Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Did Soldiers use Grenades in the Mid-Eighteenth Century?


Plate from, The Grenadiers exercise of the Granado...
published December 4th, 1744

Dear Reader,

I sincerely apologize for the long silence. It has been too long since I've created any content on this site. I promised someone very dear to me that I would not write any more posts until after I had defended my dissertation, and I am delighted to report that I passed my dissertation defense on March 1st. Although I am still hard at work on revisions, I decided to take a bit of time out of that schedule to provide a short write-up on grenades. 

The use of hand grenades is commonly associated with the period just before the Seven Years War: the grenadiers of the 1690s employed grenades in siege combat, and no-one would dispute this.  Likewise, it is common knowledge that grenades continued to be employed by naval forces during the eighteenth century. On land, however, it is commonly asserted, that grenades fell out of fashion after the War of Spanish Succession, and played little part in warfare during the Seven Years War or American War of Independence. Evidence shows that this is incorrect. Grenades continued to play an important part in siege warfare throughout this period, and both European and American officers concurred that armies needed to be supplied and equipped with grenades. 

During this entire period, the hand grenade was a hollow ball of metal (glass grenades were also employed by the Austrian military, but may be from an earlier period) filled with gunpowder and ignited by means of a short fuse. A military author defined grenades in 1783: 

The hand-grenade, which is a hollow ball or shell, generally of iron, but sometimes of tin... of about 2 1/2 inches in diameter; was first used in 1594... it is filled with a very fine powder, and set on fire by means of a small fuze driven into the fuze hole.[1]


A pile of early modern grenades and musket balls,
Forchtenstein Castle

Evidence for the continued use of grenades by European armies is substantial. In 1747, two (probably drunk) Prussian cantonists disrupted a engagement party by exploding hand grenades nearby, until the minister had them chased off (no mean feat).[2] When the Austrians captured Schweidnitz in 1757, they inherited a store of almost 81,000 hand grenades from their former Prussian owners.[3] In 1779, Gaston de Commines, a soldier formerly in Austrian service, writing from the United Provinces, attempted to convince Benjamin Franklin of the efficacy of his new grenade launcher, which he envisioned mounted troops employing.[4] Lewis Lochée, a naturalized British military writer from the Austrian Netherlands, wrote on hand grenades in his 1783 treatise on field fortification, arguing that camps should have, "palisades fixed at a certain distances from the parapet.. to obtain the additional security against hand grenades." Lochee continued, "the distance that hand-grenades can be thrown is from 25 to 30 yards."[5] Thus, Prussian cantonists had access to grenades in peacetime, and set a considerable store of them aside. Authors and inventors with Austrian, Dutch, and British connections likewise considered the use of hand grenades, and developed new weapons for their employ. However, were they used in actual combat? 

It seems that, much like their use during the Nine Years War and War of Spanish Succession, hand grenades were most commonly deployed around fortresses. British troops utilized hand grenades in colonial conflict, such as against the Native Americans who took part in Pontiac's War in 1763. Simeon Ecuyer, the officer commanding at Fort Pitt, noted that the Indians, "continued firing at the fort all night, [we] threw some hand grenades into the ditch where we imagined some of the enemy were."[6] Captain Dalrympe of the Loyal Irish Volunteers wrote Lord Germain in 1779, describing the attack on the fortress at Porto Omoa, asserting that his troops, "were formed into four columns in line, four men advanced in each column, with guides at the head... followed [by] eight men with carrying the ladders, who were followed by a few hand grenade men."[7] Although the Loyal Irish took part in this assault, seamen and marines also formed part of the attack. 

Grenades were also captured, acquired and employed by American troops during the War of Independence. At the capture of Fort Chambly in October of 1775, part of the stores which fell into American hands were, "500 hand grenades."[8] American Colonel Richard Gridley estimated that American troops would need, "2000 hand grenades" in order to successfully besiege Boston.[9] Captain Thomas Antoine Mauduit du Plessis, a French engineer working with the American troops, wrote to Washington in 1777 that Fort Red Bank could better defended if, "we can with mines [and] hands grenades... secure him."[10] Like most European armies, then, the North American rebels primarily used grenades in the context of sieges and defending positions. 

Russian Troops experimenting with mortars, 1750s[11]

The Russians, in contrast with most armies in Military Europe, stood out for their great love of hand grenades during the eighteenth century. Russian grenadiers and fusiliers carried grenades throughout the Seven Years War, carrying two grenades in a special bandoleer.[12] Grenadiers were instructed to throw these grenades whenever the enemy was close enough.[13] This was also done by the dragoon regiments in the Russian Army, who like the infantry had special ammunition carts for the transport of grenades. Perhaps uniquely among eighteenth-century armies, Russian troops planned for the use of grenades outside siege warfare. In skirmishes with East Prussian militia forces, Russian dragoons were instructed to dismount and throw their grenades whenever the enemy took cover or used buildings as a strongpoint.[14] The Russian army employed grenades in a variety of settings, and even equipped their mounted troops with grenades.

Thus, although there were some regional differences, troops all across Europe and North America continued to employ hand grenades in specific settings during the middle decades of the eighteenth-century. These weapons did not disappear with the end of the War of Spanish Succession, and continue to be employed throughout the period. 

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Thanks for Reading, 

Alex Burns


[1] Lewis Lochée, Elements of Field Fortification, 22.
[2] William W. Hagen, Ordinary Prussians, 155, 472.
[3] George Grey Butler (editor) and Horace St. Paul, A Journal of the First Two Campaigns of the Seven Years War, (Cambridge: 1914), 380.
[4] Barbara B. Oberg, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, November 1, 1779, through February 29, 1780, Volume 31, 48–54.
[5] Lewis Lochée, Elements of Field Fortification, 22.
[6] Mary C. Darlington, Fort Pitt and Letters from the Frontier, 105.
[7] The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, Volume 65, 319.
[8] The Scots Magazine, Volume 37 (1775), 651.
[9] Philander D. Chase, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Volume 2, 210.
[10]Philander D. Chase, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Volume 12, 287.
[11] For this and more excellent images of the Russian Army, see: Tomasz Karpinski, "Unknown Iconographic Sources for the History of the Russian Army: The Russian garrison in Elblag during the Seven Years War though the Observation of Eyewitnesses," Milihist Info. Link
[12] Groβen Generalstabe, Die Krieges Friedrichs des Groβen, Teil 3, Der Siebenjaehrige Krieg, Volume 4 (Berlin, E. Mittler und Sohn, 1914) 5,29.
[13] Ibid.
[14]Christopher Duffy, Russia's Military Way to the West, 64.


  1. Excellent thoughts Alex! Thank you for the information!

  2. The Ottoman army of the C15th & C16th had specialist troops who used hand grenades made from glass or ceramic spheres, which presumably influenced the formation of grenadier companies in the Hapsburg army.

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