The main battle arm of the American Revolution was the British Brown Bess, and it has neither barrel bands nor a patch box. Both of those features because popular much later, on rifled barrel guns. For the most part, the guns of 1776 were smoothbore muskets, and though the gamemakers did seem to employ some historians, this fact is absent in AC3.
We shot guns from Pedersoli for this article, which is an Italian, old world gun company that makes replicas from the flintlock era right up through the late 1800s. Pedersoli guns are the most accurate and shootable replicas in the world, and if you don’t own and shoot one you are missing out.
We brought out some fans of the Assassins Creed III video game to try the real thing. The flash and smoke of the side ignition pan takes some getting used to, but if you enjoy shooting, there is nothing like a real flintlock.
Muzzleloading firearms use exclusively black powder or black powder substitutes. Because of the way a flintlock ignites, it is generally a good idea to use real black powder. We used American made Goex, the FFG, course variety for the main charge, and extra fine FFFFG for the flash pan.
The projectile is a .690 caliber pure lead ball that we hand cast from bullet moulds. The one of the left is the Lyman mould and the one on the right, with a much less pronounced sprue cut is the Lee aluminum mould. Both are available through Dixie gun works, as are the cast balls themselves, in .690 and .715 caliber. Without tin in the mix it is hard to fill out big balls like this without some voids, but for one, you can put tin in the mix, and for another, there is nothing approaching actual accuracy with these guns regardless.
The blue and white cloth you see here is called pillow ticking and is available from Dixie in bolts of cloth. Any 100% cotten material will work, including the clearance pile at your local quilt shop or even Wal-Mart. Just beware that when you use a big piece like I do, with lube, it tends to catch fire and burn after you shoot.
I have always used Crisco for lube in these loose ball flintlocks. You can spend more money on black powder lubes, but some of them are petroleum based and don’t keep the fouling soft. A big patch prevents the ball from getting away from the patch and striping the bore with lead on its way out, but again, they do tend to burn on the ground. Note that the lube goes on the outside, not the ball side. Unless the Crisco is really soft it doesn’t kill your powder, and even then, just put in a little more.
When the bore is clean the .690 patched balls don’t need a “ball starter” like you would use with a rifle. This is the perfect fit for the .750 bore, and you just push it down with your ramrod.
The firing mechanism of the flintlock looks complicated, but it is just a hammer on a spring that holds a piece of flint. The flint strikes the steel frizzen, popping it open at the same time and sending sparks into the pan, which burns and ignites the main charge.
I ordered the 1 and 1/8th English flints for my rifles from Dixie. You also need some leather strips to hold them in the hammer.
You can get away with a lot less FFFFG powder than this in the pan, and you don’t need the small priming flask you see here, but it does make things easier.
Bench resting a flintlock musket is a little overkill, because they are not capable of anything you would normally expect in accuracy. Neither the Brown Bess nor the Charleville have rear sights, and the Brown Bess uses its bayonet lug as a front sight as an afterthought.
The Charleville, bottom, has a brass rear sight soldered onto the top which, coupled with the barrel banks and other hardware makes the gun look really historic.
At 15 yards, this “center mass” group makes you understand the importance of “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
One of Connor’s favorite tactics in the game is what the developers call a “meat shield.” They obviously didn’t test the ballistics of a patched roundball fired from a British Brown Bess, because if they did they would discover that the ball would go clean through both the shield and Connor, probably revealing daylight.
In the American Revolution, the principle battle longarm was the Brown Bess musket. A musket is different from a rifle because it has no rifling, so the bullet doesn’t spin. The Brown Bess is .75 caliber, which is essentially an 11 gauge smoothbore shotgun, used to fire, historically, a cast .69 caliber lead ball weighing just over once ounce. The range on a Brown Bess is a couple hundred yards, but because the ball isn’t spinning, the musket wasn’t used as an aimed weapon past 20 yards or so. Companies of men fired batteries of musketfire to rain lead balls down upon the opposing force, hoping that someone would hit something. This would be followed by a charge with bayonets, because after a couple shots with traditional black powder (smokeless wasn’t invented until 125 years later), shooting a musket more than a couple times without cleaning can be difficult. This mode of war made for bloody battlefields, and a lot of hand to hand, in your face combat. The Brown Bess doesn’t get a lot of play in the media normally, but a couple years ago the video game Assassin’s Creed III set itself in the Revolutionary War. The main character is Connor, and he uses a lot of bladed weapons and a bow, but he also gets some action with the Brown Bess, killing Red Coats of course.
