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The First Foot Guards

We are a Revolutionary War reenactment group based in Boston MA,
accurately portraying the royal household regiment that is now known as
The Grenadier Guards

 

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Dictionary of terms
in common use in the 18th century

A B C D E G L 

M O P Q R S T W 

 

A

Abatis: A defensive barrier made of felled trees piled on top one another, with the branches sharpened and pointing toward the oncoming enemy.

 

B

Baldric/Baldrick:
An older term for a belt (worn diagonally from the right shoulder) that supports a sword scabbard.

Banquette:
A step made on the rampart near the parapet, for troops to stand upon in order to fire over the parapet. Nowadays 'firing step' in trench warfare.

Barbette:
A wooden or earthen platform inside a fortification, on which the cannon were placed in order to allow them to shoot over the rampart. Often, the same as a terreplein.

Barrel:
The long tube which is the firing chamber of hand guns and cannon. Many early cannon, such as the ones recovered from King Henry VIII's 'Mary Rose' were constructed from forged iron bars, arranged parallel to make a cylinder around a mandrel, and were secured together by a series of hoops, much a cooper might fashion a wooden barrel.
"Over a barrel" A phrase which originated with the Lifesaving movement in the 1780s. It was discovered that not all sailors who were washed up on the shore were actually drowned. If you could succeed in clearing the airway and introducing air into the lungs, some of these unfortunates recovered. A convenient method of doing this was by draping the sailor forward over a barrel, and rolling the barrel to and fro. Later "artificial respiration" was much more effective.

See BROWN BESS

Bar Shot:
An artillery projectile consisting of a metal bar with a solid half-sphere at each end. Often used as sea (as with chain-shot) to damage rigging.

Basket:
On a sword: Protective metal openwork guarding the hand.

Bastion:
A strongpoint in the curtain wall of a fortress, usually V-shaped, angled out beyond the main line of the walls of a fortress. From it, attackers along the curtain could be cross-fired upon. With a five pointed star fort, there would typically be five bastions.

Bath, Order of the, :
British Order of Knighthood into which illustrious military men would be inducted. A Knight of the Bath could be styled "Sir William Redcoat, KB"

Battalion:
A body of foot soldiers, subdivided into companies ( but sometimes identical with 'regiment'). Also a designation indicating a soldier belongs to the main body of soldiers (hatt companies) rather than the Grenadiers or Light Infantry.

Battery:
A protected position designed as a firing place for one or more pieces of artillery. It can also refer to the group of soldiers which mans a specific battery.

Bayonet (see also Plug Bayonet)
Pointed blade that can be readily affixed to the muzzle end of a bayonet, for use in defense or attack. In the first years of the Revolutionary War, this was an item that the Rebels did not usually have (since most of their weapons were fowling pieces.)
See BAYONET

Belly-box:
See Cartridge box entry.

Blockhouse:
A thick-walled defensive building constructed of masonry or logs, with loopholes for muskets. Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts has such a log blockhouse.

Bomb or Shell:
A common misconception among kids is that all artillery missiles explode. Cannonballs don't: bombs and shells do. They are detonated in flight by a fuse that hopefully explodes above or at its target.
The word 'bomb' was also used of the infantry missile we know of as a 'grenade'.

Bore:
A measurement of the inner size of a barrel. A 12 bore means that 12 lead bullets that perfectly fit the barrel weigh 1lb; a 16 bore takes bullets that weigh 16 to the pound. Thus a 12 bore is larger than a 16 bore.

Calibre/Caliber:
The actual diameter of the bore, such that a Brown Bess musket is .75 calibre (or 3/4"… or approximately 16bore).
Cannon were usually referred to by the weight of a single shot, so that a 12-pounder cannon would be a field piece, and a 24-pounder would not be a mobile weapon (although used in sieges).

Breeches/Britches:
Menswear for the lower torso, with the legs ending just below the knee. The garment was later replaced in the army by trousers. In the First Foot Guards mustered for duty on service in America in 1776, the traditional breeches were eschewed in favor of the more practical trousers. Apart from the longer legs, they are identical to the breeches- with fall-front and roomy seat. In civilian use, some old-timers refused to change to the newfangled trousers - Paul Revere (died 1818) wore breeches until his death, even though he would have been considered quaint after 1800.

Brigade:
A military force consisting of two or more regiments. In 1776 in the American theater the three Guards regiments were generally brigaded together.

Butt-plate:
The metal plate affixed to the end of the stock of a musket, in order to protect the wood, and possibly to enhance the butt itself as a weapon. Made of brass in the Brown Bess.
See BROWN BESS

 

C

Calibre/Caliber:
The actual diameter of the bore of the barrel, such that a Brown Bess musket is .75 calibre (or 3/4"… or approximately 16bore). Bore is also a measurement of the inner size of a barrel. A 12 bore means that 12 lead bullets that perfectly fit the barrel weigh 1lb; a 16 bore takes bullets that weigh 16 to the pound. Thus a 12 bore is larger than a 16 bore.

