I caught this Mel Gibson movie on TV the other day. Near the end, when the British and the American forces were fighting, they would have a line of redcoats march up, wait for the Americans to fire, then fire back, and I think they guys in front switched with the guys in back.
It seems to be like the most ridiculous method of fighting ever. I know movies are fiction, and any movie without Mel Gibson saying something anti-semitic doubly so, but I find it difficult to believe that they would make up such a fanciful battle formation and that hated enemies would essentially take turns killing like a game of Monopoly.
They did indeed fight like that.
Lining up shoulder to shoulder allowed them to have as many soldiers as possible fire their muskets simultaneously. Because reloading the weapons was so time-consuming, and because muskets don’t have very great reange, it was very important to have the men shoot at well-chosen points in time. If you shoot too early, the musket balls would scatter too far off target and have not enough momentum to be effective. If you shoot too late, you wouldn’t have time to reload before the enemy charged you. For that reason commanders often waited with the order to open fire, even though the enemy had already started shooting. Sometimes, a well-timed volley could instantly cause an entire enemy unit to rout.
Second line behind the first, for second volley? Check.
They could actually go several ranks deep, to maximize the rate of fire of volleys vs reload time per rank.
This style of firearms exchange looks nuts to us today. Our modern sympathies expect hiding behind cover, either using automatic firing or select firing (sniping). But at the time, it was the convention.
What you have to realize is that warfare of the day had 3 components - infantry (soldiers with muskets and bayonets), cavalry, and artillery (cannon). Each prong of the weaponry could pose a threat to the other. Military strategy involved balancing those elements. If the infantry didn’t amass like that, the cavalry could come ride in among them and hack them to bits.
Also realize that muskets weren’t very precision weapons. The guy lining up across from you might hit the guy two down from you on the left. The point of volley fire was to make a cloud of projectiles to hit the enemy en masse, rather than to try to shoot individuals out of the line.
BTW, the two sides didn’t actually take turns firing at each other. It just seemed that way because of volley fire as described. Rest assured that if one side finished their reload before the other managed to get off a volley, they wouldn’t gallantly wait for their enemies to fire first.
It’s also worth noting that it’s very easy to reload a musket standing up and considerably harder to do so when crouching behind a rock and nearly impossible when lying down. Standing in lines allowed minimum reload time and therefore maximum firepower per man.
They didn’t always fight like that. People are not idiots, and in dense woods or very hilly or rocky terrain, they’d take cover. Fighting in line-of-battle also allowed easy defense against cavalry, so in rough terrain that didn’t suit cavalry, armies might take more cover. In the American Revolution, the French and Indian War, and other earlier conflicts, smaller guerrilla-type raids were commonplace, and those soldiers did not fight in lines.
But there was a sound tactical reason for holding fire for a minute. A line of muskets firing produced a cloud of smoke that obscured the entire line. While there wasn’t much point in trying to aim a musket at a particular target, the officers wanted to at least be able to see what they were telling their troops to shoot at. So you could end up with two lines essentially taking turns at shooting.
The American Revolution was the first war in which there were rifle units. They weren’t common and the rifles of the time were still primitive but the improvement in range and accuracy was significant. And the Americans used their riflemen where they’d have the most effect - as snipers aiming at enemy officers and non-coms.
Also note that standing shoulder to shoulder was an ancient method of warfare that went back to before gunpowder to the classical greeks and earlier.
If you mass your troops they can concentrate their weapons (swords, arrows, spears, muskets) on one section of the enemy. And if the enemy isn’t concentrated, that means that 100 of your guys can attack 50 enemies at once. It’s easy to see the power of fighting at a 2-1 advantage. So if your troops are exactly equal in ability, you’ll have killed 50 of his guys while he killed only 25 of yours. And if you’re equal in numbers, now you just point your 75 guys at the 50 remaining enemy guys, and wipe them out.
In modern warfare, a group of guys who just stand in the battlefield without cover would be massacred. But muskets were so inaccurate and slow to reload that it was a common tactic to just stand there and ignore enemy fire. And of course, you pretty much have to stand to reload a musket. And when your troops are standing in a line, they won’t shoot each other by accident. And when they’re standing in a line their officers can see what they’re doing, and prevent individual soldiers from running away, or not firing their weapon. And it feels a lot safer if your buddies are all around you to back you up, so you’re less likely to run away. And if you ran away all your buddies would see you were a coward, and so you’d be ashamed to run away.
And you didn’t have people loading and firing their muskets as fast as possible because you’d always have to worry about a cavalry charge, or an infantry charge. If you fire your muskets then your troops are relatively defenseless until they can reload. So commanders would order their troops to hold their fire until the exact right moment. And since musket fire was incredibly inaccurate, firing at long range was a waste of time. You’d wait to fire until you were right next to the enemy, and then volley fire and reload and volley fire again as fast as possible, waiting to receive an enemy charge or for the order to charge the enemy when it looked like they were wavering.
