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A glossary of militia law terms

Understanding the equipment early Americans had to possess


In the colonial period and the Early Republic, laws required members of the public to possess certain arms and accoutrements. This post provides a glossary of all such items that are mentioned in any mandatory arming statute from the settlement of Virginia in 1607 through 1800.

This post is based on David B. Kopel & Joseph G.S. Greenlee, The Second Amendment Rights of Young Adults, 43 Southern Illinois University Law Journal 495, 510-26 (2019). All the citations are contained therein.

While all of the items below were required for militiamen (typically, able-bodied males 16-60, although age limits varied), they were also often required for some persons not in the militia: female heads of households, males over the militia age limit, and males with occupational exemptions from militia service (e.g. Harvard professors). Persons not in the militia were expected to participate in armed defense of the local community in cases of necessity.

English spelling did not begin to become standardized until the late eighteenth century, so readers who examine the original sources will find that the statutes spell many of the words below in diverse ways.

The militia statutes required possession of arms (e.g., guns, swords), ammunition, and also equipment for arms—including repair, maintenance, carrying, storage, and home manufacture. The most common term for the other items was accoutrements: "Generally defined as a soldier's personal equipment excepting clothes and weapons."These would include "cartridge boxes, pouches, belts, scabbards, canteens, knapsacks, powder horns, etc." They are necessarily part of the Second Amendment right, since they are necessary to the use of arms. In the same sense, "the freedom of the press" is not just about owning printing presses, but also includes the relevant accessories, such as printing ink, ink magazines, moveable type, etc., and indeed the entire system of gathering, publishing, and distributing periodicals, pamphlets, and books.

1.    Firearms ignition systems

Matchlock. When the English settlers began arriving in Virginia in 1607, the predominant ignition system for firearms was the matchlock. When the trigger is pulled, a slow-burning cord is lowered to a small pan (the priming pan or firing pan). The lit end of the cord ignites a small quantity of gunpowder in the firing pan. The flame from the gunpowder travels along a narrow channel to the touch-hole—a small hole next to the main charge of gunpowder, in the gun's barrel. The flame that enters via the touchhole ignites the main powder charge.

The matchlock was the main type of ignition system in Great Britain during the seventeenth century. Although the first English settlers came to America with matchlocks, Americans upgraded to more sophisticated guns (flintlocks) much earlier than the British did, because the burning cord makes it much more difficult to have a firearm always ready for immediate use. The matchlock's burning cord also impeded concealment in the woods. Matchlocks usually did not work at all in the rain, and only sometimes in the damp. The safety problem of burning rope near gunpowder is apparent.

The slow-burning cord is called the match or match rope. The cord burns on both ends. When matchlocks were the predominant firearm, militia statutes might also specify the requirement for a sufficient quantity of match, expressed by the total length of match rope.

Firelock or flintlock. In a flintlock, the gunpowder is ignited by flint striking a piece of steel and producing sparks. The steel is a part of the gun. The flint (which eventually wears out and must be replaced) is held in the jaws of a movable vise that is a part of the gun.

Flintlocks are faster to reload and to fire than matchlocks. And they are much less likely to misfire (fail to ignite).

Many militia statutes from the latter eighteenth century specify that the firearm must be a firelock or some more specific type of firearm (e.g., musket, rifle). This is a violation of the rule against surplusage, since the other type of firearm would still be a flintlock. The rule against surplusage was not as prominent in eighteenth century drafting as it is today.

Lock, gun lock. What we today call the action of a firearm. It is the part of the gun that performs the mechanical work of firing the ammunition. It has small moving parts that must be carefully fitted to each other. The distinction between a matchlock and a flintlock was the difference in the lock.

All of the types of guns described in the next section could be either matchlocks or flintlocks (except when specifically noted otherwise). Matchlocks were the most common in the early seventeenth century, but were subsequently displaced by flintlocks. As noted above, Americans were much quicker to adopt flintlocks than were their British cousins. This is one of the many ways that Americans and British arms cultures have diverged since the earliest times.

By the time of the Revolution, the large majority of American and British guns were flintlocks, although presumably there may have been some poorer people whose only gun was an old matchlock.

