Thursday, November 30, 2017

How Accurate were Regular Soldiers in the Mid-Eighteenth Century?

A Soldier from the King's Regiment takes aim.

Dear Readers,

Today, I want to touch on a rather controversial subject.* The subject is the infantry fire effectiveness of mid-eighteenth century European and Euro-American armies. At the outset, "shooting at marks" or target practice, was common in many eighteenth-century armies. Specifically, I am examining the accuracy and limitations of firepower regular soldiers from the British and Prussian armies in the 1740-1783 era.  Many people have firm beliefs on this subject and feel that the eighteenth-century musket was a rather poor weapon.

 First of all, by modern standards, the smoothbore musket of the mid-eighteenth century was not a terribly accurate weapon. However, we need to judge it by the standards of its own time, not modern standards. In the eighteenth century, more accurate weapons existed, such as the rifles carried by specialized American troops, and Hessian Jägers. However, those weapons also took a significant time to load.

To see the drawbacks of rifles firsthand, examine this pair of videos. The first shows a musketeer and riflemen loading side by side.  The second video, below, shows how quickly British soldiers could move in order to attack riflemen with bayonets. The rifleman, offscreen, is portrayed by the director of interpretation at Old Fort Niagara, Davis Tierney. Just before the video begins, Davis has fired a shot, incapacitating one soldier. In the remaining 13 seconds, the British troops quickly cross the 100 yards separating the opposing forces.




 When bayonets were not the primary form of attack, how accurate could smoothbore-equipped forces be against one another? The Journal of the American Revolution has featured a number of posts on this topic. The purpose of this post is not to rag on any of the work of these academic, public or amateur historians. In this sense, I use amateur as it is intended to be used: these individuals are interested in the topic for the love of it, and care for it, not simply motivated by the career-orientated goals of a professional historian. As a result of these works, the general public can access information in an easy to digest format suggesting that the soldiers of the eighteenth century fired at marks, and took time to aim. Almost two years ago, living historians at Old Fort Niagara made this video, in order to seriously address this question. Take a few moments to watch the link, or click on the video below.



Firepower was vital to armies of the mid-eighteenth century. A number of authors have amassed evidence regarding the British Army's dedication to accurate fire. In his book, Louisbourg 1758, Hugh Boscawen gives a very detailed description of the British Army honing their accuracy during the Seven Years' War. During the preparations for the attack at Louisbourg, British troops engaged in extensive marksmanship training, mostly consisting of "firing at a marque" or a man sized target. [1]  The 60th of Foot, the Royal American Regiment, was praised for taking good aim during the Seven Years' War in North America.[2] In the course of the American War for Independence, despite their reliance on bayonet tactics British troops frequently practiced shooting at marks, and their Germanic allies followed suit.

British Soldiers take aim near Ft. Niagara
Friedrich Adolf, Freiherr von Riedesel, often called Baron Riedesel by English language historians, left an excellent description of this process.

"General Carleton has decreed that that the army is to practice target shooting or shooting at a goal, I am issuing orders so as to adhere to this as well and as successfully as possible. Each squadron or company is to have some rough boards fastened together, on which a ring of black is to be painted proportionately. The target may be either square or round. Have this target placed at a distance of point blank shot."

"NOW WAIT A MINUTE," you say.  How helpful could target practice be at point blank range? Well, fortunately, we have an exact idea what "point blank" meant in the eighteenth century. It may surprise you. Lewis Lochee, the author of a military treatise in this era, notes that, "the point blank of our firelocks... is known to be about 300 yards." [3] For more on the subject, check out this website. With that in mind, let us return to Baron Riedesel:

"Each man of the company will shoot eight times... a non-commissioned officer standing some distance from the target will mark on the target the location of the shot... the company officers are to gather together to prove to the men how well they can shoot and aim. When each man has shot eight times, the entire target practice will be completed. In the judgement of the captain, the one who has made the best four shots will receive the following prizes..."[4]

Riedesel goes on to list a monetary reward, and also gives instructions that men who are waiting their turn to shoot should be kept at ease, so as not to think of target shooting as a hard duty, but something necessary for military life. If Germans in North America took to target shooting with such alacrity, we should not be surprised to find that German soldiers in Europe also worried about the accuracy of their shots.

