Loading and Firing a French Musket in the Age of Napoleon 1791-1815.
by Robert Henderson
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.
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
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
for the Field Exercise, Manoeuvers, and Conduct of Infantry of the United
States; Drawn and Adapted to the Organization of the Militia and the
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
Ouvrez – le bassinet >
Ouvrez – net
Prenez – la cartouche >
Prenez – touche
Amorcez (no change)
Fermez – le bassinet >
Fermez – net
L’arme a gauche > l’arme
Cartouche – dans le canon >
Cartouche – non
Tirez la baguette >
Tirez – guette
Bourrez (no change)
Remettez – la baguette >
Remettez – guette
Portez vos armes >
–vos armes > Appretez armes
Joue (no change. However
sometimes published En Joue in later manuals)
Feu (no change)
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 shall be taught three men in a rank, with their
elbows touching, and to the same afterwards in file.
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.
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.
The platoon exercise shall be taught in the following order of
arrangement. The instructor
shall give the words of command,
BY TWELVE WORDS OF COMMAND.
– vos armes
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
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.
– le bassinet
(Open – PANS)
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.
– la cartouhe
(Handle – CARTRIDGE)
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.
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.
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.
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.
– a Gauche
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.
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.
dans le canon
– into the Barrel)
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
– la baguette
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
Enter the thick end of the ramrod into the barrel, and insert it as
far as the hand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let the right hand fall to the right thigh, hanging there, as
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
As in the
first motion of loading [Load- Arms].
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.
Sink down, smartly, the right elbow, cocking, at the same time, and
seize the firelock at the small stock.
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.
Apply, with force, the first finger on the trigger, without lowering
or turning the head more, and remain in that position.”
a French Napoleonic Musket here
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