2.    Types of firearms

Guns that can fire more than one shot without reloading are called repeaters.  They were invented in the late sixteenth century, but they were much less common than single-shot guns. Until the second quarter of the nineteenth century, repeaters were much more expensive to produce than single-shot guns.  All the guns described below (except for the blunderbuss) could be repeaters, but relatively few of them were.

Musket.  The musket is a long gun which has a smooth bore (the interior of the barrel). If the bore is not smooth, but instead has grooves, the firearm is a rifle, not a classic musket. Muskets are not highly accurate, but they did not need to be. The standard European fighting method of the time was massed lines of infantry, so a high rate of fire in the enemy's general direction was sufficient.

Bastard musket.  Shorter and lighter than a standard musket.

Snaphaunce.  An early version of the flintlock. "During the 17th century, snaphaunce commonly referred to any flintlock system."

Fusee, fuse, fuze, fuzee, fusil.  Often, a synonym for flintlock. More precisely, "a light, smoothbore shoulder arm of smaller size and caliber than the regular infantry weapon."

Carbine or carabine.  In the seventeenth century, a long gun with a smaller bore than a musket.  By the eighteenth, also shorter and lighter than a musket.  Well-suited for horsemen. The word could "denote almost any small-calibre firearm irrespective of barrel length."

Caliver.  A matchlock larger than a carbine but smaller than a musket.

The various smaller long guns typically had smaller bores (the empty interior of the barrel). Their smaller bullets were less powerful but were more aerodynamically stable at longer distance. Also, the smaller bore meant that a given quantity of lead could produce more bullets for the particular gun.

Fowling piece. A smoothbore long gun well-suited for bird hunting. In contrast to the classic musket, a fowling piece had a lighter barrel and stock, and its muzzle was slightly flared, to increase the velocity of the birdshot. During the Revolution, many fowling pieces were employed as militia arms.  Ideally, although not always in practice, they would be retrofitted to allow for the attachment of a bayonet.

Rifle. A long gun with interior grooves (rifling). The grooves make the bullet spin on its axis, greatly improving aerodynamic stability and thus adding considerable range. Little-used in New England prior to the Revolution, but popular elsewhere, especially in frontier areas.

Pistol. Any handgun.  (Unlike today, when a semi-automatic pistol is distinct from a revolver.) Most handguns of the time were single-shot, although there were some expensive models that could fire multiple shots without reloading. Handguns ranged from large holster pistols to small pocket pistols. They were often carried by officers.

Blunderbuss. The name perhaps comes from the Dutch "donder-buse" or "thunder gun." The blunderbuss was notable for its flared muzzle, which made reloading easier while riding on a stagecoach or aboard a water vessel. It could be loaded with a single very large bullet, but the more common load was twenty large pellets, or even up to fifty. It was devastating at close range, but not much use beyond twenty yards. In the Revolution, it was most useful for "street control, sentry duty and as personal officer weapons." A blunderbuss could be a very large handgun. Or it could have a short stock attached and be used as a shoulder arm.

Horse-pistols. "[S]o called from being used of horseback, and of a large size."

Case of pistols. Handguns were often sold in matched pairs. A "case of pistols" is such a pair. Also called a "brace of pistols."

Gun. In the usage of the time, any long gun, but not a handgun.

Peece, peice. Today, piece. Any firearm.

In the period before the Revolution, most American gunsmiths used imported locks (the moving part of the firearm). The use of recycled parts was also common. So, for example, a damaged fowling piece might be repaired with some lock parts scavenged from a musket. Thus, the above categories of firearms should not be viewed as rigidly divided.  There were many hybrids. The variety of American firearms and edged weapons was further increased by the fact that America at all times, including after the Revolution, was a major export market for older, surplus European arms—not only from the United Kingdom, but also from Germany, France, Spain, and the low countries; to these would be added firearms scavenged from the various European armies that fought in colonial wars or the American Revolution.

Whatever the specifics of any state or colony's arms requirements, Americans went to war with a very wide variety of personal arms, not always necessarily in precise compliance with the narrowest definitions of arms that might appear in a militia equipment statute.  At Valley Forge in 1777, Baron Von Steuben was encamped with the Continental Army, most of whose members had brought their personal firearms to service.  Von Steuben observed (p. 117) that "muskets, carbines, fowling pieces, and rifles were found in the same company."

