Sunday, May 25, 2008
Getting Shot by a Musket
What was it like to be shot by a musket? I'm going to assume that none of my readers have had that experience. If so, do tell. Should be an interesting story. But, assuming no one has been shot with a musket, I ask the question again -- What must it have been like to be shot by one?
The most common weapon of the American Revolution was the smoothbore flintlock musket. The advantage to the target is that a smoothbore musket isn't very accurate. If you're the target, your chances of being missed are much greater than if you were in, say, World War II and coming under fire from a machine gun. But...
The advantages pretty much end there. To give you an idea...the Brown Bess British musket was 75 caliber and the Brits used a 69 caliber ball. If hit by one of these 69 caliber balls, it would hurt. A lot.
A musket ball didn't cut its way into you. It smashed through skin, bone, and muscle - and sometimes would then bounce around even more inside your body (doing even greater damage). If you were fortunate, the musket ball would pass clean through you - a simple in-and-out flesh wound, perhaps damaging some nerves and muscle tissue. But if it impacted bone, you were in trouble.
Of course, once wounded, your problems were only beginning. You would need medical care. And medical care in the Revolutionary War wasn't exactly...well...good. This wasn't the fault of the practitioners (not in most cases anyway). Medicine simpy hadn't developed to a point that it could adequately keep up with the diseases, hardships, and injuries of the Revolutionary War period. For a good overview of the medical problem, go here.
Getting back to that accuracy issue...the tactics of the day took the musket's limited range and accuracy into account. This is where volley lines and bayonets come in. A mass of soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder firing their muskets in a unified direction helped compensate as did the bayonet. If you feared getting hit by a musket ball, getting impaled by a bayonet was even less appealing.
Of course, if you were fortunate enough to escape battlefield injury during the Revolutionary War, you weren't "out of the woods" yet. Far more soldiers died of hardship and disease than on the battlefield. That's right. If musket balls and bayonets didn't get you, there was still something like smallpox to take care of business.
It's hard to find an upside to life in the Revolutionary War period. As historian David McCullough has repeatedly reminded us, life was hard in that time period. Today, we tend to see this era through romanticized paintings. But we need to guard against the assumption that things were easier or better.
I thought this Memorial Day weekend would be a good time to remind us all of that fact.