A Practical Guide to Loading and Firing a military musket,

With some personal observations by a Company Officer.

Not being an Historical Document, but rather a modern essay by a Historical Re-Enactor, and so should not be used as reference to Historical Fact. Rather, it is intended solely to be used as a guide to Re-Enactors. This is not a substitute for owning and learning a correct copy of the Manual of Arms and Platoon Exercise.


Please read the forward and footnotes.

The Manual of Arms for Loading and Firing the Musket
As is practical for a company of Light Infantry

The order to load is given either from one of the following positions:
Present, with the musket level, the soldier having just fired his musket.
Shoulder, with the musket at the shoulder position.
Recover, with the musket raised in front of the soldier.
Trail, with the musket in the right hand, parallel to the ground.
We shall begin from the recover arms position.
Recover arms
The musket is brought up in front the soldier. It is not directly in front, but rather in front of his left shoulder. The lock is at eye level. The left hand is flat against the left side of the stock, fingers together. The left elbow is flush against the butt of the musket. The weight of the musket is supported in the right hand. The right forefinger is extended outside the trigger guard.

At this time the soldier checks to see that the lock is secure. He is looking for broken or loose flint, a falling flash guard, excessive fouling, or anything else that may prevent the musket from firing. The reason that the musket is off to the left is twofold. First, the lock is on the right side. He needs to see the lock if he is to inspect it for function. Second, he should be watching his target. It is very easy to lose sight of what you are shooting at, and in the rapid motion of presenting and firing, you may easily miss your intended shot.

The soldier places his right instep into the heal of his left foot. His body takes a slight right incline. The musket is brought down to the waist, and the pan is opened.  In the rear rank, this will cause the barrel to fall between his file mate, and the man to his filemate's right.  The soldier must not step back, as seems to be a common practice.  He must stay close to his file mate, so that the muzzle extends past the front rank.
It is important to remember here, that we are talking about your natural waist, not your fashionable one. The butt of the musket should be tucked into your natural waist. Your left hand supports the weight of the musket at the swell. Your left forearm is level with the ground. This should give the musket a natural 30í angle.
Pushing the steel forward with your right thumb opens the pan.
After these motions, the right hand is returned to the small of the butt. None of the fingers of the right
hand should be inside the trigger guard.  Please note that the soldier has not taken his attention away from the target. He is watching his front at all times.
If the soldier has just fired, and is loading from the present, then he places the musket at half cock, instead of opening the pan.
The thumb and forefinger of the right hand should cock the musket by grasping the jaw screw.

Never draw the cock back with your fingers, as this will cause you to cut yourself.

Handle cartridge
The soldier reaches into his cartridge box and takes out a paper cartridge. He bites the end off, farthest from the bullet.

The soldier has not taken his eyes off of the target. He tears off the paper tail of the cartridge and spits it out. You will see the round end of the cartridge containing the ball, held against the palm of his right hand, by the last three fingers. The thumb and forefinger hold the top of the cartridge while it is being opened.

The soldiers hand remains at his mouth, waiting for the next command.


The soldier glances down as he pours about 10 grains of powder from the cartridge into the priming pan. A common error occurs at this point. The musket should never be over primed. This will cause fouling and misfires. It may also cause burns to the face. The pan must close completely, with no air gap. Therefore, the soldier should only put in enough power to allow this.
Pulling back on the steel with the small finger of the right hand closes the pan. Care must be taken not to use a fanning motion to close the pan. 
This will result in the hand brushing the flint, causing cuts.  The right hand then returns to the small of the butt, remembering to hold the cartridge upright.  As the pan is being closed, the soldier must again place his eyes on the target.

In one motion, the soldier brings his right heel to his left heel, and squares his body to the front. At the same time, the musket is then turned in the left hand and brought down in front of the soldier, rammer and pipes facing him.

He empties the cartridge into the barrel. He then turns the cartridge and inserts the ball end into the muzzle. All of these motions should be practiced to where the soldier can do them without taking his attention away from his front. He must learn to load without losing sight of the target.

Care must be taken to use only proper cartridges. If the cartridge is made incorrectly, then it will jamb in the barrel, creating a serious safety hazard. Balls must be of appropriate undersize for the barrels in which they are being used.

The ball must sit directly on the charge in the barrel. Placing the tube end in first may disturb the powder at the bottom of the barrel, and block the port.

This will prevent the prime from igniting the charge, and cause a hang or misfire. Worse, it may obstruct or jamb the ball. The ball may appear to be home and tight in the barrel, but in fact there may be an air pocket in the breach.

This will cause an explosion, instead of a burn, bursting the breach in the face of the soldier.

