Tuesday, May 1, 2018

How Rapidly Could Soldiers Load in the Mid-Eighteenth Century?

Just how quickly could these soldiers reload?
Dear Reader,

How many rounds could eighteenth-century soldiers fire a minute? This is a question which has long preoccupied military enthusiasts of the era, and many feel quite strongly on this question. From the sequence in the (in?)famous Sharpe series depicting the training of the South Essex Regiment, to many reenactors demonstrating their own skills, the desire to show that musket-armed troops could fire quickly dominates media produced regarding the era. Of course, as we might expect, such depictions are sometimes rather fanciful.

My favorite line from the Sharpe sequence is, "The trick is, to keep the muzzle up to stop the bloody bullet falling out. Of course, the muzzle needs to point up anyway, the frog coming towards you is high up on a horse." Because, as everyone knows, the French only sent cavalry to fight in the Peninsula. Somewhat ironically, many historical officers (correctly) encouraged their soldiers to aim low, at the knees of enemy troops, or the ground directly in front of the enemy. These officers believed that this compensated for the kick of the musket. Oh well.

But can ya stand?
This post attempts to examine how quickly soldiers could fire their muskets across mid-eighteenth-century European armies. It will address the importance of firepower, the abilities of troops to fire quickly in a drill square environment, speed of fire in combat, the disadvantages of "quick-fire mania", and how officers attempted to mitigate those disadvantages. Despite other parade ground or theoretical results, an average of approximately 2 rounds a minute was quite normal in combat conditions, when soldiers did not engage in "tap-loading". This is significant, as it helps explain the length of eighteenth-century battles, and the length of time needed for troops to run low on ammunition. 

A number of excellent historians have addressed this question, and once again, I am standing on the shoulders of giants. This list includes David Blackmore, Hugh Boscawen, Alexander Campbell, Christopher Duffy, John Houlding, Richard Holmes, and Matthew Spring. Usually, these authors are writing about the forces of an individual state, such as Austria, Britain, or Prussia. For more detailed information on specific national practices, I encourage you to read these historians' works.

An Austrian Fires with a conical touch-hole and cylindrical ram rod

Erik Lund, writing in an assessment of the Austrian officer corps in the Kabinettskriege era, argues that historians have, by and large, purchased into a myth regarding the importance of a high tactical rate of fire. Here, I disagree with Lund. Tactical rate of fire, and the superiority it granted in combat, was no myth.

 Oddly enough, Frederick II, "the Great" of Prussia, early in his career, seems to have ignored the importance of firepower. In 1748, he encouraged his infantry to attack without firing, and he knew generals would complain, "that I never employ my small arms."[1] Frederick, it seems, had taken the wrong lessons from the War of Austrian Succession. Shock tactics, not firepower, seemed to be the way forward. It was a much more experienced, seasoned, and defeated Frederick who wrote in 1768:
"The cannon does everything, and the infantry cannot get to grips with cold steel... battles are decided by the superiority of fire. Except in the attack of defended positions, a force of infantry which loads speedily will always get the better of a force which loads more slowly."[2]
Let those words sink in. Firepower and speed of loading decided eighteenth-century contests between infantry. Most generals understood this idea, and soldiers were relentlessly taught to fire quickly. Firepower, and sometimes the psychological threat of cold steel, not cold steel itself, won eighteenth-century combats.

Friedrich II von Preussen
First, we need to examine how quickly a soldier could fire on the drill square in peacetime. Across most European nations, 4-5 rounds seems to have been quite normal.  By 1750, most European armies were fascinated with the speed of fire demonstrated by the Prussian troops in the War of Austrian Succession. Austrian military veterans and theorists saw that their troops could fire 4-5 rounds a minute on the drill square, basically matching the Prussian drill square ideal.[3] Prussian troops were capable of firing six rounds a minute, but could not maintain that pace for any length of time. Lossow comments, "Altogether, it would be too much to expect troops to maintain six rounds a minute for an extended time."[4]  The British achieved a similar level of drill-square proficiency in this regard, with veteran troops being able to fire four rounds a minute.[5] The Russians, too, used Prussian emphasis speed of fire when training their troops in the 1750s.[6]  Some sources think even this too ambitious. Prussian General Ludwig von Lossow argued that, "in ... European armies only the most practiced parts of them can fire four times in a minute's time. Usually, only three shots come are fired: watch and see!"[7] Regardless, by the 1780s, the cylindrical ramrod and the conical touch-hole (technological assists to loading) had increased the drill-square rate of fire to six rounds fired with a seventh-round loaded.
British Soldiers in front of Ft. Niagara
However, as in almost all aspects of military life, there was a severe disparity between what soldiers could accomplish on the peacetime drill square and the battlefield. It seems that troops in combat fired more slowly. Two rounds a minute is a very believable figure for well-trained, veteran troops in combat.  Austrian army officer Jakob Cogniazzo gives us a window into this idea:
Now, how many rounds of rapid fire do you think he can loose off in a minute when he is in a minute when he is in this condition? At least five a minute? That is certainly the norm for fire on the drill square, which conjures up visions of enemy corpses by the thousand. But, when we consider all the encumbering burden of the soldier... taking everything into due account, it would be optimistic to suppose that he fires as many as one or at the most two rounds a minute [in combat].[8]
One of the differences between drill square "minute firing" and real combat was its duration. The real test was how long soldiers could keep firing at a high rate. It seems British troops could fire between 2-3 rounds a minute for a sustained amount of time.[9] Likewise, it seems that during combat the Prussians could fire three rounds per minute, and they could keep up this pace extended periods of time.[10] The Russians loaded slower, perhaps 1-2 shots a minute, as a result of the additional time it took to load their buckshot rounds.[11] With this in mind, it seems that troops carrying 30 rounds would run low on ammunition after 10-20 minutes, while troops carrying 60 rounds of ammunition would run low after 30-45 minutes. 