Caltrap/Cheval-trap:
An arrangement of iron spikes in a tetrahedral pattern, generally about 3 to 4" high, these would be strewn in the path of infantry or cavalry to spike their feet and disable them. The tetrahedral pattern ensures that the caltrap stands on a tripod of spikes, with one spike pointing vertically, and this is so whichever way up they are thrown.
See MISSILES & BLADES


Camp Follower:
A civilian, often a woman, who accompanies an army and performs various services for the troops. A much-maligned, but essential person. Many of the women were wives or daughters of soldiers. In the American Civil War, the women followers became known as "Hooker's Army" after Maj-Gen 'Fighting Joe' Hooker. This was later contracted to 'hooker'.

Canister:
A canvas or cloth bag filled with small round lead or iron pellets and crammed into a cannon on top of a charge of gunpowder. It would not carry as far as solid shot, but it was deadly at close range.

Cap:
A hat without a brim, although it might have a visor, such as the Guards Light Infantry cap.

Carcass. An incendiary missile (as opposed to solid shot or an exploding type). A frame of metal bands held a canvas or paper container into which was poured a molten mixture of gunpowder, saltpeter and tallow which was allowed to harden. So that the flash from the propellant charge would ignite the filling, the walls of the container were pierced with a few holes into which priming composition and quickmatch were inserted. Alternately it was a metal can punched with holes and filled with oiled rags that set ablaze when the carcass was fired. Carcasses were fired from mortars and howitzers only.

Carriage:
A leathern sling to support any weapon, such as the bayonet sling, which is a diagonal belt suspended from the right shoulder.

Cartridge:
Musket: A prepared cylindrical paper package, that contained the bullet and gunpowder. The advantage here was that the charge was pre-measured and permitted rapid fire (rather than measuring from a powder-horn).
For cannon: A pre-measured serge bag containing propellant and missile.
See CARTRIDGE BOX

Cartridge Box:
The leathern container for cartridges. In the British army, well-constructed with an inner flap to protect the contents from rain. In the Guards and other regiments, the outer flap carried a cast regimental badge, the weight of which served to keep the flap closed. The cartridge box would be carried on the right hip, suspended from the left shoulder by a diagonal strap. In wars previous to the RevWar, the cartridge-box might have been worn in front as a belly-box.
See CARTRIDGE BOX

Cascabel:
The knob at the breech end of a cannon. A convenient attachment point for a rope, which could be used to slew the cannon around.

Casemate:
A chamber built within the walls of a fort. Casemates can house barracks, guardhouses, bakeries and other administrative functions. Since they might have dirt on top of the roofing, they could be damp - but preferable to living in a tent. On the outer walls, they might have loopholes through which muskets or cannon can fire.

Case Shot:
A container holding junk such as bits of scrap metal, old nails etc. Later improvements made the container of sheet iron or tin in cylindrical form that was filled with cast iron balls each varying in weight from 2 ounces to 8 ounces for the smaller guns, and from 8 ounces to a pound for the heavier. Case was useful in that it could be fired from any kind of gun against troops in the open, at ships' rigging and boats, Effective range was about 350 yards. On being fired the metal canister burst open at the muzzle, and the contents produced a shotgun effect. Case shot was first used at the siege of Constantinople in 1453 and was still being used in World War II.

Chain Shot:
An artillery projectile consisting of two iron balls of half-balls connected with a short length of chain. On land, used as an anti-personnel weapon, at sea against personnel or rigging. Sometimes referred to as 'Murthering chain shot'.

Charleville:
A prominent French manufactory of swords and muskets, the Charleville musket had a caliber of .69". Another royal manufactory of the RevWar era was St-Etienne.

Cheval-de-Frise:
A timber fence, arranged like vertical X's, and often tipped with steel spikes, calculated to stop infantry. Sometimes this was also used under water to stop ships. Plural: chevaux-de-frise.

Chirurgeon:
Alternate spelling of 'Surgeon', pronounced as you would pronounce 'surgeon'. Etymologically speaking, it was a truer reflection of its ancient Greek onomastic origin. Although commonly used as a spelling in the RevWar period, it did not survive. So too with 'Serjeant'.
The First Foot Guards has its own Chirurgeon and Chirurgeon's Mate: colorful characters who will be happy to show off their grisly instruments, and to describe how to amputate legs &c.

See Chirurgeon

Coat:
Part of our clothing pattern that we tend to think of as having been around for ever - but not so. As an article of clothing it was introduced into the court of King Charles II in 1660. Previously men wore breeches, doublet and cloak. The coat is still with us today as part of the three piece 'suit': trousers, vest and coat (though the coat is now referred to as a jacket). The term coat is now usually reserved for the overcoat (or greatcoat).
In the British army, coats were red…but with some exceptions.
Guards uniforms

Cock:
The part of a flintlock musket that holds the flint. It is sprung so that the flint smartly strikes the hammer to create a shower of sparks. It was apparently named in imitation of the pecking motion of a rooster.
See Brown Bess

Coehorn:
A small mortar, originally designed by the Dutchman Menno van Coehorn.