Firepower was also a key feature of Prussian infantry tactics, where Frederick II's infantry had won him the province of Silesia in the War of Austrian Succession via their skill at loading the musket.  Wargamers and reenactors debate Frederick's devotion to infantry firepower based on his theoretic military writings, but that his infantry used firepower in both the attack and defense remains clear. Frederick's mind clearly seems to have been made up on the issue by November of 1757, when after witnessing infantry firepower shattering a spontaneous and abortive French assault in columns at the Battle of Rossbach, he famously stated, "If Chevalier Folard had known how it would have turned out, he would have cursed his sacred columns."[5]

Don Troinai's recent interpretation of Freeman's Farm, one of the
few heavy firefights of the American War of Independence

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their monarch's Enlightenment persuasion, the Prussian's under Frederick undertook a number of studies concerning accuracy of fire during his reign. The first, after the initial battles of the War of Austrian Succession, revealed that Prussian soldiers were firing to low. According to Mauvillon, a military theorist of the time:  "According to my sums, the Prussians fired 650,000 rounds of musketry during their advance at Chotusitz, and the enemy lost scarcely 2,500 dead and as many wounded. If you subtract the men who were killed and wounded by the sword, a great number of rounds must have gone astray!"[6]

Frederick himself was concerned with measuring the accuracy of fire, and as a result his general Winterfeldt had two platoons of Grenadiers fire at a target screen in 1755, scoring between 10 and 13% hits at 300 paces, 16.6% at 200 paces, and 46% at 150 paces.[7] It must be said that this target screen was around 30 feet by 30 feet. Finally, Scharnhorst tested the older musket of Frederick's period in 1813, producing the following results:

(Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 207)
However, it is important to realize that none of these tests, no matter how hard they might try, simulated the stress of combat. This prevents these studies from truly helping us understand what occurred on mid-eighteenth century battlefields. For an indication of what that combat might have been like, we can only turn to the documentary evidence. The following two excerpts come from Prussian common soldiers' experiences of the Battle of Lobositz, the first engagement of the European Seven Years' War:
“So the battle began at six o’clock in the morning and dragged on amidst thundering and firing until four in the afternoon, and all the while I stood in such danger that I cannot thank God enough for my health. In the very first cannon shots {my friend} Krumpholtz took a cannonball through his head and the half of it was blown away, he was standing just beside me, and the brains and skull of Krumpholtz sprayed into my face and the gun was blown to pieces from my shoulder, but I, praise God, was uninjured. Now, dear wife, I cannot possibly describe what happened, for the shooting on both sides was so great, that no-one could hear a word of what anyone was saying, and we didn’t see and hear just a thousand bullets, but many thousands. But as we got into the afternoon, the enemy took flight and God gave us the victory. And as we came forward into the field, we saw men lying, not just one, but 3 or 4 lying on top of each other, some dead with their heads gone, others short of both legs, or their arms missing, in short, it was a horrifying sight. Now, dear child, just think of how we must have felt, we who had been led meekly to the slaughterhouse without the faintest inkling of what was to come.” [8]
Prussian Soldiers, from a 1730s painting
Another Prussian soldier recalled:
     “Now an indescribable slaughter took place, before we could drive the Pandurs out from among the trees. Our advance troops suffered severely, but the rear ranks pressed after them at breakneck speed, until at last all had gained the height. There we had to go stumbling over heaps of dead and wounded. Then the Pandurs went helter-skelter down the hill, jumping down over one wall after another, down to the level ground. Our native Prussians and Brandenburgers sprang upon the Pandurs like Furies. I too was quite beside myself with heat and excitement, and conscious of no fear or repugnance I loosed off nearly all my sixty cartridges without stopping, until my flintlock became almost red-hot and I had to carry it by the sling; yet I do not believe that I hurt any living thing, it all went into thin air. “[9]
With these examples in mind, the chaos of eighteenth-century warfare can begin to seem a bit more real. These passages help explain Mauvillon's discrepancy between shots expended and casualties inflicted. Eighteenth-Century battlefields were truly chaotic places, and acheiving accuracy with a smoothbore weapon was difficult at the best of times.   All that the Prussians (or any other European soldier) could hope for was a comparative advantage in firepower which would drive off the enemy force. And, as a result of thorough training, the Prussians and other armies often achieved that comparative advantage.