3.    Edged or bladed weapons and accoutrements

Most firearms could fire only one shot, after which the user might have to take several seconds to reload. So, at close quarters, a firearm would be good for only one shot. If a person carried a pair of pistols (a brace), then he or she could fire two shots.  But there would be no time to reload anything more against an adversary who was within arm's reach.  So edged weapons were essential to self-defense.

Bayonet.  A dagger or other straight knife that can be attached to the front of a gun.  The word comes from Bayonne, France, the bayonet-manufacturing capital.

The bayonet could be used for all the purposes of any knife. In European-style combat—and much of the combat of the American Revolution—when the two armies met at close quarters, the bayonet would be attached to the end of the long gun, so that the long gun could be used as spear or pole-arm. Compared to muskets, rifles were longer, thinner, and more fragile, and thus poorly suited for use with a bayonet.

Some militiamen who lacked bayonets used daggers for up-close fighting. Typically they had a double-edged blade, about six to ten inches long.

Knife.  Same meaning as today.

Jack knife.  As today, a folding pocket knife.  Blades could range from three to twelve inches. Primarily for use as a tool, although available as a last-resort weapon.

Sword. Same meaning as today.  The next four items are types of swords. Some militia statutes required a "sword or hanger" or a "sword or cutlass," or some similar formulation. Again, this is a violation of the rule against surplusage, but that rule was apparently not much in mind when statutes were drafted in the eighteenth century.

Broad sword. Has a straight, wide, single-edged blade. "It was the military sword of the 17th century as distinguished from the civil sword, the rapier.  It was also the usual weapon of the common people."

Hanger.  By one definition, a short sword (blade averaging twenty-five inches) having at least one cutting edge. Alternatively, a lightweight saber. A classic saber has a curved blade, thick back, and a handguard.

Cutlass or cutlash. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, "used interchangeably with the term 'hanger'."

Simeter. Today, scimitar. Precisely speaking, a sword with a very curved blade that is narrow and thick. Often associated with Persia or the Middle East. In usage of the time, "a short sword with a convex edge."

Scabbard or bucket.  The former remains in modern usage. A container for carrying or storing the sword. Similar to a holster for pistols.

Belt, girdle, or strap. A sword or bayonet could be carried in a waist belt. A belt could also be used for attaching holsters, scabbards, etc. Some equipment could be held by shoulder belts.

Swivel. Rings on a firearm to which a sling can be attached.

Hatchet. Same meaning as today. "'Axe', 'hatchet', and 'tomahawk' were used interchangeably in America during most of the 18th century."

Tomahawk.  In a militia context, similar to a hatchet. Before European contact, Indian tomahawks had a stone attached to the end and were used as clubs, but not as cutting tools. Indian-European trade put steel blades into Indian hands, and led to the development of the bladed tomahawk, familiar to viewers of cinematic Westerns. One popular American innovation was the pipe tomahawk, which could be used for smoking as well as cutting.

4.    Ammunition and related accoutrements

Powder.  All of the gunpowder of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was what we today call blackpowder. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (which comes from decayed animal waste) and can be produced at home.

Bullets. All bullets of the time were spheres. As described above, most of the guns of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were smoothbores. They could be loaded with either a single bullet (a ball, better for long distances) or several smaller pellets (shot, better for bird-hunting, and for defense at shorter distances). Many militia statutes required the possession of "sizeable" bullets. At the least, this rules out the tiny pellets that would be used for hunting small birds like partridges or doves.

Swan shot and goose shot. Multiple large pellets suitable for hunting the aforesaid birds. Today, used in shotguns. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, usable in all smoothbore handguns or long guns, which is to say all firearms except rifles.

Buck-shot. Multiple large pellets for deer hunting. Today, one of the largest types of shotgun pellets.

Ramrod. Today, the vast majority of new firearms are breechloaders. They are loaded from the back of the gun, near the firing chamber. Breechloaders were invented in the mid-seventeenth century, but they were very expensive. By far the most common guns at the time were muzzleloaders, which are loaded from the front of the gun, the muzzle.

