Rifle musket or rifled musket?

A Rifled musket. Also a rifle musket. And a rifle.

Tl;dr – 

‘Rifle’ = short for ‘rifled gun’

‘Rifled gun’ = any firearm with rifling

‘Rifled musket’ OR ‘rifle musket’ = any musket with rifling

‘Musket’ = any shoulder-fired enlisted infantry firearm

*i.e. not an artillery or cavalry carbine, or an NCO or officer’s fusil or pistol.

Having seen the Smithsonian TV channel’s YouTube channel describe an India Pattern ‘Brown Bess’ musket as a ‘musket rifle’ – which is a nonsense term – I thought it was time to roll out my research on the term ‘rifle musket’ – which is an actual historical thing. Firstly, I should point out that their ‘test’ of the musket vs the Dreyse needle gun is typically flawed and superficial modern TV stuff, as Brandon F. details. Brandon corrects ‘musket rifle’ to ‘rifled musket’, with a ‘d’ but in fact both forms – ‘rifled musket’ and ‘rifle musket’ were used interchangeably in the period in question. Said period is from c.1850, when the technology of spiral grooves in the barrel or rifling, known for more than 300 years by this point, was first applied to standard issue infantry firearms. 

The most important thing to say is that the use of ‘rifle’ or ‘rifled’ is just a matter of preference around verb inflection, like ‘race car’ in American English (a car for use in a race) and ‘racing car’ in British English (a car for racing in). This linguistic difference was less pronounced in the 19th century (although did exist as we’ll see), and so ‘rifle musket’ and ‘rifled musket’ were genuinely interchangeable. More on this later, but the main thing I want to address – and the ‘BS history’ here – is that they don’t mean different things. Some (including the former Pattern Room Custodian Herbert J. Woodend in his British Rifles book) have suggested that the term ‘rifled’ denoted a conversion – a ‘musket’ that had been ‘rifled’ – whereas a ‘rifle musket’ is a musket-like rifle that was designed and made that way. Although logical enough, there is literally no evidence for this, no consistency in the actual use of the two variant terms, and plenty of evidence to suggest that they are just linguistic differences. 

A quick word on the word ‘rifled’ or ‘to rifle’ – as this period dictionary shows, this originally meant to raid, loot, ransack or, and this is where the grooves cut into a barrel come in – ‘to disturb’. Gunmakers running a sharp tool on a rod in and out of a gun’s bore were indeed disturbing the otherwise smooth surface of the metal. Incidentally, the term ‘screwed gun’ is a synonym for ‘rifle(d) gun’ as this 1678 source shows. The etymology is pretty clear, but had apparently been forgotten by the end of the 18th century, when ‘to rifle’ either meant just ransacking or looting, or to cut spiral grooves in a gun. At any rate, this was in use from at least 1700, and was short for ‘rifled gun’ or ‘rifle gun’. Inventor of the Baker rifle, Ezekiel Baker, refers to the generic rifle as ‘the rifled gun’ in his own 1806 book, so this long form term was still in current use at that time, but was already commonly abbreviated. Almost from the off therefore, ‘rifled gun’, ‘rifle gun’ and ‘rifle’ were all used to refer to any shoulder-fired firearm with rifling, whereas ‘rifled musket’, ‘rifle musket’ or ‘rifle-musket’ referred specifically to a military weapon with rifling. Military rifles in the age of linear tactics had to serve as both gun and half-pike, so that infantry could fight without shooting, and especially engage with cavalry. There was little need for the precision offered by the rifle, a lack of training to allow soldiers to exploit it, and in any case they were much more labour-intensive and therefore costly to make. Rifles were also slower to load, and it was more effective for the majority of troops to be drilled in musketry using quick-loading and cost-effective smoothbore muskets than to provide them with rifles. The typical rifle was designed for hunting or target shooting. Of course, during the 18th century they were adapted for limited use in war by specialist troops, and light infantry tactics developed for them, but the standard soldier’s weapon remained the musket, and until the 1840s was invariably a smoothbore musket and not a ‘rifled musket’.

Although we are used to thinking of a musket as a clunky, inaccurate, short-ranged and smoothbore weapon therefore, the actual distinguishing characteristics of the musket were really only twofold. First, it had to have a long barrel to allow for more complete powder burn and therefore sufficient velocity (especially important with the lack of gas seal at the breech) as well as enough reach to engage in bayonet fighting (especially against cavalry) and secondly, a bayonet. This is why the Baker rifle could be called a ‘rifle musket’ – and its users fought as line infantry as well as light infantry – and also why the famous Winchester company marketed a long-barrelled, bayonet-capable version of its lever-action rifle as a musket. By the end of the 19th century the smoothbore musket had fallen out of use, and so there was no longer a need to differentiate between ‘(smoothbore) musket’ and ‘rifled musket’. Of course, we could have just called rifles ‘muskets’, but ‘rifle’ was already in common usage, and the word ‘musket’ had become associated with the smoothbore musket amidst the hype of the superiority of the rifle musket. ‘Rifle’ or ‘Rifled’ was the key part of the name, so once again the standard infantry weapon was abbreviated to just ‘rifle’ – which was in any case used throughout this whole period. The P’53 Enfield was always a ‘rifle’, a ‘rifled musket’, and technically, a ‘rifled gun’ as well.

