Astrolabe

Lock, Stock & Barrel

Abundant “musket furniture” gave the Ft. George site a distinct military flavor.
Story, Photos & Illustrations By Dr. Donald Keith
The sheer variety of artifacts found during our work on Ft. George and in collections donated to the Museum is surprising: plain and fancy tableware, iron fasteners and hardware, brass and pewter buttons, glass bottles and drinking vessels, clay tiles and bricks, storage jars, scabbard tips, buckles, coins, smoking pipes, and fishing weights — you name it. Most of these can be found on any habitation site of the period, but it was the abundance of certain peculiar objects, collectively known as “musket furniture” that gave the site its strong military flavor.
Muskets, in common use for almost 200 years until they were phased out at the end of the 1800s, were typically smooth-bore, muzzle-loading long guns manufactured with a bewildering variety of ignition systems, barrel lengths, and bore sizes. Environmental conditions on Ft. George are not conducive to the preservation of wood, so it is not surprising that all we found were the iron, lead, and brass components of muskets.  Still, there is a lot they can tell us if we listen closely.
Although the musket is no longer used, it lives on in everyday expressions such as “lock, stock, and barrel,” “a flash in the pan,” and “to go off half-cocked.” The familiar phrase “lock, stock, and barrel” describes the main parts of a musket, and has come to mean “everything.” Curiously, it omits a critical element without which the other parts have no purpose: ammunition. Although “flash in the pan” refers directly to the energetic burst of fire and smoke that occurs when a gunflint strikes sparks into the priming pan, the modern connotation is one of a misfire — an all-too-common occurrence with this type of firearm! “To go off half-cocked” is derived from the accidental discharge of a musket when set in the half-cock position — and the connotation is one of disastrous consequences.
By today’s standards, muskets look laughably primitive. The ridiculously long, heavy barrel gives the weapon an unwieldy total length of five feet. Then there is the crude-looking  firing system: pulling the trigger releases tension on a spring that causes an S-shaped arm (the “cock”), with a chunk of rock (the “flint”) thumb-screwed to it, to strike an iron plate (the “frizzen”) creating sparks that (usually) ignite powder in the “flash pan” and a moment later the powder in the barrel itself. Reloading was a multi-step process requiring the musketeer to ram a powder charge down the barrel, followed by a solid lead shot, followed by a wad to keep it all from falling out again — and don’t forget to slide the four-foot ramrod back into the tubes that carry it under the barrel! Then prime the flash pan, set the cock, aim, and fire. Range was impressive, but accuracy? How accurate can a long gun be without a rear sight?
But don’t be too quick to discount their usefulness. Unlike modern, breech-loading rifled firearms that use only one type of ammunition, smooth-bore muzzle-loading firearms can fire a variety of loads from tiny scattershot appropriate for hunting birds, to heavier scattershot for hunting game, to buckshot for hunting large animals, to a single ball for increased accuracy and penetration. Hence the different connotations for “birdshot” (multiple tiny pellets), “shot” (sized smaller than the bore maximum and fired several at a time), and “ball” (sized for a tight fit in the bore). Various historical accounts make it clear that loading several projectiles at once was quite common. In essence, a smooth-bore, muzzle-loading firearm can use any projectile that will fit down its bore, but its caliber is defined by the largest ball it can fire, sized for minimum windage (the difference between the diameter of the ball and the diameter of the bore) and therefore best range, accuracy and penetration.
Manufacturing tolerances were loose and the gunpowder available was not clean-burning. This caused residue to build up and significantly reduce bore diameter after only a few discharges. Under such conditions having access to a variety of ball sizes was essential. This may help to explain the wide range in shot sizes found scattered across Ft. George. While ammunition multiplicity was doubtlessly beneficial to the musketeer of two centuries ago, it is vexing for the present day archaeologist because it means we cannot use shot size to determine what types or calibers of weapons were present. In those days a musket was more likely categorized by its “gauge” than by its “caliber,” as firearms are today. A musket with a bore diameter of 0.6 inch — what we would call a .60 caliber — was called a 24 gauge piece because that’s how many spheres of lead of the same diameter as the bore it took to equal a pound. For some reason people thought that was a better way to conceptualize ammunition.
