Badass of the Month: Musketeers

The mere mention of musketeers brings to mind attractive men wearing large hats, tall boots and fighting with swords. And yet, we are not here just to stare at pictures of such. Although it was a hazard of my “research.”  Because I hate to be a tease, here’s Luke Evans as Aramis. You’re welcome.

Only fictional, alas!
Only fictional, alas!

When most people think of musketeers, they naturally think of The Three, plus D’Artagnan, as well as the evil Cardinal and the even more evil Milady. It’s been a few years since I’ve read the book, but I don’t recall if a musket was ever fired in the course of the story. It was all sword-fighting, all the time, with a tiny bit of romance. Just right, in other words.

While the musketeers in Dumas’ classic also worked as regular troops (I think they were briefly deployed at the siege of La Rochelle), their main role was as king’s guards. The French king, Louis XIII, used musketeers as a kind of personal bodyguard, then Cardinal Richelieu got his own, which gave them all excellent excuses to constantly challenge each other to duels, even though they were on the same side. A mere technicality that should never impede swashbuckling.

The average musketeer of the period spent a lot more time marching and a lot less time dueling. A sad state of affairs. Musketeers and pikemen made up most of the infantry during the time of the Thirty Years War. Firearms had been around for awhile, but they were still unwieldy and difficult to use. Probably the biggest issue was the fact that they could only deliver one shot at a time, and took quite long to reload. The musket-and-pike formation was developed as a way to protect musketeers as they reloaded.

Unlike the Winged Hussars or cuirassiers, musketeers wore little to no armor, since they needed to be able to move freely. The fact that they also had to walk everywhere probably contributed to making armor less popular too. They made up for it in hats, boots, and swagger.

What are the spurs for? Just bling, I suspect.
What are the spurs for? Just bling, I suspect.

Your typical musketeer was pretty heavily laden in any case. He might have worn a helmet, and a cloak to keep his powder horn dry. A larger horn was for the coarse gunpowder used for the main charge, while the smaller held the fine priming powder. They hung from cords over the left shoulder so they rested on the right hip and were attached to a belt to keep them from swinging.

Musketeer's equipment- Photo courtesy Flickriver/snowshoemen.
Musketeer’s equipment- Photo courtesy Flickriver/snowshoemen.

They carried single charges in wooden containers hung on a bandolier over the elft shoulder. This rested on the right hip, along with a bag of shot, and other tools needed to clean and repair the musket. They also carried four to six yards of match coiled around his shoulder. Since the match burned quickly, only one in ten would keep it lit while marching, so he could light the others if they had to go into action. Obviously, this was an explosive combination, in such close proximity to both charges and powder. Musketeers usually deployed two to four paces apart and only drew closer when attacking.

Of course, they also carried their musket, usually a big, heavy matchlock, though these were eventually replaced by wheellock muskets.

Dutch matchlock musket, ca. 1620
Dutch matchlock musket, ca. 1620


Their sword was often of poor quality, so if combat became close, musketeers frequently used the stocks of their muskets for bludgeoning.

Musketeers were typically deployed in formation. The tercio  had been developed by the Spanish and dominated the warfare of the 16th century. These were large, hollow squares of pike that protected musketeers deployed at the corners.

Their pike were grouped as a central block with always twice the number of men in each line as there were ranks deep, because each man needed twice the amount of space in depth as in width to wield his weapon. The effect was to produce a square block that would be flanked by ‘sleeves’ of musketeers.  . . .

Though only the first five ranks of the tercio could fire at any one time, the presence of another ten or more behind stiffened the resolve of those in front, or at least made it harder for them to run away.

Wilson, Peter H., Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War, pg. 89-90



By the 17th century, Maurice of Nassau had developed a more linear formation that could often successfully challenge the tercio. These were called battalions, They required thinner lines and fewer pike, but were also harder to control.

Both used the counter-march, in which musketeers who had fired would peel off to the right or left and march toward the back, allowing the next rank of musketeers to fire, or the pikemen to charge. Well-trained troops could cover about 40 yards per minute while doing this.