Draw Rammer
The rammer is taken out in two quick movements and placed onto the ball in the muzzle. This is a second common point of error.
The time taken with rammers is worst cause of slow firing. The rammer should be removed from the pipes with alacrity in two swift movements. The rammer is grasped by the thumb and forefinger of the right hand and drawn a little more than half way out by extending the arm. The right hand is turned, thumb down, back to the face and grasps the rammer at itís mid point. The rammer is then drawn the rest of the way out of the pipes, again by extending the arm. While the arm is extended, the right hand is turned thumbs up, with the threaded end passing by the soldiers left ear. In the rear rank this will cause the button to pass by the right of the man in the front rank.
With the arm still extended, the button of the rammer is placed on top of the ball in the muzzle.

Ram Cartridge
The rammer is used to force the ball down the barrel, again in two quick motions. The right hand is drawn down until it reaches the muzzle. The hand quits the rammer and is then extended to grasp it at the threaded end. The rammer is then used to force the ball all the way to the bottom of the barrel.
The ball is then packed down on top of the powder at the bottom of the barrel. Grasp the threaded end of the rammer and drawi it out slightly, about six inches. Swiftly strike the ball with the rammer by throwing it back down the barrel with a flick of the wrist. This need only be done once, if the correct size of ball is being used.  The manual of arms states that this should be done twice, to ensures that the ball is seated firmly on the powder charge.
Upon completion of these movements, the thumb and forefinger of the right hand grasp the threaded end of the rammer, protruding from the muzzle.

Return Rammer
The rammer is returned to the tubes in a similar manner in which it was drawn. The rammer is thrown a little more than half way out by thumb and forefinger. The right hand is quickly turned, thumb down, back to the face to grasp the rammer at itís mid point before it falls back into the barrel. The rammer is then drawn the rest of the way out, again while the arm is extended, the right hand is turned thumbs up. The button passing by the left side and in the rear ranks the threaded part by the right of the man in the front rank. The rammer is then placed back in the pipes.
On the last movement here, the small finger of the left hand is used to draw the button down until the rammer is fully home in the pipes. The right hand remains in that position until the next word of command.

Shoulder Arms
The soldier taps the top of the barrel with the palm of his right hand. This is so that he knows that the rammer is not left inside the barrel. A common mistake made by poorly trained troops. The musket is then brought back to the shoulder position with one swift movement.

Make Ready
The musket is brought to the recover arms position and then cocked. Another care must be taken here, especially with a loaded musket. All the observations done in the first part, while at the recover arms, are to be done again.

A disagreement may occur here, on the method best used to cock the musket. The common practice seems to be to support the musket with the left hand and turn the right hand so as to hook the top of the cock screw with the right thumb. The musket then is cocked as the right hand is turned back to itís proper position.  This is not correct.

The weight of the musket should be supported by the left hand wrapped around the stock just above the lock, and the thumb and forefinger of the right hand should cock the musket using the 

cock screw.  This method, however, is only practical for a fully-grown man, whose hands are large enough to carry out the task with minimum movement. Indeed, this may be why the first method has become the common practice. I have observed an addtional problem with this, when used by younger and smaller people.

Many summer students at historic sites do not have the large hand needed to accomplish the either first method, or the correct one, and still maintain control over the musket. As the musket is being supported closer to its balance point, you will observe that it is difficult for a soldier with a small hand to prevent it from wavering, and even banging into the musket of the person beside them. The left hand acts as a fulcrum, and as the musket is cocked, it tends to rotate around the left hand. In a close packed platoon, this becomes a danger.

A less commonly practiced method is to continue to support the musket in the right hand. The left hand quits the musket and the left thumb and forefinger grasp the cock screw and draw down, cocking the musket.  The left hand is then placed in its proper position.
With the less common method, the majority of the musket's weight is above the support. More important, the movement caused by cocking is reduced, as the fulcrum is now lower. The soldier maintains more control.*
Again, it is important to stress that the thumb and forefinger are used to cock the musket. Never draw the cock back with the fingers in a fan motion, as this will cause a cut to the hand.**
However it is done, safety is most important.  When the musket is being cocked it the most likely time an accidental discharge is to occur, within the ranks.  Control must be maintained over the musket at all times.  The Officer in Command of the company should determin what is the best and most safe method.

The musket is brought down to the firing position. The right hand turns the butt into the shoulder and the musket falls into the left hand, at or close to the swell. The left hand pulls the musket back into the shoulder and the right cheek is place firmly on the comb of the butt. The right hand is relaxed slightly, still grasping the small of the butt.

The right forefinger is placed into the trigger guard and rested on the trigger. The finger should contact the trigger at the first joint, and not on the fleshy part of the tip.

