Napoleon Series Archive 2010

Fouling of Muskets

David,

I agree that during the course of a firefight a unit’s rate of fire would probably have dropped off considerably, but I am not sure that fouling was that much of a problem.

The following refers to British weapons and practice, but I would imagine that other nations followed similar principals.

While it is true that we cannot be certain about the quality of Napoleonic powder, there is a possibility that is was actually better than that available to modern-day black powder shooters. For example, it is not possible to achieve the muzzle velocities that were attained in various experiments during the 18th and 19th centuries even with the consistently strong TPPH black powder as used in the London Proof House. Whether this Napoleonic-era powder was cleaner burning than modern powders is also open to question.

I shoot ball cartridge and patched ball with both original and replica Brown Bess muskets and an original Baker rifle on a fairly regular basis. I normally shoot 50 rounds per session with these guns, and fouling, particularly with the muskets, really isn’t much of an issue. This is perhaps due to the fact that I use balls of a similar diameter to those used historically, while often modern day black powder shooters opt for a much larger and hence tighter fitting ball in the quest for accuracy, and consequently do encounter major problems with fouling during prolonged firing.

In the Napoleonic era, fouling of the barrel was taken into consideration when the ammunition was constructed. A British India Pattern Brown Bess musket had a bore size of around 0.75” – 0.76” and fired a ball of 0.685” wrapped up in a paper cartridge. This obviously allowed a massive amount of windage in the bore and this was to allow for the inevitable fouling. Much confusion seems to surround the method of loading with this cartridge in some modern literature and even amongst some re-enactors that I have spoken to, but the official method was that once the end (the end containing the powder, not the ball) had been bitten off, the pan had been primed and the rest of the powder shaken down the barrel, the rest of the cartridge was inserted empty-paper-tail first, with the ball still tied inside. When this package had been rammed down to the breech, the empty tail of the cartridge was further scrunched up and compacted between powder and ball by two sharp strokes of the rammer. There was no chance of the ball rolling back out of the barrel, because it was still contained within the paper. This paper consequently formed an efficient wad to drive the ball up the barrel and also prevented a lot of the gas escape and rattling about that would have occurred had the ball been loaded “naked” with an unfilled gap between ball and bore. The paper is blown to shreds on exiting the bore and does not impede the flight of the ball in any way. This combination is easy to load, even with the bore fouled, and the paper is compacted into the changing available space in the breech. It doesn’t give the same accuracy as the tightly fitting balls favoured today, but it isn’t that bad and the accuracy actually improves as the barrel fouls up.

The Baker rifle is slightly different in that the ball necessarily has to be fitted more tightly than in a musket, but not so tightly that it would lead to trouble after a few rounds. Ezekiel Baker himself best sums this up in his Remarks on Rifle Guns:

“A ball should never be forced down too hard, nor yet should it be too easy….The ball with its patch should fit air-tight, or it will not have the desired effect…..I do not mean that the ball should fit so tight as to require a wooden mallet to drive it into the nose end of the barrel….A man’s strength is always found sufficient to make the ball enter, when it fits as it ought to….

Baker also mentioned the barrel-cleaning nature of the lubricated patched ball, and also touched upon a major reason for the adoption of his quarter-turn rifled barrel – it didn’t foul up as quickly as the more accurate faster-twist barrels and was therefore a more suitable military weapon:

“..by the patches as above-mentioned: by which method, the grooves of the rifle become air-tight; the filth from the powder is carried down upon the charge; and the barrel is preserved clean, much more so, indeed, with the quarter turn, than it would with a whole one or three-quarter one.”

With a properly fitting patch and ball that can be pushed into the muzzle with the end of the thumb, I can confirm that it is easy to fire 50 rounds or more without cleaning, and although loading does become slightly more difficult after about 10 rounds, it gets no worse and is easy to manage with the Baker’s heavy ramrod. If you try to shoot with a tighter fitting round, although the initial accuracy will be better, hammering down the ball, or cleaning the barrel, will become necessary after a very few rounds in order to force the ball down onto the powder. As with the muskets, as the bore fouls, the rifle (or at least the one that I use, as Baker states that the opposite is true) actually becomes more accurate.

There is some evidence that the patched ball size for the Baker rifle was reduced from 0.615” to 0.595” during the Napoleonic wars because of the difficulty of loading after a few rounds, although the information we have about period rifle ammunition is confusing due to the fact that loose patch and ball ammunition was not issued after around 1809, with both patched and un-patched ball cartridges, both made up in paper in a similar manner to musket cartridges, being issued instead.

It is debatable exactly how relevant information gleaned from a comfortable modern shooting range actually is in relation to the Napoleonic battlefield, so it is also interesting to look at accounts from the period dealing with these issues. While there are certainly accounts that mention the difficulties of prolonged shooting, I cannot recall many that mention actual fouling. James Anton’s account of Toulouse springs to mind. He states that his musket became unusable after a period of prolonged fire and that he searched for an abandoned French musket with which to continue. The reason that his musket became unusable in not actually mentioned and could have easily been flint, rather than fouling-related.

There are far more accounts that mention that a unit’s entire 60 round quota of ammunition was fired off and then replenished to continue the action and there are several accounts that actually specify the amount of rounds fired:

Charles Cadell states that the 28th regiment fired between 160 and 170 rounds each at St Pierre.

The Soldier of the 71st wrote that he fired 107 rounds at Fuentes de Onoro and 108 at Vittoria, and actually mentions cleaning his musket the day after, not during, the latter battle.

William Brown of the 45th claims that he fired an incredible 250 rounds at Orthez.

Fouling is not mentioned as a problem in any of these engagements or in others where the exact amount of ammunition expended is not known. Interestingly, in D Harding’s excellent Small Arms of the East India Company, he states that Chambray claimed the British musket could fire in excess of 100 rounds with no difficulty due to the fine quality of British powder, whereas the French musket needed cleaning after 50 rounds.

Finally, there is some very good evidence regarding the maximum rate of fire of British infantry in the Napoleonic era. In John Russell’s A Series of Military Experiments one experiment attempted “To try in how short a time a Man could fire Thirty-six Rounds of Ball Cartridge”.

A flugelman of the 58th regiment who had many years’ service was selected for the experiment and it was reported that:

”The first three rounds were fired in one minute; the remainder of eighteen rounds in five minutes and a half; the whole of the eighteen in six minutes and a half. And deducting the time in turning the cartouch box, which the soldier could not do without being assisted, the thirty-six rounds were fired in thirteen minutes. After twenty-five discharges, the firelock became too hot to hold, except by the sling…After every discharge, the firelock was properly loaded, and the cartridge well rammed down with two smart strokes of the ramrod.”

Fouling was not mentioned and cannot have been an issue. The second 18 rounds were loaded and fired in exactly the same time (6.5 minutes) as the first 18. It was also acknowledged that soldiers in close order could not have achieved such a rate of fire.

Regards

Mark

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