My Musket Training at Colonial Williamsburg

I’d never fired a weapon in my life. The closest I’d come was holding Baron de Berenger's unloaded musket at the Kensington Central Library.

Yet lately three seemed to be a lot of pistols and such in my stories. I watched many videos and read books. What I learned from the books was how difficult it was, once upon a time, to load a gun and then shoot straight. Actually, the loading part, with practice, could be done quickly and efficiently. Shooting straight was another matter. The pinpoint accuracy in my stories is a case of the author taking liberties.

Given my interest, imagine my excitement last November, at an appearance with author Caroline Linden, when she told me that one could fire a black powder weapon at Colonial Williamsburg. Susan Holloway Scott —aka the other Nerdy History Girl—sent me photos of her family's experience with these weapons not long thereafter. “The next time I’m in CW,” I told myself, “I’m doing this.”

So much of history is available to me only through books. When the opportunity comes to experience it firsthand, I’m taking it. If I’m in a place where historically accurate carriages are being driven up and down the street, by knowledgeable drivers, I’m going to get on the carriage, and pester the driver with questions. If there’s shooting with historically accurate weapons and ammunition on offer, I’m shooting.

So, to the guns. The video here is very short. What I learned is very long. I fired two weapons, a musket and a fowler. What you don’t see in the video is Loretta trying to heft them. The musket weighs ten pounds, the fowler is a little bit lighter, and they're both looong, which makes them unwieldy for someone like me. My arms shook, lifting the gun. Then I had to hold it in my shaking arms, sight along the barrel, and figure out where to aim it. Turns out, the ball isn’t going where you think it’s going. Luckily, I got some good advice as I was aiming.

Another thing you don’t see in the video is how hard it is to draw back the cock. It doesn’t just flip back. You need to pull, and it fights you. I had to use two hands. (I do need to work on my upper body strength.)

Meanwhile, there's the loading process, with which I received a great deal of assistance. Otherwise, I could have been there for half an hour for each shot. Soldiers could load their weapons in 15 seconds, I was told. Well, getting shot at by a line of guys firing muskets is good motivation to load quickly.

These are far from accurate weapons. Even when you know how to aim, you can’t be sure the ball will go where it should. This is why armies created lines or squares of men, all firing at the same time. Standing or kneeling shoulder to shoulder, you were bound to strike the enemy, even if it wasn’t the enemy you were aiming at. But yes, in spite of these difficulties, and much to my amazement, I did badly wound a couple of paper bottles.

Video: Loretta Shoots!!
On my YouTube Channel
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Fifes and Drums of Colonial Williamsburg

This is the "Red Carriage." (Yes, I know. It's a CW thing.) This is an open carriage, with facing seats. It's something like the landau that Ripley and Olympia travel in (in A Duke in Shining Armor) when she takes him back to Camberley Place after he tries to run away to London. But the landau has folding hoods, while this is completely open.

Whenever I'm in Virginia, I try to spend some time in Colonial Williamsburg. This year, our schedule allowed me to have two full days of exploring the site. It's not nearly enough time. For instance, I could have stayed in the Print Shop's Press Room for hours, the presentation was so fascinating. And that's just one shop!

Even though I write books set in England in the before-Victoria part of the 1800s, CW is incredibly helpful. Things changed more slowly a few centuries ago, and British influence is there, whether one is talking about the colonial period or afterward. Until the American Revolution, much of what appeared in the shops was imported from England. The latest fashion ideas traveled across the ocean from Paris and London. Of course, Americans gave things their own distinctive approach, but for a researcher like me, there's always historical gold in CW. All the interpreters have something to teach me.

Among other things, I took a carriage ride and pestered the driver with questions, because, while horse-drawn vehicles changed over time, basic principles remain: the way the harness works, the correct way to hold the reins and whip, etc. And of course, horses are horses. I had studied all this in books—a lot of books—but there's nothing like experiencing the real thing. For someone like me, with no personal experience of horses and driving a carriage, simply watching the coaches at work was educational, and will, I hope, make my stories feel more authentic. I watched and watched. And took pictures.

And then, when I was still hanging around, late in the day, came the Fifes & Drums.  Remember that my thing is Great Britain and its aristocrats some fifty-plus years after the War of Independence began. But the first sound of the fifes and drums had me at attention. People crowded along the sides of Duke of Gloucester Street to watch and listen. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who found the experience deeply moving. You can watch some video clips here.

Next time I will try to have the presence of mind to shoot my own video. Meanwhile, here are my photos. I have to say, it was a terrific, unexpected experience.