How Accurate Were Revolutionary War Muskets?
Many people read about 18th and early 19th century warfare and wonder how soldiers could march shoulder to shoulder in a line toward the enemy when the enemy was armed with muskets. From a modern viewpoint, marching calmly into the face of enemy fire feels foolish. Take the famous Battle of Bunker Hill, for example. The British confidently marched up a hill into the teeth of enemy defenses. This type of warfare was common for more than a century. So what gives?
One major reason why soldiers could safely march toward one another, even when brandishing firearms, is because the muskets at the time were horribly inaccurate. People today say that someone couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn when they want to describe something inaccurate. During the Revolutionary War, that was not an exaggeration. Even a trained soldier would have a hard time hitting the broad side of a barn with a smooth bore musket.
So how inaccurate were Revolutionary era muskets? Way more inaccurate than you think.
Revolutionary War Musket Accuracy
Modern observers are used to small arms being accurate at crazy ranges. AR-15 style rifles that any American adult can buy today are accurate up to 600 yards. That is six times farther than old muskets, and that doesn’t even take rifling into account.
Old smoothbore muskets were only accurate up to a maximum of 100 yards, and even that was a stretch. Most soldiers could only effectively hit targets 50 yards away. Revolutionary War tactics dictated that volleys should be fired at an optimal range of just 30 yards. That is very nearly spitting distance.
Muskets also had massive velocity fall off. Musket balls usually stopped being lethal after 200 yards. That means even if you did manage to hit something 200 yards away, the blow would rarely be fatal.
Historian Willard Sterne Randall speculated that only 1 in every 300 musket balls actually hit its intended target during the…