What Is The Origin Of (60)?…


Lock, stock and barrel

This phrase is commonly deployed to indicate everything. Its origin, however, is less well-known. It doesn’t refer to the contents of a shop – the lock on the door, the stock of the shop and the liquids contained in barrels. Rather it refers to the three principal components of a musket.

The introduction of the musket in the 16th century revolutionised warfare in Europe although, if the truth be told, the musket was at best both inefficient to use and highly inaccurate. By the start of the 18th century a lighter version had been produced which allowed the musketeer to affix a bayonet to it. A typical smooth bore musket firing at a single target was only accurate to a distance of around 100 to 150 yards. Their other disadvantage was that you could only fire one shot and then would have to reload.

The lock of a musket was the mechanism which allowed the musket to fire. It would normally consist of some form of hammer which was pulled back into position and then released by pulling the trigger. The hammer was often known as a dogshead or cock because from side-on it looked like the head of a dog or chicken – some people have overactive imaginations! Only when the hammer was pulled back to its full cocked position could the gun be fired.

The stock was made of wood and was essentially the back end of the musket, its purpose being to allow the marksman to support the gun and take aim. It also transmitted the recoil into the marksman’s body. It was also known as a butt or buttstock or a shoulder stock.

The barrel was at the front of the musket and was the tubing through which the musket ball, once set on its merry way by the lock, travelled to its intended target, or not. The rather rudimentary technology that was in place for a musket meant that they were front-loaded, in other words the musket was placed down the barrel and pushed into place with a ramrod. Most muskets had a grove in the stock under the barrel, allowing the ramrod to be slid into place and stored there.

The barrel was secured to the stock by means of a barrel band which was removable so that the barrel could be taken off and cleaned. Springs or screws typically held the barrel band in place.

Examples of usage of the phrase in the context with which we have become familiar are rather thin on the ground. Rudyard Kipling in Light That Failed, published in 1891, wrote, “The whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel, isn’t worth one big yellow sea-poppy” and that seems as close a definition of the meaning of the idiom as we can get.

The Connecticut Sentinel of 1803 records a report of a rather exuberant celebration of Independence Day in which toasts were drunk including the sixth, to self-interest, the cock, lock, stock and barrel. They revellers got up to a thirteenth toast and celebrated all night. The insertion of cock in the phrase – the cock was the hammer – suggests that the attribution of the phrase to the component parts of the musket is correct. Somehow and somewhere along the line the cock dropped out of the phrase.

So now we know!

Happy New Year!

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