then hypothetically you might have to aim 10 feet high at 300 yards and 1 foot at 100 yards. If slower that 1000 fps, you would have to aim higher at both distances. You decide at which distance you are more likely to hit the target you aimed at no matter what the velocity. If you consider chance hits at 300 yards effective fire, OK; I don’t. In this regard, Don Hagist is essentially saying the same thing I am and much more succinctly. All of you can argue about the affect of powder, equipment, etc. on the effective range. I’ve had my say. I shall reframe from further commentary as there’s nothing I can add.

        • You are shooting at the messenger, Karl. I am not making this stuff up nor am I basing it on anything other than period documentation. I am stuck on 300 yards because I am simply telling folks what I found in several primary sources–no interpretation, no personal bias, nothing but info from the 18th century and that from several sources, not just one or two. Your argument is with Lochee, Smith, Clairac, Simes, et al (whoever Al is). By the way, Lochee’s refinement–as with all the others–is the addition of comments regarding attention paid to loading. They all drop their ranges when the soldiers are firing under normal conditions but, even at that, they still say well over 200 yards.

          I, too, find it hard to believe the distance for “musket shot” but, rather than deny several sources and say it’s not possible just ’cause we and our science has problems duplicating it today, I say we should try to figure out how they did it. I didn’t know how they made fire with flint and steel or cordage out of bark but I learned. That’s what research and discovery is all about.

          As for opening fire at 300 yards, one must keep in mind that 18th-century linear warfare is not about slaughter wherein the guy with the most men left standing is the winner. It is, in fact, much more of a chess game wherein opponents try to put their enemy in an untenable position, in part by messing with their minds. Hitting a few guys at 300 yards has nowhere near the mental impact of hitting scores of them at 100. Making the enemy not want to be there is how outnumbered armies can win a battle or, in the case of the American Revolution, a war.

  • Before we get too carried away with the argument we need to recall something very important. Regardless of how far a musket shot would carry, there were very few occasions where a 300 yard range was possible in the American Revolution. The terrain of that era was not the terrain of this era in that all kinds of obstacles were present with the main ones being trees. There just were not that many places where a sizable body of troops in two opposing forces would have 900 feet of open land between them that was relatively flat, treeless, fenceless, or what all.

    Matthew Spring’s book With Zeal and With Bayonets Only covers some of this in better detail. Realistically 300 yards wasn’t an operational reality very often.

      • As I said I shall refrain from commenting further. Mon. Lochee will comment for me. His statement clearly makes my point and supports all of my comments. I found this in the original source, Elements of Fortification 1780.

        “150 toifes [300 yards], upon trial, will be found to exceed the point blank of our firelock which has even a barrel of 3 feet 8 inches in length, and carries a leaden ball of somewhat more than an ounce weight: when elevated 15 degrees, it carries from 7 to 800 toifes [1,400 to 1,600 yards]. That the faces of the bastions may be properly defended by the flanks, Stevin fixes the line of defence at 1000 Rhinland feet; Errard fixes it at 120 toifes; Chevalier de Ville fixes it at 180 geometrical paces, and Mr. Vauban to about 135 toifes.”
        p. 48 of the original manuscript

        My final observation:
        Determining the distance meant by a “musket shot” may be a bit more complicated than you thought Mike. For me, its always been simply a qualitative expression meaning “close”– an expression like ‘by the skin of my teeth’ or a ‘hair’s breadth’. If you want to quantify it, you might want to consider Lochee’s statement above. Is a musket shot as far as 1600 yards? If the barrel is elevated to 45 degrees one would expect the ball to travel even farther. Your interpretation of the data is that a musket shot in the 18th century was considered to be 300 yards. That’s one interpretation.

        Further on, Lochee has a table comparing the point blank and maximum range of cannon. It’s clear that the definition of point blank than is the same as it is now.

        It should be possible to calculate the muzzle velocity of the ball by working backwards from the distance the ball carried at a muzzle elevation of 15 degrees; the weight and BC is known. And you can calculate the caliber presuming the ball is pure lead.

        And by the way, I’ve read With Zeal and Bayonets and many other references on tactics and strategy.

