Forbes and Fifth

The Production of Muskets and Their Effects in the Eighteenth Century

Like any commodity, muskets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries fulfilled a need. Muskets, as commodities, were produced in order to allow for European powers to defend and expand. The production of commodities is heavily dependent on manufacturing, means of production, and the people involved in the creation of an item. There are numerous examples throughout history to which this could be applied, such as the automobile, clothing, and even food, just to name some. For this paper, I have chosen to examine the musket and how the principals of any commodity can be applied to its production techniques throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Gunpowder, or black powder, originated in China sometime between the ninth and eleventh centuries; historical estimates vary significantly. In China, gunpowder was used mostly for entertainment, but over time developed some military applications. The knowledge of gunpowder eventually spread westward into India and then to the Middle East. Europe came to learn the force of powder from the Ottomans, who adopted muskets and cannons under Sultan Murad II.1 The Ottomans used cannons to take the heavily fortified city of Constantinople in 1453.2 Impressed by the power of gunpowder, the Europeans began to adopt it themselves. Contrary to popular belief, firearms did not instantly replace armor and melee weapons. This transition took over 250 years, and firearm technology went through several transformations and much opposition.3 Cannons were unrefined and required very large amounts of powder. The first hand-held firearms were known as “hand-cannons” and were little more than an iron pipe with powder and shot. These first weapons were very crude and neither well-made nor well-designed. They were comprised of a simple iron tube with no trigger or mechanical action. The term “powder and shot” refers to the action of putting black powder, used to propel the ball—known as “shot”—down the barrel. A small hole in the rear allowed the gunner to insert a burning match and light the powder. This proved to be more dangerous to the user than the intended victim and had a range of only a few yards, but they were simple enough for a competent blacksmith4 to make. An improved version known as the “Arquebus” appeared in France and Spain in the fifteenth century. This model differed little from the hand cannon but did have a crude wooden stock attached to allow aiming, as well as an increased range of 200-300 yards.5 It is at this point that an industry specifically dedicated to musket production appeared. The Arquebus was refined further into what became the Matchlock, which incorporated a trigger and spring-loaded action. All of these early firearms were made by hand and would have been expensive custom pieces.

The musket was still far from perfect in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but despite the weapon’s potential many military leaders refused to use them and scoffed at those who did. Muskets were considered too complicated, expensive, and ineffective. Because of this, bows, spears, and pikes remained in use until the early eighteenth century. English Colonel Sir John Smith summed up the opinion of many officers of the time when he wrote in 1591 that “the bow is a very simple weapon, firearms are very complicated things which get out of order in many ways… [it is] a very heavy weapon and tires troops out on the march, a bowman can let off six arrows a minute, a musket can fire one shot in two minutes.”6 Many officers felt that the use of firearms was immoral and even criminal. The Chevalier de Bayard (1473-1524) particularly despised firearms, as he considered them unchristian and cowardly weapons that gave an unfair advantage. He issued an order to his men that enemy musketeers were to be given no quarter if captured.7 Because of this high degree of resistance to firearms in the military community, technology’s greatest developments occurred in the civilian sector, where gunsmiths could work and experiment without social scrutiny. There was a great interest in using guns for hunting and sport, even by those who opposed their use on the battlefield.8 Therefore, firearms development in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries came mostly from private gunsmiths attempting to appease hunters and sportsmen, not military officers.

By the late seventeenth century, muskets had become refined and reliable enough to be accepted as general issue to armies and began to replace older weapons like bows and spears. The sword also became more of a ceremonial tool rather than an actual weapon on the field. Pikes were still used into the eighteenth century alongside musketeers to protect them while reloading, because this process involved up to 60 steps and left the musketeers vulnerable to attack.9 By 1713, the pike had disappeared from combat completely, thanks to the invention of the bayonet,i and the musket became the dominant weapon used by European armies. The rise of the musket industry meant the fall of other arms industries, like bowsmithing and armorers, over the course of two hundred years. These crafts, which were guild run, had the option of losing work or converting their skills to the gunsmithing industry. The gun industry also introduced a new element of production: ammunition. Arrows for bow were made by the bow fletcher, and melee weapons did not require ammunition. With the musket, an entirely new branch was needed for powder, which required miners and chemists, as well as the lead shot that was made in foundries. A division of labor was applied to the lengthy process of putting a musket into the field with all its ammunition and accessories.

