Writing fiction set in another time has any number of challenges, and I think this is particularly true for the English Regency. Although it took place a “mere” 200 years ago, the Regency was a time of different manners, mores, and even technology. Sometimes, the technology is fairly easy to experience — I’ve ridden countless steam trains while visiting Britain, and even had opportunity to ride on old paddle steam ships. When I decided to dress in Regency clothes and write with a quill pen for a day, I was able to do that from the comfort of my own home.
But there are some things that seemed out of reach, and one of them is black powder weapons, be they the great guns on a naval ship or a flintlock pistol or musket. I was able to hear what these weapons sounded and smelled like when I went to a Revolutionary War re-enactment at Mount Vernon, but at one point in my writing I needed to have one of my characters actually fire one, and that was beyond my experiences.
What can an author do, in such a situation? Well, I went to YouTube and watched several videos of people loading and firing flintlock pistols, so I could at least get a sense of what it looked like, what the sound was like up close, and what the action seemed to be. Even just learning about loading a pistol was a bit of a revelation for me, because we sometimes see people in this era running around with fully loaded pistols in their pockets or whatnot, and it turns out that’s very dangerous. In order to load the pistol, you have to put it into half-cock, and that means it wasn’t much for it to go off accidentally — it’s not like modern guns with safeties and all of that. (This is where the phrase “go off at half-cock” comes from.) It doesn’t mean characters can’t carry loaded pistols, but it does mean they need to treat them with a whole lot of respect.
I thought watching YouTube videos was going to be the extent of my experience with these types of firearms. But since JASNA is at Williamsburg this year and I live within a few hours of there, I decided to buy myself an annual pass and make a few weekend visits. And I noticed they have a special activity called “Fire a Flintlock Musket.” I’m not one to pass up an opportunity to gain that sort of first-hand experience, so I got a ticket.
I can’t say it was something I was keenly looking forward to, though. My family doesn’t really have a history with guns, so I’ve never fired any sort of modern gun. I wasn’t super nervous, however, until they gave me the waiver to read and sign. To sum up the waiver, it’s basically: you might shoot your eye out, somebody else might shoot your eye out, you might shoot yourself and die, somebody else might shoot you and you will die, the gun might explode and you might die, sparks from the gun might catch you on fire and you will…yep, you guessed it, die.
So by the time they actually took us out to the shooting range, I’d worked myself into a bit of a froth. Of course, I was the only person in the group with NO firearms experience, because most normal people don’t just get it into their heads that they should go shooting muskets when they’re not really into guns in the first place. The instructors said that no experience was going to be good because I wouldn’t have any bad habits. I was extremely dubious.
We were actually going to be firing two different types of replica weapons: a British “Brown Bess” musket and a fowling piece, which was an early style of shotgun that would have been used by American settlers to kill varmints around their farms, and was then the weapon they took with them when they fought in their local militias. We learned that the musket is actually far less accurate than the fowling piece, because the barrel is much larger than the shot used. This is because after you begin firing with each gun, buildup starts to occur within the barrel and so after eight shots or so the fowling piece becomes useless, but you can fire many more times with a musket (and accuracy doesn’t matter so much when you’re firing into smoke, anyway).
We got a chance to shoot both guns, starting with the musket, and my nerves were assuaged a bit when I saw that instructor was going to load the ball into the gun and walk us through all the other steps of pulling it into half-cock, putting the powder in the pan, and finally firing it.
What I wasn’t expecting was how HEAVY the musket was going to be. I am not exactly high on upper-body strength, and it took a fair amount just to hold it up and try to keep it steady. Not surprisingly, I did not hit the target my first time, but I actually did start to at least hit the paper. And then we switched to the fowling piece, which was mercifully lighter. Apparently everyone in the household would have used this gun — the example they gave was grandma shooting rabbits in the garden. My arms were so sore they actually hurt for days afterwards, so presumably grandma had built up some substantial arm strength over the years.
Regardless of the gun, it didn’t feel quite like I had expected. I had thought there would be more recoil, but what it really felt like was an explosion in my hand. I was glad that the way I had described it in my previous writing was still fairly accurate, but also grateful that if I ever need to write about firing black powder weapons again, I’ll have some real experience to draw upon. I was more grateful that neither I nor anyone else shot my eye out.
And now for the ridiculous end to this little adventure of mine: we got a chance to take one last shot with our choice of gun. Mine was decidedly the lighter fowling piece, and guess who got a bulls eye on her very last shot? Yep, me. I am a big proponent of quitting while you’re ahead, so it’s pretty likely that bulls eye will be the last time I ever fire a weapon of any sort!
For anyone who’s interested in booking yourself a time to fire a musket while you’re at Williamsburg for JASNA, here are the details.