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Loading and Firing a French Musket in the Age of Napoleon 1791-1815.
by Robert Henderson

Success or failure of Napoleon rested in the hands of his soldiers. Soldiers being properly trained in the handling of their flintlocks was fundamental for victory and the French army placed great emphasis on updating and perfecting its drill. Numerous drills were published from the army with the last “Ordonnance du Roi”, prior to the French Revolution, being published in 1779. After the French Revolution had begun, the necessity of a updated drill was realized. In August 1791, Règlement Concernant Exercise Et Les Manoeuvres De Infanterie was published. This new drill manual became the bible of exercises and maneuvres for the French Army until the after the end of Napoleon’s reign in 1815. The musket used throughout this time was the 1777 pattern French Infantry musket.

The success of Napoleon’s army drew attention to the French 1791 regulations from English speaking military scholars. In 1803, John MacDonald published a complete translation of the 1791 manual entitled Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Manoeuvres of the French Infantry. The loading and firing information reproduced here is taken from that work. With war on the horizon, Colonel Alexander Smyth published in 1812 a new drill for the United States Infantry entitled Regulations for the Field Exercise, Manoeuvers, and Conduct of Infantry of the United States; Drawn and Adapted to the Organization of the Militia and the Regular Troops. This manual was virtually the same as the 1791 French drill. Smyth went as far as to copy the exact same drill illustrations.

Almost immediately after the 1791 Reglement were published, the words of command went through a slight evolution. During the 1790s every effort was being made to shorten the process of firing and improve its timing. Each command had two parts. The first part was the imperative word or words which prepares the soldier to move. The second part is the executive word of command upon hearing which the soldier moves. A uniform movement of the unit was achieved by shorten the words of command and stressing a last syllable of the command. For example in the British army the order “Cast About” evolved to become simply “’Bout”. The command “Present” in the English language was a problem because of the two distinct syllables with some soldiers moving on “Pre” and others moving on “sent”. To solve this the word was reduced to one syllable: “P’sent”. Another British example was how “Make Ready” became simply “Ready”.

This evolution in words of command also happened in the French Army and illustrate even more clearly the need for only a one syllable for the executive part of the command. This happened as early as 1793. Here are how the French commands were changed:

Chargez – vos armes > Chargez – armes
Ouvrez – le bassinet > Ouvrez – net
Prenez – la cartouche > Prenez – touche
Amorcez (no change)
Fermez – le bassinet > Fermez – net
L’arme a gauche > l’arme – gauche
Cartouche – dans le canon > Cartouche – non
Tirez la baguette > Tirez – guette
Bourrez (no change)
Remettez – la baguette > Remettez – guette
Portez vos armes > Portez –armes
Appretez –vos armes > Appretez armes
Joue (no change. However sometimes published En Joue in later manuals)
Feu (no change)

The following is the 1791 loading and firing drill for the French. In the manual all the paragraphs are numbered. The load and firing sequence begins in the manual at paragraph 54.

“The Platoon Exercise

54. The platoon exercise shall be taught three men in a rank, with their elbows touching, and to the same afterwards in file.

55. The execution of each command shall be in consequence of one time, denoting the word of command divided into distinct motions, in order to impress the component parts more strongly on the minds of the recruits.

56. On hearing the last syllable of the word of command, the recruit shall execute the intended motion lively and smartly. On hearing the respective words two, and three, the remaining motions shall be gone through. When the recruits shall know thoroughly the position relating to each motion included in a word of command, they shall be instructed how to execute them, without dwelling on each separately; but they must observe the mechanism of the motions, to be confirmed in the use of arms; and to avoid the inconvenience resulting from what is termed an unseen shifting of the firelock, as if by slight of hand, from the proper into an inaccurate position.

57. The platoon exercise shall be taught in the following order of arrangement. The instructor shall give the words of command,

LOAD BY TWELVE WORDS OF COMMAND.

Chargez – vos armes

(Load- ARMS)

First motion

58. Half face to the right, on the left heel, placing at the same time the right foot square behind the left heel, the buckle resting against that heel: turn the firelock with the left hand, the lock outwards, at the same time, seizing the small stock with the right hand, the firelock being detached from the shoulder, and supported perpendicularly, on the palm of the left hand remaining under the butt.

Second motion

59. Sink the firelock into a slanting position with the right hand, the left meeting and seizing it at the swell, near the tail pipe, the thumb of the left hand pointing upwards along the swell; the butt under the fore part of the right arm; the breech and small- stock resting against the body, two inches nearly under the right nipple or breast; the top of the barrel as high as the eye; the guard turned a little outwards; the left elbow supported on the side at the haunch; the thumb of the right hand against the top of the pan-steel [frizzen], above the level of the flint; and placed there at the moment when the firelock is thrown into the slanting position; the four fingers of the right hand shut; and the right arm, from the elbow to the wrist, lying along the butt.

Ouvrez – le bassinet
(Open – PANS)

60. Throw open the pan with the thumb of the right hand, the left hand resisting and holding the piece firmly; apply the right hand to the cartridge-box, by retiring the right elbow, and passing the hand between the butt and the body; and open the cartridge-box.

Prenez – la cartouhe
(Handle – CARTRIDGE)

61. Take the cartridge between the two fore-fingers and thumb, and carry it to the mouth, ready for the teeth to act, the right hand passing between the body and the butt.

Déchirez-la cartouche

(Tear- CARTRIDGE)

62. Bite off the top, to the powder, holdng the cartridge firm where the powder has been uncovered, between the thumb and two fore-fingers; sink down the cartridge, holding it perpendicularly against the pan, the palm of the right hand turned towards the body, and the right elbow supported or leaning on, and against the butt.

