Lock, Stock, & Barrel

Smoke rising from the lock on a flintlock musket.
A shower of sparks ignites the black powder in the pan.

NPS (public domain)

A Soldier's Best Friend

A simple weapon by today's standards, the ­flintlock musket was the primary weapon of infantrymen during the U.S.-Mexican War. It was here at Palo Alto Battlefield the first angry shots of the war sounded on May 8, 1846. Though muskets saw limited use during the battle, they saw much more action in later engagements. Eventually, some of the muskets present at Palo Alto would make their way to Mexico City when the U.S. Army captured the Mexican capital in September of 1847.

In the hands of U.S. and Mexican soldiers, the fl­intlock musket was both a giver and taker of life. An instrument of war made of wood and steel, it was often the only thing standing between an early grave or living another day. The musket was a constant companion of the infantryman, at times even sharing a bedroll with the soldier.

The weapon employed a simple firing mechanism relying on a piece of ­flint crashing down on a steel plate. The resulting shower of red-hot sparks ignited gunpowder held in a shallow pan on the side of the lock, setting off the main charge inside.

Black and white half-length portrait, James K. Polk, seated, facing right.
James K. Polk

Library of Congress (no known restrictions)

A Grand Vision

Why were man and musket here at Palo Alto in the first place? Some attribute it to the desire of President James K. Polk to free the U.S. from its continental confinement. In the U.S. presidential election of 1844, Polk ran on a platform favoring annexation of Texas and territorial expansion. Before President Polk left office, he would realize his vision, though not before the U.S. and Mexico waged war on each other.

Peace Comes With a Price

The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ended the war. The boundary issue between Texas and Mexico was finalized. The U.S. also acquired nearly one million square miles of territory from Mexico--nearly half of its national territory. Polk had succeeded in stretching the boundaries of the U.S. from sea to shining sea.

Just 25 years young, Mexico was ill prepared to fight a large-scale confl­ict with the U.S. Her government seemed to be in constant turmoil, the treasury did not have the funds to supply the army, and her arsenals could not produce weapons in any great quantity. Mexico was forced to purchase much of its weaponry from Europe. This is evident by the use of surplus British Brown Bess muskets by Mexican infantrymen. However, these were generally not high quality weapons.

Close up view of two flintlock muskets
Top: Lock from a M1816 Harpers Ferry intlock musket; bottom:  Lock from a “Brown Bess” musket

NPS (public domain)

Tools of the Trade

There were many instances of Mexican infantrymen, wary of their muskets, firing from the hip to avoid a possible backfire occurring so close to their face. The very thing a soldado had to defend him with was capable of rewarding him with a fate similar to one given by an enemy musket.

U.S. infantrymen fared better than their Mexican counterparts. To feed the U.S. war effort, the armories at Harpers Ferry and Springfield churned out thousands of Model 1816 muskets. Armed with newer, more reliable weapons, U.S. infantrymen did not worry about firing from the hip. They could properly aim and fire their muskets straight and true. Well, as much as can be expected with a musket.

Living historians in Mexican War era U.S. Infantrymen uniforms.
The infantryman and his musket...and inseparable duo.

NPS (public domain)

Simple But Complex

While the musket itself is a simple weapon, its operation is not. The loading and firing drill for U.S. troops called for twelve separate motions - the Mexican drill called for eleven. To stand completely exposed and under a withering fire requires a certain amount of composure. This was shown by the Mexican Army's Tampico Battalion at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Those "brave spirits fought on until all were cut down." Many times throughout the war, the courage and determination of soldiers on the field of battle drew praise from friend and foe alike.


Many of the muskets present at the Battle of Palo Alto made long journeys. Many travelled by ship from the east coast of the U.S., landing at Corpus Christi before marching down to the Rio Grande. Others came from the interior of Mexico on long marches from as far away as Monterrey some 200 miles away.

A Jouney's End

Some found new owners as their former masters succumbed to the perils of war. Others shared their master's fate, mouths silenced forever, never again sending forth their destructive retort. Only a few Mexican War era muskets survive today and the soldiers who wielded them are long departed. Yet the profound impact both had on the U.S. and Mexico continues to reverberate through both nations.


Last updated: June 22, 2018

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