Muskets and wine bottles may not have much in common at first glance… but when a musket jams then the two become far more similar…
Before the invention of the modern glass wine bottle, wine used to be stored in clay pots called amphora or in wooden barrels. Glass bottles could be made by heating silica sand but they were very thin and were not robust enough to survive transportation. Furnaces could not heat silica sand to sufficiently high temperature and in large enough quantities to economically produce a thicker glass bottle.
In the 17th century, the British invention of the coke-powered furnace solved this problem. Larger furnaces could be built to make enough glass at sufficiently high temperatures to mass produce glass bottles. By the 18th century glass blowing factories were turning our millions of narrow necked glass bottles a year. These bottles were all different sizes, roughly equivalent in size to the lung capacity of the glass blower, around 700ml to 800ml, made with a single blow.
Wine bottles were now robust enough to survive transportation but they needed to be stoppered. Another British innovation saw the use of stoppers made from the bark of the Quercus Suber tree, a species of Oak native to Spain and Portugal. These trees, now commonly known as cork trees, grow a thick bark from which cork is produced. Ingeniously, once the bark is harvested the tree simply regrows it.
So where do muskets come in? This firearm evolved as a handheld version of the cannon. It became the primary infantry weapon of the 18th and 19th centuries. Muskets were loaded with lead ammunition packed into the barrel by a long steel tool called a ramrod. After numerous shots the barrel would become lined with deposits and prone to jamming. The primary way to remove a jammed musket ball was to use a bulletscrew or gun worme. These resemble a modern corkscrew which could be attached to the ramrod and then screwed into the musket ball to pull it out.
Presumably, when soldiers did not have sabres to hand they used their gun wormes to remove corks from bottles. The rest is history.
Nobody really knows who invented the corkscrew. However, the first corkscrew patent was Patent No 2061 granted to Reverend Samuel Henshall, Princes Street, Parish of Christchurch, Middlesex, on August 24, 1795. His design featured a disc called a Henshall button, fixed to the base of the screw to prevent it going too far into the cork. The disc was concave to compress the cork, preventing it from breaking apart. Once the screw was fully inserted the disc gripped the top of the cork to help break the adhesion of the cork to the bottle. Henshall clearly didn’t invent the corkscrew, but his design was successful enough to be used for a hundred years.
So there you have it. The next time you use a cork screw be thankful that you are pulling the cork out of a bottle, not a jammed musket ball out of a musket!
Image is “Springfield Model 1855 – AM.030363” by Armémuseum (The Swedish Army Museum) – Armémuseum (The Swedish Army Museum) through the Digital Museum (http://www.digitaltmuseum.se). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.