gold rush settlers

11. Military Weapons

The Mormon Battalion volunteers were issued their accouterments and weapons at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas under the direction of Lt. Col. James Allen, Battalion Commander.  Being a volunteer group, the Battalion was issued what was currently on hand at the Fort, especially older models.  Any new models were generally held in reserve for regular Army troops.  Being enlisted into the army, the Battalion men were looking forward to receiving their muskets, particularly since they would be allowed to keep their firearms when their 1-year enlistment was up.  However, seeing their eagerness Col. Allen cautioned the men as they were lining up, “Stand back, boys; don’t be in a hurry to get your muskets; you will want to throw the d—-d things away before you get to California.”

Musket
Standard military issue in the 1840’s to the infantry was the Model 1816 (M1816) Harpers Ferry, 0.69 caliber, smooth-bore, flintlock musket with a leather sling.   Muskets issued to the Battalion were stamped 1827 on the lock plate, indicating the year of manufacture at the armory.  The Type II 1827 muskets had the barrel chemically browned to resist rusting.  The Type III (1831-1844) M1816 muskets had unbrowned shiny barrels and locks. The M1816 musket was equipped with a lug atop the muzzle for fixing the triangular socket bayonet.  The muskets weighed nearly 10 lbs (9 lb. 2 oz-14 oz). The stock was made out of a dense wood like walnut.

Muskets differ from rifles in that muskets do not have spiral grooves inside the barrel (rifling) that provides greater accuracy to the discharged bullets.  The M1816 musket fired a 0.64-0.65 caliber spherical lead ball (about 1 oz.) packaged in the bottom of a paper cartridge with a measured 90 grains of course grain black powder (charcoal/potassium nitrate/sulfur).  This smaller ball was easier and quicker to load than a larger 0.68 ball.  The end of the cartridge was tied off with a string which wrapped above the ball to help segregate it from the powder.  A very common version of the cartridge was the Buck and Ball cartridge that contained an additional 3 pieces of buckshot BB’s atop the single 0.65 caliber ball.  This cartridge increased the probability of hitting and inflicting some damage to the target.  Cartridges were commercially made in ammunition factories in the East and sent to army supply depots and forts in wood crates.  Because of the smooth-bore barrel, the musket ball came out more like a knuckleball rather than a spinning fast ball.  Musket accuracy was reported to be around 50-100 yards, but the closer the better.

Flintlock Firing Sequence
The routine for firing a flintlock musket was conducted by command and consisted of the following steps:

  1. Ready Arms – Pull the musket cock (hammer clamping down on an edged piece of flint) back one click to the half-cock position (safety).
  2. Load Arms–
    (a) Remove a paper cartridge from the cartridge box by grasping the French tail of the cartridge
    (b) Tear the French tail off with the teeth to expose the powder
    (c) Pour some powder into the brass flash pan to about ½ to 3/4 full
    (d) Close the spring-controlled frizzen (steel plate) to create a chamber (protects the powder)
    (e) Invert the musket with the barrel up and the musket butt resting on the shooter’s foot
    (f) Pour the remainder of the powder down the barrel and then push the remaining paper containing the lead ball into the barrel (powder-patch-ball sequence)
  3. Ram Load –Remove the rammer (ramrod) from the musket stock and tamp the ball down to the breech (bottom end of the barrel).  Return ramrod to its position in the stock.
  4. Ready Arms– Point the musket at the intended target and the pull the cock back a second click to the full-cock position.
  5. Fire – Pull the trigger, releasing the cock.  This action allows the flint to contact the steel frizzen and scrape down the frizzen face, creating a shower of sparks while opening the flash pan chamber.  The sparks ignite the powder in the flash pan and the hot gases from that ignition go through the vent hole in the side of the barrel and ignite the powder at the breech by exceeding the flash point of the powder.  The lead ball is propelled out of the barrel at a muzzle velocity of around 600 feet/second amid two billows of smoke, a small lick of fire, and a loud boom.

With practice, an infantryman could load and fire his flintlock musket 3 times per minute.  The battle strategy was to lay down a barrage of lead to scare the opposing line of soldiers into breaking rank and beating a hasty retreat.  The objective was to gain and occupy territory, especially areas of strategic value.

Bayonet
The 18” musket bayonet had three fluted edges on the 16” blade.  The tip and edges were dull, not sharp like a knife blade.  Since the Battalion did not engage in any combat, the bayonet was used by the Battalion more as a tool rather than a weapon.  Journal entries record that the soldiers used the bayonet to spear fish in the Arkansas River.  The bayonet could also be used as a digging tool or a skewer for roasting meat or cooking dough.  Other potential uses such as a tent peg or candle holder are not recorded per se, but were common uses in the army.  The Battalion did fix bayonets on their muskets and officers drew their sabers upon their entry into Santa Fe where they received a 100-gun salute from the U.S. Army troops under the command of Col. Alexander Doniphan, 1st Mounted Missouri Volunteers.

Rifles
Rifles were also issued to the Battalion, 4 per company.  These rifles were designated mainly for hunting.  They were Harpers Ferry half-stock rifle (1804 model, 0.54 caliber, flintlock), the 1817 model 0.54 caliber flintlock rifle,  or the 1841 percussion lock Mississippi rifle. These rifles were referred to as yagers (jaeger – German for hunter).

Sabers
Each Company was also issued 5 “Cavelry” [sic] sabers, brass mounted, for the officers, most likely the 1840 style.
Pistols
Journal entries record that Capt. James Brown, Co. C, had a six-shot revolver, which was possibly his own personal pistol.  It would probably have been an early model black powder percussion handgun.  However, the Battalion infantrymen or officers were not issued pistols.

Cannons
Journals record that the Battalion was assigned to bring two cannon (probably field cannons or howitzers) and artillery ordnance in two teams of 6 horses (possibly mules) each, from the army depot at Council Grove, Kansas to Santa Fe.  The ordnance was for Col. Sterling Price’s 2nd Missouri Mounted Volunteer Regiment and the St. Louis Artillery Volunteers, who were traveling parallel to, but separate from, the Battalion to Santa Fe as part of Gen. Kearny’s Army of the West.  Journal entries mentioning whether the Battalion brought cannons to San Diego are wanting, so the assumption is that they did not.  However, while at San Diego, the Battalion did position several cannons at rebuilt Fort Stockton on Presidio Hill overlooking Old Town San Diego.

While in the employ of John Sutter at his mill near Sacramento, a number of veterans purchased two brass Napoleonic-era cannons from John Sutter, who had bought them at the Russian trading post at Fort Ross in northern California.  These two cannons were parade cannons abandoned by Napoleon in Russia in 1812-13 and were transported to Salt Lake City in wagons by Battalion veterans in 1847.

References

  1. Fleek, Sherman, History May Be Searched in Vain, 2006.
  2. Ricketts, Norma, U.S. Army of the West – The Mormon Battalion 1846-1848, 1996.
  3. Halford, Val John, Muskets and Rifles, www.mormonbattalion.com/history/halford/3-muskets