Weapons and their use

1 Infantry weapons

1.1 The musket

Around 1700 the musket (which contemporaries would call fusil) was the main infantry weapon. It was a rifle with a smooth barrel of between 1 and 1.2 meters long. The (round) bullet and powder were bound together in a paper cartridge that the fusilier opened with his teeth. At the shoulder-end of the barrel there was a small opening which came out at a little plate where the powder was ignited. After opening the cartridge the fusilier placed a small amount of powder on this ignition plate. The paper cartridge (with powder and bullet in it) was then inserted in the front end of the barrel, and pressed down the barrel with a loading-stick. When the trigger was pulled a spark (or burning fuse) ignited the powder on the plate and thereby also the powder in the barrel, sending the bullet and most of the paper cartridge out.

It would have been best to have as little space as possible between the inner-side of the barrel and the bullet, but workbenches not having been invented yet, and each shot leaving traces inside the barrel there was still about 2mm difference between the caliber of barrel and the bullet. The accuracy of the musket was very low, the effective range being 300 meters at most. This 'effective' range of 300 m has to be understood as about one in four shots hitting into an area of 2 meters high and still much wider. Of course the accuracy increased dramatically on shorter ranges. The rate of fire was a few shots a minute.

1.2 The Pike

In the absence of a swift loading fire arm infantry could only defend itself against cavalry with a weapon that kept them at bay. Traditionally this was the pike that had a length of over five meters and a tip that was between 25 and 50 cm long. Presented en masse it sufficed to withstand cavalry. Just before the Spanish Succession War a process to replace it with the bayonet had however been initiated. It's therefore often said that the pike did not play a significant role in the Spanish Succession War. Whether this is true one should of course determine by making a detailed study about the use of the pike. Basing myself on secondary sources I can however state that in the first phases of this war the pike did still play a role. It is stated that at the beginning of the war the French infantry company still counted 10 pikemen next to 37 musketmen 1. For the Dutch army it's stated that the pike was finally abandoned only in 17132. Even though I think there is a lot of confusion about when the pike disappeared3, there are therefore enough reasons to assume that the pike was still used in the early phases of the war.

1.3 The Bayonet

It not being that difficult to approach a man with such an inaccurate, short-range and slow firing weapon, the infantry needed other weapons to defend itself in hand to hand combat. A recent invention in this respect was the bayonet that, fixed to the musket, gave a weapon similar to a pike and was thus ideal to combat cavalry, or to charge infantry while being in a tight formation. There were basically two varieties of the bayonet.

The first bayonet invented was a kind of short sword shoved into the barrel of the musket in order to fixate it. It seems that the first regiment to be entirely equipped with this kind of bayonet was the French Fusilier regiment in 1671. A transitionary form of bayonet was the same as the first except that it had some rings in order to fix it on the barrel in stead of inside the barrel. It basically allowed the infantry to fire an already loaded shot, but did not provide them with the ability to reload their muskets. The final form of the musket bayonet was introduced around 1700. It had a kind of hollow tube that could be shoved over the barrel and by having a slight tilt allowed the infantry to recharge while it was fixed. From these two varieties were then developed. One was a three-sided thrusting weapon, and one was more like a very large dagger. The choice for the latter variety often depended on the fact that it could double as a tool4.

One should note that the last variety of bayonet used a bayonet catch to fix it to the musket. This catch is now widely used in car lighting. It is also a designation of a type of medieval city crossroads. In the Spanish Succession War all varieties of bayonets were used. Of the Prussian Army it is known that it discarded the last bayonets of the first type in 1705.

1.4 The Sword

Next to the Musket/Bayonet or pike almost all armies still equipped their infantry with swords. I do not know for certain why this was done, but I guess the sword was more effective when formations were broken. One could deduce this from the fact that already in earlier times the sword had supplanted the spear in hand to hand combat, and in fact as a hand-held weapon the musket/bayonet was only a very clumsy spear.

1.5 The Spontoon and the Partisan

The spontoon and the partisan were weapons used by officers on the battlefield. The spontoon was a pole weapon of about two meters long with a sword-like blade attached to it. The partisan looked much like a spontoon, but had small axe-like, almost always symmetrical, blades protruding on both sides.

1.6 The Halberd

One would be surprised to know that during the Spanish Succession War the halberd was the standard weapon of the NCO's (non-commissioned officers, sergeants, corporals). The halberd was used because it distinguished the NCO's and made them recognizable on the battlefield. With the artillery a special halberd was used to hold burning fuses.

2 Cavalry weapons

The cavalry weapons were: pistols, short muskets and the (cavalry-)sword. The sword was the main weapon of the cavalry. It was used to fight other cavalry and infantry. Using the sword the fast-moving high-seated cavalry could easily kill foot-soldiers, except when stopped by a hedge of bayonets. Most of the time the cavalry could therefore not do much against solid infantry. When infantry was in disorder and especially when it was on the run, the cavalry could inflict enormous slaughter with their swords.

3 Notes

1) Batailles Françaises VI, Les Armées sous l'ancien régime page 24
2) Het Staatse Leger part VII page 287
3) Waffen der Kabinettskriege page 42 says the Dutch abandoned it in 1708, the Prussians in 1689, the Austrians between 1701 and 1705, the English in 1705 and the French in 1703. But also that against the Turks the Austrians had already abandoned the pike in 1689. Could it be that the second bayonet model sufficed against Turkish cavalry but not against French cavalry?
4) Waffen der Kabinettskriege page 48 a.f.