In the same movement, the soldiers in the front rank take a half step back with their right foot.  At the same time, the soldiers in the rear rank take a half step to the right, with their right foot.  This step is very important, when firing in volleys.  It ensures that the muzzles of all men are extended out of the ranks.  If done correctly, the left forearm of the rear rank will rest against the right shoulder of his front file mate.
The soldier takes his last full look at the target, and closes his left eye. With his right eye, he lines up the bayonet stud on the target. When shooting at infantry, this should be the top of the target, so as to hit it in the centre. When shooting at cavalry, it should be at the centre, so as to unhorse.
On the command to Fire, the soldier draws the trigger to the rear, firing the musket. This is the point of greatest skill in musketry. The soldier must hold the musket steady, while the action takes place. If he is tense, or jerks, then he will miss his target, and waste a shot. If the soldier is disciplined, and takes care, he will hit his target, and cause great distress to the enemy.

There is a tendency for the soldier to lift his head from the comb of the butt.  This will cause him to do two things wrong.  First, he will raise his muzzle, and his shot will go high.  This will only waste ammunition, and provide encouragement to the enemy.  NCO's must ensure that their men take proper aim.

Second, as the musket recoils, he will strike himself in the cheek or eye with the comb or back of his thumb.  Only by maintaining a firm grip into the shoulder and pressing his cheek down on the comb will the soldier prevent injury to himself, from the recoil.
To Continue

At this time, the soldier may be ordered to Recover Arms, or to Load, or be given the command Prime and Load or to Cease Firing. When ordered to prime and load, the soldier repeats all the steps as outlined above, stopping at the Make Ready position. He will await the command to Present and Fire. Having been given the order to Cease Firing, the soldier will finish loading his musket as instructed and after Return Rammer, he will tap his muzzle and bring his musket to the shoulder arms position.

When in the face of the enemy, no soldier shall wait for the command to Prime and Load after being told to fire. Instead, he shall always consider that command as given, and immediately begin to load his musket.

In Training
When instructing recruits to load and fire a musket, it is best to work with small numbers. Six recruits to one NCO being the ideal. When training a larger group, such as a platoon, a fleugel man and senior NCO should also participate. The senior NCO will call the commands and the fleugel man will demonstrate them to the recruits. The NCOís will watch their individual men and correct them, as required.

An Armourer Master Sgt. should also be attending, to deal with mechanical problems.

An Officer in Command should always be present to observe the training and ensure the conduct of the NCOís. The officer will also be required to assure the Commanding Officer that all recruits have been trained correctly.

Training in Stages
Training is most effective when carried out in stages. For this purpose, a drummer should be used. Recruits should be issued with empty tubes, and their flints replaced with a hard wooden block. In this manner, the correct movements can be taught and practiced without using a soldiers annual allotment. Care must be taken to ensure that the recruits do not ram empty tubes into their muskets.
The movements are taught to the recruits, as a drummer beats the time. All movements should be done at the ordinary time, to begin. As the movements have been learned, the drummer should beat a continuous ordinary time, with the Sgt. calling commands in pace with the drummer.

When the Officer is satisfied that the recruits are all in time and performing the movements correctly, the he will instruct the drummer to increase the time.

In this manner, the soldier will develop the skill to load and fire his musket without hesitation. When the drummer reaches wheeling time, the soldiers should be able to repeat the motions 4 times in one minute.

As the Officer in Command is satisfied that the movements are correct, and the time is satisfactory, the flints should be replaced, and blank charges should be used.

Live ammunition should be used in the final stages of instruction. It should also be noted; that all training periods should begin with a review and practice with wooden starts.

When acting as a supplement to a Battalion Line, or ordered to form a line for the purpose of volley fire, it is more important that all soldiers should time together.  As the purpose of volley fire is to provide an area effect, individual accuracy is less important that volume of fire.
In this manner, soldiers shall not take time to aim at idividual targets, but rather shall ensure that their muskets are at the proper level as to effect good platoon fire upon the enemy.

For the purposes of Re-Enactment, while engaged in an opposing line, the following should be strictly adhered to.

Blank Cartridge Powder Guidlines
In addition to standard blue paper to indicate blank cartridges, smaller bore weapons should also indicate the amount of charge being used.  This can be accomplished by use of a marker pen placing a spash on the tail of the cartridge to idicate it's purpose or amount of charge.
Weapon or Bore Size
Cartridge Colour and Marking
Brown Bess not to exceed 90 grains Blue Paper, no additional marks
Baker Rifle not to exceed 75 grains Blue Paper, black mark on tip of tail
Trade Musket or Rifle (.50) not to exceed 60 grains Blue Paper, red mark on tip of tail

Blank Cartridge Saftey Distance Guidlines

Public Safety Area
Re-Enactor's Safety Area
Re-Enactor's Caution Area
No Fire Zone

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