Connor’s favorite trick is what the game developers call a “meat shield,” when he grabs a British Red Coat and uses him to absorb musket balls from his adversaries. In real life the musket ball would go right through and kill Connor just as dead as the men he is using for his shields, but as our allies in the American Revolution, the French, would say, c’est la vide. It is after all just a video game. You will here the saying “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” in the game, made famous at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but this is more a testament to the inaccuracy of the muskets than to a shortage of ammo or lack of firepower. The Brown Bess musket is a beast, matching approximately the velocity of a 45 ACP, with a bullet roughly twice as heavy. Waiting until a charging enemy is in close range will not only gaurantee you a hit, most likely the bullet will travel through at least two attackers before embedding itself in the third of fourth. With a 3/4 inch wound channel, you might even see daylight through the guy’s chest, and I bet that is even somewhere in the game.
I suspect that 99% of the people who play AC3 will never notice any of the historical inaccuracies in the game. Few of us are well versed enough in the American Revolution for it to matter, but if you go by the actual firearms as an example, most likely AC3 is a historical disaster, even though it looks really fun to play. The developers did employ historians for the creation of AC3, and a couple are even interviewed in the introductory clips for the game, but nowhere have I found any of them to answer for the inaccuracies with the weapons. The biggest problem is that all of the muskets have a patch box in the stock. Historically the Brown Bess and all of the other muskets of the war were devoid of this feature. The year 1770 is considered approximately the birth of the rifle, or what was called the” rifled musket” at the time, but they did not play a big role in the American Revolution. The classic rifles with patchboxes, the “Kentucky Rifle” and “Pennsylvania Rifle,” did not gain a reputation until well after the war was only a memory. Connor kills his adversaries with a number of these patch boxed muskets, as well as a fairly ornate flintlock pistol. The developers probably thought it would make the guns look cooler to have more flash, but the historically accurate guns didn’t have a lot of glitter. The Brown Bess was issued “in the white,” with no finish whatsoever, and it doesn’t even have barrel bands like you see in the game as well.
We shot the Pedersoli Brown Bess primarily because it was the main battle arm of the war. But Pedersoli also makes a significant musket called the “Charleville,” which was made in France back in the day and is 17.5 millimeter, or .69 caliber. The first fighters in the American Revolution weren’t in an “American” army, because there was no America at the time. Most colonists had been issued a Brown Bess as part of regular militia, to fight off Indians and maintain order, and these guns were used in all of the early battles of the Revolutionary War. The Charleville didn’t come in until late in the war when the French, jumping the bandwagon of our initial success, decided to send us some arms. For the most part both sides of the conflict used mostly the Brown Bess throughout the war regardless. The Charleville was of course another fun gun to shoot, and it is the same caliber as the pistol we selected, the French AN IX. This pistol was chosen because it resembles the one carried by Connor in the game, and it is a smoothbore, which is almost definitely required to be historically accurate, especially in the naval scenes. The pistol itself was however not made until 1801, but it was the closest we could come to the period. Pistols were not used very much prior to the turn of the 19th Century. Connor, and the gamemakers, don’t seem to mind the historical inaccuracy and some of the pistolcraft is the most bloody and epic of the game.
