Pete's random thoughts

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More on accuracy

OK, so now it has been two weeks in a row that I've had a chance to let a new flintlock shooter fire at a target using a cartridge with the same size ball as was issued in the 18th century. That is, for the Britsih army anyway. We are taught in school about how muskets are not accurate because they use a ball that is undersized to compensate for fouling.

The Brits isued a .690 ball, wrapped in a paper cartridge, along with a powder charge of roughly 120 grains. Powder quality was a problem then, and today we use a much lower charge (120 grains with modern black powder is nearly a proof load). When we made up cartridges, rolled up the .69 ball in newsprint paper and filled the tube with 90 grains of FFg. Using modern black powder, a service load for a .75 cal Brown Bess is 75 grains of powder. The 90 grains in the cartridge takes into consideration the fact that there will be some used for priming and probably some spilled here or there in the loading process.

The first new shooter had a dozen or more rounds as we started earlier in the day, and all but 2 of his shots went into what you could call the "kill zone" of a human siluette target at 25 yards. that is, the shots would have been in the heart/lung area if you were actually shooting at a redcoat. I neglected to get a picture of his target. The other 2 shots would have hit the redcoat in the wrist, but I'd still call them "hits".

The next week, the new shooter got here a little later in the day, and we talked for a while before getting down to rolling cartridges. We only had the chance to roll 5 as it was getting dark and we wanted to get out there while there was still some reasonable light. By the time we got the target posted, it was grey out at best, and shadows come in quickly here because of the hemlock trees. In addition to that, he wore bifocals and had to keep moving his glasses around and looking over them to get a sight picture.

Even with the rapidly coming darkness and awkward eyewear, the guy managed to get all five shots on target. The first was a bull's eye, and three of the other four were in a "kill zone". The Fifth one was in the groin, and I'm on the fence as to count that one as a hit or not,although technically it did break edge of the black scoring zone.

Here is his target, click on it to see it enlarged:

Keep in mind that we are talking about a new shooter in fading light loading from a cartridge with the infamous "undersized ball" we have heard so much about. Five shots, five dead or wounded redcoats.

Now compare the 25 yard target to a 50 yard target that I shot at a match over by the seacoast. It is at the bottom of this post. I fired it with a 1777 Charleville, using 65 grains of FFg and a patched .678 round ball. The Charleville is much more of a "shooter" design, with different ergonomics, an actual front sight and a smaller bore. Yeah, there is one "flyer" in the white 6-ring, but there are 3-10s and one 9. This goes to show that a smoothbore musket can be fired quite accurately in a civillian style loading, but even when loaded military style (I.E. with undersized ball and paper cartridge) it can still be much more effective than we are led to believe by what we learned in 5th grade.

The biggest part of a musket being an inaccurate weapon is the loose nut behind the stock. Most folks today, especially reenactors, don't know how to shoot. Most militia and conscripts from urban areas in the 18th century would not neccesarily know how to shoot either. Certainly not in the heat of battle.

Is a smoothobre an accurate weapon? Sure, within it's limitations. Does that mean that evey guy in the ranks is a marksman? No, not at all. They could have been trained to be, but the emphasis was on drill and manuvers, not marksmanship.

Imagine if all of those folks who were committed enough to the cause of the colonies to come out and publicly take up arms against the King's troops actually knew how to shoot? I'm thinking the war would have been over years earlier.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Blitz breakfast

This morning we were getting ready for breakfast and Caleigh said "can we pretend..." as she always does. Usually she says "Can we pretend we are eating in a castle? I can be the princess, you be the king and Mommy is the queen". Princesses get old to a Daddy after a fashion, but not if you are a little girl.

Nope, not today. This morning she asked "Can we pretend that we are in England during the war and the German badguys are trying to get us?"

Very cool idea, way better than playing castle. Over breakfast we talked about rationing, air raid sirens and Spam.

American kids have no concept at all about what "hardship" really means, and I'm glad she brought it up so that maybe she can learn to appreciate just how lucky we are to have been born here, where freedom is a God-given right, along with freedom of speech and we, as a nation, are blessed with an incredible supply of food, clean water and top-notch public health. Most of us are fortunate enough to not know what it is like to have your home destroyed by bombing, to lose family members to political death camps, to watch children starve or freeze to death.

I think it is important for all of today's children to study the war. By the war, I mean the Second World War. Many of the people who lived through it are still alive, although dying off at an alarming rate due to the average age, and these folks have things to teach us that we just can't learn from books. About right and wrong, and the idea that sometimes the two can get a little blurry. About personal sacrifice. About working together as one people to get something done.

