A simple note on the terminology of Black Powder era weaponry

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    WARNING! The following contains large amounts of rambling about jargon.

    Many of you will know, having almost certainly researched quite a bit about the period your models portray, that drill manuals specified that commands such as “shoulder arms!” Be given, meaning of course that the soldiers under the officer’s command, should place their muskets upright, against their shoulders. I am here to tell you that “arms” Isn’t necessarily the right term. In drill manuals of the American war of Independence (in the British army), at least, there were two different words that officers were to use referring to muskets, depending upon whether a bayonet was fixed. “Arms” was to be used when bayonets were fixed, and “firelock” was supposed to be used when a bayonet was not fixed. Of course in the field, either could be used and the men would know what it meant, it would be extremely unlikely that in the case of an officer shouting “shoulder your firelock,” that a soldier would respond “sorry, sir, we don’t have firelocks! Our bayonets are fixed, so they’re arms, according to the drill manual!”

    But why this distinction? The term firelock comes from the early days of flintlocks, when matchlocks and wheelocks were used, and firelock was the term for what we now call flintlock. There were slight distinctions, but for our purposes they were essentially flintlocks, and the term “firelock” was used for a very long time. “Arms” simply refers to a weapon, of course. Other terms that you might be interested to know my understanding of the distinction of, are “firearm,” which refers to a hand-held weapon which launches its projectile(s) by means of propellant gasses generated by rapidly burning powder (technically other chemicals could be used). As I understand it, “Gun” technically refers only to artillery pieces, referring to an em-placed or wheeled weapon which launches its projectile by means of gasses created by rapidly burning powder. “Guns” also are defined by not being easily movable by one person. This definition is evidenced by many, many sea and land commanders of the period referring to them as such, and continuing to do so afterwards, and as I see it, some even to this day. I wouldn’t be so stuck up as to “correct” someone if they say “gun” when they mean “firearm” because of course in common usage they are interchangeable, however I think it’s an interesting subject.

    If anyone else has anything to say about this topic, or others related to period jargon or definitions that are more accurate or concise than mine, I’d be glad to hear below.

    -Note, these definitions are my definitions as I understand the terms, they are not just ripped right out of dictionaries, this is understood from period literature and literature about the period.

    invisible officer

    Terms can be very confusing. A very interesting thread.

    Many armies had the bayonet nearly all the time on the muzzle, so the Prussian. Only marcing in winter on a slippery road made them carying the bayonet into the scabbard. So the men nearly ever handled “arms”.

    Many that sing British Grenadiers sing so xxxx that many understand “Our officers march with fuzes”, thinking that they light the matches or even the grenades. But it is fuzees for fusils. A smaller calibre musket. Shorter and lighter and so favored by officers.

    Different countries used different terms for same weapon. The French Napoleonic Cuirasser and Dragons AN XI and XIII are called a sabre by the French. The curving was very light and so the Prussians, that captured large numbers, named the same weapon the Kürassierdegen. Degen, a straight sword with slim blade. With broader blade its a Pallasch. Well, sword, for the Napoleonic British army everything was a sword. The straight Heavy 1796 and the curved Light 1796 sword. A sabre. The light 1796 delivered to Prussia in 1813 got called Säbel, not Schwert.
    The model for the heavy 1796 was the Austrian Kürassierpallasch.

    Charge The Guns

    Nothing terribly high-brow from me, but the mention of “gun” reminded of the training scene in Full Metal Jacket when the recruits are being taught the difference between “rifle” and “gun” 😉

    A different era, but I have a friend driven near apoplectic when people refer to any tracked vehicle as a “tank”!

    I suspect all such niceties disappear away from the drill ground when orders need to be short clear and kept to a minimum.


    I’d expect if a superior used the wrong term, it would be overlooked, however if a private or a lower ranking person used the wrong term, it would be an opportunity for punishment. This naturally depends upon the individuals involved.

    invisible officer

    The Manual Exercise, As ordered by his Majesty, In 1764 used firelock. Even with bayonet fixed.
    Fix your Bayonets! (3 Motions)
    1st and 2nd. Motions as in the two first of the Secure.
    3rd. Quit the right Hand, and bring the Firelock smartly down to the left Side with the left Hand, as far as it will admit without Constraint, seizing the Bayonet at the same Time with the right Hand, and fixing it, placing that Hand just below the Brass, with the Piece close to the hollow of the Shoulder.

    Sometimes manuals used both mixed. In the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States part XXV Steuben gave 1779 Advance arms but used Firelock there too.

    Firelock would have been an old word anyway. Going out of use in the next decades.

    The index of the British 1811 Regulations and Orders names arms but no longer firelocks.

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