Monday, January 02, 2017
MUSKET MANIA: The Standard in 1775
(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 1)
At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, the muzzle-loading flintlock smoothbore musket was the state-of-the-art military standard small arm the world over. For the British Army this meant the Brown Bess. The vast majority of Americans would also go to war with the very same musket, or an American-made copy thereof, often referred to as the “Queen’s Arm.”
With the exception of the firing mechanism being up-graded from the flintlock ignition to the percussion cap system, Brown Bess would serve the British Army from 1722 to 1854. In 1775, the Short Land Pattern Musket was the standard, having been first adopted in 1740 to replace the 1722-vintage Long Land Pattern Musket. The Short Land Pattern had a .75-caliber barrel some 42 inches long, giving it an overall length of 56-1/2 inches and an empty weight of 10-1/2 pounds. By the military standards of the era it was considered a good weapon, enjoying a reputation for ruggedness and reliability. Some historians think the name Brown Bess was a soldiers’ corruption of the Dutch or German terms braun buss, meaning “strong gun.”
Short Land Pattern Brown Bess Musket: A rather large handle for the bayonet.
Although nominally listed as a .75-caliber, according to the Springfield Armory Museum even “Tower-inspected” Brown Bess muskets were approved as “close enough for government work” if the bore gauged anywhere from .72- to .80-caliber. The British Army standard issue musket ball itself was actually .71-inch in diameter, and the French issue .69-caliber musket ball could be used as well. With a 100-grain charge of black powder, the Brown Bess fired a round lead ball weighing over an ounce at a muzzle velocity of perhaps 1,000 feet per second, and generated considerable recoil in the process. If held perfectly horizontal at the regulation five feet above ground level, the ball would fall to earth at roughly 125 yards.
The blackpowder propellant used in firearms of the era “burned dirty”, i.e. it did not completely combust. In addition to propelling the projectile itself, it also produced an acrid cloud of thick gray smoke and left a black residue known as fouling on the inside of the barrel. After firing numerous times, the fouling could built up inside the bore to such a degree that loading a tight-fitting ball from the muzzle became difficult and eventually impossible. Thus, militaries of the day wanted a loose-fitting musket ball so that soldiers could continue to load and fire even if their gun barrel was heavily fouled.
Although this solved one problem, the loose fit of the ball also sacrificed velocity as the gasses of the burning gun powder escaped around it while propelling it down the barrel. More problematic was the fact that as the ill-fitting projectile rattled down the bore it struck at slightly different places each time the gun was fired, resulting in a lack of consistency from shot to shot, destroying accuracy at all but the shortest of ranges. Lacking the stabilizing spin of a rifle ball, the musket ball itself was less accurate and lost its momentum and striking energy rather quickly. Some today may find it surprising that the Brown Bess did not have any sights with which to aim the weapon. The best an infantryman could do to aim the weapon was use the bayonet lug to roughly line up the barrel with the target. Thus, individually, the smoothbore musket was inherently inaccurate.
Just how bad was the accuracy problem? A knowledgeable British officer who fought in the Revolution, then Major George Hanger wrote, “A soldier’s musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many are), will strike the figure of a man at 80 yards: it may even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, provided the antagonist aims at him; as to firing at a man at 200 yards, with a common musket, you may as well just fire at the moon.”
This was not just hyperbole on the part of the always verbose George Hanger; his estimate is quite accurate and was proven right numerous times over the years. In 1792, the British Army conducted a test in which a marksman fired 21 rounds from a Brown Bess at a target 4-feet square at 100 yards range and scored only 12 hits. In 1838, the Royal Engineers at Chatham conducted live-fire tests with standard-issue Brown Bess muskets (updated with a percussion lock) which revealed that “about” three fourths of the musket balls fired at 150 yards at a target 3 feet tall and 11-1/2 feet wide struck the target. At 250 yards, using a target twice as large, not one ball struck home and, “…at 300 yards shot after shot was fired without one hitting the object aimed at, or its whereabouts being ascertained.” In still another test, an expert marksman fired twenty rounds each at targets eighteen feet square at 200 and 300 yards and not a single ball struck home. An American gun writer in the 1950’s fired ten well-aimed shots at a man-shaped target at 100 yards and scored only four hits, two of which were peripheral strikes to the ear and knee.
From the standpoint of the European professional military establishment, however, it was just not that important for an individual soldier to take deliberate aim and shoot to kill an individual enemy soldier. Conventional set-piece battles on the European Continent involved vast armies with thousands of men in tightly packed, easily-controlled ranks. Companies and battalions of infantrymen would fire massed volleys at other closely-formed companies and battalions. Even with muskets simply pointed in the right direction, sheer volume of fire was expected to inflict some casualties amidst the enemy ranks. Volume of fire and speed in reloading was the name of the game. With pre-prepared paper-wrapped powder and ball “cartridges” and loose-fitting balls dropped down a smoothbore barrel, the British regular was expected to deliver four shots per minute, or one every fifteen seconds. The actual accuracy of those shots was a distant afterthought.
Even used in this intended fashion, however, smoothbore muskets produced a great many more misses than hits, and the problem was certainly not restricted solely to the Brown Bess. All European military smoothbore muskets of the era, whether British, French, Dutch, Spanish or German, delivered virtually the same poor performance when it came to accuracy. For instance, a French test involved 720 infantrymen firing at a 3x3 meter target at 100 and 200 meters range; 52 shots hit the 100 meter target and only 18 struck it at 200 meters.
