Racks & Stacks

by Mark Tully

Several different means can be employed to store muskets when they not being used. Perhaps the most common in the period was the bell of arms (fig. A). These small, conical tents are shown and described in detail in several period texts, and they also appear in many period paintings.(1) A bell of arms was probably the most practical way of storing muskets while the Army was on campaign, as it offered the highest degree of protection for the firelocks.

Fig. A, right; The Bell of Arms from Grose, showing the front with regimental markings, the center pole with musket support cross-pegs, and the opening in the back.

A bell of arms also serves well for our purposes in the re-created camp. However, they can be difficult and time-consuming to build, expensive to buy pre-made, and finicky to set up. A bell of arms does completely hide your unit's muskets from the weather, but it also hides them from the public, which isn't necessarily a good thing as the tourists often have questions concerning the weapons.

Another, more visible way of storing the muskets is in some sort of musket rack, of which there are several documentable types. The barracks musket rack or "horse" (fig B) was usually made to hold 32 muskets, so it is likely that each company had one. The musket horse was made to break-apart easily for transport, but they were more often used in a barracks situation than in an encampment or campaign setting.(2)

Fig, B; above, a collapsible barracks horse from Grose. Note how the muskets appear to be set in "backwards" from what is normal. The barracks horse may have also had a cross-piece at the bottom to add stability to the horse.

Fig. C; left and below: Detail of a more primitive style of Musket Horse shown in a painting by Charles Wilson Peale.

Another type of musket horse is shown in fig. C3. Here the muskets rest on a cross beam (a wooden 4 X 4) supported by two short, wooden posts driven into the ground. The soldiers more than likely lined up facing one of these structures, fixed bayonets, then "grounded" their firelocks, resting them barrel-side down on the cross-beam.(4) This type of rack held seven or eight muskets on each side for a total of 16, so each full company would have needed two. This "beam" rack is much easier to construct and set up than the barracks hose, but it takes up slightly more camp space and the muskets are more susceptible to being tripped over or knocked about and damaged. It is hard to tell from the painting, but there may have been a notch in the beam for each musket, which would help keep them from sliding into one another.

Perhaps the easiest and most effective way of temporarily storing the muskets is to pile, or stack them. A musket stack offers several advantages; it's cheap, it's sturdy, it shows off the weapons, it is easily moveable and it can be placed as near or far from the crowd as you like. Most of all, with their gleaming, bristling bayonets a musket stack simply LOOKS military.(5)

There is a trick to stacking muskets, but once it is mastered it can be done in just a few seconds and makes a very sturdy tripod. First, line up your men in two ranks and open their order (18"-20" between files). Every three to four men will make a stack, and the man at "A" does all the work, so you should put your best, most attentive man in that position (see above right). Have your men fix bayonets and inspect their arms(6).

Bring your men to order and give the command: "Pile your - ARMS!"(7). The man at "A" swings his musket out in front of him and to the left, perpendicular to his body. The trigger guard should be UP, butt on the ground with the barrel inclined at approximately a 60° angle to the right. The man at "B" gives his musket a quarter-turn clockwise (trigger guard facing to the right) then simply leans his musket over to the left so that it engages the "A" musket at the base of the bayonet blade (see Fig. 1 - note that the flats of the two bayonets are against one another at "X"). Man "A" supports the two muskets by placing his left hand BEHIND point"X". The man at position "C" then eases his musket between the front two men, lock side UP, so that the neck of his bayonet passes between and under the other two (Fig. 3, movement one). The "A" man then takes musket "C" in his right hand and swings it around the stack anti-clockwise until it snugs up with the other two (Fig. 2, movement two - watch the bayonet point as it comes around). The "B" man may have to step aside slightly to accomplish the swing- though if everything is at the proper distance he shouldn't have to. Adjust the stack as necessary to make sure it's solid, then simply lay your "D" man's musket against the stack.

NOTE: It is very important that during the stacking process, the soldiers stay firmly in their positions and not crowd around to watch. Stepping out of the ranks makes it much harder for "A" to properly assemble the stack - and a poorly assembled stack is a wobbly stack!

To unstack, line up as before, and do the whole process in reverse. If you make a habit of stacking whenever your men come off the field, it won't take long to become proficient at stacking and unstacking muskets. Once you have it figured out it helps to rotate the "A" position so everyone learns how it works.


1. The illustration shown here is from Lochee, Lewis, Essay on Castrametation (not castrameNtation), ASI Kehoe, A Military Guide; The British Infantry of 1775, vol. 4, p 9-59). Also see American Heritage History of the American Revolution, page 171, "A Perspective View of a British Camp", ca. 1780. The Royal Warrant of 1768 describes how the bell of arms are to be marked.

2. Barracks Horse from Grose, Francis, Military Antiquities, London, 1788, three volumes (ASI Kehoe, Vol. 4, p 9-59).

3. This Musket Horse is from Colonel Walter Stewart, Commander of the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment of 1777 and 1781 by Charles Wilson Peale, (ASI Richardson, Edward W., Standards and Colors of the American Revolution, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, page 218-19, plates 40 and 41). Construction details are based on close examination of a life-sized enlargement of this painting on display at the Visitor's Center at Jockey Hollow National Historic Park, in Morristown, New Jersey. The notches are purely conjectural and dimensions indicated are based on the height of nearby tents and soldiers shown in the same painting.

4. In the Peale painting mentioned above the muskets are shown resting on the horse with fixed bayonets. This seems a logical practice since each musket was hand-made and its bayonet custom-fitted. By stacking the arms with the bayonets fixed, a musket and its matching bayonet would always be kept together, otherwise, if the "wrong" musket were grabbed in an emergency, the soldier's bayonet wouldn't necessarily fit the musket he picked up, thus rendering the weapon useless for close-quarters fighting. 5. Cuthbertson recommends practicing the German method of "fixing up their firelocks in files" by locking the bayonets and forming a tripod. He further maintains that this method is preferred to grounding the arms as the latter could lead to accidental discharge (Cuthbertson, System for the Compleat Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry, Dublin, 1775 edition, p.172).

Three muskets stacked by interlocking their bayonets are shown in the background of the Peale painting mentioned above, in the anonymous painting (probably by Guiseppe Chisa) Lady Louisa Lennox with her Husband's [the 25th Foot] Regiment in Minorca, (ca. 1772) in the National Army Museum, Chelsea, England (ASI, Campaigns, an International Magazine of Military Miniatures, number five, also JSAHR Vol. 19, 1940).

Stacks of four muskets can be seen in General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, by James Peale, ca. 1799, (ASI Wright, Esmond, The Fire of Liberty, St. Martin's Press, New York, p 192).

6. If done properly, stacking arms doesn't put any undue strain on the bayonet or bayonet lug, but to be on the safe side commanding officers should inspect the bayonets to be sure they fit well and there aren't any loose lugs. Also check that the ramrod buttons are secure, as stacking arms can bind the ramrods and pop off a loose button.

7. This command is from James, Charles, A New, Enlarged Military Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1805 (ASI Kehoe, Vol. III, p 6-35). Thanks to Lorne Knutson, Steve Baule, and Col. Vincent J-R Kehoe for their contributions in preparing this article.