        Unless I find additional information that you all might found useful, I will sign off. I think the comments have advanced the discussion and everyone’s knowledge.

        • It just struck me as I read this note that you seem to be taking the definition of “point blank” as meaning a direct straight line and “musket shot” as being specifically 300 yards. Regarding the former, if you read Lochee’s definition I provided, he admits it’s not a direct line. Regarding the latter, if all you read is my last paragraph, then it would seem 300 yds. is the figure. However, if you read the body of the article, it is clear that I included many other distances. Granted, the conclusion may not have been worded very well but it’s the body of the work that counts. Sorry if I did not approach the discussion quite as literally as you did.

          That being said, I don’t have a copy of “Elements of Fortification” and I’m curious how Lochee defines “point blank” in that work. I’m wondering if he had a change of mind over the three years prior to “Elements of Field Fortification.”

          I’m also curious if he defines “musket shot” (or some similar phrase) and gives a distance. Does he give any indication of what elevation of a musket would bring the ball in at 300 yards? Fifteen degrees (a fist at arm’s length is 10 degrees) really isn’t much for the ball to carry nearly a mile.

          How does he define “line of defence?” As I said in my original article, most writers (including Lochee in his 1783 work) determine the distance by musket shot. I’m assuming he does the same in this 1780 work since he gives other author’s distances that are just that–Stevin’s 1000 Rhineland feet is 344 yards (1000 R. ft. = 1033 London ft.), Errard is 240 yards, de Ville is 300 yards (1 geometrical pace = 5 ft.), and Vauban is 270 yds.

          Lastly, unless you want an unvarying figure like 300 yards for “musket shot,” figuring it out is not complicated at all. When someone says “musket shot is” and gives a distance, then that’s what it is. If there’s any interpretation needed at all, it’s simply figuring out the average that 18th-century writers used. I assumed folks would know I was using 300 yards as a general number rather than one chiseled in stone. I probably should have said it’s easier and acceptable to place musket shot at between 250 and 300 yards. In any case, it’s still far beyond what folks generally assume.

          One thing age–and scores of reenactment battles–has given me is an ability to sense when something has gone beyond its audience’s attention span. I suspect readers have moved on from this discussion as should I. They certainly didn’t need this last paragraph … or this last sentence … or phrase … . Sorry.

          • Just for the record… Inadvertently I said “in a straight line” in my first post. That’s incorrect and I didn’t catch it to delete it before submitting post. The next sentence states “A bullet begins to drop as soon as it exits the bore.” In that post and subsequent, I clearly explain what is meant by point blank.

    • I disagree regarding the open land argument inasmuchas many of the battlefields of the Revolution were wide open farmers fields, so much of Pennsylvania, NY, etc being cleared of timber by this point.

  • I am sure I speak for many others when I say this exchange has been very helpful. When I first read Mike Barbieri’s article, I realized it might be very important for those of us interested in the battles fought during the American Revolution. We have probably all encountered Col. George Hanger’s assertion that an aimed shot at the figure of a man has a good chance of hitting at 80 yards, and very little chance of striking at 150 yards. So several of Mike Barbieri’s statements seemed to call Hanger into doubt: “… I knew well the modern talk of the inaccuracies and poor range of the musket, so I assumed the term [musket shot] meant something like 50 to 100 yards,” “… it would seem a musket could deliver its ball much further than is typically thought today,” and “It is clear that 18th century musketry could be effective at 300 yards.”

    Unfortunately, Mike Barbieri relies almost entirely upon historical sources about 18th century fortifications. That doesn’t seem very helpful for rebutting George Hanger or “modern talk of inaccuracies and poor range of the musket” in battles of the American Revolution. So for example, although Lochee in his Elements of Field Fortification notes the disagreement among experts about whether the ramparts of a fort should be elevated above the general level of the surrounding ground, his own diagrams show parapets for the defending soldiers that vary from 12 to 24 feet above the surrounding ground and 18-40 feet above the floor of the defensive ditch or moat. (See Lochee, Plates IV and XIII.)