Ball and buckshot were cast in individual or “gang” molds that produced several shot at the same time.  Birdshot could be cast in molds, but their minute size made even gang mold manufacturing tedious, so clever alternatives were discovered. “Rupert shot” was made by pouring molten lead through a specially-designed colander, causing it to break up into small pellets of regular size that hardened after falling into a container of water. Some of the examples recovered from Ft. George seem to have been made using this technique.
Another method called the Watts patent of 1782 produced shot that was “solid throughout, perfectly globular in form and without the dimples, scratches, and imperfections which other shot, heretofore manufactured, usually have on their surface.” It required dropping molten lead from great heights into pools of water inside specially-built tall towers. Arsenic was added to help the lead flow more smoothly during manufacturing and to harden it. To this day there is no better way of manufacturing round lead shot in a wide variety of diameters.
Some of the shot we found had peculiar slits cut in them reminiscent of modern fishing weights that can be crimped onto a line. Shot may have had other uses as well.  The shot seen in the accompanying illustration bear what appear to be indentations caused by biting or chewing. Similar shot were recovered from other archaeological sites, and “biting the bullet” has often been advanced as the explanation. A commonly-held and widely accepted belief holds that lead has a sweet taste. If this is true, perhaps the indentations so frequently found on lead shot were made by hungry rats or other animals fooled into thinking they might be edible. Would people have done the same thing?
There is no doubt that the human jaw can produce the necessary pressure and that the teeth are up to the task; however, our ability to differentiate the impressions of human dentition from other types of marks on lead shot is questionable. Because we couldn’t find any volunteers to bite lead shot hard enough to leave indentations, we attempted to re-create the same patterns by biting frozen clay balls, but the resulting impressions did not match the archaeological specimens. In the past we sent photos of “bitten” shot and even the shot themselves to a forensic dentist and a forensic firearms examiner, but neither was able to state conclusively what caused the indentation patterns. Call me a sissy, but the idea of clenching a ball between the teeth to deal with intense pain strikes me as ludicrous. Common sense begs the question: Why would anyone risk fractured teeth or choking on a lead ball when clenching on wood or leather folds would seem more convenient and effective?
Gunflints were an essential component of every flintlock, and we found those, too. Flint is a type of chert having two properties that make it ideal for use as the ignition system for a musket. First, it can easily be “knapped” or split and shaped into thin, sharp blades that can be fixed to the cock of a flintlock. Second, it is hard enough to actually scrape minute particles off a steel surface, producing sparks. At the time when Ft. George was established, Great Britain had both large deposits of high-quality flint and skilled flint-knappers, some of whom could turn out between 7,000 and 8,000 gunflints a day — which gives you some idea of how great the demand was! Flints were secured between the jaws of the cock by a thumbscrew. One of the flints we found was still wrapped in the thin lead pad that improved the jaw’s grip on the flint.
One of the mysteries of Ft. George is why musket furniture and shot are so common and so widely spread across the island. We found shot in the shallows offshore, in and around every structure, in the middle of nowhere with no other artifacts around, and even in the lake that occupies the middle of the island. The musket furniture was slightly less widespread but was found nearly everywhere we looked. What could explain this? An explosion in the armory? Devastation by a hurricane? Simple vandalization after abandonment? These speculations lead naturally to an important unanswered question: when was Ft. George abandoned?
We know that it must have been built sometime after 1787 when the first Loyalists began to arrive. Documentary evidence suggests the Loyalists themselves may have established and manned the fort initially. Subsequently it was manned by a proper military garrison for a few years before being turned back over to the local militia. Then what? Could it have been damaged beyond repair during the great hurricane of 1813? History is silent on this point.
Our brief archaeological exploration reveals only the tip of the iceberg with respect to what Ft. George has to offer as one of the most important historical resources in the TCI, and musket furniture is but one of many artifact types we found. We sincerely hope our effort will not be seen as a “flash in the pan” with no need for continuation. To be sure, the forces of nature have taken their toll on the fort. Parts of it are eroding into the sea even as you read this. There is still time to save what is left and learn the rest of the story . . . but let’s not “go off half-cocked.” We must “bite the bullet,” consolidate our purpose, coordinate our efforts, and develop the political and social will to protect and preserve Ft. George as part of our national heritage.