Many recruits during this time period preferred becoming a musketeer to carrying a pike, because pikemen were used primarily for defense, but were sitting ducks if someone broke the lines. There is also the less charitable theory that it was more difficult to loot while carrying a pike.

So, musketeers were not quite as romantic as some of us would like, but in the end, pretty useful.

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Major Player: Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor

Since the majority of my main characters are based on historical figures, I thought I’d profile some of them, and then let you figure out who’s who. No, actually I’ll totally hit you over the head with the who’s who. It’s already begun, since obviously, Kendryk and Gwynneth are based on Frederick and Elizabeth. Of course, one of the joys of writing fantasy is I can use the historical figure as a point of departure, then slander them with impunity. Or in Kendryk’s case, make them really cute.

So, while Kendryk is for all practical purposes the protagonist of this first book (oh yes, there will be several more, even if it takes me the rest of my life), there will be a pretty major antagonist. Her character profile will be next, but in the meantime, here’s the real guy she’s based on. Ferdinand II was Holy Roman Emperor for nearly two-thirds of the Thirty Years War, and in the view of many scholars, contributed a fair amount to starting and perpetuating it.

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Major Players: Frederick and Elizabeth

One rainy summer afternoon, many, many years ago, I was doing the guided tour of Heidelberg Castle in Germany. The guide explained how the formal gardens- mostly in ruins today- were considered the 8th wonder of the world at the time they were built back in 1615. What caught my attention as a romantic 18-year-old was the fact that they had been built by one of the rulers of Heidelberg, Frederick V, Elector Palatine for his English wife, Elizabeth Stuart.

Frederick V in 1613
Frederick V in 1613

He loved her so much that he spared no trouble or expense to create the most fabulous home for her. It wasn’t just the garden, either. He rebuilt a whole wing of the castle in the “English style,” so she wouldn’t be homesick. The guide then went on to speculate that it was this love for Elizabeth that drove Frederick to give in to her ambitious machinations, leading him to accept the Bohemian crown, finally resulting in the whole Winter King debacle.

Elizabeth of Bohemia
Elizabeth of Bohemia

Needless to say, I was impressed, and my teenage heartstrings were tugged by the tragic romance of it all. I did have to disregard the portraits of the protagonists, because it was a little hard to picture people wearing such stiff collars having squishy feelings. Still, I think it’s safe to say that the tiny seed that grew into the book I’m writing now was planted that day.

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Badass of the Month: Cuirassier

In doing some technical research for another main character, I came across these guys. Cuirassiers were named for the breastplates (cuirasses) they wore, and were a type of heavy cavalry popular well into the 19th century. In fact, they were still around to a limited extent in World War I, and still possess a regiment in the French Army today.

Pappenheim’s Cuirassiers during the 30 Years War

We’ve already discussed how cavalry was undergoing some serious changes in the period before and during the Thirty Years War. The increased use of firearms and pike made traditional cavalry nearly obsolete. But there was still a use for big guys on big horses, wearing a lot of armor. Yay!

The armor was as follows: a full-coverage helmet, or burgonet. How anyone saw or heard anything while wearing one of these, I do not know. They sometimes had scary-looking masks on them, which gave rise to the name of “Totenkopf,” or Death’s Head. I’m sure some of you have heard of that appellation in other contexts.*coughSScough*

Helmet belonging to Prince Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony

Then, they pretty much covered themselves in really heavy, thick armor that could stop bullets. In fact, the armor sometimes came from the manufacturer already dented, to prove that it had been tested against firearms. It could weigh up to eighty pounds. It probably got pretty sweaty in there, too.

After the helmet came the gorget, which covered the neck. Then, the breast- and back-plates which protected the torso. Shoulders were covered by pauldrons, the elbows by couters, and rerebraces and vambraces covered the upper and lower arms, respectively. Yes, there will be a quiz!

German cuirassier gauntlets, ca 1620

They also wore armored gauntlets to protect hands and wrists, but the right-hand ones were often left off because it was difficult to reload a pistol while wearing. Or doing anything else, I imagine!

I mean seriously, could YOU ride a horse, draw and fire pistols and use a sword with any kind of accuracy wearing metal gloves? Reloading would be the least of my worries. I guess that’s why they’re badasses and I am not.

