History at Home offers lessons on frontier weaponry
Visitors to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area received a lesson in colonial weaponry during Thursday’s History at Home demonstrations at the park.
Seasonal Interpretive Ranger Tanner Wells led two sessions about early weapons used by settlers – a morning session that covered tomahawks and an afternoon demonstration where visitors learned about different musket styles.
Wells explained that weapon styles changed for settlers as they adapted them to meet their needs.
For example, the tomahawk evolved for settlers from a naval boarding ax. The naval boarding ax was a larger tool that sailors carried on ships to use for a variety of jobs.
“They were huge,” Wells said of the boarding ax. “The sailors would carry them with the blade on one shoulder and it would come all the way across their body.”
Settlers started to adapt, making the axes smaller and easier to carry with them. The tomahawk word comes from the Algonquian language and means to cut by tool.
Tomahawks started as a rock, bone or antler attached to a stick. The tool was used for cutting, digging and in combat situations as a cutting or blunt instrument weapon. Over time, that tool morphed to have a sharpened stone or metal head on a stronger handle.
“Settlers could do almost anything with a tomahawk,” Wells said. “It replaced swords and pikes because it was smaller and lighter to carry. It was perfect for close-in fighting and it reduced the weight men had to carry.”
In battle situations, the tomahawk would not be thrown, for a couple of key reasons. The first was that metal was expensive, and throwing the tomahawk meant it could be lost. The other was that throwing the tomahawk would mean the soldier was essentially de-arming himself.
Wells explained that tomahawk throwing was a popular pastime, especially in garrisons or settlements where there was little else to do for amusement.
“It was a good pastime for men to impress the women,” Wells said. “It gave them a chance to show off their strength and their accuracy with the tomahawk. In a military garrison, after all the duties were done, the men needed something to do to fill their time.”
During the afternoon session, Wells shared information about the matchlock, the flintlock and the caplock muskets.
The first musket to be used in the colonies was the matchlock. Wells said it was good for the “shock and awe” aspect of startling enemies in battle but not for much else.
“Other than that, it was a hindrance,” he said. “It was heavy, and it took around two minutes to reload. For every 10 shots, there was an average of three misfires.”
The matchlock was used for close to 100 years until it was replaced around 1708 with the flintlock rifle.
Wells said the flintlock was cheaper to produce, inexpensive to own and could be reloaded in around 30 seconds. The flintlock was a more reliable musket than the matchlock, and it could be partnered with a bayonet to turn the musket into a spear.
The flintlock was common until around 1830, when the caplock musket because the more popular weapon.
The caplock was also faster and more reliable than its predecessor. The caplock could produce around seven shots a minute and was more accurate at a longer range.
Wells also shared how some common phrases; like “lock, stock and barrel” and “half-cocked,” originated from these weapons.
Lock, stock and barrel refers to the complete musket. The lock was the firing equipment, the stock was the wooden part that the gun was usually held by and the barrel was where the ammunition left the gun. To say “lock, stock and barrel” meant that whatever was being purchased was complete.
Half-cocked refers to half-cocking the musket. This could be dangerous for the carrier because the gun could misfire while being carried. So, to tell someone not to go off “half-cocked” means they should think before they speak or act so they don’t do something they regret.
The next History at Home sessions today are Garrison Life from 10:30 a.m. to noon; Carter Mansion tour at 2 p.m. and Creek Critter Walk at 3 p.m. Garrison Life and Creek Critter Walk are at Sycamore Shoal State Historic Park.