Right now I'm terribly overworked but when the smoke clears over the winter, I really feel the need to put together an informational website on The War. Some of the items in my collection are just "things", but others tell a very human story and I need to find a way to let the artifacts tell the story. I've got an idea for something interesting festering in my head, and will post here when I think it through a few more times.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Today one of my projects is to blue a pistol barrel and lock. In doing so, I had to strip the lock down to component parts to strip off the oil and protective grease so the bluing agent can contact the metal evenly.

In stripping the lock, I managed to slip with the screwdriver and sink it deep into the webbing between my hand and thumb. So now I'm wearing plastic gloves so as not to drip blood onto the metal because I don't know how it would affect bluing.

GGGgggggrrrrrrrr.....happy monday!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Brown Bess accuracy experiment, phase 1

If you go back a few posts, you'll read about my annoyance that people still quote the BS story that you can't shoot accurately with a smoothbore musket. This has led to some interesting discussions.

First it was pointed out that there is a big difference in accuracy between using a patched, well fitting round ball and the so-called "undersized" ball that was used in the regular army in the 18th c. Yeah, I allowed for this one.

I should have only done so provisionally. Last Friday a new shooter from a Minuteman company in Massachusetts came by. He had fired a rifle in the army nearly a quarter century ago, but never was not a regular shooter and had never fired his musket live.

We rolled up some cartridges that mimicked the British issue cartridge as close as we could ascertain them to be. If you were to measure original round balls as issued or as found archaeologically, you would see that the much fabled "undersized ball" is .690 in diameter. Today, casual shooters use a .715 and some folks who like to load tight (I.E. drive the ball down with a mallet) use a .735 ball. I have a few bags of .690 balls, so that's what we used.

For paper, we used newsprint. It is a stack of them I found in the gun room from years ago and it has gotten old, yellow and brittle. The thickness and texture are fairly close to some original newsprint that I have here, which is thinner that the paper used in surviving 17th and 18th century books.

We rolled the paper around a former with the ball at the end and tied it off with a string. The empty tubes (with ball inside) were stood up in a cartridge block to keep them organized and upright, then they were individually filled with a powder measure, and rolled shut on top to close them.

The powder charge we used was 90 grains of FFg. Yeah yeah yeah, I know Sketchbook '76 says that cartridges used 120 grains, but you need to consider the quality of the powder then vs today. Read some of the data from the Springfield Armory where they had to use massive proof loads because the powder was so weak. 150 grains is a proof load today, so why would the service load be nearly at that level?

There were a dozen cartridges prepared. I set out a human silhuette target at 25 yards. The shooter loaded from the cartridge box, and was given a rag to wipe the flint when it got dirty. First he primed, which used up a few of the 90 grains, and the rest was poured down the barrel. Then the ball, cartridge and all, was stuffed down the bore. The first shot was dead center on the target.

The rest of the shots were fired without putting the gun down to rest. All were on target, with the majority of them in a group in the middle that could be covered with a dinner plate. (these would have hit vital organs and stopped the man in his tracks)

The shooting session wasn't planned to prove anything, it was meant to be instructional. When we undertake the experiment for real, it will be under much more controlled circumstances with more than one shooter. What this proved, however, was that the oft-repeated story about how "the undersized ball would ricochet around the barrel on the way out and you would have no idea where it was going after it left the barrel" is a crock. It's just one of those reenactor factoids that is made true by the retelling. Often it is followed by the statement that "you'd fire at a guy in the line opposite you, and someone 5 or 6 men down in the line would be hit". Nope, sorry. OK, I'll admit, you couldn't take the nuts off of a fly at 100 yards, but you certainly would hit the man you aimed at in the line.

Maybe if there is a few minutes that Wendy doesn't keep her hopping, I'll have Becky roll up the rest of the .69 balls into cartridges and load them with powder. It is supposed to rain all this week, so we probably won't get into the experiment in the next few days, but I'll write up all of the factors and goals for it and maybe recruit a few more inexperienced shooters for whatever day we pick to do it.

Scaled AQT targets

If you read Shotgun News, the gun classified ad newspaper, you have no doubt seen Fred's (paid ad) column where he extols the virtues of teaching every citizen to be a "rifleman" and to know how to shoot. As he puts it, you are either a rifleman, or a cook. I see the value in knowing how to shoot, and thought I'd give his AQT (Army Qualification Test) targets a try.

