Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How Long did Battles Last in the Mid-Eighteenth Century?

A group of reenactors led by David Moore, portraying a King's Royal Regiment of New York officer
Dear Reader,

Again, today we are going to examine an issue which sprang the to the forefront of my mind as a result of conversations which occurred (at the above reenactment) over the weekend. Namely: how long did eighteenth-century battles last? As we were standing in formation after the end of the Saturday battle at Fort Niagara, David Moore pulled out his pocket-watch and announced that from exiting the fort, to returning behind the curtain wall,  the battle lasted almost exactly 15 minutes. The other reenactors around me were somewhat astounded, as it felt as though we had been firing for much longer, and had shot through almost thirty cartridges in that time. How long did battles last in the mid-eighteenth century? Through examining the length of battles in Europe and North America between 1740 and 1789, I hope to come to some sort of conclusion regarding this matter.

In addition to writing something of historical interest for scholars and the public, I hope that this post could be useful for reenactors planning the length of their mock battles, and wargame designers who are attempting to fit the appropriate amount of action into a wargame turn. Wherever possible, I counted from when the two armies began to exchange small arms fire to the end of the combat.

Before presenting the data, I hope to closely define what is meant by "battles" "combats" and "engagements." By battle, I am referring to fighting which included more than 15,000 men engaged. By combat, I mean anything smaller than 15,000 total men engaged. By engagement, I mean a distinct fight within a battle between two opposing units, not protracted skirmishing. In example, Lobositz was a battle, with 60,000+ men engaged. White Plains was a combat with around 10,000 men engaged. The fight between Ephraim William's detachment and Baron de Dieskau's men before the Combat of Lake George was an engagement.

Finck Negotiates at Maxen

Results divided by the number of men engaged: 

Battles: (armies ranging from c. 150,000 to 16,000 men engaged, sample size: 34)
Average: 4.5 hours

Combats: (armies ranging from 15,000 to 1,300 men engaged, sample size: 18)
Average: 2 hours 45 minutes

Engagements: (individual unit combats ranging from 5,000 to 300 men engaged, sample size 10)
Average: 15-20 minutes

Germantown by Xavier della Gatta, 1782

Results Divided by War/Theatre (engagements excluded): 

Seven Years' War in Europe (sample size 30): 
Average: 4 hours and 15 minutes

Seven Years' War in North America (sample size 5): 
Average: 3 hours, 30 minutes

American War of Independence (sample size 16): 
Average: 3 hours, 20 minutes

Reenactors from the King's Regiment at Fort Niagara

Results Divided by Terrain in which Battle was Fought (engagements excluded):

Fought predominantly in Rough Terrain (woods, marsh, developed areas) (sample size 11):
Average: 5 hours 45 minutes

Fought predominantly in Open Terrain (sample size 40):
Average: 3 hours and 25 minutes

Notable Outliers: 

Rossbach (1757): 63,000~ men engaged, around 1 hour of combat.
Plains of Abraham (1759): 7,800~ men engaged, 30 minutes to an hour.
Torgau (1760) 105,000~ men engaged, around 7 hours of combat.
Oriskany (1777): 1,300~ men engaged, around 6 hours of combat.

A couple of thoughts:

The most pertinent factor to the length of battles in the mid-eighteenth century seems to be the terrain in which the battle was fought, rather than the continent or number of men engaged. Battles occurring in rough terrain, or slow attacks on developed areas seem to have bogged down, slowing the resolution of combat.

Combats between individual groups of infantry seem to last about 15-20 minutes in this era. For example, in the Battle of Liegnitz, there were 6 distinct engagements between groups of Austrian and Prussian infantry, in a battle lasting around two hours.[1] Considering the nature of the tactics Matthew Spring describes, it is possible that combat in the American War of Independence was resolved in an even shorter timetable.  Thus, we are left with battles that could last 5 hours or more, but relatively short combats of infantry occurring within those battles.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

P.S. I would be happy to share the collated datasets from which I drew the above information.

[1] Großer Generalstab, Geschichte des siebenjährigen Krieges, Vol 4, 92-108.


  1. A fascinating question! One I have often pondered, but in nowhere near the organized way that you present here.

    Best Regards,


  2. That tells me that battles had a lot less firing per minute than one might presume.

    1. I suspect that period battles probably involved more marching on bigger fields than most modern re-enactments.

  3. As a member of the Crown Forces North America [1812] Staff, we are often in the position of wanting to 'put on a good show' but not drag out an engagement to ridiculous lenghts. 20 minutes is proably an average length, generally with 60-120 men per side. A few go 30 minutes and the odd one ends after 15. From the 'show' perspective, we now usually add a cannon demo and some fife and drum musuic 'pre-game'. Again, wonderful to have real numbers to work with!

  4. In the movie Gettysburg, Chamberlain responds to the report of 60 rounds per man that it should be sufficient. I have often wondered how he came to that conclusion. Given that he was apparently well studied in military action, this article seems to validate his opinion.