If you have never shot a flintlock, there is nothing quite like it. It is charged like any other muzzleloader, by dumping the powder down the barrel, followed by the projectile, but there is no primer to strike, because flintlocks came before primers, or their predecessor, the percussion cap, were invented. To ignite the powder charge in a flintlock, you fill up a pan next to the barrel with the finest small grain of black powder. Held in the hammer of gun is a piece of stone, generally flintstone of course, and when the trigger is pulled this stone strikes a piece of steel, called the frizzen, creating a spark. The spark ignites the side pan of powder, and the flash from the powder travels through a small hole in the side of the barrel and ignites the main charge, firing the gun. There is no crack like with a modern rifle, and there isn’t even much of a boom. Click, poof, bang is the way I have always described it, and the sound effects people in AC3 did a pretty good job of getting it right. Once you fire a flintlock most likely you will be hooked. It is a lot of fun to run an AR for an afternoon at the range, or your favorite black pistol, but one shot at a time, loading over three or four steps for each round as you go, a flintlock takes you back in time. War is no fun, but it is where heroes are sometimes made, and some of America’s earliest heroes made their mark with a flintlock, many with one of these wartime flintlock muskets.
As you can see from our targets, this was not an exhausted test for accuracy. The rifle targets were shot at 15 yards and the pistol at 5 yards. These are smoothbore guns, so there is not going to be a combination of loading vs. projectile vs. powder that is going to give you anything like “good” accuracy. No matter what you do, every bullet that leaves the barrel of a smoothbore is going to hook one way or another, and it will never be the same angle. We shot what was the standard issue for the Brown Bess, a .69 caliber round pure lead ball, and pillow ticking for a wad. For lube my old standby has always been straight Crisco, applied to the outside of the patch. This combination goes down a clean bore just right, and even after three or four shots without cleaning it can still be used. The Crisco keeps the black powder fouling soft and if you use a nice big patch that wraps all the way around, there is no leading at all. Beware however that the patch does generally catch fire and continue to burn, so if you are in the woods you have to chase it and put it out. I use 80 grains of FFG Goex black powder as the main charge, with FFFFG Goex in the pan. If you live in a state with a dedicated muzzleloader season, generally the local gunshop is going to have black powder. If you can’t find it, I sometimes order it in bulk from Powder Inc.
For projectiles, you have a choice to cast your own lead balls or buy pre-cast ones from Dixie. The Lyman .690 mould is $81, vs. $61 for 100 pure lead balls. The Lee aluminum mould is only $26 at Dixie, and it can be found slightly cheaper elsewhere online, and it comes with handles, which is an extra expense if you don’t already have some for the Lyman. The Lee mould makes a more round bullet with less of a pronounced sprue stem, but again, accuracy is not an issue here. Lyman also makes a .715 mould that I have read great reports about, and they sell that lead ball as well in bulk. With the extra 25/1000ths you will not have to clean the gun more frequently, or switch to a patchless ball sooner between cleanings. It may, however, prove to be more accurate if you plan to hunt with the guns. In a tree stand the effective range of the Brown Bess is not much different than a bow and arrow, so it is viable as a hunting weapon. Also note that we tried the Brown Bess with buckshot and it worked better than with the balls. Using the bayonet lug as a front sight, with no rear sight, we were able to consistently punch a ragged hole with the buckshot right at point of aim. For this we used the new 18 x .36 caliber buckshot mould from Lee. Without tin in our mix it didn’t fill out well, but shot is pretty much shot regardless, and a handful of buckshot performed really well. Note that I am intentionally using the spelling mould instead of mold, because though it is incorrect in America, Dixie uses mould for their search.
The Charleville was a bit more of a challenge, because somehow Dixie left the .662 Lyman mould I ordered out of my box. I was stuck using some .58 caliber balls that I had purchased for a different article. I found, however, that with two of the Ox Yoke patches you see here, the .69 caliber Charleville as well as the .69 caliber French AN IX shot wonderfully, and I didn’t have to chase the burning patches. When you are shooting smoothbore muskets there are no rules. In matches with them most successful competitors design a system where they start with a dirty bore, using a lubed patch, then, as the crud builds up, they switch to a thinner patch, then just a greased ball. Battle with these classic smoothbores was much the same. Both the Americans and British were issued paper cartridges for these guns, but when those ran out or couldn’t be shot, a flask of powder and just about every projectile imaginable was used, including lead shot, spent balls, and even a handful of pebbles. In the AC3 game, it doesn’t appear that Connor bothers with the time spent to load the guns, and you certainly won’t catch him cleaning one, but the bottom line is that these guns were difficult. Firearm technology evolved for a reason, but in 1776 all that was available was the flintlock musket, so that is what both of the American Revolution primarily used.
