The Three (or maybe Four) Musketeers and their puzzling lack of muskets

When I read the sprawling novel The Three Musketeers written in 1844 by Alexander Dumas, I was puzzled by two things, both arising from the title. The main character is D’Artagnan, a brash young man from the country who journeys to Paris in search of adventure. He is not a Musketeer himself but dreams of joining that elite squad of warriors who protect the king. He wants to prove his mettle and challenges everyone to duels over the merest slights. He first challenges Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, the three Musketeers of the book title, but the four of them become friends and go on various adventures. D’Artagnan only becomes a Musketeer towards the end of the book, in recognition of his services. I am not sure why Dumas did not call the book The Four Musketeers or D’Artagnan and The Three Musketeers, which would have been more accurate.

The other puzzle is that the Musketeers never seem to carry any actual muskets. This was addressed by Simon Kemp, Oxford University Fellow and Tutor in French.

“One of the odder things about Dumas’ novel for the modern reader is its singular lack of muskets.

“In the mid-1620s, when the story is set, the Mousquetaires are the household guard of the French king, Louis XIII, an elite force trained for the battlefield as well as for the protection of the monarch and his family in peacetime. They are named for their specialist training in the use of the musket (mousquet), an early firearm originally developed in Spain at the end of the previous century under the name moschetto or ‘sparrow-hawk’. Muskets were long-barrelled guns, quite unlike the pistols shown in the trailer, and fired by a ‘matchlock’ mechanism of holding a match or burning cord to a small hole leading to the powder chamber. By the 1620s they were not quite as cumbersome as the Spanish originals, which needed to have their barrels supported on a forked stick, but they were still pretty unwieldy devices.

“There are lots of weapons in the opening chapters of Les Trois Mousquetaires, where D’Artagnan travels to the barracks and challenges almost everyone he meets along the way to a duel (including all three of the musketeers). Lots of sword-fighting, but no muskets in sight. One of the musketeers has nicknamed his manservant mousequeton, or ‘little musket’, and that is as near as we get to a gun until page 429 of the Folio edition, when an actual mousqueton makes its first appearance. A mousqueton is not quite a musket, though, and in any case it’s not one of the musketeers who is holding it.

Their absence from the novel up to this point is simply for the historical reason that the heavy and dangerous weapons were appropriate for the battlefield, not for the duties and skirmishes of peace-time Paris. Even when his heroes are mobilized, Dumas remains reluctant to give his musketeers their muskets.

The book has seen many, many adaptations for TV and film, attracted by the spectacle of royal pageantry and intrigue and plenty of sword fight and swashbuckling. I recently watched one adaptation, the 1973 version titled The Three Musketeers that has a large, star-studded ensemble cast of A-list British and American actors, including Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Michael York, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, and Geraldine Chaplin.

This version is a light-hearted action-comedy on a lavish scale, veering close to campiness but not quite crossing over. Spike Milligan, a British comic well-known for his zaniness, also appears, as well as another comedian Roy Kinnear. The film was directed by Richard Lester who was the director of A Hard Day’s Night with the Beatles. Apparently he originally had a plan for having the Fab Four play the lead roles in this film, no doubt as a straight comedy, though working Beatles songs into a period piece set in 17th century France would have been quite a challenge.

While sticking pretty closely to the book, the film ends before the book does, but in the closing scenes we are told to await The Four Musketeers which promises to deal with the latter half of the book and we are shown scenes from the sequel. It was clear that these scenes were part of the original film release, not a later add-on. Even though there were so many big name actors in the first one, all of them reappear in the second, which provides for seamless continuity. This is quite extraordinary considering the complicated scheduling of the many people, especially big-name actors, involved in making films.

This article explains how that came about.

During production on The Three Musketeers, the producers realized that the project was too lengthy to complete as intended — as a roadshow epic with intermission — and still achieve their announced release date. They split the project into two films, released as The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers six months apart. The actors were incensed that their work was being used to make a separate film, while they were only being paid for one. Lawsuits were filed to gain the salaries and benefits associated with a second film that was not mentioned in the original contracts. All SAG actors’ contracts now have what is known as the “Salkind clause”, which stipulates how many films are being made.

It really is quite an extraordinary stunt for the three producers, who are all members of the same Salkind family, to hire actors for one film and then later split it into two without their prior consent. No wonder they were incensed and now there is contractual language that prohibits the practice.


  1. cartomancer says

    Everyone who grew up in the 1980s knows that the Spanish-Japanese cartoon version -- Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds -- was the definitive and best adaptation of all time. No, I will not be taking questions.

  2. says

    IIRC there was one scene in the 1973 movie where the Musketeers are briefly sent to crush the last Huguenot (Protestant) stronghold; in which they act as snipers firing long guns from a nearby building (while eating a picnic lunch and casually boasting to D’Artagnan about how much more cultured they are than ordinary soldiers). There was another scene where Athos goes through all the moves of loading up a single-shot pistol to maybe shoot Milady if she doesn’t answer his questions about her and her boss’s plans. It was a many-step process, and I got the impression that such firearms were useless in any situation of close combat where no one was giving anyone else the space or time to reload.

