Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Effectiveness of 18th Century Musketry

There has been a very interesting thread running on the Carnage & Glory Yahoo group this week discussing the effectiveness of musketry and British musketry in particular.

Carnage and Glory Conversations-Topics

During the conversation a link was posted to this rather interesting video looking at British musketry during the AWI period, but with many aspects still relevant to the Napoleonic period as well.

I think C&G really models this aspect very well and I have quoted Nigel Marsh, the author of the rules, where he comments below and explains the C&G pace conversion for the ranges in yards quoted in the video. It's a short presentation, but gives a really good idea of the effectiveness, or not, of the smooth bore musket, in this case in the hands of men trained in the use of the weapon as British professional redcoats would have been, with a recreated simulation of battlefield conditions. Spare a thought for the more common conscripted soldier who barely knew which end to load the weapon that alone how to aim and fire a live round.

".......... the ranges being used in the video are in yards - so these would translate as follows when compared to paces in the system: [The British pace was actually 30". The 27" I use is an average of the numerous pace lengths used by different nationalities]

200 yards = 266 paces at 27" per pace 
100 yards = 133 paces
75 yards = 100 paces, and
50 yards = 67 paces

The break point within the system for the smoothbore flintlock of this period is 75 paces - basically, you're either below or above that distance for effectiveness. The closer you are the better your results.

Anything beyond 200 paces and the system considers it beyond maximum [effective] range. 

I've always argued that at certain ranges the firing unit will actually incur more damage to itself than the opponent.

You can inflict one or two casualties on the enemy at long range, and 50 plus casualties at 75 paces, but the firing unit will lose ammunition and fatigue at the same rate in both cases - so why waste ammunition and your own fatigue levels at the longer ineffective ranges [if you don't have to]."

For the novice player of C&G understanding when and when not to open fire is really important and I have seen a strong line crumple because fire was commenced too early causing ineffectual casualties to the target and unnecessary fatigue and disorder to the firer, whilst conversely, a player able to hold their nerve and one who can rely on their troops to hold theirs can deliver a devastating volley that can stop an attack in its tracks. 

When you add in Napoleonic combined arms tactics of skirmish screens, close support artillery and cavalry you start to see why this period can become addictive.


  1. "Spare a thought for the more common conscripted soldier who barely knew which end to load the weapon that alone how to aim and fire a live round." Wouldn't musket drill have been in the very early training of a recruit, even conscripted?

    1. It rather depends on how you define musket drill. If you think that loading and firing live rounds would be included in that drill then quite possibly not. The training that included live firing and practiced aimed fire was not common and even in those armies where it was the soldiers still needed combat experience to perfect their skills to learn when to aim high or low to compensate for range, and to develop the steadiness to hold their fire.

      In the Peninsular War the Spanish were forced to throw raw recruits into the line with very little skill at arms and the episode of the Badajoz and Toledo regiments throwing down their weapons and routing after firing a volley at French cavalry pickets on the afternoon of the 27th July illustrates the potential consequences.

  2. Ah, thanks for answering.
    I hadn't thought in terms of other than British troops.

  3. I tend to agree JJ. Firing in combat is very different to firing on a range. I remember a scene from "The Shootist" where a kid and the gunfighter shoot at a target and the kid exclaims that the gunfighter's grouping was no better than his. As John wayne replies "Yep, but I can do that when someone is shooting back."
    When you add in the smoke of hundreds of muskets and the proximity of a closing enemy, even the best have been known to fire high !


    1. Absolutely Vince and the other aspect that needs to be considered is the doctrine that armies, particularly in the Napoleonic period, adopted as far as musketry was concerned; with some almost ignoring the effects of musketry, instructing their infantry to simply point their weapons in the general direction of the enemy, relying entirely on mass fire effects. In addition some armies were keen to avoid any firing, knowing how difficult it was to get conscript infantry to stop once started and close with the enemy using the bayonet.

      The classic fire at close range and charge appears to be a well established British tactic, certainly post Abercrombie's Egyptian campaign, and it seems was used just as effectively when attacking. The Guards at Talavera are reported to have dispensed with the volley and simply charged in.

      I think the firing ability should certainly be enhanced using C&G with veteran British infantry and the Light Division, reflecting the former having learnt to refine their technique through experience and the latter having superior training from day one.

    2. I feel that more damage was done due to the distraction of the fire on the attention of the men and it's result on unit cohesion than the effect of casualties. As the test showed, results are not linear as expected (the 75 yard was the exception). Yet, it creates a challenge for the unit's leadership to maintain the men's attention (and therefore control) over the men. Add in screams, more noise, the tention of being fired at, etc. and thee are many distractions that takes it's toll on a unit's ability to function.

      This video shows that trained troops (which these reinactors were presented as) might be able to maintain cohesion longer, but not necessarily out-shoot (effectiveness) anyone else.

      The casualty as a value set to determine unit effectiveness is like judging a car by it's color. The ability of unit leadership to maintain control over the actions of the men, in stressful situations, is a better value set to base games upon? Not many games test (with modifiers/factors that influence) their degree of success in keeping the unit acting as a unit for the time period that the turn represents.

    3. Hi Tom, you make some very good points, particularly about the important aspect of unit leadership modelling and the C&G system sets out to capture those aspects in more detail than you can hope to achieve with most paper rule sets whilst keeping the game playable.

      The big change in the Napoleonic era was the use of massed skirmish screens with sharpshooters looking to take out the men that you identify, namely the officers and nco's struggling to maintain the unit cohesiveness under fire. C&G models this aspect very well and we look to bring that fire to bear at every opportunity knowing that the small casualties that fire inflicts is aimed at those key people and have seen the effects it can cause when the unit concerned is later asked to step into the main battle.

      Of course firing is just one very important aspect of the tactical battle, and the ability to protect the line from degrading fire, then to deliver well aimed and quick fire from a two deep line followed up with a bayonet charge to take advantage of the disruption you describe was a tactical package developed by the British in particular over the years between the AWI period illustrated in the video up to and including the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

      Where the training to deliver well aimed timely fire really showed its advantage was in the situations where, often through command ineptitude, the British infantry found themselves disadvantaged and struggled to use their "tactical package", such as Barrosa and Albuera. In these cases the situation forced an improvised response in the face of veteran conscripts who certainly knew how to shoot, but were using three deep line tactics or trying to deploy from multiple columns them selves under fire.

      The casualties inflicted by the hard pressed British troops were still impressive and can be attributed to their training and in addition, despite the situation faced, they were able to overcome a situation that would have overwhelmed many others similarly placed.