With the adoption of the musket as the universal military arm, the European arms industries were reshaped. Missile weapons like bows were slowly out classed by the musket. A recent study found that a longbow arrow possessed 130-150 Joules (J) of kinetic energy and a crossbow bolt had 200J.10 To bring this into perspective, a Joule is a unit for measuring energy expended to do work over a distance of one meter (m). For example; it would require 1J of energy to lift an apple (100 grams in weight) 1m into the air. If that same apple was then dropped from 1m, it would release 1J of energy when it hit the ground. The kinetic energy of a weapon depended on the bowman’s strength to draw and loose the arrow, which diminished over time. A 1.5oz musket ball had 3,100J of energy, an Arquebus ball (1oz) fired from a smoothbore musket would possess 2,700J of energy, and a pistol ball would possess around 1,000J of energy. This did not depend on the musketeer’s strength and did not diminish over time but remained consistent. Furthermore, the bow was more accurate, but it could not defeat high quality armor even at close range.11 The high amount of kinetic energy in a musket ball meant it could defeat high quality armor at 200 yards and average armor at 400 yards, and could severely injure an unarmored horse or man at 600 yards, which was far beyond the range of a bow’s arrow.12 Lastly, a mounted soldier could fight on with multiple arrow wounds, but even the strongest troops would be put out of action by a single musket ball.13 Once the power of the musket was eventually realized, European armies abandoned the bow, and gunsmiths were able to step in to fill the temporary arms vacuum. It was clear the musket would soon become dominant. While one industry faded away, a new industry was born. The musket reached perfection and made the greatest impact on the battlefield and in industry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Armies and factories were reorganized to take full advantage of the changing technology.

It is impossible to know the number of muskets that were made throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because most records have either been destroyed by war and revolution, or were never kept at all. We can speculate the amount of muskets produced by looking at the size of European armies of this time. For example, in 1740 when the War of Austrian Succession broke out, the Austrian Army had 82,000 troops.14 However, the entire force would not have been issued with muskets. Artillery, cavalry, and logistics personnel would have carried swords, pistols, or no personal weapon at all. These types of troops would not have carried muskets because of the nature of their service. For example, a cavalryman would have had a very difficult time carrying a five-foot-long standard issue infantry musket while riding on horseback. It also would have been very awkward for an artilleryman to manhandle a cannon into position with a long standard musket slung over his back, and the same would apply to a driver on a wagon. For these reasons, these units were issued different weapons that were more convenient, like a pistol or carbine that was much smaller and easier to carry around while preforming the tasks of their unique service.

During this era, the highest percentage of troops would have been infantry, and only a small percent would have had other roles such as cavalry, artillery, or supply. Therefore, the Austrian government probably possessed around 70,000 muskets for immediate use and several thousand older models in reserve. It is impossible to know the exact number of muskets available without original documents, but since we know entire armies were not just infantry but also included special units like the ones mentioned above, then we can infer that an army of 82,000 would not have required a smaller number of muskets. By comparison, the Prussian Army in 1740 had 50,000 troops,15 and the Hungarian Army had 100,000 troops.16 These armies would not have needed that many muskets, but as mentioned above, without original documents detailing the exact percentage of units that comprised these forces, we can only speculate. A problem with this method is that armies in the eighteenth century would downsize during peace. In 1750, after the War of Austrian Succession, the Bavarian Army reduced to 15,000 men; Saxony to 23,000; Hanover to 34,000; and Piedmont to 40,000.17 As the industrial revolution began, the amount of muskets produced in Europe’s arsenals increased significantly. Once machines were introduced and production was made quicker and simpler, Europe’s armies grew. In 1786, Prussia’s army was 110,000 strong,18 and in 1789 the French Army had almost 170,800 men.19 By 1779, the Hungarian Army had grown to 164,000 men under arms.20 These numbers seem to reflect a sharp increase in musket production after Europe’s factories began to be mechanized. After all, why would these armies have doubled in size if their governments could not arm them?

