Weapons and Tactics in the War of 1812

The weapons used in the War of 1812 were knives, swords, bayonets, pistols, muskets, rifles, cannons and to a lesser extent, crude bombs. Among these muskets and rifles with bayonets were the most used. Most battles were frontal in nature with wide distances between sides that would naturally call for the use of muskets and rifles.


Most British soldiers had to make do with the "Brown Bess" musket. This firearm had barely evolved in the previous century and was notoriously inaccurate. It was said that you were safe if someone deliberately took aim at you with a "Brown Bess," because they would probably miss. The gun was also difficult to load, requiring at least eighteen motions. The musket suited the infantry's purpose, however, as regular soldiers operated in cohesive units. The muskets weren't aimed meticulously by each soldier; they were pointed in the direction of the enemy and hundreds of bullets were fired simultaneously. 

Each soldier walked into battle with the necessary equipment. One shoulder strap supported a black cartridge box holding sixty rounds of ammunition, while another strap held a bayonet (the blade that can be attached to the end of a musket). These two straps crossed on the soldier's chest and were held in place with a brass buckle. Officers carried swords, and a number of them were armed with pistols. Some Canadian troops used Baker rifles. These guns had long barrels which were spirally grooved to give bullets a spinning motion and thus greater accuracy. Rifles were most effective in bush warfare. In theory, militiamen were entitled to muskets and bayonets. There were serious supply problems, however. In some cases, the militiamen brought their own weapons and were forced to make their own cartridges.


American regular soldiers used a variety of muskets of French, British and American origin. The first official American musket was essentially a copy of a French 1763 model. Initially, arms production levels were insufficient, so the army began to procure muskets from private contractors. Thousands of weapons were actually bought from Britain. The American musket was relatively light and easy to clean compared to the British version. The range of the US gun, fifty yards at best, was not much better than the notoriously inaccurate British muskets. Each soldier had shoulder cross-straps which held a bayonet on one side and a black cartridge box containing thirty-eight rounds on the other. Some American troops used rifles. These guns were generally used for sport and hunting until their military virtues were recognized during the War of Independence. Rifles were much more accurate than muskets although their rate of fire was slower. The 15th Infantry carried a unique weapon called a pike, a spearhead on a long pole. Swords were standard issue for officers and cavalry. Pistols were generally issued to mounted units. The militia often used the same weapons as regular troops, except those from Kentucky who generally brought their own rifles.

First Nations

During the course of the war, the First Nations warriors used a wide range of weapons, including muskets, bayonets, rifles, pistols, bows, knives, tomahawks, clubs, swords and spears. These weapons were generally furnished by the American and British armies. Between 1813 and 1816 the Indian Department of the British Army issued more than 26,000 firearms in the Great Lakes region. Almost half of the guns were muskets, although rifles, pistols and chief's guns (sporting-type guns with silver inlay decoration) were also distributed to First Nations allies. The American army issued similar weapons to their Indigenous allies although they were generally of poorer quality than the British ones. The U.S. Army tended to give away more rifles than muskets. Many First Nations warriors came equipped with their own guns. In 1814, half of the Iroquois who fought with the US Army brought their own rifles. First Nations warriors also brought their own tomahawks or battle axes. This traditional Indigenous weapon was used in hand-to-hand combat and could be thrown through the air like a missile.


The term, “artillery” refers to guns or cannons, mortars, howitzers and other similar weapons that fired a larger projectile than the muskets and rifles carried by a soldier. A cannon (also simply called a "gun") during the War of 1812 was a metal tube (iron or bronze) usually placed on a wooden field or garrison carriage. The cannon fired a solid iron ball as its primary ammunition. These balls, called solid or round shot, were fired on a fairly flat trajectory and did not explode, being made of solid iron. The fact that these solid balls were fairly constant in weight relative to their calibre allowed the different sizes of cannon to be designated by the weight of the ball they fired. Thus cannons were referred to as six-pounders, twelve-pounders and so on. The powder charge for a cannon firing a round ball (or shot) typically weighed one-third as much as the shot. For example, a six-pounder cannon used a two-pound powder charge. Cannons could also fire a variety of other (solid) projectiles under different circumstances and to achieve different effects. Two examples of these projectiles are grape shot and cannister shot.