To load a muzzleloader, the user first pours gunpowder down the muzzle. Next, the user uses a pole, the ramrod, to ram the bullet all the way down the barrel.

The ramrod is also used for cleaning a gun and for extracting an unfired bullet, as described below.

Scour or scowerer. A ramrod.

Match. The slow-burning cord used to ignite a matchlock. If quantities are specified, one fathom equals six feet.

Wadding. Made of tow (defined below), hay, or straw. Rammed into the gun after the powder has been poured, and before the bullet is rammed down, it prevented the powder from scattering.

Patches. Often the bullet would be wrapped in linen or some other fabric. This made it easier to ram the bullet down the barrel. The patch also helped to provide a gas seal around the bullet; the seal kept the expanding gas of the gun powder explosion from escaping the barrel before the bullet did. The expanding gas was thus kept behind the bullet, the better to increase the velocity of the traveling bullet.

Cartouche, Cartridge. Paper cartridges were in use by the mid-seventeenth century. These were cylinders that contained a premeasured amount of gunpowder, plus the bullet. The user would tear open the cartridge and then pour the powder into the muzzle. Then the user would ram the bullet down the muzzle. Although paper cartridges were common at the time of the Revolution, some gun users, including riflemen and many militiamen, still poured in gunpowder from a flask or horn, rather than from cartridges.

Flints. For igniting the powder in a flintlock firearm. Since the flint is softer than the steel that the flint strikes, it will eventually need to be replaced. So militia laws often mandated possession of certain quantities of flints.

5.    Gun care

To reach all the way down the muzzle and to the bottom of the barrel, cleaning tools would often be attached to the ramrod or scour, described above.

Worm. A corkscrew-shaped device attached to the end of the ramrod.  Used for cleaning and also for extracting an unfired bullet and other ammunition components from a firearm.

Brush. As in modern gun cleaning, a small brush.

Wire or wier. Also, picker. The priming wire was for cleaning the flashpan and the touch hole—the small hole where the fire from the priming pan connected with the main powder charge.

Tow. Tow is a loose ball of coarse and unspun waste fibers from hemp or linen production. It is used for gun cleaning, for wadding, and for tinder.

Screw driver. This has the same meaning as today. A screw driver is used for cleaning and repairs, especially for the gun lock. Also, it can be used to loosen or tighten the cock's jaws in order to change the flint.

6.    Arms carrying and storage

Holster. This has the same modern definition. A holster is used for carrying a handgun or a short long gun, usually attached to the body by a belt or can be attached to a horse saddle. Some later statutes specify that the holsters must have bear skin covers.

Scabbard or bucket. Similar to a holster.

Horn, powderhorn, or flask. This is used for gunpowder carrying. For most colonists, the most common horn came from cattle, rams or similar animals.

Charger, shot bag (or pouch, badge). The charger is a bulb-shaped flask for carrying powder, attached to metal components that release a premeasured quantity of powder. Shot bag/pouch/badge may refer to this device. The terms may also refer to bags for carrying bullets.

Cover for the lock. As noted above, a gun lock (today, it is called the action) is the part of the gun that performs the mechanical work of firing the ammunition. A cover protects the gun lock from the elements.

Wax. This is used to protect firearms from rain. For example, it can be used to cover the opening of the muzzle and prevent water from entering.

Cartouche box. This is what we call a cartridge box today. Its purpose is for storage and carrying of cartridges.

Bandelero or cross belt. Today, it is referred to as a bandolier. A waist or shoulder belt with attachments for carrying units of ammunition or of premeasured powder, usually in the form of a leather strip worn over the chest, containing cartridges in individual loops. The cross belt is a pair of crossing strips, or a single belt "passing obliquely across the breast."

Mould. Today, it is called a mold. It is used to cast molten lead into ammunition balls. This shows that militiamen, and all the other persons subject to arms mandates, were expected to be able to produce their own ammunition.

7.    Pole arms

Pike. This is a spear with a thrusting or cutting weapon attached to the end. European armies of the seventeenth century were usually a mixture of pikemen and musketmen. The use of pikes declined during the eighteenth century, especially in America. In the first two years of the Revolution, when some soldiers lacked firearms, pikes were re-introduced for infantry, since they were readily made from locally available materials. The pikes used during the Revolutionary War were usually twelve to sixteen feet long, could be anchored in the ground, and were especially useful for defending entrenched positions.