The process for manufacturing muskets during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries varied little between the major powers. The gunsmith guilds along with the arsenals formed the base that produced the product. The ordnance departments and armies could be seen as the superstructure in need of the product. The different gunsmith guilds were well established by this time in Britain, France, Spain, and the German kingdoms. The master gunsmith would work on the most important tasks, while the apprentices worked on smaller projects befitting their skill level. Young men entering the craft would learn the profession from a master gunsmith as an entered apprentice. Eventually the apprentice would become competent enough to assume the role of master gunsmith himself. In some cases this was a family trade; a man would learn from his father and then pass the knowledge on to his son. The man who invented the first true flintlock mechanism, Marin le Bourgeoys of Normandy, was descended from a long line of gunsmiths, locksmiths and armorers.21

The British were the first to establish a system of standardized production for muskets. It began with an order from the British Royal Board of Ordnance on September 15th, 1714, to institute a system of production control and for a standard musket design to be issued to all British troops.22 This decision was inspired by the debacle the British experienced in the War of Spanish Succession, where the use of dozens of different musket types proved a nightmare for supply personnel.23 Prototype muskets of the new approved design, known as the King’s Pattern, would be kept at each of the royal arsenals (Tower of London and Dublin Castle) and used for quality control.24 When the Board of Ordnance was ready to have muskets produced, contracts would be put out for bid to the many gunsmiths of Britain where the individual components of the muskets would be made. It is important to understand that the contracted gunsmiths did not produce the finished musket, only a particular part of it. For example, the musket locks, being the most complicated component, were contracted only to the most well established gun lock makers.ii The brass furniture (butt plate, trigger guard and rammer pipes) were cast at the foundries in London; barrels and rammers were made at the iron works of Birmingham.25 This system meant the state must come to the producers. The contracted firms were independent civilian businesses who primarily sold to civilians. Therefore, these firms could have backed out of the orders or refused to take them completely with no great worry of going out of business or losing their means of living.

Once completed, all of the individual parts would be sent to one of the royal arsenals to be carefully inspected for quality and to ensure they were “to pattern”26 with the control piece. If the parts passed inspection they would receive an inspector’s stamp and be fitted to a gunstock along with the other parts of the musket. The stocks were supplied to the arsenals by rough stockers who selected the appropriate blank stocks (specifically, seasoned walnut heartwood) from timber mills throughout Britain.27 The blank stocks were sent to the arsenals, and the final assembly of the musket was completed at the arsenal by the master gunsmiths employed there. Each musket was fired with an excessive amount of powder to ensure its strength and received a final acceptance stamp if it passed. This was known as proofing. Once the production process was complete, the muskets could then be issued to the state for use.28 The raw materials—such as coal, brass, iron and wood—had to pass through several processes to reach the final product and would have gained value with each step. The value of the work put into each step would culminate into the final value of the finished musket. This value, plus use-value, is the complete value the Board of Ordnance would have paid for each musket.

Because of this new method of production, British muskets developed a reputation for quality, consistency and reliability; however, this new system was not without problems. Because the parts had to be contracted out, it took time for all the necessary parts to arrive and be inspected. If one contractor fell behind on his order, the whole system was stalled. Furthermore, because precision gunsmithing machines had not developed yet, making universally interchangeable parts by hand was quite expensive. For these reasons, the Board of Ordnance would only order muskets to be produced in wartime or if war was likely to come. Because of the expense and difficulty to produce thousands of muskets with consistency, there was often a shortage of arms when war came, and Britain frequently had to outsource production to continental gunsmiths.29 This would have caused the use-value of muskets to fluctuate greatly with war and peace. (Unfortunately, the production records kept at the Tower of London were destroyed by a fire in 1841. Therefore, the exact number of muskets made during this period is not known.) This system also gave the gunsmithing guilds a high degree of control over the Board of Ordnance when it came to pricing, since a master gunsmith’s skills would have been in great demand during times of war. Much opposition also came from the 300-member-strong London Gunmakers’ Company that saw the new system as a threat to its traditional control of design, specification, and production of England’s existing arms industry.30

Some individual units and yeomanry groups also resisted the new system and continued to purchase their arms privately. These entities elected to purchase privately-manufactured arms in order to avoid red tape and to get their weapons faster and easier. Governments would have been concerned with supplying their armies first, and private entities would have been a secondary priority. By going directly to the manufacturers, the private units could have their orders filled more efficiently. The most famous case in which an entity purchased arms privately is that of the British East India Company, who formed their own private army equipped with British-made muskets based on the King’s Pattern.iii The British Royal Board of Ordnance’s sporadic orders for muskets depending on the perceived likelihood of war meant that the value of the muskets fluctuated constantly, as did the materials needed to make them. The British system clearly had flaws, but it was the most efficient means of musket product in Europe before the industrial revolution, and therefore, by 1740, other major powers began to copy the British method.