Colours:
The regimental flags: a source of enormous pride in the regiments, and often defended to the death in battle. It was a great disgrace to have one's colours taken in combat.

Corporal:
The NCO above Private Soldier, but below the rank of Serjeant.

Counterscarp:
The outer wall or slope of the ditch surrounding a fort. The inner wall was the scarp.

Crossbelt:
Belts organized to hang diagonally across the body. Usually pipeclayed to a bright white these belts formed the X pattern across the body that is so typical of the soldier of the Revwar period. The belts were secured on the shoulder by a buttoned flap that is typical of military coats, and is not seen on civilian dress.

Curtain:
The wall of a fortification between bastions, towers, or other crossfire projections. Also 'curtain-wall'.

D

Demilune:
Half-moon-shaped outworks, smaller than a Lunette.

Dry Ditch or Dry Moat:
A ditch that surrounding the walls of a fort. An attacker would typically have to descend the counterscarp, cross the moat, and attack the walls. Such an arrangement would make it difficult to deploy boats, ladders or cannon close to the wall.

E

Embrasure:
A small opening in a parapet or wall through which weapons can be fired.

Enfilade:
One of the guiding principles of fortification, such that the walls are arranged to give supporting fire to any location on the walls and outerworks. A trench would be susceptible to enfilade attack, (which is why in WWI trenches zigzagged or had doglegs built into their plan).

Ensign:
A general name for a flag; and also the officer who would carry the colours. The most junior officer in a company of infantry.

Epaulette:
A fringed decoration attached to the shoulder (or both shoulders) to denote rank.

F

Facings:
On a military coat, the inside is turned back at different locations:: The collar, the lapels, the cuffs and the tails. These would be of a different contrasting color than that of the rest of the coat. Different regiments were assigned different colors for their facings, and this color was also prominent in the regimental colours. It is often the most obvious way to identify regiments.Only household regiments like the First Foot Guards were permitted to wear royal blue facings.
Guards uniforms

Fall front:
The typical pattern of breeches and trousers at this period, with a flap that falls forward, and buttons at the waist.. Fly front became common in the early 1800s, continuing today with the zippered fly front. The breeches and trousers of the period were very full in the seat, making it easy for the wearer to bend forward. The waistline was fairly high, and continued so until the 1950s. "Hipster' and 'slacks' introduced the waistline at about the top of the hip bones, followed by below the hip bone fashions in the 2000s.

The First Foot Guards American detachment wears trousers - a modification made to adapt to the American terrain. However, back in the London barracks, they continued to wear breches.
Guards uniform

Fascines:
Bundles of tightly bound twigs and sticks hastily assembled and tied together.
They were used for constructing gun platforms, especially on soggy ground, or for filling ditches to permit infantry, cavalry or artillery to pass, and in temporary fortification to hold back a dirt wall (along with gabions). Some Light Infantry carried fascine knives as part of their equipment.

Field Piece:
Artillery mounted on a wheeled carriage for use in the field (as opposed to heavier guns used in defensive positions, or naval guns.

Firelock:
A vague description of a flintlock that could also include a snap-haunce. However, the word was used in commands of the RevWar period, such as "Handle your…firelocks!"

Flash in the pan:
See Pan.

Flintlock:
The mechanism in the Brown Bess musket. True flintlocks were introduced in 1610, became common around 1650, but generally as the fowling pieces of rich men. They were common in military use by 1700. A flintlock is a spring-driven mechanism that upon release smartly strikes the edge of a flint against a hardened steel hammer, causing a shower of sparks to ignite the powder in the pan. The cunning thing about a flintlock is that as the hammer is struck, it uncovers the powder in the pan. If the powder in the pan has to be uncovered manually, the weapon is a snap-haunce.It superseded the wheellock (which was expensive ) and the matchlock (which was simple, but unreliable and hazardous).
Matchlocks were abolished in the English army in 1690, in favor of flintlocks. There are three distinct lengths (as opposed to different patterns that developed); Musket, Fusil and Carbine. Musket is the longest, carbine is the shortest.
See Brown Bess

Fly:
In an encampment, a canvas sheet suspended horizontally above head height to give protection against sun or rain. The word awning might nowadays be used for this.
Alternately it refers to the frontal placket on trousers which was introduced instead of the Fall Front, in the early 1800s.


Foot:
Infantry, as opposed to cavalry. Used in the description of regiments, such as Fifth Foot, Tenth Foot, First Foot Guards.

Forlorn Hope:
A body of troops, sometimes volunteers, assigned the mission of leading an attack.

Frigate:
A type of warship developed in the eighteenth century, mounting from approximately twenty to as many as fifty guns, mostly 6, 9, and 12-pounders.

Fuller:
A shallow groove (or grooves) cut lengthwise along the blade of a cutting sword. This was an artifact that lightened the weight of the blade, without substantially decreasing its strength. There is an impression that these grooves were there to allow blood to run along them - authorities debunk this.