A second classification of artillery was the mortar. Mortars were shorter-barrelled weapons, usually fixed in a wooden "bed" at a 45-degree angle. The inside of a mortar was double chambered. In other words, there was a large chamber for the projectile and a smaller one at the rear of the tube for the gunpowder charge. Rather than firing a solid ball like the cannon, mortars fired exploding projectiles called "bombs." A typical bomb resembled a solid cannonball, but was hollow and filled with gunpowder. Just prior to firing, a wooden fuse was placed in a hole in the bomb after being cut to the proper length by one of the gunners. The flame created by firing the mortar would light the fuse, and when it burnt into the bomb, the powder inside would explode, sending large fragments of the bomb out in various directions. As the bomb was fired high in the air and flew in an arc (due to the angle of the barrel), the mortar was effective at firing over obstacles, such as fort walls, or trenches. Its explosive capability also made it a popular weapon for firing at personnel, or at powder magazines and other such targets. Because the mortar could not have its elevation changed to any great degree, the gunpowder charge was varied to accommodate the range desired.

Last of the three major types of artillery in use during the War of 1812 was the howitzer. Physically, the howitzer resembled the mortar in length and general design, with the major difference being that the trunnions (the outcroppings on the barrel which fixed the weapon to its carriage) were located at the midpoint of the barrel, rather than at the rear like the mortar. Like the mortar, the howitzer was a double-chambered weapon whose powder charge varied with the target, but like the cannon, the howitzer was placed on a wooden field carriage for use. In many ways, this weapon was something of a cross between a cannon and a mortar. It usually fired an exploding bomb on an arc like the mortar, but could also fire a solid shot or cannister shot on a flat trajectory like a cannon, albeit with a greatly reduced range.

The weight of the bombs for both howitzers and mortars could vary, thus these weapons were typically classified by the diameter of their barrels, much like modern U.S. artillery. Thus, while a cannon might be classified as a twelve-pounder, the same army might be armed with a 5 1/2-inch howitzer and/or an 8-inch mortar.

Rifle vs. Musket

Rifles and muskets are different kinds of weapons, with different advantages and disadvantages. “Rifling” causes a spin to the projectile that a gun fires.  Gunsmiths get a barrel to do this by cutting spiralling grooves, or rifling, into the inner surface of the barrel.  When a tight-fitting projectile travels down the length of the barrel, its surface bites into the grooves and it begins to spin. The musket, on the other hand, is a smooth-bore weapon.  The interior of the barrel is polished, and when the projectile moves through it, there is no particular spin created by the barrel. With a quality rifle, a good marksman could expect to hit a target accurately at several hundred yards.  In contrast, even the best marksman would expect trouble getting a musket ball to hit a man-sized target at much more than 40 or 50 yards. Hitting a line of advancing infantry became difficult past 100 yards. It would seem that the rifle has more advantages than the musket: the spin provides a more accurate shot, and the tighter fit of the projectile in the barrel also gives the gases that are pushing the projectile down the barrel more energy, so that the projectile goes further and faster. Rifles were used for hunting weapons, but not for standard military weapons. The advantages of the rifle were offset by its disadvantages when it came to standard military use. The major advantage of the musket was rate of fire. Both the rifle and the musket of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries were muzzle loaders --you had to put the powder charge and the ball into the end of the barrel and push it down the barrel into the firing chamber. With a smooth bore musket, the ball would quite often simply drop down the barrel. The tight fit needed to make rifling effective required pounding the ball down a rifle barrel, a much slower process. The standard loading rate for trained troops on a musket was three rounds per minute. With the rifle, things were quite different – even a good marksman might have trouble getting off more than one shot every three minutes.

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