Educational / Interesting Articles

How to Load and Fire a Musket or Flintlock Pistol (explained briefly with appropriate jargon)

Part of the research I had to do for a book included learning how ‘muzzleloaders’ operate. So now I’ll briefly share what I’ve learned.

Muskets or any flintlock firearms are generally always reloaded via the muzzle like a cannon. First, a ‘powder horn’ or ‘powder flask’ is used to pour ‘grains of powder’ aka gunpowder down the muzzle and into the bore where it settles at the breech. Experts may be able to eyeball how much powder’s needed for a successful ‘fire’, but many people use a ‘measuring flask’ in order to make sure the correct amount is inserted. Paper cartridges became widely used in the 17th century to make the process of putting powder down the bore more easy.

how to reload a musket in real life
flintlock weapons

After the gunpowder is inserted, a cloth wad is placed on the muzzle and then the lead ball or bullet is placed on top of the wad. The wad isn’t always needed, but it helps to make sure the ball’s airtight within the barrel so that it won’t come rolling back out. The wad also helps to secure an airtight chamber in the breech which ultimately makes the ignition more effective. The detachable ‘ramrod’, which is usually always conveniently ready to withdraw from a tube underneath the barrel, is used to tamp the lead ball down the barrel until it’s snug with the powder in the breech above the trigger and below the pan.


Once the ball’s nice and snug, the ramrod is reinserted into its holder. The reloader then needs to ‘prime’ the gun before he or she can fire it. This is done by lifting up the mechanism known as a ‘frizzen’ where the abovementioned dish-like space known as a ‘pan’ sits underneath. A secondary smaller powder horn known as a ‘priming horn’ is used to fill the pan with a finer version of gunpowder known as ‘primer’ or ‘priming powder.’ It’s important that primer is put into the pan because primer contains less saltpeter aka potassium nitrate than normal gunpowder. Unlike your typical, coarse gunpowder, primer is smokeless when it ignites, and since the pan sits close to the operator’s eye when he or she is aiming, you can imagine why it’s a good idea to have a smokeless ignition. But of course in times of war, getting a shot off no matter what is far more important than avoiding smoke in your eye and so normal gunpowder also served as primer if needed. Primer is also much finer than regular powder. That means primer can catch a spark more easily and therefore acts like an engine’s spark plug, while the normal gunpowder in the breech is the car’s gasoline, so to speak.

Once the pan is primed, the frizzen is locked down to cover it, protecting the primer from the elements. The next step is to pull back the ‘cock.’ The cock is the hammer-like mechanism attached to the trigger that holds the flint. Once the gun is fully cocked, all the operator needs to do is aim and pull the trigger. When the trigger’s pulled, the cock snaps forward, smacking the flint against the frizzen. The frizzen unlocks and opens up from the force, revealing the pan. This allows sparks from the flint to simultaneously fall into the pan and ignite the primer. A hole in the bottom of the pan allows the gunpowder behind the lead ball to also ignite forthwith. And presto! If everything is dry and loaded correctly, the bullet should zoom out posthaste. But aiming is a different story.

How fast could a soldier reload a musket?

Historically, exceptional musketeers could reload a muzzleloader four times per minute, so the average was probably closer to 2 times per minute.

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7 thoughts on “How to Load and Fire a Musket or Flintlock Pistol (explained briefly with appropriate jargon)

  1. I love how, despite how complex you make it sound, the practiced fellow could still get four shots off per minute. 🙂 Just goes to show that things always happen faster in combat than you can anticipate!

    1. When I first heard four shots per minute I didn’t believe it. But after understanding the process of loading I realized its just a sequence of movements that, if practiced over a lifetime, could be done in 15 seconds. Four shots per minute was an ideal, though, and I bet the average was a lot lower.

      1. You’re probably right. And in combat, even a single second can be a long time! No way the Highland charge could have been a viable tactic otherwise. 🙂

  2. I would like to know your source of data that states that gunpowder was once called ‘shot’.
    Your recommended load of gunpowder at 100 grains. Is that for all calibers?

    1. Hello, Cecil. Turned out when I said “grain of shot” I should have said “grain of powder” so I made an edit. Thanks for helping me clear that up. And as for using 100 grains of gunpowder I no longer know if that is true, because I was confusing “grains of powder” with “grains of shot” (which is actually the weight of the projectile) when I wrote this blog article years ago. I also can’t say much for different calibers. I hope the rest of the information you found was useful.

  3. Fffg used for priming is not smokeless and you can prime from same powder as used to charge the rifle or musket if need be.

    Pouring powder directly into the barrel from the horn/flask is not a good idea. If there is a lingering ember in the breech very bad things can happen. Paper cartridges or a powder measure ensure not only a consistent charge but a limited conflagration should things go south.

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