How to make yourself an easy target in the age of horse and musket

Ever fire a long gun? A shotgun? A rifle, even? If you have you’ll know half the knack of aiming is to keep the thing as steady as possible.

The best method is to lie down, preferably with the barrel supported on something solid. Kneeling makes you less stable and standing is even worse. So what’s the worst gun-platform of all?

The back of a horse?

Okay, trying to aim a gun while standing in a small boat on choppy seas might be a tad more difficult, but often there’s not much in it. So why on earth equip cavalrymen with a carbine – in effect a shortened musket using slightly smaller gauge ammunition?

Well – they might be expected to skirmish with enemy cavalry, standing away from their opponents and sniping at them rather than charging with swords raised.

Long before the Napoleonic Wars, dragoons were mounted infantry. Horses were simply transport, used to get them quickly to wherever they were needed. Once in position they would dismount and fight on foot. Over the years as both armies and the area they fought over grew in size, dragoons were less likely to dismount than attack on horseback using their swords. But they kept their muskets.

Before 1800 dragoons – who came to be known as ‘heavy dragoons’ carried…the Heavy Dragoon Carbine. With a 42in long barrel this was only 4in shorter than the original 18th century infantry Brown Bess musket, and the same length as its later replacement. Imagine trying to steady a weapon more than four feet in overall length to take aim, never mind being on horseback as well.

Heavy Dragoon Carbine (shortened model)

Worse was trying to reload. Ramming powder and ball while making sure you didn’t accidentally drop the carbine needed both hands free. Your horse had to stand like a rock, reins hanging loose on its neck, while a lump of gunmetal and walnut banged against its shoulder.

Eventually the barrel was shortened to a more manageable 28in, the same length as the Elliot Carbine issued to light dragoons. The latter’s ramrod was machined with a groove which located over a lip on the weapon’s brass fore-piece to stop the ramrod accidentally falling out of the retaining groove in the stock. Lack of this feature meant the heavy dragoon carbine had to be slung butt-downwards from the saddle, and its massive length ensured it either banged the horse’s front leg or poked upwards, interfering with the reins, depending on how low it was carried. Because of this, and the fact that heavy cavalry were not expected to skirmish like their light cavalry counterparts, many regimental colonels restricted the number of men carrying carbines to a half-dozen per troop.

Elliot Carbine

Skirmishing with cavalry carbines was mostly a waste of time. Because of the necessary gap between barrel and ball, smoothbore weapons were notoriously inaccurate. Longer barrels improved this slightly, but if the Brown Bess with its 46in barrel could only be relied on to hit a target up to fifty yards away, how could shorter-barrelled guns be any use at all?

So when the 16in barrelled Paget Carbine was issued to light cavalry after 1808, many thought they would be better-off getting close enough to the enemy to use their sabres. Small enough to be handled fairly easily on horseback, this gun had a captive ramrod attached by a swivel below the muzzle. Though that meant the end of dropped ramrods, many felt this feature unbalanced what was already a lightweight weapon, adding to its inherent inaccuracy. But because it was quicker to reload it probably saw more use than previous models, even if, in the end, it did comparatively little damage to the enemy.

Paget Carbine

The reloading issue meant only one regiment was issued with rifles: the tight fit of ball into barrel made them hard work to load. The 10th Hussars carried a version of the famous Baker rifle, used by the 60th and 95th regiments and immortalised by Bernard Cornwell’s fictional rifleman, Richard Sharpe. Since the full-size rifle was already carbine rather than musket bore, it was simply reduced in length and the equipment-snagging scrolled handguard replaced with a pistol-grip carved into the stock.

But the main problem with using any such firearm on horseback was this: you couldn’t shoot over the horse’s head. That was far too dangerous, as well as making it awkward to hold the carbine. You had to hold the gun across your body and this meant turning your horse side-on to the enemy.

Skirmishing with a Carbine

In other words you made yourself a much bigger target. Easy, wasn’t it?

~ by cavalrytales on March 9, 2012.

7 Responses to “How to make yourself an easy target in the age of horse and musket”

  1. My era of interest was 250 years earlier than this when the only gun available was a strange ungainly newly invented affair. However, I found your post absolutely fascinating. I’ve always had a soft spot for Captain Harry Smith of the Light Brigade (Napoleonic wars) – so this helped bring a few things to life for me – thanks.


    • Hi Barbara – Harry Smith interests me, too. He seemed the same kind of slightly swashbuckling character as Thomas Cochrane, who also took a ‘child’ bride.

      Good job there were no mounted arquebusiers – by the time the slow match ignited the charge the muzzle could be pointed anywhere!


  2. Enter sidesaddles. Just kidding. Great blog post Jon. And the horse really had to trained to deal with this. Thank you.


    • Hi Judy – you’re very welcome, as usual. I guess at least with a sidesaddle the recoil wouldn’t be able to knock you off the horse backwards!
      The powers-that-be kinda forgot about that in the Boer War when they issued a shortened rifle but kept the same ammunition. Too much propellant led to plenty of well-bruised shoulders.


  3. Fascinating post and what a wonderful blog (which I am now going to delve into and spend many a happy hour).
    I’m researching the 17th Lancers and their part in the American Revolutionary War before 1780 (yes, a narrow window but important to my WIP). Any good sites you can recommend would be gratefully appreciated.


  4. Thanks so much. I had a couple of the links but there was one I was not familiar with which will help greatly with my research. Cheers!


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