    If the charts offered by Mike Willegal are correct, a musket fired level (“point blank”) from a parapet at the attacking soldiers in a defensive ditch 18-40 feet below would have a range of about 300-375 yards. (Willegal’s graph for 1,000 fps does not extend beyond 300 yards, so I have had to extrapolate.) Those distances are pretty much what Mike Barbieri’s sources say is “musket-shot” distance for the purposes of planning a fortification. But of course, in this situation, the muskets are essentially small-caliber artillery, and the killing effect is from plunging fire on a mob of attackers well below. Or think of it the other way around – to reach those distances, the defending soldiers at the parapet are firing level, which means they are “aiming” 18 to 40 feet above the heads of the attackers in the ditch. That really is not “aimed fire” in the sense that George Hanger or “modern talk” has in mind when commenting on the limited effective range of an 18th century musket on a battlefield of the American Revolution.

    There is one other comment by Lochee worth noting, in his argument for elevating the ramparts of a fort significantly above the surrounding ground. Unless this is done, he argues, it is “dangerous if not impossible” for the soldiers in the main fort to fire over the heads of their comrades in the fort’s outermost defensive positions, because “it is known that the wind of the shot alone has killed the men stationed to defend them.” (See page 51 in Lochee’s original.) The distances to the counterworks that Lochee shows in his diagrams vary considerably, but typically they are about 240-360 yards. (See Lochee, Plates I, III, and XV.) In sum, Lochee himself seems to agree with Hanger, that given the inherent limits of muskets in the 18th century, reliably-aimed fire at “musket-shot” distance was just not possible.

    • I’ve been aware of the challenge of using primarily engineer writings since I first started looking into the question. However, I used them because I feel they are the most accurate. They are the people, after all, who use that term and measurement in their work. Most other folks have only a passing familiarity with it.

      Nevertheless, there are examples of non-engineer types who comment on musket-shot distance. The one I cite in my article is from Thomas Simes, an infantry officer and there are a couple others that I chose not to use in the article. The first is a quote from James Thatcher’s A Military Journal During the Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783 in which he writes about the British attack on Fort Moultrie in South Carolina: “The fleet anchored within half musket shot of the fort on Sullivan’s Island.” I’m not terribly familiar with that action so I did a bit of searching and found three references to the distance; Col. Moultrie mentions about 400 yards separated the fort and fleet, one map measures the distance at 4-500 yards, and another map that has “900 yards” written on it. I suspect that Thatcher had no idea of the actual distance.

      The second incident is from the siege of Boston. I came across a letter in the 25 September 1776 edition of Story & Humphrey’s Pennsylvania Mercury in which the writer says, “they have suffered our men at Roxbury to throw up an intrenchment below the George tavern, and within musket shot of their last intrenchment.” To add support to that statement, Washington also says, “Our advanced Works and theirs are within Musket shot.” As far as I know, the American advanced works sat near the tavern but about 4-500 yards from the Brit advanced fleches. Based on the other examples, that seems a bit far for “musket shot.”

      While looking for information on Thatcher’s reference, I did a bit of rummaging through William Moultrie’s Memoirs of the American Revolution and have come across a couple examples that, while they don’t specifically use the term “musket shot,” show that troops did open fire at more than a few dozen yards. I have read of others over the years but, do not have the documentation at hand. The first from Moultrie:

      They [the British] came down about three in the afternoon, in three columns, six abreast; the centre column which came down the road, at least (the two other the Gen. could not discern so plainly) begun to fire at three hundred yards distance, and having displayed when about 150 yards off, kept up from that time a regular and general fire. [v1, p340]

      Another says, “It was a maxim with the old king of Prussia, that young troops should begin to fire at two hundred yards distance; by which he said ‘they became animated, and enveloped with smoke, saw no danger, and rushed on like old soldiers.” [v2, p246]

      A third notes; “Webster’s brigade attacked the front line, which gave way when their adversaries were at the distance of one hundred and fifty yards, many of them without firing a gun:” [v2, p269]. In this action, the firing had begun some distance before the line broke. And, the comment about not firing indicates that others had been firing.

      Lastly, I want to reiterate that I don’t think any of the authors are saying that AIMED musket shot is accurate at these distances. I am sure they are all referring to volley fire.

      I really hope this has been interesting to more than just those of us replying.

