Monday, April 26, 2010

Loading Mechanisms: Muzzleloader

Now we will move on to loading mechanisms. The first loading mechanism we will consider is the muzzleloader (i.e.) a weapon that is loaded from the muzzle end (the open end) of the weapon. Since muzzleloaders were easier to manufacture, early firearms were virtually all muzzleloaders. The diagram below shows a typical flintlock muzzleloader weapon.
To load the weapon:
  1. The user first enables the weapon's safety mechanism so that it cannot go off when loading. In the case of a flintlock, the user puts the mechanism at half cock and pushes the safety lever. In the case of a matchlock, the user makes sure the lit match is kept well away from gunpowder.
  2. The user places the butt of the gun on the ground, taking care that the barrel is pointed away from the user.
  3. The user takes their powder from their powder horn (a conical container hanging from the waist that contains gunpowder) and pours out a certain amount of gunpowder into a measuring tube or measuring flask.
  4. The user then closes the powder horn and returns to their waist. The user then pours the powder from the measuring tube into the top of the muzzle (or barrel). The user also taps the barrel a bit to make sure the powder has settled in the bottom of the barrel near the pan.
  5. The user then takes a bullet (in those days, it was a ball) and wraps it in a patch of lubricated paper or cloth to surround the bullet. Since the diameter of the bullet is usually smaller than the barrel, the patch surrounding it ensures a tighter fit.
  6. The user then pulls out the ramrod which is a long thin rod stored under the barrel and uses it to push the bullet all the way into the barrel, so it is sitting on top of the gunpowder. The user then returns the ramrod to its storage tube under the muzzle.
  7. The user now lifts the weapon off the ground and opens the cover over the pan (called the frizzen for flintlocks and pan cover for matchlocks and wheel-locks). The user then adds some priming gunpowder into the pan and closes it. In the early days of firearms, the priming gunpowder was finer than the main gunpowder in the barrel.
  8. The user then cocks the rifle to full cock and disables the safety mechanism. Now the weapon is ready to fire.
This procedure is a bit cumbersome and many developments were done to speed this up. For instance, in the above diagram, you may note that the gun has a compartment (patch box) in the side to store patches of lubricated paper or cloth, so that's one less thing that the user has to fumble around to find.

In later flintlocks, the gunpowder was developed so that there was no need to carry around any separate priming gunpowder. The user would simply pour gunpowder down the barrel and a little would dribble out of the bottom of the barrel through the touch hole into the pan and the user would top it off with a little more from their powder horn. The same gunpowder was fine enough to be used as both a priming powder, as well as the main powder charge.

Then came the invention of the paper cartridge. Instead of the user carrying around a powder horn, a bag of bullets, another bag of patches, a separate horn of priming powder and a measuring flask or two, the user would simply carry paper cartridges, each containing a bullet and a pre-measured quantity of gunpowder. The outer paper casing of the cartridge would be lubricated with grease, lard or beeswax so that it could be used as a patch. The greasy outer casing also had a couple more advantages: it made the cartridge somewhat water-resistant and on firing, the grease or wax would melt and mix with the gunpowder residue, making it easier to clean the barrel. All the user had to do was tear off the top of the paper packet with their teeth, pour the gunpowder in the cartridge into the muzzle, then use the paper to wrap the bullet and push it down the tube with the ramrod. A little bit of the left over powder could be used to fill the pan if needed.

These advances made loading muzzleloaders much faster. The new cartridges were also one of the causes of the Great Indian Mutiny. A rumor that spread among the Sepoys (i.e. Native Indian soldiers) was that the cartridges were greased with the fat of cows and pigs (which were animals revered by the Hindus and treated as offensive by the Muslims) and by tearing the cartridges with their teeth, they would defile themselves.

Muzzle loading weapons stayed popular for quite a while. Famous weapons such as the Brown Bess musket served the British infantry for over 100 years.

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