Fusil or Fuzee:
A short musket, often carried by officers and NCOs.It is not as long as a Musket, but longer than a Carbine. 'Fusil' in French refers to the regular-size musket, and the soldier who carried it would be a fusilier (as opposed to a grenadier or chasseur).

G

Gabion:
A cylinder of wickerwork or other material, without top or bottom. They were highly portable, and could be brought to the defensive position and filled with earth and stones (when they became immovable) Today we would use sandbags for the same purpose.

Glacis:
The ground-level smooth area in front of the main walls of a fortification. This could be composed of masonry or compressed earth. It often formed a slight rise up towards the walls. The purpose was to provide no shelter for the attackers, and to provide a surface that protected the walls from beseigers' artillery. It was usually separated from the main walls by a counterscarp and dry moat.
The word features in the song "British Grenadiers".

Gorget:
In medieval armor, the plate armor that protected the throat area. It was normally attached to the breastplate. In the RevWar period it was a demilune of metal suspended by a chain or ribbon from the neck and worn below the collar. It was a vestige of the old knightly armor, and was worn by officers, but only when they were on duty. It was typically made of brass, silver or gold.

Grape or Grapeshot:
Grapeshot was so called because in its original form a round resembled a bunch of grapes.A number of heavy iron balls was arranged in cylindrical form to fit the caliber of the gun, then covered with canvas or parchment and tied into a quilt-like pattern (whence it was often termed 'quilted grape'). A later form was 'tier grape', where the balls were arranged in tiers, separated by spacers. The balls in each type varied in weight from a few ounces up to 4 lbs each, according to the caliber of the gun. Grape was superseded by case toward the end of the smooth-bore era. Its maximum effective range was 600 yards .

Grenade:
A small bomb composed simply of a hollow iron ball filled with explosive and detonated with a simple fuse of slow-match. It gave rise to a type of infantryman called a Grenadier. Grenadier were usually bigger, stronger men who could hurl the grenade. They also needed to be brave, since they had to get within lobbing range of the enemy, and they had to be skilled in order to gauge the right amount of fuse. The grenade was named for its similarity to a pomegranate (sp. Granata).

Grenadier:
A soldier who was specially trained and equipped for throwing grenades. By the Revolutionary War period, the Grenadiers had ceased to throw grenades, since the tactic was no longer considered to be militarily effective. The Grenadier battalion remained as one of the two flank companies (the other being Light Infantry). Grenadiers were employed as shock troops.
Grenadier company

Grenadier Guards:
The honorific name that was given to the First Foot Guards during the Napoleonic Wars.

Guards:
A special designation within the British Army. Guards are special regiments which form the personal protection for the monarch. In old parlance they are "household". In 1776 there were three regiments of household foot guards (as well as cavalry):
The First Foot Guards (later called the Grenadier Guards).
The Coldstream Guards (or Second Foot Guards)
The Scots Guards (or Third Foot Guards)
All three regiments wore red coats with blue facings, and were distinguished by different arrangements of lacing, and placement of buttons, and by different badges.

Guinea:
The sum of one pound, one shilling (21 shillings) An amount that was used in Britain until the currency decimalization in the 1960s. Use of the pound was far more common, but professional men inevitably charged for their services in guineas. Other fancy-schmancy items might also be priced in guineas… such as a fine painting, a tiara, a grand piano or a Rolls Royce.

Gunpowder/Powder:
The propellant used in firearms and cannon of the RevWar period. It was composed of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) sulphur and charcoal. It is an explosive - that is to say it undergoes a fast chemical reaction that causes a sudden production of gases. Modern explosives convert a solid to a gas much more rapidly, and cause an even greater buildup of pressure. Powder burns by itself, the sulphur being converted into sulphur dioxide, the carbon converting to carbon dioxide, and the saltpeter providing the oxygen supply. There are other gaseous by-products, such as hydrogen sulphide (the smell of rotten eggs).

 

H

Halberd:
A polearm with a spear end, an axe head on one side, and a recurved blade on the other side of the shaft.
Halberds were carried as a sign of rank in the British army, until an order of 1792, from which time the polearm became a spontoon. A spontoon or partisan is a polearm with one broad flat blade: a point and two lateral points (it has no axe head).

Hammer:
In a flintlock musket, the hardened steel arc that is struck by the flint in order to throw a shower of sparks into the priming charge.
Civilians referred to this as 'the steel'. The term 'frizzen' was apparently not commonly used until after the RevWar period. The hammer, was covered when not in use by a leather or canvas hammerstall.

Hammerstall:
A leathern or canvas cover for the hammer in a flintlock. Used to protect against misfires, it is inevitably used by reenactors today as a safety measure: it may have been much less commonly used in reality.