To scientifically “prove” the value of musket volley fire, rather than use man-sized targets military experiments of the period used large cloth targets intended to represent entire formations of enemy troops. The French Army, for instance, used a target six feet tall and fifty yards across to represent an enemy infantry company and a target 8-1/2 feet tall by 50 yards wide to represent a cavalry formation. In one such experiment, at a range of 160 yards two hundred rounds apiece were fired at the French infantry target using British, Prussian and French muskets. The results showed a hit rate of 58%, 56%, and 49% respectively. In 1755, two companies of Prussian Grenadiers fired at a target ten feet tall and 30 feet wide at 150 and 300 yards and scored 46% and 12.5% hits respectively.
Waterloo, 1815: The European way of war.
Of course, such studies counted every single ball that struck anywhere on the length and breadth of the entire cloth. As any wing-shooter knows, however, there’s a helluva lot more air than bird when firing a shotgun at a covey of quail or a flock of ducks. Even with modern shotguns, “flock-shooting” is generally a waste of time; the gunner still needs to single out and aim at a specific bird in the flock rather than “sky-busting” at the flock as a whole.
One British officer later wrote, “The inutility of the old musket was shown in a battle during the Kaffir war, where the British discharged 80,000 cartridges, and the loss of the enemy was 25 men struck.” A Prussian artillery colonel named Schlimmbach conducted exhaustive statistical studies of every battle in the Napoleonic Wars and concluded that, on average, a man’s own body weight in lead had to be fired for every casualty inflicted by musket fire. French General Gassendi concluded that at least three thousand musket cartridges had to be fired for every enemy casualty inflicted while German General von Decker put the minimum number at ten thousand cartridges. In 1770 the French General Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert, wrote that only 0.2% of all small arms fire on the battlefield hit the target.
Despite early American military use of the rifle as well as prior adoption of percussion-fired muskets and rifles, at the time of the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War the vast majority of US Army infantrymen were still issued flintlock smoothbore muskets. A young Ulysses S. Grant, serving in that conflict, concluded of this weapon, “At the distance of a few hundred yards a man might fire at you all day without your finding it out.”
Calibers were large, ranging from .60-caliber Prussian weapons to the .75-caliber Brown Bess, so when a musket ball did manage to hit a man at close range the effect was brutal. “They inflicted horrible wounds. They smashed the bones; they tore out entire muscles from arms or legs; they stopped a running or charging man immediately. There was a little ridge or seam along the circumference of the ball which, while it ridged and scratched the bore of the musket, caused ragged wounds in the body wherever it got home.”
This inaccuracy was all well and fine up through the Napoleonic War-era because the musket’s fire effect was seen as secondary; its main role was as a mounting platform for the bayonet. Great battles were expected to be won, in the end, with the bayonet charge and cold steel. Major General John Burgoyne said, “The onset of bayonets in the hands of the valiant is irresistible.” The British Army regular was particularly well-trained and enjoyed a fierce reputation for his skill with the bayonet. Many an enemy line was broken by the British bayonet, as Kipling put it, “…pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.”
"Pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess."
Fondness for the bayonet was hardly restricted to Great Britain. Much ado is made of the fact that the Prussian drill master Baron von Steuben added the phrase “Take aim” to American Continental Army drill, but he too greatly preferred and stressed the bayonet. Napoleon said, “The bayonet has always been the weapon of the brave and the chief tool of victory.” Russian General Alexander Suvorov was famous for his quote, “The bullet is a fool; the bayonet is the whole man.” Frederick the Great’s testament about the “superiority of fire” was meant to apply only to the artillery; infantry charged with l’arme blanch.
Strange as it may seem, despite all this emphasis on cold steel, the bayonet actually inflicted very few casualties on the battlefield. Studying what type of wounds soldiers were treated for at the Invalides of Paris in 1762, French historian André Corvisier discovered that statistically 68.8% of men were wounded by small arms fire, 13.4% by artillery, 14.7% by cavalry sabers, and only 2.4% by the bayonet. Dominique Jean Larrey, a French surgeon with Napoleon’s Grand Armée, conducted his own studies in 1807 and also found only 2% of men were wounded by the bayonet. Even in one particular battle between French and Russian forces that involved bayonet charges and considerable hand-to-hand combat, Larrey noted that 119 men were wounded by musket balls but only 5 from bayoneting.
The bayonet did not win battles by physically inflicting casualties; it won them by psychologically breaking the enemy’s resistance. One more than one occasion American militia and riflemen simply broke and ran rather than stand to take a British or Hessian bayonet charge.
So this was the state of military affairs in 1775 and helps to explain the significance of the accuracy and range of the rifle, which had three or even four times the effective range of the smoothbore musket. At a range where the musket-armed soldier had less than a 50/50 chance of hitting a man, the rifleman could choose which eye to shoot. In the hands of a marksman, a weapon like the American Long Rifle stood a much greater chance of hitting a target the size of a man at 300 yards than the musket did at 100.
Yet the smoothbore musket would soldier on in professional armies until the mid 1800s. Despite its accuracy, the rifle did not often fare well in conventional warfare of the period, for a variety of reasons we’ll examine later.