I heard some legends about an early 17th century outlaw, who on one occasion allegedly defeated alone a number of musketeers: because of the terrain, they could only advance in a single line, so one had to shoot, and retreat to reload (if surviving the shots of their opponent), allowing the next one to shoot.

I never had the occasion to fire a matchlock, so I don't know that much about it. I know, that two explosions happen, when the burning match hits the priming charge, and a fraction of a second later, the shot is fired.

So you can know in advance when the shot is coming, and may have time to react. However, there is the dilemma of the goalkeeper: you should jump before you know where the ball is coming. Maybe the shot would have missed you, but you dodged in exactly that direction for it to hit you?

I can imagine, that if you see one flash, it means the barrel is perfectly aligned and the shot will probably hit you, so you should dodge. If you see two distinct flashes, it means the aim is bad, and you should not move. If I remember correctly, that was the explanation of how he did it. (Of course, this all assumes the inaccuracy due to aiming is generally larger than due to the spread, but I don't think it's that big of a problem, as matchlocks fire with a thunderous explosion near your face so most shooters close their eyes before firing, and the heavy muskets of those times were significantly slower than from Napoleon's time, but more accurate due to being longer and not mass-produced)

So, can one really dodge the fire of a matchlock musket (let's say at the very edge of its effective range), using the tactics described above?

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    Do you think you might be able to find a link referencing this claim online? The claim seems interesting although with blackpowder muskets there are a lot of variables involved so it could have also been one actual event that a legend was built on as well.
    – rjzii
    Nov 13, 2012 at 14:52
  • didn't Mythbusters have someone on for a samurai episode that could hit pellets shot from a pellet gun with his sword? I'm not sure how fast they were moving, but I think it lends plausibility to the idea of a trained person being able to dodge bullets at a given range.
    – Ryathal
    Nov 13, 2012 at 18:31
  • Smokeless powder was a 19th century invention. The smoke from a musket is a virtual smokescreen in density. I find the idea that one can see the flashes well enough to judge alignment dubious.
    – horatio
    Nov 13, 2012 at 19:57
  • Further to @Rob Z's request for references, there is a big gap between "Defeated a number of single-file musketeers single-handedly" and "Defeated a number of single-file musketeers by dodging the shots with fast reaction times." Is anyone making the claim that this is how the outlaw survived?
    – Oddthinking
    Nov 14, 2012 at 0:26
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    when you see the muzzle flash the bullet is already on its way and it's too late to try and dodge Nov 14, 2012 at 11:39

1 Answer 1


Whilst the process of loading and preparing a matchlock is slow, the actual firing, from ignition of the charge in the pan, to expulsion of the bullet, is a few tenths of a second. This is evident in How to fire a Matchlock musket. However if you have to wait for a muzzle flash before deciding how to react, time prior to the muzzle flash isn't time in which you can commence your avoidance (other than to perhaps tense your muscles in preparation?).

A matchlock musket ball travels at 400-500 m/s ( Ref. Ref.). It would have been used at a range of less than 50m when aimed at an individual (Ref.). That gives a flight time of no more than about 0.1 s

Matchlock muskets were not rifled and so were relatively inaccurate. To be assured of safety you'd have to move more than a few cm from the median line of fire.

The average human reaction time is about 0.2 s (Ref) and the fastest is about 0.1 s (Ref) but you are unlikely to move your torso far (from a standing start) in that sort of time.

By the time the ball hit your body, even the quickest human would not yet have physically reacted. Your brain would not yet have signalled your muscles to move (or freeze).

Overall, it seems unlikely that standing still and looking for aligned flashes at pan and muzzle would be the best strategy for avoiding injury.

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    Not that I would argue with your conclusion, but the fire does sometime hang up for a few tenths of a second, which is part of what makes it hard to fire powder-pan weapons at moving targets: you have keep your aim on target while you wait for ignition. Nov 13, 2012 at 20:43
  • @dmckee: That's good info thanks, I'll update the answer. I guess the problem with the tactic described is you have to wait for the muzzle flash before being sure whether to move or freeze? Nov 13, 2012 at 22:24
  • I don't think it'll matter much in the end, but I think you shouldn't be referring to average reaction time of humans, but to the best cases. It's reasonable to assume this outlaw was the Usain Bolt of bullet dodging
    – Jasper
    Nov 14, 2012 at 1:07
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    @Jasper: I've updated with some info about fastest reaction times. Nov 14, 2012 at 9:57
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    Another plausible explanation for the myth would be the tactic of firing in volleys (which was prevalent in those days); basically, when the instruction to fire is given, the actual shots will be spread over the next second or so. If you react to the first flash you see, you may well miss the worst of it. I'd also imagine that if you survived using this tactic (even completely by accident), you may have a serious case of confirmation bias.
    – Daniel B
    Nov 14, 2012 at 12:01

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