After the start of the Industrial Revolution (around 1760), theories of how to produce muskets along with other commodities began to change. The British system, which been embraced by Europe, had several flaws. With the introduction of better machinery in the later eighteenth century, muskets could be made faster, better, and at a single location, rather than contracted out to dozens of private gunsmiths. The two main differences in the new system were that musket production continued in peace time, and even though gunsmithing guilds still existed, the members would be directly employed at the arsenals. This new mechanized system likely led to a much greater degree of alienation to the workers. As more machines were introduced, production shifted from independent firms to large government arsenals where the entire production process was carried out in a single location. Workers could no longer leave or decline an order, or they would lose their jobs which were tied to the arsenals. The master gunmaker’s skills could now be done by a machine, and his labor became less valuable.

An excellent example of the new single-facility production method is that of Spain in the early nineteenth century. Spain had been known for good quality muskets in the eighteenth century. These muskets were produced at their main arsenals in Catalonia, Ripoll, Placencia, and Guipúzcoa (Guipúzcoa ceased production in 1794 and moved to Oviedo31). By 1800, the arsenal at Ripoll employed 80 master gunsmiths, who in wartime could produce 300 muskets per week.32 Placencia’s arsenal could produce 1,000 muskets in 1808, and the arsenal at Oviedo produced 400 muskets per month in 1794, but by 1798, production was doubled to 800 muskets per month.33 The figures for Catalonia are not available.

When Napoleon’s troops invaded Spain in 1808, all four arsenals were captured, and the equipment was shipped to arsenals in France. After this disaster, the new Juntas government of Spain began establishing new arsenals in the unoccupied southern areas of Spain to arm the resistance forces.34 It is remarkable how the Juntas were able to set up new arsenals from scratch and have them producing in just over a year. The necessary machinery was smuggled into the unoccupied areas, and production began with the arsenal at Seville, producing 5,000-6,000 muskets per month; Cadiz producing 3,000 per month; Granada, Valencia, and Murcia producing 1,000 each per month; and finally, Xerez and Malaga combined produced 200-250 together per month.35 This production rate (if maintained) would yield about 140,000 muskets per year. By comparison, in Great Britain, the Royal Board of Ordnance was producing about 130,000 muskets per year.36

The new Juntas arsenals operated with around the same amount of staff as before the invasion. For example, the arsenal at Seville in 1809 had 76 masters and journeymen.37 The Juntas, feeling very optimistic, deduced they would require 2,265 workers, including 690 masters at the Seville arsenal with the goal of producing 300 muskets per day.38 In addition, orders were placed with Britain in 1810 for 630 anvils, 120,800 files, 100 trimming tools, and 2,000 vises; these tools would be divided amongst the Seville and Cadiz arsenals.39 Raw materials were also very important. In addition to coal, iron ore, brass, and wood, the Juntas placed an order with four British iron foundries for a total of 50,000 metal plates that the arsenals would use to roll musket barrels.40 The reason the pre-invasion arsenals were placed so close to the Franco-Spanish boarder was the proximity to natural resources like coal and timber. Even with advanced technology, the system was still heavily dependent on nature.

France had also adopted a system of direct production at arsenals during the reign of King Louis XV, which continued into the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French established three main arsenals at Charleville, Maubeuge, and St. Etienne. Unlike today, arsenal personnel were encouraged to make modifications to musket designs if they felt the design could be improved. For example, the inspector at St. Etienne, M. de Montbeillard, took the initiative in 1766 to improve the Model 1763 musket, and his modifications soon became standard at the other two arsenals. By 1770, 150,000 Model 1766 had been made.41 By 1800, the French muskets were considered by many to be the best in the world. This was not by accident; France’s geographic position in the center of European trade allowed French gunsmiths to be exposed to all different designs from Spain, Britain and the German kingdoms. French gunsmiths were able to choose the best elements of various designs and incorporate these into their own muskets.42