All of this would tend to suggest that ‘rifled musket’ only came in with general issue percussion rifles like the Enfield and the Springfield, but in fact early military rifles like the famous British Baker were also ‘muskets’. Rifled muskets. The 1816 ‘Encyclopaedia Perthensis; Or Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, Literature’, Volume 18 (p. 383);

‘A telescope with cross-hairs, fitted to a common rifled musket, and adjusted to the direction of the shot, will make any person, with very little practice, hit an object with more precision than the most experienced marksman.’

De Witt Bailey’s ‘British Military Flintlock Longarms’ shows that the Baker itself was in fact sometimes called a ‘Rifled musquet’, and not just in its rare ‘musket bore’ variant either. It was a musket because it was a military long gun with a bayonet. It was a rifle gun, rifle musket, or just plain ‘rifle’, because it was rifled! By this stage however the shorthand ‘rifle’ was not only in common use, but was part of the formal designation of the weapon (the ‘Infantry Rifle’). It also helped to further differentiate the specialist weapon from the common musket. However, the term ‘musket’ did survive for a long time afterward in the context of ‘musketry’ – military marksmanship. The British ‘School of Musketry’ was only formed in 1854, when rifles were already standard issue – in fact that’s primarily why it was formed; soldiers now had to learn how to hit their mark at distance. My mention of ‘musket bore’ raises a third differentiating aspect that I ignored earlier; because it becomes irrelevant in the 19th century, which is a larger, heavier bullet than the typical rifle, carbine, or ‘fusil’. This held broadly true from the inception of the musket in the 1530s to the 19th century when (rifle!) musket bores reduced as velocities went up. However, even in this earlier period, a carbine could be of ‘musket bore’, just as it could also mount a bayonet. Terminology is a thorny problem that is just as often driven by the armed force that’s doing the naming as it is by logic; but here I’m just concerned with sorting out the ‘rifle(d) musket’ issue. 

The official British term for an infantry rifle intended for use by ‘line infantry’ (i.e. not light infantry or specialist riflemen) during the period of the Pattern 1853 rifle was ‘rifled musket’, in keeping with the modern British English grammatical preference. As noted though, this was less set in stone in the mid-19th century and ‘rifle musket’ was also used, notably by Henry Jervis-White-Jervis in his 1854 ‘The Rifle-musket: A Practical Treatise on the Enfield-Pritchett Rifle’. ‘The Rifle: And how to Use It’ by Hans Busk (1861) uses both terms, leading with ‘rifled musket’, and is referring to the Pattern 1853 rifle, so again, there’s no question of ‘rifled’ meaning a conversion of a smoothbore musket. In the U.S. also, both terms were used. Peter Smithurst in his Osprey book on the P’53 refers to the records of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteers of Springfield (July 1861);

‘….Friday morning the regiment marched to the U.S. Armory and returned the muskets loaned them for the purpose of drill, and in the afternoon we received our full supply of the Enfield rifled musket.’

Yet the ‘Catalogue of the Surgical Section of the United States Army Medical Museum’ by Alfred A. Woodhull (1866, p. 583) lists various weapons, using ‘rifle musket’ for the U.S. Springfield, but ‘rifled musket’ for foreign types including the P’53. Once again, interchangeable terms for the same thing. 

There you go – call them ‘rifle muskets’, ‘rifled muskets’, ‘rifle guns’ or just plain ‘rifles’ – all are correct and all refer to the same thing – a military rifle. The only reason we don’t call an M16 a ‘musket’ is fashion, basically.

2 thoughts on “Rifle musket or rifled musket?

  1. Good article.

    1) Something amiss here, perhaps: “Note that Wikipedia erroneously calls this a// My mention of ‘musket bore’ raises a third differentiating aspect that I ignored earlier; because it becomes irrelevant in the 19th century, //which is a larger, heavier bullet than the typical rifle, carbine, or ‘fusil’’ ?

    2) I am sure I read on the defunct Victorian Wars Forum that when rifled arms were first issued to infantry regiments in general, Wellington urged that the new weapons be termed ‘rifle muskets’ to discourage the line infantry from thinking they were now all ‘riflemen.’ (A much harder job to convince Riflemen thenceforth that there would be no essential difference between them and the line). Did you come across this at all?

    1. Thank you – a weird failure of WordPress to update my final draft – when I went to edit it, I had already made that edit; but it hadn’t updated.

      On (2), no, I’ve not come across that. It doesn’t sound particularly likely just on the face of it to be honest.

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