  3. Shashwath T.R. says

    d’Artagnan is Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan, the actual Captain-Lieutenant of the Musketeers who died at the siege of Maastricht in 1673. Aramis is Henri d’Aramitz, Athos is Armand d’Athos and Porthos is Isaac de Porthau. They were all real musketeers in that era.

    Extremely fictionalized, but they were all real people

  4. Mano Singham says

    Raging Bee,

    I recall that Huguenot scene from the book but it was not in the first film. It comes later in the book. In fact, the whole Huguenot angle was missing from the first film, so you must have seen in in The Four Musketeers.

    As for your second memory,, there was a scene in which Cardinal Richelieu’s soldiers led by Count Rochefort come to arrest the Spike Milligan character and he tries unsuccessfully to load up a pistol, fumbling and failing his way through the complicated process while Rochefort watches, until Rochefort wearily takes it away from him. It may be that the scene is repeated with Athos and Milady in the second film or that in your memory, you conflated the two things, which can easily happen when we try to recall scenes from films we have seen long ago. I wrote about how this happened to me with the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

  5. JM says

    I never really even though about the name issue. Units having “incorrect” names is common. Unit names are not typically updated as new tactics and technology comes along. The Swiss call their special forces Grenadiers, which dates back to elite black powder grenade wielding troops. The best Russian forces in Ukraine are mostly VDV, which means airborne paratroopers but that has not been true since WWII.

    @2 Raging Bee: Loading a black powder weapon is slow but if he is taking that long then he is intentionally drawing it out. A rifleman in the black powder era was expected to get 3 or so shots per minute, which includes time to aim and fire. The really big muskets would take longer and a pistol would be faster. Not something to do in close combat but not that long.

  6. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “The Four Musketeers” probably was ruled out, because it would have revealed an important turn in the plot.

  7. garnetstar says

    I love the Three Musketeers, both the book and the 1973 movie.

    Lassi @6, there was indeed a sequel made, perhaps it had a different name than first intended, and it’s a good movie too, with all the same actors. Though, more grim than the first one, if you know what I mean: the end is faithful to that of the book.

    Shashwath @3. thanks for that info! It just makes it all more interesting.

  8. says

    “The Three Musketeers” is actually part of a trilogy. It was followed by “Twenty Years After”, and then “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”. And as history rhymes (regarding what happened with the movie you refer to), the last volume was so long that the English translations are often broken up into 3 or 4 separate books. The last one of those is “The Man in the Iron Mask.” All together they are referred to as “The d’Artagnan Romances”.

    Yes, I’ve read them all. And yes, the movie you talk about is my favorite.

  9. larpar says

    It used to be 3 Musketeers, but now it’s only 2 if you go by the size of the candy bar.

  10. D'Artacán says

    I see @#1 that cartomancer is a person of culture and good taste. ¡Todos para uno, y uno para todos!

  11. Todd McInroy says

    The script was written by George MacDonald Fraser, writer of the Flashman series, and it really shows the films have his sense of humor all orver them. The return of the musketeers came out in 1989 based partly on Twenty Years After, with most of the same cast, and with Kim Catrell as the Daughter of M’lady De Winter, script also by Fraser.

  12. says

    Shashwath T.R.: Where do you get that information? What I’ve read (admittedly not much or that deep) said there was a real d’Artagnan but no hint of any other real people on which the other three characters were based.

    JM: Yes, Athos was drawing out the loading process — while asking Milady if she’d ever seen a man being shot. He was trying to scare her into giving him information (either he succeeded or she called his bluff because she knew Athos didn’t really want to kill her — I don’t remember which).

    And on a more general note, I have to say the 1973 movie was the most faithful to the book, especially in showing the very believable complexity of all the characters, both “good” and “bad.” (‘Cuz when you really think about it, the Musketeers aren’t fighting for the “good guys.”) DO NOT REPEAT DO NOT waste a single penny, or a single second, on the 1993 movie that has Charlie Sheen as Aramis and Tim Curry as Richelieu; it is absolutely the worst, in large part because it tries to shoehorn the whole story into a much more simpleminded good-guy-bad-guy paradigm and turns the whole thing into a bad joke.

    PS: What the AF did they put into that candy bar with the same name? I never liked that crap.

  13. says

    Oh, and as for why the Musketeers didn’t have muskets, that’s because the Second Amendment wasn’t enforced in France, so no one was able to stop the evil tyrant King — or maybe the evil tyrant Cardinal — from taking away everybody’s handguns and emasculating all the men by leaving them to fight with fancy gay swords instead. This total failure of lefty socialism led directly to the French Revolution, and Napoleon. /s

  14. Ridana says

    Well, as an American raised on tv, you know I can’t help but pronounce “Mousquetaires” as “Mouseketeers.” 😀 And now I will have the Mickey Mouse Club song in my head for at least the rest of the day. :/

  15. KG says

    Acolyte of Sagan@18,
    Spike Milligan’s nationality is a bit more complicated than that. He was a comic genius (most notably as writer of and performer in The Goon Show on radio), whose reputation was unfortunately damaged by unwisely taking a starring role in the BBC TV series Curry and Chips, a purportedly anti-racist production which actually came across as simply racist (Spike “browned up” to play “Paki Paddy”, an Irishman of Pakistani heritage).

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