Hanger:
The name given to the trusty sidearm of the common soldier. During the RevWar period not every private soldier carried a sword. In the Guards only the Grenadiers carried it. Officers carried finer swords. The hanger was a general purpose single edge blade, useful for stabbing, slashing, and basic parrying… but not for fancy swordwork. Such a weapon might also be carried in the street by a civilian, although gentlemen would more likely carry a rapier.
Swords

Half-cock:
On a musket, one of the positions of the cock, which is equivalent to the safety position. At half-cock, actuation of the trigger will not release the cock - it must be pulled back to fill-cock before it will fire. When the lock mechanism is faulty, triggering might happen at half cock - an event referred to as "going off at half-cock". Military of the period had an NCO check each each man'e musket before an engagement, specifically for this dangerous situation. Reenactors today carry out the selfsame safety inspection.

Brown Bess

Haversack:
A light, rectangular bag (about a foot square) that a soldier or civilian used to carry his personal items. Soldiers carried it suspended from the right shoulder. The knapsack was worn on the back, and carried heavier items. The haversack replaced the Snapsack that was common in the 17th century.

Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense:
One of the two royal mottoes of the British royalty (the other being Dieu et mon Droit: God and my right). Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense is the motto on the garter of the Order of the Garter. It translates to 'Shame be to him who thinks evil (of it)'.The First Foot Guards are proud to bear a crowned Garter as the regimental badge. Nobody knows for sure the origin of the motto. A popular story relates that a court lady dropped her garter, which was picked up by the king (Edward III). A charming and courtly story, but alas without historical substance.
Honi soit...

Hot shot:
Gunners soon found that the ideal projectiles for the destruction of wooden targets such as ships and buildings were cast iron roundshot heated to redness. Loading had to be carefully carried out to prevent the hot shot from igniting the propellant charge. A wad of turf was inserted on top of the charge - later felted wads were made. Hot shot would not typically be used by ships, because a constant fire was difficult to manage on board, but was often used against shipping, by coastal forts. Hot shot was used by the British in the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 in bombarding the wooden town of Charlestown.

Howitzer:
A small cannon that could lob shells or balls into a protected position. It can be distinguished from a mortar by the fact that the trunnions are located at the point of balance (a mortar has trunnions at the breech). The firing elevation of a howitzer is intermediate between that of a cannon and a mortar.

 

L

Langridge:
Junk such as bits of scrap metal, old nails, or even even gravel, loaded loosely into the gun and used against troops in the open. Often used as a last resort, for case shot was easier to handle.

Linstock:
A wand or pole that held the slow-match that was applied to the touch-hole of a cannon. The person carrying a linstock would be the gun-captain.

Lock:
A term from medieval and later times, that refers to what we might call 'a mechanism'. Over the years it has only remained in terms of a door security device, and in the mechanism of handguns, as in flintlock, firelock, and matchlock.

Lug/Bayonet Lug:
A small projection on the muzzle end of a barrel, which secures the bayonet. Popularly believed to be a sighting mechanism, by comparison with later firearms.

Lunette:
A half-moon shaped defensive structure that is part of the outer works of a fort. It might protect a sally-port, or be connected by a tunnel to the main fortification.

M

Madder Red:
The color that was used in great quantity to color the wool for the Red Coats. Madder is a plant of the Rubiaceae family, and looks like the plant bedstraw or cleavers. At the time of the Revolutionary war, much of the color came from the Netherlands… which proved to have its complications once Britain and The Netherlands were at war. Officers coats might be dyed by other pigments.

Magazine:
A reinforced structure where arms, and gunpowder were stored, preferably located away from incoming missiles. Entry was usually by means of a single door, often protected on the inside by a curtain of wet leather. Workers inside wore felt shoes, and the artificial floor was made of wood without nails, to remove the chance of sparks.
You can visit such a structure at Fort Warren on George's Island in Boston Harbor.

Marquee:
A large tent, usually the kind of tent that an officer would use on campaign.

Marquis:
A peerage rank below Duke. Forget how you pronounce the name of the Oldsmobile: the English pronunciation is "Mar-kwess"… as in 'The Marquis of Queensberry'. Confusion arises because it can be spelled Marquis or Marquess (but pronounced the same way). 'Marquess' is male: the wife of a Marquess is a Marchioness ("Mar-shun-ess"). If you are referring to French nobility (and if you can pronounce the French 'R' sound), you can use the French pronunciation, as in "Monsieur le Marquis de Saint-Sauveur".

Match:
Not (as in modern usage) a means of making fire. The match was a loosely braided rope or line, that had been soaked in a solution of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and dried. After lighting, it burned slowly, and was used to ignite artillery or hand-guns such as the Matchlock. To give it extra reach (it was not wise to get close to a firing cannon!) the gun-captain would mount the match onto a staff known as a linstock. Indeed the linstock became a mark of office. Grenadiers carried their match in a match-case: a brass cylinder mounted on the crossbelt.Match could be either Quickmatch or Slowmatch, depending on its usage (and saltpeter content).