Abundant “musket furniture” gave the Ft. George site a distinct military flavor.

Story, Photos & Illustrations By Dr. Donald Keith

The sheer variety of artifacts found during our work on Ft. George and in collections donated to the Museum is surprising: plain and fancy tableware, iron fasteners and hardware, brass and pewter buttons, glass bottles and drinking vessels, clay tiles and bricks, storage jars, scabbard tips, buckles, coins, smoking pipes, and fishing weights — you name it. Most of these can be found on any habitation site of the period, but it was the abundance of certain peculiar objects, collectively known as “musket furniture” that gave the site its strong military flavor.

Artifacts collected at Ft. George Cay

Artifacts collected at Ft. George Cay

Muskets, in common use for almost 200 years until they were phased out at the end of the 1800s, were typically smooth-bore, muzzle-loading long guns manufactured with a bewildering variety of ignition systems, barrel lengths, and bore sizes. Environmental conditions on Ft. George are not conducive to the preservation of wood, so it is not surprising that all we found were the iron, lead, and brass components of muskets.  Still, there is a lot they can tell us if we listen closely.

Although the musket is no longer used, it lives on in everyday expressions such as “lock, stock, and barrel,” “a flash in the pan,” and “to go off half-cocked.” The familiar phrase “lock, stock, and barrel” describes the main parts of a musket, and has come to mean “everything.” Curiously, it omits a critical element without which the other parts have no purpose: ammunition. Although “flash in the pan” refers directly to the energetic burst of fire and smoke that occurs when a gunflint strikes sparks into the priming pan, the modern connotation is one of a misfire — an all-too-common occurrence with this type of firearm! “To go off half-cocked” is derived from the accidental discharge of a musket when set in the half-cock position — and the connotation is one of disastrous consequences.

By today’s standards, muskets look laughably primitive. The ridiculously long, heavy barrel gives the weapon an unwieldy total length of five feet. Then there is the crude-looking  firing system: pulling the trigger releases tension on a spring that causes an S-shaped arm (the “cock”), with a chunk of rock (the “flint”) thumb-screwed to it, to strike an iron plate (the “frizzen”) creating sparks that (usually) ignite powder in the “flash pan” and a moment later the powder in the barrel itself. Reloading was a multi-step process requiring the musketeer to ram a powder charge down the barrel, followed by a solid lead shot, followed by a wad to keep it all from falling out again — and don’t forget to slide the four-foot ramrod back into the tubes that carry it under the barrel! Then prime the flash pan, set the cock, aim, and fire. Range was impressive, but accuracy? How accurate can a long gun be without a rear sight?

But don’t be too quick to discount their usefulness. Unlike modern, breech-loading rifled firearms that use only one type of ammunition, smooth-bore muzzle-loading firearms can fire a variety of loads from tiny scattershot appropriate for hunting birds, to heavier scattershot for hunting game, to buckshot for hunting large animals, to a single ball for increased accuracy and penetration. Hence the different connotations for “birdshot” (multiple tiny pellets), “shot” (sized smaller than the bore maximum and fired several at a time), and “ball” (sized for a tight fit in the bore). Various historical accounts make it clear that loading several projectiles at once was quite common. In essence, a smooth-bore, muzzle-loading firearm can use any projectile that will fit down its bore, but its caliber is defined by the largest ball it can fire, sized for minimum windage (the difference between the diameter of the ball and the diameter of the bore) and therefore best range, accuracy and penetration.

Manufacturing tolerances were loose and the gunpowder available was not clean-burning. This caused residue to build up and significantly reduce bore diameter after only a few discharges. Under such conditions having access to a variety of ball sizes was essential. This may help to explain the wide range in shot sizes found scattered across Ft. George. While ammunition multiplicity was doubtlessly beneficial to the musketeer of two centuries ago, it is vexing for the present day archaeologist because it means we cannot use shot size to determine what types or calibers of weapons were present. In those days a musket was more likely categorized by its “gauge” than by its “caliber,” as firearms are today. A musket with a bore diameter of 0.6 inch — what we would call a .60 caliber — was called a 24 gauge piece because that’s how many spheres of lead of the same diameter as the bore it took to equal a pound. For some reason people thought that was a better way to conceptualize ammunition.

