Nerd School: How Accurate is Your Musket?

by Joe on November 26, 2012

As a history buff, I have always loved the Assassin’s Creed series’ attention to detail. Sure they take immense liberties with “actual” history, but it’s the small details that both frustrate and delight me. Take for example the humble musket in Assassin’s Creed III.

Assassin’s Creed III is the first game in the series to take place in an era where firearms are widely available. Almost all the baddies you take on are equipped with some  form of gunpowder. These weapons come in two forms, the long unwieldy musket and the flintlock pistol. Though both come in multiple forms throughout the game, they function on the same level.

There is a unique genius to putting these weapons in a video game. Having a gun with a 15 second reload is a wonderful snub to gamers who are used to FPS games with unrealistic amounts of bullets being reloaded at the flip of a switch. However, before we laud the firearms in ACIII, let’s look at how realistically they are portrayed.

Muskets and flintlocks in ACIII are of the muzzle loading smoothbore variety. Muzzle loading means that they are loaded from the forward open end of the barrel. This is opposed to breechloaded guns, which were loaded from the back of the gun. Muzzle-loaders were far more common, as they were simpler to make. Breechloaders had more parts, and were more expensive to make.

Fans of First person shooters take the modern bullet granted. Developed in 1882, the copper casing (or jacket) bypassed a loading method which had been standard since the development of the gun. During the period covered in ACIII the musket was loaded by the following method:

  1.  Load the gunpowder. Usually you would see a gunpowder flask or horn with a small nozzle for pouring a measured amount into the muzzle.
  2. Then, “wadding would need to be added. The wadding would usually be a small piece of cloth or cotton which would help form a tight seal around the bullet.
  3. Next the projectile itself would be added. In ACIII the standard ammo used is a small lead ball.
  4. Finally the last of the wadding would be added
  5. Then the whole thing would have to be packed tightly using a  “ramrod.” The ramrod was pretty self explanitory, as it was a rod used to ram everything into a tight condensed package in the barrel.

When firing, a small hole in the breech would catch a spark from the flint. The flint was a small chalky mineral which would spark when struck against metal. The spark would ignite the gunpowder and the resultant chemical reaction would produce enough force to push the projectile forward out the barrel.

The scary thing was, that in a firefight, after you shot your gun, you would have to do this for every reload. Not to mention that you would also  be under fire from the enemy. Generally, this is why during historic battles , like Lexington and Concord you would see large blocks of troops lined up in rows. This is so if one row (rank) was reloading, another row would be firing. This served a duel purpose of shooting the those shooting at you, and covering those who were reloading.

No to mention that the shooters and reloaders would be  surrounded by smoke from the gunpowder. Smokeless powder wouldn’t be invented and used widely enough until the late 1880’s.

All of this would have to be done in about 5-7 seconds. In ACIII Conner completes a “casual” reload in about 10-`15 seconds.

This was amazing technology for the time, but it had its drawbacks. For one, there were significant accuracy issues. With modern guns, the barrel would be “rifled”. This means that the barrel would have a spiral pattern cut to the inside. This would “spin” the bullet. The spin would help  keep the bullet on a forward trajectory. The musket would hopefully push the ball forward, but usually it would bounce along the interior. It would exit the muzzle at whatever angle it had last bounced at. When properly loaded, aimed, and fired the musket was very deadly. But in reality, this is why battles like Lexington and Concord which had thousands on each side (3,800 colonials vs. 1,500 loyalists) and only have 128 casualties. (Historically more casualties were caused by infection rather than the bullet themselves in most cases.) ACIII misses out on the accuracy of the musket, by making Conner a pretty crack shot with it.

Though, to be fair, most battles during the era did not just include shooting. Often during engagements, the musket could have a bayonet attached, and be used as a melee weapon, like a spear. At five feet in length and weighing about 10 pounds, the Brown Bess (the common name for a British Land Pattern Musket) was as effective as a hand to hand weapon as it was from a distance.

Even though the musket and flintlock pistol are featured prominently in the game, it is worth noting that throughout the American Revolution, The Kentucky or Pennsylvania long rifle was used quite often as a sniper weapon. Featuring the rifling mentioned earlier, the reason it wasn’t used exclusively was its reload time which was about double that of a musket. The long rifle also didn’t have an exclusive bayonet, as they weren’t designed for military use.

Aside from the  graphic design issues in the game surrounding the weapons (they all tend to look like long rifles in play) the designers did a fairly accurate job in showing both its awkwardness and accuracy. It’s frustrating to use, and much easier (and more effective) to attack in stealth.

Assassin’s Creed may not be accurate in its accounts of history, but the level of detail put into something as small as a musket shot is important because it is teaching both young and old gamers along with entertaining.

Read some other stuff from Joe, hear him on the Planet Arbitrary podcast, or follow him on Twitter @planetarbitrary


Read Joe’s other articles:

The Walking Dead: Off With Their Heads- Katanas in a Post-Walker World, If I Only Had a Brain- Biology and Headshots, Keep on Walking- How Walkers Get Their Groove Back, Big Smiles- The Dangers of the Walker Bite

Doctor Who: Doctor Who Season 6 Round Up, An Alternate History of the DoctorDoctor Who Season 6 primer, Psychology, and Regeneration, The Pitfalls of Paradoxical Storytelling, The Missing Episodes

Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer IIGame of Thrones Primer I, Inn at the Crossroads Interview, Season 1 recap, The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3, The Religions of Westeros, The Races of Westeros

Star Trek: Evening the OddsStar Trek Blu-rays 1 and 2 Trek in your Queue 1 and 2, Obama TrekStar Trek: A Different Generation, Failed Star Trek Spinoffs

Misc: Sci-Fi ComposersThieving Sci-Fi, Paranormal Activi3The Walking Dead Primer, The Genre Problem, Conan Primer, Mutant Fatigue, Sci-Fi A-Team, A Love Letter to Natalie PortmanThor Primer


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Anthony November 26, 2012 at 11:43 am

Forget muskets. Hidden blades FTW.


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