The Militia Act Of 1792
The New England Flintlock Militia Musket
Armed State Militias In The Country’s Earliest Days.
Like most post-war periods, the years following the end of the American Revolution saw our small standing army reduced to a skeleton force. With the British still in control of Canada, the French in control of the area that someday would be defined as the Louisiana Purchase and Europe in constant turmoil, the Congress passed the 1792 Militia Act—“an Act more effectively to provide for the National Defense, by establishing a Uniform Militia through the United States.” The Act required white male citizens between the ages of 18-45 become members of their state militias and that every militiaman was to “provide himself with a good musket or firelock” within 6 months after passage.
The New England Militia Musket both guarded the homeland and put game on the table as every
“able-bodied man” was required to have one.
Militia musket barrels were pinned in place, enhancing the clean, slim lines of the fullstock model.
Wrists were often checkered and in this example, show considerable handling wear.
The catch in the Act were the words “provide himself” since neither the Federal nor the state governments were capable of supplying sufficient muskets to arm all the members of the expanded militias. In short, many militiamen had to buy their own muskets. As a result, what evolved between 1790 and 1840 was an elegant pattern of a musket made by local gunsmiths, which today are referred to as the New England Flintlock Militia Musket.
The requirements placed on a militiaman were very specific when it came to his equipment. In Massachusetts, for example, the “Laws for Regulating and Governing the Militia of the Commonwealth of the Massachusetts” stated that: “Every non-commissioned officer and private of the infantry shall constantly keep himself provided with a good musket; with an iron or steel rod; a sufficient bayonet and belt; two spare flints; a priming wire and brush, and a knapsack; a cartridge box or pouch with a box therein, to contain not less than 24 cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a horn; and shall appear so armed, accoutered and provided, whenever called out, except that when called out to exercise without cartridges loaded with ball, provided always that whenever a man appears with his rifle all his equipment shall be suited to his weapon; and that from and after five years from the passing of this act, all muskets for arming the Militia, as herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound; and every citizen enrolled and providing himself with arms, ammunition and accoutrements, required as aforesaid shall hold the same exempt from all suits, distresses, executions or sales for debt or for payment of taxes.”
Also, under the Massachusetts Militia Law, towns were required to “maintain a supply of 100 pounds of powder, 300 pounds of musket and rifle balls of various sizes and 300 flints for each sixty militiamen.” How times have changed in Massachusetts!
Having to spend his money on a musket, the militiaman proved to be no fool. What he purchased from a local gunsmith was a dual-purpose firearm. With its typical .69-caliber, smoothbore barrel, the militia musket fulfilled the required militia role perfectly, but even more important to its owner, I suspect, the militia musket fulfilled the role of a perfect smoothbore sporter. Loaded with shot, ball or buck-and-ball, it was right at home on the front lines or in the game fields.
While many different gunsmiths made them, the New England militia muskets acquired a distinct styling of their own with a number of shared characteristics. Fortunately, enough of the privately owned militia muskets have survived that we know a great deal about them.
The militia musket was stocked-full normally in walnut, although specimens stocked in maple and cherry have been encountered. The stock lines are svelte, accentuated by a small, narrow butt and a graceful wrist. The wrist is commonly checkered with an oval or diamond shaped, brass or silver escutcheon plate inletted on top of the wrist behind the tang.
The stock furniture is brass and very British in style as seen here in the pictures of the finely-shaped comb of the stock and the pineapple motif of the forward finial of the triggerguard. Typically there are three, stylish ramrod thimbles pinned to the stock. There are no musket-like barrel bands holding the barrel and stock together. The militia barrel is pinned in place, enhancing the trim lines of the fullstock model, and typically the militia model carries no sling swivels.
The .62- to .70-caliber barrel can be either a surplus US military musket barrel or of new manufacture. The tapered round barrel is typically 40″ to 42″ long, of .69-caliber, with the lines similar to what became the M1816 military barrel and mounted with a small bayonet lug to secure an M1816-type socket bayonet. The musket sports a small, brass or steel (bayonet lug) front sight but typically no rear sight.
If the barrel was newly manufactured, states like Massachusetts required that all musket and pistol barrels made in the state, other than US Armory or contract barrels, be proofed. “Provers” were appointed at the county level by the state. Once a barrel was proofed, the prover stamped the breech with a “P” for proof, his initials and the year of the proof.
Approximately, 25 percent of the militia muskets examined are fitted with surplus American military musket barrels. The barrel used by Connecticut gunsmith, Buell, to build the New England militia musket pictured here is a surplus military barrel and so proofed and stamped with the “V/P eagle head” proof mark.
By requirement, the militia musket was fitted with an iron, button-head ramrod—wooden ramrods being liable to breakage under combat conditions.
To me, the most unusual and distinguishing characteristic of the New England militia musket is its quality lock. The most difficult part of any muzzleloader to produce is the lock, and American gunsmiths imported English locks by the barrel full. The typical militia musket was fitted with a refined, sporting lock that was usually engraved and carried the maker’s or importer’s names and possibly the word “Warranted.” The names of prominent English lock makers like R. Ashmore and W. Ketland appear commonly. The commercial militia locks feature a gooseneck cock and usually a roller bearing on the frizzen spring. Military musket-style locks can also be found on militia muskets, but they’re much less common.
The use of a teardrop and an oval lock screw escutcheon combination is almost universal in the New England militia model.
Light, trim, nicely balanced and accurate, the New England Flintlock Militia Musket is a unique military arm. State militiamen could not have asked for finer handling firearms than their privately owned militia muskets when called up to fight the War of 1812 or the Seminole and Mexican Wars or maybe even the Civil War. Keep an eye out for this important American military treasure.
By Holt Bodinson
Massachusetts Military Shoulder Arms 1784-1877 by George D. Moller, Mowbray Publishing, 54 E. School St., Woonsocket, RI 02895, (800) 999-4697, www.gunandswordcollector.com
American Military Shoulder Arms—Volume II by George D. Moller. University of New Mexico Press, MSC05 3185, 1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, (505) 277-2346, www.unmpress.com
United States Martial Flintlocks by Robert M. Reilly. Hardcover, 263 pages Mowbray Publishing, 54 E. School St., Woonsocket, RI 02895, (800) 999-4697, www.gunandswordcollector.com
A button head iron ramrod and a socket bayonet lug were required features of the militia musket.
Refined English locks, more at home on a fine sporting rifle, graced the majority of militia muskets.
The distinctive teardrop and oval head lock screw escutcheon combination was universally
applied to the militia musket model.
A thumb piece or simple brass and silver inlays were widely incorporated in the militia model stocks.
Stylish, British-type, brass furniture graced most of the militia muskets.
This triggerguard is reminiscent of the Brown Bess’.