Ball and buckshot were cast in individual or “gang” molds that produced several shot at the same time.  Birdshot could be cast in molds, but their minute size made even gang mold manufacturing tedious, so clever alternatives were discovered. “Rupert shot” was made by pouring molten lead through a specially-designed colander, causing it to break up into small pellets of regular size that hardened after falling into a container of water. Some of the examples recovered from Ft. George seem to have been made using this technique.

Another method called the Watts patent of 1782 produced shot that was “solid throughout, perfectly globular in form and without the dimples, scratches, and imperfections which other shot, heretofore manufactured, usually have on their surface.” It required dropping molten lead from great heights into pools of water inside specially-built tall towers. Arsenic was added to help the lead flow more smoothly during manufacturing and to harden it. To this day there is no better way of manufacturing round lead shot in a wide variety of diameters.

Some of the shot we found had peculiar slits cut in them reminiscent of modern fishing weights that can be crimped onto a line. Shot may have had other uses as well.  The shot seen in the accompanying illustration bear what appear to be indentations caused by biting or chewing. Similar shot were recovered from other archaeological sites, and “biting the bullet” has often been advanced as the explanation. A commonly-held and widely accepted belief holds that lead has a sweet taste. If this is true, perhaps the indentations so frequently found on lead shot were made by hungry rats or other animals fooled into thinking they might be edible. Would people have done the same thing?

There is no doubt that the human jaw can produce the necessary pressure and that the teeth are up to the task; however, our ability to differentiate the impressions of human dentition from other types of marks on lead shot is questionable. Because we couldn’t find any volunteers to bite lead shot hard enough to leave indentations, we attempted to re-create the same patterns by biting frozen clay balls, but the resulting impressions did not match the archaeological specimens. In the past we sent photos of “bitten” shot and even the shot themselves to a forensic dentist and a forensic firearms examiner, but neither was able to state conclusively what caused the indentation patterns. Call me a sissy, but the idea of clenching a ball between the teeth to deal with intense pain strikes me as ludicrous. Common sense begs the question: Why would anyone risk fractured teeth or choking on a lead ball when clenching on wood or leather folds would seem more convenient and effective?

Gunflints were an essential component of every flintlock, and we found those, too. Flint is a type of chert having two properties that make it ideal for use as the ignition system for a musket. First, it can easily be “knapped” or split and shaped into thin, sharp blades that can be fixed to the cock of a flintlock. Second, it is hard enough to actually scrape minute particles off a steel surface, producing sparks. At the time when Ft. George was established, Great Britain had both large deposits of high-quality flint and skilled flint-knappers, some of whom could turn out between 7,000 and 8,000 gunflints a day — which gives you some idea of how great the demand was! Flints were secured between the jaws of the cock by a thumbscrew. One of the flints we found was still wrapped in the thin lead pad that improved the jaw’s grip on the flint.

One of the mysteries of Ft. George is why musket furniture and shot are so common and so widely spread across the island. We found shot in the shallows offshore, in and around every structure, in the middle of nowhere with no other artifacts around, and even in the lake that occupies the middle of the island. The musket furniture was slightly less widespread but was found nearly everywhere we looked. What could explain this? An explosion in the armory? Devastation by a hurricane? Simple vandalization after abandonment? These speculations lead naturally to an important unanswered question: when was Ft. George abandoned?

We know that it must have been built sometime after 1787 when the first Loyalists began to arrive. Documentary evidence suggests the Loyalists themselves may have established and manned the fort initially. Subsequently it was manned by a proper military garrison for a few years before being turned back over to the local militia. Then what? Could it have been damaged beyond repair during the great hurricane of 1813? History is silent on this point.

Our brief archaeological exploration reveals only the tip of the iceberg with respect to what Ft. George has to offer as one of the most important historical resources in the TCI, and musket furniture is but one of many artifact types we found. We sincerely hope our effort will not be seen as a “flash in the pan” with no need for continuation. To be sure, the forces of nature have taken their toll on the fort. Parts of it are eroding into the sea even as you read this. There is still time to save what is left and learn the rest of the story . . . but let’s not “go off half-cocked.” We must “bite the bullet,” consolidate our purpose, coordinate our efforts, and develop the political and social will to protect and preserve Ft. George as part of our national heritage.



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