Monday, February 8, 2016

Mid-Eighteenth Century Infantry Fire Effectiveness

Don Troinai's recent interpretation of Freeman's Farm, one of the few stand-up gunfights of the American War of Independence
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. Academic historians will dismiss this post as militaria, or something belonging in the realm of military science. In some sense, they are wrong, because eighteenth century muskets balls have already hit all of the living soldiers they are likely to strike. In the same sense, however, they might be right in saying this post is inane. It is attempting to answer a question in a military science manner, when the audience interested in the result has been dead for 200 years.

This topic has been trending online, recently, with reenactors responding to this video made by living historians at Old Fort Niagara. 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 a easy to digest format suggesting that the soldiers of the eighteenth century fired at marks, and took time to aim.

Firepower was vital to armies of the mid-eighteenth century. No where was this more true than in Prussia, 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."

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 one 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. In you subtract the men who were killed and wounded by the sword, a might great number of rounds must have gone astray!"
(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.)

The Prussians 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. It must be said that this target screen was around 30 feet by 30 feet. (Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 128.)

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 excepts 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 admist 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 cannon ball 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.” - Frank Reiss

  “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. “- Ulrich Bräker

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. 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.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


  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.

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