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