Reenactors portraying the 3rd New Jersey Regiment
More important than the actual number of shots was the ability to confer a comparative advantage to troops who could load and fire more quickly than their opponents. An Austrian officer noted that the Prussians had, "the important and extraordinarily, significant advantage of being able to get off three rounds to every one of the Austrian infantry. This is conceded by all impartial and well-informed men who have seen it with their own eyes."[12] Prussian officer Ernst von Barsewisch recalled of the Battle of Leignitz:
"Now I commanded, "platoon: ready!  present!  fire!" Then the remaining part of the battalion followed, whereupon we blasted away for a length of time. The enemy, however, did not withdraw, but also fired vigorously. But we loaded more speedily and had devastated the enemy with our first volley."[13]
The author prepares to fire
Instilling troops with the need to fire quickly at the expense of all other factors had a number of downsides. Again, General von Lossow comments that officers, "forget that the musket barrel becomes too hot to hold after two minutes... the soldiers inevitably acquired bad habits when they were put through the rapid-fire drill every day, like failing to ram the loads firmly home, neglecting to aim, raising the barrel too rapidly after they had loosed off, and so on."[14] It seems there might have been a downside to this "quick-fire mania."

In addition to these bad qualities, soldiers might begin to "cheat" in other ways. Of these, the most infamous was the so-called, "tap-loading." In 1726, General Hawley complained that, "the German and Dutch foot might be brought to ram their cartridge every time on service, for ought I know, but by the nature of our men I believe it impossible to bring them to it."[15] The Austrians engaged in tap-loading at Mollwitz in 1741, where it robbed their musket discharges of lethal force, the French used tap-loading at Lauffeld in 1747,  and the British engaged in the practice at Hubbardton in 1777.[16]'

Reenactors representing HM 17th Regiment of Infantry in North America

Military authorities from various nations were aware of these problems and attempted to ensure that soldiers fired with speed AND accuracy on the day of battle. Soldiers in almost all European nations practiced firing at targets to ensure accuracy. Troops in Central European armies were carefully taught to aim their muskets with reference to their distance from the target.[17] British General Wolfe argued that, "[t]here is no necessity for firing very fast; a cool and well-leveled fire, with the pieces, carefully loaded, is much more destructive and formidable than the quickest fire in confusion."[18] Despite this, numerous military theorist believed that though disadvantageous, there were times when quick-fire and tap-loading outweighed these concerns.[19] Officers and military theorists attempted to carefully weigh and balance speed of fire with accuracy.

So, what can we assert regarding the rate of fire among regular troops in the mid-eighteenth century? These troops could fire at prodigious rates on the drill square but often fell short of this ideal on the battlefield. Sometimes, this led to the disadvantages associated with "quick-fire mania" or the dangerous of tap-loading. As a result, officers attempted to find a happy medium: soldiers who would fire at speed but retain accuracy.

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


[1] Jay Luvaas, Frederick the Great on the Art of War, 143-145.; Vincent Rospond, Frederick's Orders, 112.
[2] Frederick II, Testament Politique, (1768) 146-148.
[3] Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 408.; Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 128.
[4]Ludwig von Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten zur Charakteristik der preussischen Armee, 265.
[5] Richard Holmes, Redcoat, 199.
[6] Christopher Duffy, Russia's Military Way to the West, 62.
[7] Ludwig von Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten zur Charakteristik der preussischen Armee, 264.
[8] Jakob Cogniazzo, Freymuethige Beytrag zur Geschichte, (1779), 147.
[9] John Houlding, Fit for Service, 194.
[10] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 128.
[11] Anon, Besondere Merkwürdigkeiten und Anekdoten aus Neudam in der Neumark, 29.
[12] Vienna Kriegsarchiv, CA 1758 III 1, Lieutenant-Colonel Rebain, 10 May 1758.
[13] Ernst von Barsewisch, Meine Kriegs-Erlebnisse, 113.
[14] Ludwig von Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten zur Charakteristik der preussischen Armee, 266.
[15] Quoted in Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Volume 32 (1953), 88-89.
[16] Anonymous, Denckwüdiges Leben und Thaten Beruehmeten Herren Johaan Daniels von Menzel, 80.; David Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 104.; Thomas Anbury, Travels through the Interior Parts of America, 333.
[17] Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 409.; Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 129.
[18] Wolfe, Instructions to Young Officers, 49.
[19] David Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 104-105


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. The biggest amount of time spent was on getting the pan primed, and also taking out and returning the rammer—a more complex procedure compared to later manuals (which in the exercise of 1757, you first pull put, invert it, shorten it to within 3” on your belt-buckle, them go up to the muzzle to ram down, take put rammer, them flip, shorten to about a foot with belt-buckle, then return)

    2. That was from personal experience, when I learned to load live rounds, as per the manual exercise of 1757.

      I got timed at 24 seconds to load and ready a live cartridge. Add another five or so seconds, and I’d average 2 shots a minute.

  2. Of course when your life, the lives of you comrades, and the cause for which you are fighting are all at stake you might have better clarity of mind for the task at hand than if you are just showing how it could be done. Some will always be better than others and some very much better.