Before the Industrial Revolution, the scarcity of muskets due to lower production meant that armies and battles were relatively small in scale. In the early eighteenth century, battles with 30,000-40,000 men would have been considered large, but by the latter half of the century, armies of that size would have been common. The introduction of machinery, standardization, and constant production meant more muskets to make larger armies. Between 1800 and 1812 Napoleon Bonaparte drafted 1,437,000 men into his Grande Armée.43 With the advent of increased production, Europe’s influence could spread even further. The new mechanized system that had been made to produce the musket ultimately led to the end of the muskets; the new technology opened the way for more advanced breech-loading and repeating rifles that would render the musket obsolete. However, in the eighteenth century, the musket reigned supreme, and the various systems that were conceived to produce them are a unique example of how commodities and their production can have an effect on history.


i First conceived at the Battle of Ypres in 1647 by the elder Puységur by jamming a dagger into the muzzle of a musket to use as a makeshift pike; the daggers were from the village of Bayonne and became known as "Bayonnettes."

ii Known lock makers included but were not limited to Grice, Galton, Farmer, Vernon, Edge, Cookes, Jordan, Willits, and Nock.

iii Some makers included; Henshaw, Nock, Southall, Gill, Brander, Barnett, and Warren.


1 Daniel Goffman. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge University Press: 2002), 51.

2 Caroline Finkel. Osman’s Dream: The History of The Ottoman Empire, (New York: Basic Books), 50.

3 Thomas Wintringham. The Story of Weapons and Tactics from Troy to Stalingrad, (1943: Houghton Mifflin Company), 101.

4 Ibid, 103.

5 Ibid, 104.

6 Ibid, 101.

7 Ibid, 102.

8 Ibid, 105.

9 Ibid, 108.

10 Frank Tallett and D.J.B. Trim. European Warfare, 1355-1750, Cambridge University Press (February 26, 2010), 210.

11 Ibid, 211.

12 Ibid, 211.

13 Ibid, 211.

14 Steven T. Ross. From Flintlock to Rifle: Infantry Tactics, 1740-1866, (Routledge, 1996), 22.

15 Ibid, 19.

16 Ibid, 22.

17 Ibid, 22.

18 Ibid, 17.

19 Ibid, 22.

20 Ibid, 22.

21 Harold L. Peterson. The Treasury of the Gun, (Golden Press, 1962), 93.

22 George C. Neumann. The Redcoat’s Brown Bess, (American Rifleman, Volume: 149, April 2001), 1.

23 Ibid, 2.

24 Ibid, 1.

25 Neumann, 1.

26 De Witt Bailey, Ph.D. Pattern Dates for British Ordnance Small Arms 1718-1783, (Thomas Pubns, October 1997), 3.

27 Neumann, 3.

28 Bailey, 3.

29 Neumann, 3.

30 Neumann, 2.

31 J. Clayburn La Force, The Supply of Muskets and Spain’s War of Independence, (The Business History Review, Vol. 43, No. 4 (1969), 523-544), 525.

32 Ibid, 525.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid, 529.

35 Ibid, 532.

36 Ibid, 530.

37 Ibid, 535.

38 Ibid, 536.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid, 537.

41 Peterson, 97.

42 Ibid., 92.

43 Ross, 91.


Daniel Goffman, The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge University Press: 2002)

Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of The Ottoman Empire, (New York: Basic Books)

Thomas Wintringham, The Story of Weapons and Tactics, (1943: Houghton Mifflin Company)

Frank Tallett and D.J.B. Trim, European Warfare, 1355-1750, Cambridge University Press (February 26, 2010)

Steven T. Ross, From Flintlock to Rifle: Infantry Tactics, 1740-1866, (Routledge, 1996)

Harold L. Peterson, The Treasury of the Gun, (Golden Press, 1962)

George C. Neumann, The Redcoat’s Brown Bess, (American Rifleman, Volume: 149, April 2001)

De Witt Bailey, Ph.D., Pattern Dates for British Ordnance Small Arms 1718-1783, (Thomas Pubns, October 1997)

J. Clayburn La Force, The Supply of Muskets and Spain’s War of Independence, (The Business History Review, Vol. 43, No. 4 (1969), pp. 523-544)

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Volume 6, Fall 2014