Espontoon or spontoon. This is a six-foot-long pole-arm, similar to a pike but shorter. It was carried by Revolutionary infantry officers. "It was an officer's primary weapon, since it allowed him to keep his eyes on the battle at all times … Furthermore, his signals could be seen from a distance in the din and disorder of the battlefield, when voice commands might be indistinguishable."

Lance. It is a horseman's spear, the same meaning as today.

8.    Horses and tack accoutrements

Some militiamen brought their own horses. They might fight in cavalry units or serve as scouts or messengers.

Dragoon or trooper. This means a horse-mounted soldier.

Saddle. This has the same meaning as today.

Bridle. This also has the same as today.

Pillion. This refers to a rear extension on a saddle allowing for a second rider.

Valise holsters. These are saddle-mounted holsters, similar to modern saddlebags, that could be used for carrying large handguns or short long guns.

Breastplate. Straps that prevent the saddle or harness from sliding. They attach to the front of the saddle.

Crupper. This has a similar function to a breastplate, except it attaches to the rear of the saddle or harness. Alternatively, it can be armor for a horse's hind quarters.

Spurs. This definition has remained the same. Militia statutes might also specify boots suitable for being attached to spurs.

Hands. This is the standard unit of measure for a horse's height. Today, one hand is equivalent to four inches. The typical minimum size for a militia horse was 14 or 14 ½ hands (66 or 68 inches). The measure is from the ground to the horse's withers, the top of its shoulders.

9.    Armor

In the early decades of American settlement, when Indians with arrows were the principal opponent, many Americans wore armor on at least part of their bodies. For purposes of mobility, leather or quilted jackets became popular; they would not always stop an arrow, but they could mitigate its damage. Once the Indians acquired firearms in large quantities, armor was generally abandoned. By the time of the Revolution, most soldiers did not wear armor; the exceptions were body armor for some specialized engineers, and metal headgear for cavalry.

10. Other field gear

Knapsack, blanket, and canteen. These are the same as modern definitions.

Haversack. This bag is like a knapsack but carried over only one shoulder.

Selected bibliography

Bill Ahearn, Muskets of the Revolution and the French & Indian Wars (2005).

D.R. Baxter, Blunderbusses (1970).

Rodney Hilton Brown, American Polearms, 1526-1865: The Lance, Halberd, Spontoon, Pike, and Naval Boarding Weapons (1967).

John G.W. Dillin, The Kentucky Rifle (Palladium Press 1998) (1924).

James D. Forman, The Blunderbuss 1560-1900 (1994).

J. N. George, English Guns and Rifles (Palladium Press 1999) (1947).

Glossary of Firearms Related Terms, The Firearms Guide,

Erik Goldstein & Stuart Mowbray, The Brown Bess (2010).

W.W. Greener, The Gun and Its Development (9th ed. 2010).

Tom Grinslade, Flintlock Fowlers: The First Guns Made in America (2005).

Charles James, An Universal Military Dictionary (4th ed. 1816).

Lee Kennett & James LaVerne Anderson, The Gun in America: The Origins of National Dilemma (1975).

Richard M. Lederer, Jr., Colonial American English (1985).

Jim Mullins, Of Sorts For Provincials: American Weapons of the French and Indian War (2008).

George C. Neumann, Battle Weapons of the American Revolution (2011).

George G. Neumann, Swords & Blades of the American Revolution (3d ed. 1991).

George C. Neumann & Frank J. Kravic, Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (1975).

Harold L. Peterson, American Indian Tomahawks (2d ed. 1971).

Harold L. Peterson, Arms and Armor in Colonial America 1526-1783 (Dover 2000) (1956).

Stuart Reid, The Flintlock Musket: Brown Bess and Charleville 1715-1865 (2016).

Ray Riling, The Powder Flask Book (1953).

Charles Winthrop Sawyer, Firearms in American History: 1600 to 1800 (1910).

R.A. Steindler, The Firearms Dictionary (1970).

George Cameron Stone, A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries at all Times (1999).