Encyclopedia: Weapons

by: Peffy
0 comment

Infantry musket

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a famous French fortifier engineer, Vauban innovated what would seem insignificant – improved musket flintlock that was simple and reliable. From that moment on a flintlock musket with a socket bayonet (also invented by Vauban) became a basic and, in fact, the only authorized infantry weapon. A similar lock was immediately introduced in all European armies, with its design remaining intact for about a hundred and a half years.

Since 1717, the French army had undergone consecutive rearmaments with various modifications of the Vauban-lock musket. The last in the “model series” was the musket adopted in 1777. This very musket accompanied the French infantry in all wars of both Revolution and Empire.

The overall length of the French musket was about 1.5 m; barrel length – 1.1 m; weight – about 4.5 kg; calibre – 17.5 mm; cost – 24 to 34 francs depending on materials and manufacturer. Rate of fire produced by an experienced soldier averaged 2-3 aimed shots per minute. The length of a bayonet together with a socket was 48 cm, with a blade making up 40 cm. Its weight was about one third of a kilo. It should be noted that, in 1808, Russia adopted a musket, which virtually was an exact copy of that used by the French. Other European armies also used similar weapons that were slightly different from their French original.

Before the Revolution, a bullet weighed 25.5 g, and 23.0 g afterwards. Although it may appear rather strange, but political events proved to have influenced the bullet weight directly. The fact was that a bullet diameter was always less than a barrel caliber. The gap was needed to prevent the burst of a barrel due to inevitable irregularities of its inner surface. The cruder was production, the higher probability of the burst was. That is why – because of a drastic deterioration in musket production during the Revolution – it was ordered to make 20 bullets out of a pound of lead (French pound – 459.51 g) instead of 18. Bullet reduction in weight and diameter – hence, increase of the gap between a bullet and barrel wall – led to less killing power and fire accuracy on one hand and made muskets safer on the other. In the Consulate period after the restoration of normal musket production, it was decided not to revert to the old weight of bullets for the same reasons of security.

What were the combat capabilities of the musket that had been a universal weapon for European infantry for a long time? Despite its significant standardization in almost all continental armies, infantry musket combat parameters such as rate of fire, range of fire, etc dramatically differ in historical literature. Most of the authors do not provide absolute numbers (for example, range of fire under a certain angle of elevation); instead, they give effectiveness parameters that may be indirectly influenced by many factors. It should be remembered that despite its relative perfection, a smoothbore flintlock musket was just a tool that required a knack for effective usage. For example, rate of fire mainly depended on a shooter’s skill; on the other hand, fire accuracy was determined by correctness of the sight and how solicitous and continual the maintenance was.

Cold steel – Bayonet

Nowadays, a bayonet is mainly considered as one of the accessories of firearms. In fact, this point of view is justified, as a modern soldier practically never has to engage the enemy in melee because of a jammed weapon or impossibility to reload it quickly. However, things were different not so long ago.

Bayonet is an accessory that changes function of a musket or rifle turning them into a thrust weapon. This was especially topical when firearms were in its infancy. Obviously, at the end of 14th and beginning of 16th centuries there were attempts to create a weapon that would provide shooting and thrusting capabilities at the same time. The main objective was to come with a universal weapon allowing for any usage, as it would be rather burdensome both physically and financially to carry around multifarious arsenal.

The way battles were conducted in Europe started to change by the end of 16th century. Fire contact grew prevalent with tactics principles moving away from medieval traditions. This became possible with emergence of infantry muskets in great numbers that turned a milestone in new trends of military science. Thrust weapons however, could not be abandoned completely, as firearms were not very reliable and accurate. In addition, rate of fire left much to be desired. As a result, a classical pike and its modifications remained compulsory for musket-armed troops for another fifty years. At the same time, according to some written sources, such a word as “bayonet” already existed back at that time and possibly the weapon was used the same way it is used today.

It seems apparent a bayonet progenitor was nothing else but a long dagger which handle was inserted into a musket barrel turning the latter into a trust weapon. At this stage, a pike’s fate was determined – it became needless and was gradually withdrawn.

The downside of bayonets was they had to be detached before firing. Hence, attempts were made to fasten it on the barrel side with a bushing. To avert the blade from a bullet’s trajectory and allow firing with a bayonet attached, the latter was fitted with a so-called shaft (German name for this bayonet – Dillenbajonett). This mounting system left much to be desired as bayonets often fell off during a fire and even oftener in a hand-to-hand combat. Only in 1740, the French managed to get a much better fastening system for bayonets.