What he has done is to scale down the standard sized AQT targets to use at 25 yards. So in effect, the 100 yard portion of the target is 6 1/4" across, the 200 yard portion is 3 1/4" across, 300 yard is 2", and the 400 yard target is just is 1 3/4" across.

The targets are scaled in that way so that you can use a shorter range and still practice aiming at the targets as they would appear at those distances.

What you do is post the target at 25 yards and fire 5 shots at each portion. There is a place for scoring at the bottom, and a little chart that classifies your score as "unqualified" (below 125), "marksman" (125-169), "sharpshooter" (170-210)or "expert rifleman" (210 or higher).

I am feeling pretty crappy today, as it in my turn to have the flu (Wendy and Caleigh are still trying to shake it). I have a headache and just don't feel up to talking on the phone, so I have been doing little things around here. After I fed the critters, I took a few minutes for myself and set up one of Fred's targets on my target-holding stump and went at it with my .22 rifle. Actually, I set up two: one was the AQT target, the other was was a similar one that dispenses with scoring rings and is meant to simulate a "redcoat" at the varying distances.

You'll be happy to know that Meany Road is safe from the Redcoats, because I managed to hit them all. As far as the AQT goes, I qualified as an "Expert Rifleman" with a score of 236. My goal now is to practice up, and bring that up to the perfect score of 250. Not today though, I may be able to take out a Redcoat at 400 yards, but I'm no match for the flu.

If you want to give Fred's cool targets a try, you can order them at

Give it a try, be safe and have fun!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Field(mouse) artillery

Tonight I am working late, trying to get the mess in the shipping area and my office straightened out. I am cursed with being literate, so that means there are a LOT of books here, there and everywhere. (and of course, the obligatory boxes and boxes of National Geographics)

My #1 mission was to clear my stuff off of the long packing table. Poor Johanna has to deal with my stuff in her way because the packing table is the ideal place for me to sort stuff I unpack from boxes stored in the garage. It is long and flat, an gives me lots of space to create small piles of "stuff" as I sort out a box. The problem with this is that I always get called away or otherwise interrupted from my task and the piles get left there. I managed to clear away most of it tonight, which means creating new boxes of sorted stuff. Since I am kind of in a hurry (trying to get as much done as I can before everybody gets in tomorrow and has to go back to work) I just created a new box labeled "mixed books" that can be sorted out later when the bookshelves in the living room get built. Now...where to put the newly packed boxes of "mixed books" until then...

I spied a spot in the corner of my office that would be just the right place to stack a couple of boxes of books. Of course, it's not like the corner is unoccupied, it is the place where an assortment of WW1 and WW2 empty and trainer artillery shells happen to live. No problem: I'll just move them to the top of a cabinet where they can be seen better anyway. Since nothing in my life is simple, first I need to clear the stuff off of the cabinet top.

On top of the cabinet is: a colored pencil portrait of my Mom as a little girl done on parachute silk by a GI penpal during WW2, a CD helmet, a medium sized cardboard box that turned out to contain some cans of powder (some Goex, some British stuff), a few assorted pewter mugs, and a bag of patch knives I forgot I had, a left-handed percussion lock, and a piece of French soldier bread from Louisbourg 1995 (if I soaked it in broth, it would still be edible).

So I cleared away the stuff on top of the cabinet, stowing the powder where it belongs. I'll have to remember to show the bread to Wendy in the morning, she will be horrified. Jeff will get a kick out if it though.

As I moved the shells from the corner to their new home on top of the cabinet, I dusted them off and as I moved a 1915 dated German shell, I heard a rattle sound. This came as a surprise, since there shouldn't be anything rattling around inside an empty shell. I tipped it so light went inside and saw the source of the noise. It was a little mummified mouse. Well, I guess it is just a regular sized mouse, but he looked tiny compared to the monsterous big rat I got in my trap out under the rabbit shed, but that is a topic for another post. The poor little dude must have hopped or fell in, possibly pursued by a cat or two, and wasn't able to get back out.

Either that, or it has been there for the past 90 years as a part of some secret German terror weapon during the Great War. I can see it now: the Huns must have tried to lob small, petrified rodents in at the Doughboys to surprise them, and when the Yanks and Brits reacted with bafflement and confusion to the mummified mice pinging off of their helmets, it would create enough of a distraction for the German snipers to pick them off. A clever ruse. It must not have worked, as history shows that we won the war. Maybe we had bigger rodents to launch at them?

I guess I need some sleep, as the previous paragraph is just cracking me up.

The packing table is clear, the rest of this project will have to wait until morning.