The mere mention of musketeers brings to mind attractive men wearing large hats, tall boots and fighting with swords. And yet, we are not here just to stare at pictures of such. Although it was a hazard of my “research.” Because I hate to be a tease, here’s Luke Evans as Aramis. You’re welcome.
When most people think of musketeers, they naturally think of The Three, plus D’Artagnan, as well as the evil Cardinal and the even more evil Milady. It’s been a few years since I’ve read the book, but I don’t recall if a musket was ever fired in the course of the story. It was all sword-fighting, all the time, with a tiny bit of romance. Just right, in other words.
While the musketeers in Dumas’ classic also worked as regular troops (I think they were briefly deployed at the siege of La Rochelle), their main role was as king’s guards. The French king, Louis XIII, used musketeers as a kind of personal bodyguard, then Cardinal Richelieu got his own, which gave them all excellent excuses to constantly challenge each other to duels, even though they were on the same side. A mere technicality that should never impede swashbuckling.
The average musketeer of the period spent a lot more time marching and a lot less time dueling. A sad state of affairs. Musketeers and pikemen made up most of the infantry during the time of the Thirty Years War. Firearms had been around for awhile, but they were still unwieldy and difficult to use. Probably the biggest issue was the fact that they could only deliver one shot at a time, and took quite long to reload. The musket-and-pike formation was developed as a way to protect musketeers as they reloaded.
Unlike the Winged Hussars or cuirassiers, musketeers wore little to no armor, since they needed to be able to move freely. The fact that they also had to walk everywhere probably contributed to making armor less popular too. They made up for it in hats, boots, and swagger.
Your typical musketeer was pretty heavily laden in any case. He might have worn a helmet, and a cloak to keep his powder horn dry. A larger horn was for the coarse gunpowder used for the main charge, while the smaller held the fine priming powder. They hung from cords over the left shoulder so they rested on the right hip and were attached to a belt to keep them from swinging.
They carried single charges in wooden containers hung on a bandolier over the left shoulder. This rested on the right hip, along with a bag of shot, and other tools needed to clean and repair the musket. They also carried four to six yards of match coiled around his shoulder. Since the match burned quickly, only one in ten would keep it lit while marching, so he could light the others if they had to go into action. Obviously, this was an explosive combination, in such close proximity to both charges and powder. Musketeers usually deployed two to four paces apart and only drew closer when attacking.
Of course, they also carried their musket, usually a big, heavy matchlock, though these were eventually replaced by wheellock muskets.
Their sword was often of poor quality, so if combat became close, musketeers frequently used the stocks of their muskets for bludgeoning.
Musketeers were typically deployed in formation. The tercio had been developed by the Spanish and dominated the warfare of the 16th century. These were large, hollow squares of pike that protected musketeers deployed at the corners.
Their pike were grouped as a central block with always twice the number of men in each line as there were ranks deep, because each man needed twice the amount of space in depth as in width to wield his weapon. The effect was to produce a square block that would be flanked by ‘sleeves’ of musketeers. . . .
Though only the first five ranks of the tercio could fire at any one time, the presence of another ten or more behind stiffened the resolve of those in front, or at least made it harder for them to run away.
Wilson, Peter H., Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War, pg. 89-90
By the 17th century, Maurice of Nassau had developed a more linear formation that could often successfully challenge the tercio. These were called battalions, They required thinner lines and fewer pike, but were also harder to control.
Both used the counter-march, in which musketeers who had fired would peel off to the right or left and march toward the back, allowing the next rank of musketeers to fire, or the pikemen to charge. Well-trained troops could cover about 40 yards per minute while doing this.
Many recruits during this time period preferred becoming a musketeer to carrying a pike, because pikemen were used primarily for defense, but were sitting ducks if someone broke the lines. There is also the less charitable theory that it was more difficult to loot while carrying a pike.
So, musketeers were not quite as romantic as some of us would like, but in the end, pretty useful.