Match-case:
The brass perforated cylinder which was attached to a Grenadier's crossbelt. It housed the slow match that was formerly used to ignite the grenades. By the RevWar era, Grenadiers had ceased to throw grenades (they were regarded as ineffectual), but they still proudly wore the matchcase.

Matchlock:
The predecessor of the flintlock mechanism. This was generally heavier than a musket, and had an extremely simple firing mechanism (that wasn't always effective). It consisted of a simple slow-match that was moved to the pan by means of a simple lever (the trigger). The slow-match is simply a slow-burning fuse that was lit all the time that action was expected. That alone posed difficulties for a man who was carrying gunpowder!

Matross.
An assistant gunner. A term was used by the British military from 1639 to 1783. Previously they had been referred to as a "servitor gunner" or person who serves the more highly trained (and slightly better paid) gunner. The word comes from the German 'matrossen' meaning 'sailors' because their duties such as traversing, loading, firing, sponging, and manning drag ropes were perceived as sailors' work. Matrosses were armed with muskets and bayonets, because their duties included guarding the guns and wagons on the march, and assisting when breakdowns occurred. They also prevented the drivers from running away when the shooting started. (Drivers were civilians until 1793.) The rank of matross was abolished in 1783, and all serving matrosses were elevated to the rank of gunner.

Merlon:
The part of a parapet that projected upwards used to provide cover. Common from medieval times onwards as part of the machicolation or crenellation (or tooth-shaped pattern at the top of walls).

Mess:
A small group of soldiers organized for shared duties of cooking. The mess could be formally organized by the officers, or informal, amongst friends.

Mortar:
A short-barreled, large-caliber artillery piece used to lob shells along a high trajectory and down into fortified positions. See also: Coehorn. It can be distinguished from a howitzer by its short, fat shape, but more readily by the fact that the trunnions are located at the breech.A howitzer has trunnions located at the point of balance. The firing elevation of a howitzer is intermediate between that of a cannon and a mortar.

Musket:
A smooth-bore flintlock shoulder gun, such as the famous Brown Bess borne by British soldiers.

Muzzle-loader:
Any weapon that accepts the missile from the 'business-end' (as opposed to breech-loader). Obviously, loading a weapon from the muzzle is more cumbersome, especially from a cannon that is pointed out of an embrasure, or with a naval cannon that projects through the port. Breechloaders were a later development, although the Ferguson rifle of the Revwar era was a muzzleloader.

O

Outerwork:
Any fortified position located outside or in advance of a main fortification, such as lunettes or ravelins.

P

Pan:
On a musket, the shallow depression in which the priming charge is placed. The priming charge normally ignites the main charge. When the priming charge fires, but not the main charge, the event is known as a "flash in the pan".

Palisade:
In wooded country, a defensive wall or barrier consisting of sharpened logs set upright and close together in the ground forming an enclosure or defense. The logs may be vertical or may project horizontally from the earthworks. Also known as a stockade. Sometimes referred to as palisadoes.The Palisades is an aptly-named long cliff that borders the Hudson River in northern New Jersey/southern New York.

Parallel:
In siege warfare, a trench or system of trenches dug by the besieging army approximately parallel to the enemy's ramparts. In classical theory this would be used as a starting point for the next parallel, built even closer to the walls, until the system was close enough for an infantry attack to be mounted.

Parapet:
The wall of a fortification that protects and conceals troops. Could also be defense of earth and stone.

Partisan:
A partisan or spontoon is a polearm with one broad flat blade: a point and two lateral points (it has no axe head like a halberd.) Halberds were carried as a sign of rank in the British army, until an order of 1792, from which time the polearm became a spontoon.

Penny:
British coinage. There were 12 pence to the Shilling, and 20 shillings to the Pound. French money followed the same pattern: Denier/Sou/Livre. Smaller coins were Halfpence (pronounced ha-pence) and Farthings (Fourth-pence).

Picket:
A small party of foot soldiers sent in advance of the army to feel out the enemy and harass him if he approaches. Highly likely to be composed of Light infantry.

Pickets:
A row of timbers driven at an angle in the ground. The upper end was sharpened, as a defense against infantry.

Pike:
The polearm par excellence. It was upto 16 feet in length with a simple spear at one end. The spear blade was usually secured to the pole by flat extensions (12-18" long) , or langets, that were secured to the pole end. The langets also protected against sword cuts. Pikes were deployed en masse, and formed a formidable defense against cavalry or infantry. A typical infantry regiment of the English Civil war period would have pikemen and musketeers - pikemen were necessary to protect the vulnerable musketeers. A half-pike was 8-10feet long. With its extreme length, the pike was difficult to handle when used in a group, and called for much discipline. The heavily wooded nature of America, made pikes difficult to maneuver. They were supplanted by the bayonet, which had the effect of converting a musket into a pike.
In the First Foot Guards - and in no other regiment of the British army - the musket with fixed bayonet is referred to as a pike. When the bayonet is removed, it is referred to as a firelock.