  • Great article, Mike. For what it’s worth, I agree with you that reference to contemporary sources is essential to understanding this issue in its proper historical context. The book Firepower, by Major-General B.P. Hughes, CB CBE, Sarpedon 1974, 1997 covers the issue of the battlefield efficacy of smooth bore weaponry in excruciating detail, relying entirely on primary sources, mainly musket trials conducted c. 1800. His primary interest is in the Napoleonic period but his book is a great resource for any time during the “age of the musket”. In a nutshell, based upon field trials “back then” under ideal conditions, a musket fired from a fixed rest could hit a linear target (of various dimensions) 60% to 70% of the time at 100 yards and 16% to 20% of the time at 300 yards. It makes sense to me that a fortifications engineer would plan defenses for the maximum range at which a musket was judged to at least start to be effective, particularly against an advancing enemy. The real value of Hughes’ work, though, is his evaluation of the actual performance of smooth bore weaponry at various ranges under varying battlefield conditions in several battles of the Peninsular Campaign; I highly recommend it.

  • Everyone seems to be concerned with whether the musket can hit the mark at 300 yrds. I believe that it has more to do with the energy needed to be lethal at that range. It does not matter if you can hit the target if the ball just bounces off the target. A smooth bore of musket size would have little energy left at that range. A rifle would have more.

  • I usually go by 19th century ordnance manuals, when they were able to better standardize and measure the performance of .69 caliber smoothbore muskets. According to this source, https://books.google.com/books?id=cLZJAAAAYAAJ&dq=range%20of%20small%20arms%20musket&pg=PA124#v=onepage&q=range%20of%20small%20arms%20musket&f=false , point blank is 200 yards, and at an elevation of 30 degrees you can get 500 yards (using the post 1841 charge of a .65 caliber ball and 110 grains of powder) and the ball will pass through a 1-inch pine board. However, the odds of hitting anything at these ranges is nil. There is a great difference between the effective range of a musket and the extreme range at which the ball becomes spent by air resistance and the end of its flight to earth.

  • A word of caution here: when we are dealing with fortifications there are two possible definitions of ‘musket shot’ – that distance at which an attacker can hit you, and the range at which you can bring fire down on him from your elevated firing position on the ramparts, which is considerably greater.

    Again we are not talking of individual aimed fire but volleys intended to produce a ‘beaten zone’ (similar to the effect of artillery case shot) through which an attacker must advance before being able to effectively return fire with his muskets.

  • Good article. Watched a youtube video, not long ago, that took on the accuracy of a musket. Personally, I don’t feel it was a fair test. Firstly, they used a trained military sniper who has been schooled primarily in modern day rifle ballistics and fire procedure. Not to say he doesn’t know how to shoot a black powder rifle, however; when you think about it, it would have been a better test if they had used a subject who has lived, slept, ate, and pretty much married his firelock, much like our ancestors had. Our ancestors, just like today’s military snipers, knew their firearms on intimate levels much beyond that of the casual user. They knew the best powder grainage, best load amount, best ball and patch combination… all of it and they knew it well enough to know exactly where they needed to point the firearm in whatever conditions were present, again like today’s snipers.

    • Your comment holds true for the riflemen, long hunters and o’er the mountain men for sure, but the average soldier on both sides was a farm boy or runaway apprentice in his late teens who was handed an inherently inaccurate smooth bored weapon and taught how to load it in formation with others while avoiding maiming anyone in the ranks around him. Marksmanship and range time *as we would recognize it* was non existent for him.

      By the time he actually got to fire his musket in anger, he was tired, hungry and very, very afraid, all factors which we would recognize today as affecting accuracy.

      • I agree with your statement, as I would think it would be most apparent in fresher recruits. However, mind you this is just in my thought pattern, that a well seasoned soldier, especially one serving the crown would have much more experience with their firelock, that even in given conditions of hunger, fatigue, fear, and fierce battle; they could pull off a better range then would say a modern day shooter of that very same firelock, lest they grew up again living and eating black powder. Then again it is just a thought and simple opinion. I obviously didn’t live in the 18th century and although I have experience with the British long and short land model muskets, as well as limited experience with a Charleville. I have yet to make the ranges it is said a seasoned soldier would in theory be able to pull off.

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