Amorcez

(PRIME)

63. Sink forward the head, and look down to the pan in filling it with powder; press close the top of the cartridge at the opening, between the thumb and fore-finger; raise the head, placing the right hand behind the pan, and hold the little finger, and the third finger firm against the back of the pan.

Fermez-le bassinet
(Shut-PANS)

64. Hold the firelock firm with the left hand; shut the pan close and firmly with the two last fingers, holding always the cartridge between the thumb and two fore fingers; seize immediately the small stock with the two first fingers and palm of the right hand; keep the right wrist close to the body, and the elbow pointing to the rear, and a little detached from the body.

Larme – a Gauche

(LOAD)

First motion

65. With the right arm smartly stretched, without lowering the right shoulder, swing round the firelock to the left thigh, against the whole length of which the butt must bear strongly, turning, at the same time, the ramrod towards the body, openly and letting the piece slop through the left hand, as far as the middle pipe, the lock resting on the thumb of the right hand; face, at the same time, to the front, turning on the left heel, carrying the right foot forward, the heel resting against the buckle of the left.

Second motion.

66. Quit the firelock with the right hand, sinking it with the left along and near the body, raising, at the same time, the right hand within two inches of the barrel, to the top of it; let the butt fall to the ground without striking against it with any degree of shock; and let the left hand, holding the firelock as described, rest against the body, under the level of the lowest waistcoat-button, the musket in contact with the left thigh, the sight on the barrel, opposite to the middle line of the body.

Cartouche- dans le canon

(Cartridge – into the Barrel)

67. Glance to the upper end of the barrel; turn smartly the out or upper side of the right hand towards the body, in order to discharge the powder into the barrel-mouth, for this purpose, raising the elbow as high as the wrist, shake the cartridge in turning it into the barrel, and leave the hand reversed, the fingers closed, without pressure.

Tirez – la baguette

(Draw-ramrod)

First motion

68. Lower, smartly, the right elbow, and seize the ramrod betwwen the thumb and forefinger bent, keeping the other fingers shut; draw the ramrod smartly by extending the arm, with the whole of the fingers opened out; seize it back-handed, at the middle, with the fore finger and thumb, the palm of the hand outwards; turn it quickly between the bayonet and the body, at the same time closing the fingers upon it, the ramrods of the men in the centre and rear ranks, in turning, grazing the right shoulder of the man in the rank before them in the same file; the ramrod forming no angle with the line of the barrel, and parallel to the bayonet; the arm extended; the eyes looking upwards; and the thick end of the ramrod must thus be kept opposite to the mouth of the barrel, without being entered into it.

Second motion.

69. Enter the thick end of the ramrod into the barrel, and insert it as far as the hand.

Bourrez

(Ram down- Cartridge)

70. Run up the right hand to the full extent of the arm, to the top of the ramrod, without letting it fall into the barrel; seize it with the thumb opened along it, and the fore finger bent; the other fingers being shut; drive it forcibly into the barrel, ramming home twice; seize it again by the small end, between the thumb and fore finger, both bent, the others being shut; and let the right elbow be close to the body.

Remettez-la baguette
(Return- Ramrod)

First motion

71. As in the first motion of drawing ramrod, bring the small end of it opposite to the upper, or trumpet-pipe, and hold it there without entering it.

Second motion

72. Introduce the small end into the pipe, and slide it into its place; raise the right hand quickly, and place it, somewhat bent, one the upper end of the ramrod.

Portez vos armes

(Shoulder- Arms)

First motion

73. Raise the firelock with the left hand, along the left side, the left hand as high as the shoulder, and the left elbow not parted from the body, keeping the barrel outwards; and sink down the right hand in order to seize the firelock at the small stock.

Second motion

74. Raise the firelock with the right hand; let the left hand fall to seize and support the butt, carrying buack, at the same time, the right heel to the side of the left, and in the same alignment; support the firelock against, and at the left shoulder, with the right hand, in the position pointed out in describing shouldered arms; and let the right hand touch the small stock at the breech, without pressing against it.

Third motion

75. Let the right hand fall to the right thigh, hanging there, as already indicated.

Apprêtez-vos armes
(Make – Ready)

[Editor’s note. At this point the drill is different for each of the three ranks of soldiers. Reproduced here is only the standing position of the second rank. The first rank is a kneeling position and the third rank is a side step position to get as close to second rank as possible before firing.]

First motion
As in the first motion of loading [Load- Arms].

Second motion

79. Bring the firelock with the right hand before the middle of the body; place the left hand with the little finger touching the feather spring, and the thumb, as high as the chin, pointing upwards along the wood of the stock, the brass plate opposite to the lock being turned almost towards the body, and the ramrod towards the front of the battalion; and apply, at the same time, the thumb of the right hand to the head of the cock, the forefinger under, and against the guard, and the three other fingers joined to the first.

Third motion

80. Sink down, smartly, the right elbow, cocking, at the same time, and seize the firelock at the small stock.

Joue
(Present)

81. Sink down, smartly, the muzzle of the piece, flipping the left hand along the stock, as far as the tailing pipe; apply the butt to the right shoulder; let the muzzle be below the level of the eye a little, and the right elbow kept lowered, without being pressed against the body; shut the left eye; look along the barrel with the right eye; sink forward the head towards the butt in order to level; and place the fore finger on the trigger.

Feu
(Fire)

83. Apply, with force, the first finger on the trigger, without lowering or turning the head more, and remain in that position.”


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