|Just how quickly could these soldiers reload?|
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?|
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." 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."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|
|British Soldiers in front of Ft. Niagara|
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].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. 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. The Russians loaded slower, perhaps 1-2 shots a minute, as a result of the additional time it took to load their buckshot rounds. 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|
"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."
|The author prepares to fire|
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." 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.'
|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. 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." Despite this, numerous military theorist believed that though disadvantageous, there were times when quick-fire and tap-loading outweighed these concerns. 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,
 Jay Luvaas, Frederick the Great on the Art of War, 143-145.; Vincent Rospond, Frederick's Orders, 112.
 Frederick II, Testament Politique, (1768) 146-148.
 Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 408.; Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 128.
Ludwig von Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten zur Charakteristik der preussischen Armee, 265.
 Richard Holmes, Redcoat, 199.
 Christopher Duffy, Russia's Military Way to the West, 62.
 Ludwig von Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten zur Charakteristik der preussischen Armee, 264.
 Jakob Cogniazzo, Freymuethige Beytrag zur Geschichte, (1779), 147.
 John Houlding, Fit for Service, 194.
 Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 128.
 Anon, Besondere Merkwürdigkeiten und Anekdoten aus Neudam in der Neumark, 29.
 Vienna Kriegsarchiv, CA 1758 III 1, Lieutenant-Colonel Rebain, 10 May 1758.
 Ernst von Barsewisch, Meine Kriegs-Erlebnisse, 113.
 Ludwig von Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten zur Charakteristik der preussischen Armee, 266.
 Quoted in Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Volume 32 (1953), 88-89.
 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.
 Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 409.; Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 129.
 Wolfe, Instructions to Young Officers, 49.
 David Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 104-105