Infantry firepower decided many of the battles of the eighteenth century, and as a result, helped shape our world. While, "Muzzle-Velocity" military history may be out of favor with academic historians, it remains a portion of lived human experience, and as a result, a topic worthy of historical thought and explanation.

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Thanks for Reading,



Alex Burns


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*This is a largely updated version of an older post.
[1] Hugh Boscawen, Louisbourg 1758, 140.
[2] Alexander Campbell, The Royal American Regiment, 110.
[3] Lewis Lochee. Elements of Field Fortification, 1783,  37
[4] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Microform, "Riedesel's Order Book", 21.
[5] Quoted in Duffy, Prussia's Glory, 80.
[6] Translation  by Christopher Duffy, quoted in Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 209: Mauvillon, Histoire de la derniere guerre de Boheme, Vol. 1,  100-101
[7] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 128.
[8] Bleckwenn, Preussische Soldatenbriefe , 13.
[9] Ulrich Bräker, Lebensgeschichte Und Natürliche Abentheuer Eines Armen Mannes Von Tockenburg (Zurich: Hans Heinrich Füssli, 1789), 150.

5 comments:

  1. Our group in Kentucky as 1st VA Provincials did fire exercises with 20 members. We did ball, buck and balls, chop shot and swans tears. The targets with 3 4x8 sheets of plywood. We followed protocol and gave 5 volley's per man at 100 pace, 75 paces and 50 paces. Most effective fire for nearly all was 75 - 50...Swan shoot was more of a brush fighting load. As Capt. Hogg orders to his men was to charge fully with powder and then a half cupped hand full of tears. The effectiveness against natives would have sufficient to dissuade further advance. The tearing wounds and subsequent infections would have been devestating to survive. Has for the ball loads, the British order of battle was to close in and engage with the bayonet after full volleys as often as possible.

    I think you comments and research are sound. IF you can, I would suggest a living history group willing to do the musket exercises and see the results for yourself. I tire of book knowledge vs. application.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Michael! Someday, I hope to get a company sized group of reenactors together for just such a test.

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  2. what is the difference between the hammer and the Frizen?

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    1. That is good question, and it depends who you ask, and what time period lock we are discussing. In the eighteenth century, the term hammer often refers to the same part of lock as the (crude by modern standards) "cock." Both refer to the metal portion of the lock which supports and moves the flint and flint-jaws. By the Civil War era, it was more common to refer to the part of the musket striking the percussion cap as the hammer. The frizzen is the mobile metal piece hit by the flint when the trigger is pulled. Does that help at all?

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  3. According to B.P Hugues's often cited work "Firepower" the most efficacy that could be achieved by a single volley at minimum range (about 30-40yds) was at Fontenoy (5 May 1745) when the British Foot Guards shattered the Gardes Françoises and Suisses. Hugues calculations show an accuracy of about 25% of the shots fired, but this is inflated by the assumption that ALL the casualties incurred by these battalions were suffered in this single volley, while it is a fact that at least three of them (two of the French and one of the Swiss Guards) actually rallied and were the first to counterattack later on and enter the ranks of the British and Hanoverian "coloumn", so at least part of the casualties must have been taken place in this later phase of the battle. Still, assuming about 2/3 of the reported total battle loss having been inflicted by the first British volley, it still makes for about almost the whole of the first rank of the French and Swiss Guards being wiped off by this single initial volley, more than enough for the units in question to lose hart and retreat in the face of such sudden slaughter!

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