Pioneer:
A civilian or soldier employed in laboring on roads or fortifications. This type of soldier would typically carry an axe (and other tools) and wear an apron. Intriguingly enough, pioneers of the British army were permitted to wear facial hair.

Plug Bayonet:
The earliest bayonet dates from France in 1647. It was of the plug type, which was a simple blade with a tapered handle that fit inside the bore of the musket. It was an advance over the separate muskets and pikes, but clearly it was used as a stabbing weapon or a firearm, but not both at the same time. If it was an imperfect fit, it could either fall out or seize in the barrel. It was improved when the offset bayonet was invented (as used by The First Foot Guards), because the new bayonet could be used for both purposes.
The first official mention of a bayonet in British army records is in an account of operations in Tangiers, 1663.

Polearm:
The general term for any cutting weapon mounted on the end of a pole, such as pikes, spontoons, or halberds, glaives, bills. In military use of the RevWar period, halberds or spontoons were carried by sergeants as a mark of office.
Pike - a spear end, on a long pole (up to 16ft in length), deployed as a weapon in en masse (in comparison to a spear).
Glaive - a pointed blade with one cutting edge.
Bill - a single edged blade with a recurved point. An adaptation of the domestic implement used for pulling down branches.
Partisan/spontoon - a pointed blade with two symmetrical lateral projections.
Halberd - a combined a spear end with an axe and recurved blade.

Powder:
Gunpowder. Of ancient invention, it began to be used in Europe in the 14th Century. Bacon described its proportions as 6 parts saltpeter, 2 parts charcoal, and one part sulphur - proportions it retained throughout the RevWar. Early gunpowder clumped and suffered from incomplete or slow combustion. This situation was greatly improved by the invention of corning of the gunpowder, so that the mixture formed grains. Grains combusted more rapidly and predictably.

The other powder that would be familiar was powder to dust wigs with. This was composed of any white powder - frequently flour. With Pitt's tax on powder in the 1790s, the fashion for powdering disappeared (except among old-timers).

Powder-house:
A place for storage of gunpowder, normally located (for obvious reasons) away from the center of a town, and usually constructed of masonry to keep it relatively free of fire hazard. The raid of the Boston garrison upon the Somerville powder-house predated the RevWar. Many powder houses still exist in New England (eg at Concord and Plymouth, MA), and their traces can be escried in street names such as 'Powderhouse Lane'. Powder-houses were constructed internally like Magazines (qv). Powder-mills were usually situated on a stream or river (for water-power), and again, away from towns. Grinding powder was a hazardous undertaking.

Powder-monkey:
A young agile boy on board a ship whose job it was to bring gunpowder charges from the powder locker in the orlop to the gun captain. In battle, this was a continual task - nobody wanted to keep excess powder on the gundeck.


Q

Quaker:
A fake cannon, mounted to mislead the enemy about the strength of the defense. These were used by the French fleet in 1778 to defend Boston Harbor approaches from the British fleet. They were often made of tree trunks painted black.

Quickmatch:
A fuse that burned rapidly, such as that used in grenades or shells. The slowmatch (of course!) burned slowly, and provided a source of fire. Slowmatch was used in Matchlock muskets, was carried by the original Grenadiers (within a matchcase), and on board ship was contained in a scuttlebutt adjacent to each cannon.

Quoin:
The wooden wedge inserted beneath the breech of a cannon to control the elevation of the muzzle. Later replaced by elevating mechanisms.

R

Rampart:
The main outer wall of a fortress.

Ravelin:
A small earthwork with only two faces, sometimes like a Flèche.

Redan:
The same as a Ravelin, though generally smaller.

Redoubt:
A fortification at some distance from the main castramentation; or a hastily-made and completely enclosed fortlet.

Revetment:
A retaining wall of wood or masonry on the outer (ditch) side of an earthwork.

Rifle:
A
s opposed to smoothbore. Refers to personal arms at this time, since all cannon of this period were smoothbore. Rifling is a set of helical striations that are made inside the barrel of a gun, when it is manufactured. The rifling imparts a spin to the bullet, which equalizes other forces that would tend to make a bullet fly off-course. The development of rifling made a weapon far more accurate than a smoothbore. However it made the bullet more difficult and slower to reload: riflemen became vulnerable while they were reloading. Because of this consideration, it did not see wholesale adoption until the Napoleonic wars.

Note that in common parlance, 'rifle' seems to refer to any handgun. Now that you know the difference, you should be able to use the term correctly! Rifle also is used for later (Civil War) cannon, as in 'the Parrott Rifle'.

Royal:
A small mortar firing a shell of 5 1/2 inches in diameter. (Terminology that preceded the Revolutionary War)

S

Sally port:
A gate, smaller than the main gate, through which soldiers suddenly exit in a counterattack.

Sap:
A tunnel dug to undermine fortifications such as a curtain. This is the origin of the modern army word 'sappers'.

Scarp:
The steep bank immediately in front of and below the rampart, it had the purpose of deflecting artillery.