Here’s a nice example of the full armor:

Cuirassier 3/4 Armor, Germany ca 1620

If you’re interested in more, or just want to do well on quiz, you can take a look at my pinterest board with even more cool-looking pieces.

On to the weapons!

From the best three pages (seriously, they’re the only pages that are fun to read) of Peter Wilson’s book on The Thirty Years War, we get the following:

Pistols were carried in the saddle holsters with the triggers facing outwards, because their long barrels meant they had to be drawn with the hand turned towards the back.

As most men were right-handed, they had to hold the reins in their left hand and reach over to draw their left-hand side pistol or their sword. (pg. 92)

Ugh, sounds complicated. Cuirassiers typically carried wheellock pistols, which were the successor to the matchlock. Since the matchlock needed to be lit with an actual flame in order to fire, the wheellock was superior in many ways. It was safer, because you were less likely to be blown up by your own gunpowder, since yes, carrying an open flame on your person along with the gunpowder on your person seems like a recipe for disaster.

A pair of wheellock pistols

It was also more reliable, because the slow matches that lit matchlocks could go out in the rain (most fighting was in Germany which = rainy), and could be hard to light when wet, while the wheellock had a covered priming pan that kept the powder dry and let sparks be generated in any kind of weather.

A Walloon sword

Even with those technological improvements, pistols were still not terribly reliable. So cuirassiers always carried something sharp as well. One popular item was the Walloon sword, and in fact some basket-handled rapiers made during the Thirty Years War were called Pappenheimer rapiers after the excellent Imperial cavalry general Gottfried, Count Pappenheim.

So, how did cuirassiers fight? They were frequently sent up against blocks of pike and musket, which had to be made to break up before cavalry could be effective. If the pikes stayed in formation, the horses would simply refuse to ride into them. Yet more evidence that horses are smarter than people.

One tactic that developed was called the caracole. From Wilson:

Successive ranks would trot within range, fire and ride back to reload, sacrificing the psychological impact of shock tactics to the accumulative effect of firepower.

Even men trained to charge home with cold steel would often panic and break off their attack around ten metres from their target, ‘bouncing’ back to their start positions.

Many regiments were composed of a mix of cuirassiers and arquebusiers into the 1620s, with the former deployed in the front ranks if the unit made a charge. (pg. 94)

This tactic became less and less effective as infantry became more numerous, better-trained, and used better weapons. Some commanders adjusted to this by expecting the cuirassiers to go aggressively hand-to-hand, using their pistols only when they were close enough to fire directly against their opponents armor, to make sure it went through. That’s not very nice.

Some started to add mace heads, hammer heads or axe blades to their pistols, so they could continue to use them once the barrel was empty. Cause yeah, I don’t know about you, but I would be less than pleased to find myself staring at the whites of their eyes after firing my two measly rounds. Time for a bit of bludgeoning!

Bohemia Part 3: The Winter King

Some of you might have noticed that my book is tentatively titled The Winter King. That’s just a working title for now until I find something better. After all the changes I’ve made, there will be neither winter nor a king involved. However, the battle taking place in the prologue excerpt does resemble the Battle of White Mountain (below) at least a little bit.

Once Frederick became king, he quickly felt the Emperor’s wrath. Spanish troops moved into and occupied his home in the Rhineland and there was nothing he could do about it. Also, annoyingly, his father-in-law refused to support the rebellion.

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Bohemia Part 2: Battles in the Land of Beer

So, I jumped the gun a bit in my last post. Before the Bohemians could elect a new king, a bunch of other stuff happened.

When I first started to write my book, I wanted to cover all of this. But frankly, it’s a huge pain and makes for an unwieldy and confusing narrative. So, it will diverge pretty seriously from real events. Never fear- there will still be plenty of fighting and big battles, though! Just not these particular fights and battles.