And this is where the archaic soldierly ideal of ice-cold obedience in the face of death comes from. If your side side starts to run away, they can be hacked down with impunity by enemy cavalry. And so even when you’re taking heavy casualties it’s better to stand there and keep firing rather than run, because routing means you’re even worse off.
So marching shoulder to shoulder into the face of enemy fire, and waiting to fire on command was a proven war-winning tactic for centuries, until rifles made it foolish and then machine guns made it literally suicidal.
One of my favorites. I don’t really find it slow-moving. It’s a long movie, but there’s always something interesting happening. It does not have much of a traditional story-arc, though, so that can be offputting if you expect a perfect resolution.
Militiamen carried hunting rifles, which had better accuracy. The problem was rifles took longer to load, which left riflemen prone to bayonet counterattack. Daniel Morgan figured out how to cope with that problem at Cowpens.
Not only did they, but they fought like that for about 200 years, more or less.
Personally, it seems terrifying, but then again, so does modern infantry combat with machine guns, flamethrowers, claymore mines, etc…
The most important thing for armies back then was discipline, so that the men would stand and fight, despite having had many men killed and wounded around them. Usually, the side getting the shaft would turn and run, or withdraw in an orderly fashion, so having the discipline to stand and fight was a real asset vs. people more likely to break and run. (this is still true today, BTW)
Wow, learn something new everyday. This is a real eye-opener
I have a follow-up question while reading the responses. Even though the technology of muskets lent themselves to any farmboy or commoner to pick up a weapon and be deadly, would one side in the American Revolution, or any battle fought at that time, be far deadlier had they mixed up the weaponry from different eras?
When I read that people were still afraid of a cavalry charge, my first thought was that you could have a row of pikemen easily defend against that with a wall of spears. Mix those guys into the rear of the troops and you could take cover and have smaller groups fire from behind cover instead of out in the open in a big row
From watching the SpikeTV show Deadliest Warrior, I knew that these early musket bullets wouldn’t be able to penetrate a good piece of steel armor, but both the British and the Americans basically wore cloth coats. Discounting the price, couldn’t one side sacrifice a little mobility but have helmets and armor as well to protect from the bullets?
As for the range of the muskets, assuming they had enough trained soldiers, wouldn’t a bunch of archers be far more deadly? Why didn’t the British, at the time the strongest country in the world, use more archers that would be able to attack from far greater distances?
The traditional answer to the decline of archers is the skill involved. To be an effective archer pretty much required lifelong training. Whereas a couple of weeks of drill could turn out a halfway decent musketeer.
Oh and bayonets had replaced the pike sometime around 1700. Horses aren’t dumb enough to charge into a dense line of pointy things. So a cavalry charge wasn’t a threat to disciplined infantry who could hold their square.
Yes, up until the 1700s, armies still had pikes to protect the muskets from cavalry. But the bayonet, and better gun tech, made an extra pike not as effective as just an extra gun that can double as a spear in a pinch. Some occasionally toyed with reintroducing dedicated close-combat foot soldiers to armies (such as pikemen in the civil war or halberdiers as color guards in Napoleonic armies), but they never were very widespread.
That’s what they did in the “Tercio” era, a couple hundred years before the Rev.War.
A lot of heavy cavalry did wear armor, but it was mainly to protect them in close combat. It wouldn’t protect against a close range musket shot (i.e. most musket shots – since anything that was far enough to be slow would also be far enough to be inaccurate) As to why they didn’t all use plate, my guess is that it would be too heavy and expensive for the minute amount of protection it offered.
Person for person, the archer would be equal to the musket. But the archer takes decades of training to reach this height. So instead of an expensive dedicated soldier why not just give a musket to a peasant?
Heh, this is where I confuse the poor young morons that play CoD type shooters - I grew up playing Napoleanic RPGs, with the whole lines shit … poor suckers are used to ducking around and hiding, sniping and all that modern warfare crap.
I will stand there casting/slogging away toe to toe and they can’t understand why I am not running away. In LOTRO my Lore-keeper tends to fight 3-5 levels above myself successfully. If you turn and run the AI pretty much kicks your ass, if you keep slogging away, you actually can beat the mob. <shrug> It is pretty difficult to get me to panic in a MMORPG, all it is really is electrons. Nobody actually gets hurt or killed. Main reason I was a success as a combat cleric in EQ, and do well in pretty any sword and sorcery MMORPG. With EVE Online I really don’t do much PVP, but I am effective when I bother to bolt on my harbinger and pewpew.
With the invention and adoption of socket bayonets, musketeers became their own pikemen. Such tactics only work if you adopt a relatively tight formation.
Short answer is that some cavalrymen did wear breastplates up to WWI. Long answer is that it wasn’t all that effective and was very expensive, so it wasn’t widely used. Armor and gunpowder weapons coexisted for centuries. By the 18th century gunpowder technology had made armor more trouble than it was worth. By the 19th century it had made it pretty much obsolete. Armor has recently made a big comeback.