Shell:
A missile that contains an exploding charge, as opposed to a propellant charge. Thus, roundshot is not a shell, since it is solid, and relies for its destructive force on the kinetic energy contained within the heavy missile.
The first shells were hollow cast iron spheres filled with gunpowder and fitted with a time fuse, and were fired from mortars and howitzers until the introduction of rifled shell guns during the 19th century.
The earliest citation of the use of shells is by the Italians in 1376. Early fuses were simply pieces of quickmatch cut to length by an experienced gunner, inserted into a hole in the shell, and ignited by a linstock thrust down the barrel of the piece: a hazardous operation! It was later discovered that the flash of the propellant charge would ignite the fuse.

Shilling:
English coinage equivalent to 12 pence - a goodly sum of money in the RevWar era. 12 pence, one shilling. 20 shillings one pound sterling, 21 shillings one guinea. In modern decimal Britain a shilling is equivalent to 5 pence.

Ship of the Line:
A warship mounting from fifty guns (fourth-rate ship) to as many as 100 guns (first-rate ship), sufficiently powerful to fight in the line of battle. Few first-rate ships were sent to America in the Revolutionary War. The Americans made skillful use of smaller frigates.

Shrapnel. Often used erroneously to refer to fragments of any artillery shell. In 1784 Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), Royal Artillery, invented what he called 'spherical case shot'. The original version was a shell with a filling of musket balls and powder. The bursting charge broke open the shell and the musket balls relied for their killing power on the velocity of the shell at the point of burst. British military authorities did not deem it worthy of development, but in 1803, Shrapnel (by now a Major) they put it into production. His invention proved quite successful during the Napoleonic wars, and in 1814 Shrapnel was given a pension of 1200 pounds a year for life for service to the Crown. The shrapnel shell was improved in 1849 by adding a wooden bottom to protect the fuse, and by putting the bursting charge in a separate container: which succeeded in reducing the number of premature explosions. It ceased to be used in 1915, with the introduction of HE (high explosive).

Slow match:
A fuse that burned slowly, being used in Matchlock muskets; was carried by the original Grenadiers (within a matchcase); and on board ship was contained in a scuttlebutt adjacent to each cannon.

Snaphaunce:
An early form of flintlock. It differs from the Brown Bess true flintlock in that the pan has to be manually opened before firing. In a true flintlock the pan cover is integral with the frizzen and is automatically uncovered - a clever device.

True flintlocks were introduced in 1610, became common around 1650, but generally as the fowling pieces of rich men. They were common in military use by 1700. A flintlock is a spring-driven mechanism that upon release smartly strikes the edge of a flint against a hardened steel frizzen, causing a shower of sparks to ignite the powder in the pan. The flintlock superseded the wheellock (which was expensive) and the matchlock (which was simple, but unreliable and hazardous).

Spiking:
Putting a cannon temporarily out of action by hammering a spiked implement into the touch-hole. This would ream the touch-hole, making it larger and decreasing the efficiency, or would simply block the hole. Blockages could be removed, and new plugs could be added to a widened touch-hole, but such an operation took time and resources. Generally a spiked gun was unusable for the duration of a battle.
'Spiking their guns' means rendering someone hors de combat.

Spontoon:
A spontoon or partisan is a polearm with one broad flat blade: a point and two lateral points. Or two lateral knobs (it has no axe head like a halberd.) Halberds were carried as a sign of rank in the British army.
An army regulation of 1743 states 'All Officers of Foot Guards are to carry Spontoons instead of half-pikes."
An army regulation of 1789 (Line Regiments) states that Serjeants of Grenadiers are ordered to carry fusils instead of halberds..
An army regulation of 17 April 1786 (Line Regiments) states that the spontoon has been abolished, and that officers should carry a straight sword.
Changes in regulations took some time to carry out: colored prints by Edward Dayes (dated 1792) show Serjeants of Foot Guards still carrying the halberd.
See a picture of a halberd . Offsite link to James Townsend & Co.

Stockade:
A wall of timber, often with loopholes for musket fire. Same as palisade.

Sutler:
A civilian storekeeper who accompanies an army and sells liquor, provisions, and other supplies to the troops.

T

Tang:
The handle end of a blade of a knife or sword that would normally be concealed by the hilt.

Toises:
Archaic French fathoms or six French feet.(76.71 inches)

Troop:
A company of mounted soldiers or cavalry.

Turn'd off:
A period colloquial phrase for Hanged.

Terreplein:
The upper, level surface of the rampart, where the cannon are placed, and on which the soldiers are deployed.

Trunnions:
Lateral projections from a cannon. The trunnions rest upon the gun-carriage and form an axis around which the gun is elevated. Trunnions are normally located near the balance point of a cannon, so that both ends are counterbalanced. In a mortar, the trunnions are located at the breech end
. Early (wrought iron) cannon did not have this convenience, since it complicated the manufacture of the gun. Trunnions were apparently invented in Flanders around 1450.

 

W

Weskit/Waistcoat:
The commoner period term for 'vest'.

 

 



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