Early bayonets had straight blades and resembled short swords, often with jags to be used as a saw when needed. In 18th-19th centuries, bayonets became shorter and looked more like big knives. However, Saxon infantry had bayonets with a saber handle already in 18th century. They would be attached to a barrel or used as broadswords. The French came up with three-edged awl-like bayonets to be adopted by other armies later on. Afterwards, the blade became four-edged with concave surfaces. At the beginning of 19th century, the bayonet shaft acquired cylindrical shape instead of flat or cut; a blade itself was a bit straightened outwards to avoid contact with a bullet coming out of a barrel.

Armor – Cuirass

From all sorts of medieval knights’ armor that fallen into oblivion with the coming of firearms, only cuirass made it to early 19th century. It protected the body of the rider from thrusts and stabs with cold steel as well as from bullets shot from a smoothbore weapon at least at fifty-step distance.

The armor consisted of two parts – breast and back plates – fastened together with two thongs. The thongs, riveted to the back plate near the shoulders and covered with metal “scale” were buttoned at the breastplate. The plates were ornamented with a red rope along the edges and padded inside with wadding. A standard cuirass had the following parameters: height – 47 cm, breast width – 44 cm, back width – 40 cm, overall weight – 8 to 9 kg.

Cuirasses and helmets were worn by heavy cavalry troops. Their name, cuirassier derives from this very element of combat equipment.


By early 19th century, almost all European countries used the artillery system developed by Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval (1715-1789). General de Gribeauval was employed in a military mission in Prussia and Austria and participated in the Seven Years War. His observations and combat experience together with theoretical research and practical experiments allowed him to develop a field artillery system that was virtually ideal for that time. It was fated to outlive de Gribeauval himself and become the most known artillery system in Europe. It was introduced in the French army with the royal ordinance of August 13, 1765. After two-year cancellation because of palace intrigues, it was restored in 1774. The Gribeauval system was used in all wars of Revolution and Empire and lasted until the second half of 19th century in a slightly modified form.

The Gribeauval system included 12-, 8- and 4-pound field cannons (the cannon caliber, in this instance, was determined by a cannonball weight) and a howitzer of 6“4` caliber (6 inches 4 lines or 165.7 mm). Barrels for all cannons were cast of bronze according to a single standard. Uniformity was also introduced for carriages, wheels, ammunition boxes, limbers, etc to control production quality. Those measures allowed for full interchangeability of any components regardless where they were made. Ratio of the barrel weigh to that of a cannonball was 1:150 instead of 1:225-280 in the previously used Vallier system. The powder-charge weight also reduced from 2/3 of that of a cannonball to 1/3. Some decrease in the range of fire was successfully offset with significantly increased mobility and ease of exploitation as carriages had been notably lightened and equipped with bigger wheels. Because of a metal axis and bushings in the wheels, durability and reliability of the whole gun structure considerably improved. Cannon’s safety and rate of fire became much better as the Gribeauval charge constituted a specific amount of powder stuffed in a powder-bag with the latter having a cannonball or canister attached. For more accurate aiming, primitive but rather effective sights were implemented. In addition, cannons were equipped with special screws under a breech for vertical rotation of the barrel. These devices were supplemented with elaborated range-of-fire tables for different elevation angles. It should be noted that de Gribeauval pioneered a new method of the cannon calibration when a bore was drilled in a cast billet with a special machine. The Gribeauval guns underwent successful baptism of fire in the U.S. War of Independence and proved very good in the wars of the French Revolution.

For all perfection of the cannons, they would be nothing without a trained and experienced crew. In particular, high rate of fire could be achieved only by clockwork gunners. In this respect, the French crews were the best in Europe. What is amazing, they could do up to 14 shots on the shooting range. Of course, this was impossible in a real combat but even though they had to roll and lay the cannon Napoleonic gunners managed to do up to 5-7 shots per minute on maneuvers. In a real combat, they did 2-4 shots, which is actually an acceptable result for even some modern artillery systems where many functions are automated. Leaving out inevitable weariness of the crew, the only serious factor that would lessen the artillery capabilities was the barrel overheating. Howitzers in turn could deliver no more than two shots per minute, as a reloading process was rather difficult given a large caliber and heavy weight of a bomb.

