The idea of soldiers standing up and exposing themselves to enemy fire seems foolhardy, but it was dictated by the nature of the main weapon of the day: the smoothbore muzzle-loading musket. This weapon evolved in 16th-century Spain and was little changed by the War of 1812.
The musket fired when a hammer, holding a piece of flint, struck the frizzen (a piece of metal on which the flint could cause a spark) and set off gunpowder in a flash pan. The explosion fired a metal ball through the barrel.
To load and fire the weapon, the soldier first bit off the end of the powder cartridge and, holding the musket at chest level, poured gunpowder into the flash pan. Next, he cocked the hammer containing the flint. He poured the rest of the gunpowder into the barrel, added the bullet and rammed it all down the bore with a metal ramrod. Although the process was cumbersome, a trained soldier could make four or five shots a minute. His life depended on it.
Muskets were very inaccurate except at close range. Hence, tactics at the time of the War of 1812 were to stand and wait until the enemy was at close range, a harrowing experience for those who were under fire. When a musket ball struck a man, it was lethal. The hot metal flattened and shattered on impact. Muskets were prone to misfiring up to 25 percent of the time, especially if the powder got moist.
This piece features an animated, step-by-step description of how a musket, the main weapon of foot soldiers at the time, was loaded and fired in the War of 1812.