This is what really happened:

Ferdinand II
Ferdinand II

By the time the Bohemians rebelled, the Habsburg Emperor Matthias was old and not very with it. As his presumed successor, future Ferdinand II  worried that the old guy would simply give in to the Bohemians. Matthias had been ruling with the help of Cardinal Khlesl, his chief minister. In a bloodless coup, Ferdinand simply had Khlesl arrested and locked up in an alpine castle. From then on, he was in charge.This ensured the support of Spain, Habsburg relatives who had long been concerned about the declining prestige of the Empire, as well as the decline in Catholicism.

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The War Begins: Bohemia Part I

After successfully (hah!) compressing the events of The Thirty Years War into 700 words, I thought I would do the same for the events that precipitated said war. After all, if the entire war could be summarized so succinctly, surely a mere introduction could be even shorter? All was well until I started to outline this post, and the outline started to approach 700 words. In the interests of my own sanity- and because i care about yours, too- I decided to break this down into a few easily digestible posts.

While the mention of Bohemia today evokes thoughts of artists and hippies, it is in fact a real place. I actually grew up amongst real live ethnic Bohemians, and they have names like Stasny and Kalina and are very much not hippies. It was a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire that comprised the western two-thirds of today’s Czech Republic. Its capital city was Prague, and it was a wealthy, populous and significant part of the Empire.


Bohemia also had a complicated religious situation. It was the home of Jan Hus, an early Catholic reformer, who ended up being burned at the stake in 1415. For a hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, Hus’s followers kept his ideas alive first as Hussites, and later as Utraquists, all the while remaining Catholic.,However, they ended up embracing so many Calvinist ideas that they eventually could be considered Protestant. Lutheranism also took hold in Bohemia, and by 1618, only a minority were Catholic, and these were usually associated closely with the Habsburg court.

In 1609, there was some Habsburg infighting, known as the “Brother’s War.” Such a lovely family. In an attempt to curry favor with the Bohemian Estates- a council of aristocrats that governed the country-  Emperor Rudolf granted them a charter of religious freedom called the Letter of Majesty. Like so many of these well-intentioned documents, there was a sticking point. In this case, it involved the freedom of Protestants to build churches on Catholic property, as long as said property was held by the Crown. Otherwise, a Catholic landowner could forbid Protestant worship on his lands. Clear as mud? If you guessed this would cause trouble later, you guessed right.

In the meantime,  Emperor Rudolf died, and was succeeded by his brother, Matthias- yup, the one he was at war with earlier. His nephew Ferdinand of Styria, considered his likely successor, became King of Bohemia in 1617. He was not a universally popular choice. Ferdinand had been educated by Jesuits, and was considered downright fanatical by Protestants. The Bohemians were immediately worried that he would start whittling away at their religious freedoms. He did nothing to set their minds at ease when seven out of ten deputies he appointed to help him run the country were Catholic. With Catholics representing only 10 percent of the population, this was considered a threatening move.

Even worse,Protestant churches were destroyed on Catholic lands, in clear- or maybe not so clear- violation of the Letter of Majesty., Indignant letters to Emperor Matthias were virtually ignored, and further protests were met with orders to shut up and disperse. They did not. Instead, the Protestant Estates gathered in Prague and promptly defenestrated (I love that word!) two Imperial deputies. Since this is known as the Second Defenestration of Prague, I’m guessing tossing people out of windows was a kind of local custom. Nice.

Painting of The Defenestration of Prague

At this point, the Protestant Estates were in full-blown rebellion. They set up their own government and called up a militia. This was very far from a polished, professional force and everyone knew it. Drumming up foreign support became essential. Unfortunately, this was not very forthcoming. The Dutch made vague promises and Savoy (Who? No, seriously, Savoy used to be important) sent 2000 troops, but that was about it. The German Protestant Union was on the verge of disintegration, so no help was available from what should have been staunch Protestant allies. Well crap.

At this point, Emperor Matthias died- rather conveniently for Ferdinand- who then became Holy Roman Emperor. He was pretty noisy about his intention to re-catholicize the whole empire, which scared some other eastern states into alliance with Bohemian. A confederation was formed between Bohemia, Lusatia, Moravia and Silesia, who all agreed that Ferdinand would no longer do as king. They would need a new one. More about that lucky guy in the next post.