Maximum range of the Gribeauval system was almost 4 km. In action however, it was rarely used because of the carriage design particularities and inability to carry out aimed fire at this distance. Range of effective fire with a cannonball was approximately 1.2 km, 1 km and 900 m for 12-, 8- and 4-pound cannons respectively. Grapeshot fire could be conducted on short and long distances with respective types of charges. Thus, 12-pound cannon fired 700 m and 500 m with “long” and “short” grapeshot respectively; 8-pound cannon – 600 m and 400 m; 4-pound cannon – 500 m and 300 m. Effective range of fire for a howitzer was about 900 m.

Most casualties on the battlefields of Napoleonic wars were inflicted by artillery. Cast-iron cannonballs whizzing over the heads of the enemy had a strong demoralizing effect. Bomb explosions could scare the enemy horses with splinters rocketing in all directions at 100-150 m distance.

Cavalry Carbine (Blunderbuss)

This short-cut gun was in the use of hussars, horse chasseurs and cuirassiers. For the most part the cavalry was armed with blunderbusses of 1801, nevertheless there were in use older models as well – of 1786 and even 1766 (according to the evidence of contemporaries, the last mentioned ones were in use preferably in hussar regiments). The main difference of the cavalry carbine was in its size: total length of this gun made up 114,5 cm and weight – 3,289 kg. Among other differences were caliber – 17/1 mm and carrying method – over the shoulder.

In Napoleon Epoch carbine was widespread enough: for the period from 1802 to 1815 Imperial manufactures in Mobezh, Sharleville, Versalle, Turines produced over 221 420 carbines. And that was notwithstanding that fact that carbine yielded to infantry arms in tactic and technical facilities. For example, when shooting with a gun from the distance of 450 steps (approximately 300 meters) a man had to take aim at the enemy’s hat and this distance was critical for more or less aimed shot. And when shooting with a carbine one had to take aim from the distance of 195 steps (125 meters), so the distance of aimed shot from the carbine was in 2,5 times shorter than when with a gun. Nevertheless, carbine was broadly used by light cavalry as it was indispensable for the front line service, combat outposts and in the cases when horsemen had to lead the fight in a foot line. However, fire-arm could be only defensive one for the cavalry of those times to hold the enemy in some distance for certain period when necessary. And it was almost impossible to use carbine in straight attack.


Broadsword is a thrust chopping single edge weapon with long straight blade. Along with saber, broadsword was one of the main weapons of the cavalry of those times. It was little heavier than saber and was mainly oriented for picking. Broadsword was an original weapon mostly for heavy cavalry attacking enemy in closed order. When rushing over the enemy with solid mass of people, horses and swords, a squadron really was of a huge power. One of Napoleon’s commanders of chasseurs, experienced De Brack noted: “The hits that kill are the hits of thrust weapons. The others just injure. Thrust, thrust as much as you can! You will unhorse all you hit, you will scare the enemy, who chanced to avoid your thrust, and besides you’ll be able to defense all that time. In the Spanish war our dragoons using thrust weapons built up a reputation, which instilled terror into Spanish and English armies”. In spite of huge quantity of fire-arms, namely saber and broadsword played the leading role in cavalry attacks during Napoleonic period.


The pikes used by light cavalry in Europe during Napoleonic wars differed in variety. Especially it concerned Cossacks’ pikes of Russian army, which had no singe standard. The size of combat head, its length and diameter were arbitrary.

Since 1806 Russian uhlans were armed with uniform cavalry pike. It differed from Cossacks’ one with the prominent ribbed head of 12,2 cm in length, provided with additional tube for more effective strengthening and with thinner black painted wooden stick. Total length of the uhlan pike amounted approximately 3 meters. The flag of thick material, the so called weathercock, was usually fixed over the weapon. The coloring of this flag determined the membership of some regiment or battalion. During the attack the weathercocks on turned down pikes whistled and buzzed, psychologically impacting over the enemy. Besides, you can imagine the breaking through capability of hardened head of the pike, caused by the speed and the weight of the horse with a rider.

Nevertheless, contemporaries noted by a common consent that the pike, being extremely severe weapon, had several disadvantages. Being too long and uncomfortable in a battle conditions for unskillful hands, it becomes completely useless. While inexperienced cavalryman armed with saber could practically hope to strike the enemy, greenhorn pikeman was nearly hopeless. It was not of such a big deal for experienced cavalryman to counter the hit of some freshman. Because of heavy weight and fairly length of the weapon the pikeman’s movements were very slow and awkward; therefore the place of the future hit was previously obvious. Countered pike usually left its owner completely unprotected from his enemy.


You may also like

Leave a Comment