Cleaning long muskets is a very specialized task, and it is something you must prepare for before you go out shooting. Black powder is extremely corrosive and you can’t leave your guns dirty for more than a couple hours before they will begin to rust. In humid climates you may see fingerprint darkening in less than an hour. You can use shotgun cleaning brushes and swabs, but I have always preferred to use a standard .45 or .50 caliber bronze brush with a few patches wrapped around it. With Crisco as lube, you can get the inside of barrels sparkling clean with no abrasive brushes at all, and the best solvent is standard dish soap in warm water. This works in between shot strings as well as for final cleanup. After you slosh the soapy water, run some dry patches down until they come out clean and dry. If you know you can’t get to cleaning your guns for several hours after shooting, deactivate the black powder by sloshing some soapy water down the bore, and through the flash hole, and use the same soapy water and a toothbrush or gun cleaning brush to clean up the lock. pan, and frizzen. I don’t take these guns down like a modern muzzleloader. The Brown Bess seems to be held together by about a dozen small pins, and thought he Charleville has a more accessible barrel band system, it just isn’t worth it to take the gun apart in hopes of being able to get it back together without boogering the wood. I soak the metal parts and even the stock in Rem-Oil after my cleaning and the guns have never been the worse for wear. Just be sure, if you leave wet Rem-Oil in the bottom of the chamber after cleaning, to run a dry patch down before your first shot next time you shoot. Otherwise your powder will absorb the oil and deactivate, which will require a ball puller.
And that brings us to the official tips section. There are a few things you must have if you go shooting with one of these notoriously stubborn muskets. The most important is a ball puller. This is basically a wood screw attached to a cleaning rod accessory. If for some reason the gun doesn’t fire, like for instance, you forgot to pour the powder in before you rammed the ball down on top of the empty breech, a ball puller will save you from losing the rest of your afternoon of shooting. You screw the ball puller into the lead ball and pull it out. Usually it works great, and I found on these guns that the .50 caliber Thompson Center ones they sell at Wal-Mart work fine. You also should get a patch worm, because eventually you will get a cleaning patch stuck down there that you can’t get out. For a rod, if you use a multi-part, get two, because you will need extra sections to reach all the way down these long barrels. They do make single piece range rods this long, but they are generally going to be special order. Dixie is currently selling an adapter for your built in ramrod, but I haven’t tried it. The other thing is pipe cleaners for a clogged flash hole. The muzzleloading section in some gun shops carry some very good ones that are put out by CVA.
You will most likely find that the historical connection in Assassin’s Creed III is kind of weak and lame, but it was a great idea forced into what had to become and probably is a great video game. Most of the actual history was most likely brushed aside, but at least they tried. George Washington looks like a total badass which is cool. As for the supersoldier Mr. Connor, in the end, things probably didn’t work out any better for the Indians with the Americans in charge than they would have had the British retained control of her colonies. Connor would probably need a good 12 Step program if he were actually real and alive today. What we really need is a new and really good epic movie set in the American Revolution for a true “everybody wants one” revival to take place, and maybe AC3 will be the catalyst for that to happen. In the meantime, those of us with a historical bent can enjoy these remarkable replica guns from Pedersoli, and Dixie Gun Works carries everything you need to shoot them. It is funny that Pedersoli, an old world Italian gunmaker, is keeping American firearms history alive, but they do a fantastic job of it. These guns are not only safe to shoot, but you can also do so with a clear conscience that you are not damaging historically significant artifacts. You get to shoot an almost 100% genuine American Revolution musket in “as issued” condition, for not more than the price of a quality AR. Just remember, that should the need for another American Revolution arise, if a guy with an axe jumps into the battle and starts hacking away at your buddies, don’t just stand there and look at him. Shoot the son of a bitch for heaven’s sake.