Roman shield Vs musket ball

I recently finished listening to “The History of Rome” podcast and am now well into “The British History Podcast”. (Both excellent.) In a listener question episode in the latter someone asked: Who would win in a battle between “some British Redcoats” and “some Roman Legionaries”. The consensus between the BHP host and a self described British classicist was that the Redcoats would win because muskets.

But I wonder.

For the sake of this scenario let’s say there are 500 veteran Redcoats cica 1780 and 500 Caesarian veteran Legionnaires. Just infantrymen on both sides. No artillery, no Calvary.

The strategy of the Redcoats, I assume, would be to stand their lines and fire volley after volley, as they were wont to do, confident, as the podcast commentators were, that they would cut down the Romans before they got close enough to engage in melee combat.

The Roman strategy would be to close the distance between the forces as quickly as possible so as to convert the battle into said combat. If that were to happen, I am confident that, provided enough Romans made it, they would utterly slaughter the Redcoats, then armed with only bayonets and without shields, no match for the Roman shield and galadius.

But it would all depend on how many Romans made it through. And that would depend on how well their shields would stand up to musket balls. If the Redcoats started firing when the Romans were at 100 yards, they could get off at least several volleys (if anyone has a more specific informed estimate please state) before the Romans would make it. I think that initial volley would largely bounce off the shields. Subsequent volleys might and then probably would make it through the shields, but the musket balls would lose a lot of energy doing so and their stopping power would be greatly diminished. When the Romans were in javelin range they’d throw. Not having shields or armor, any Redcoat hit would likely be put out of action. By the time the Romans were close enough for the musket balls to penetrate their shields and still have stopping power, the Redcoats would probably only be able to get off one or two more volleys, and the Romans, arranged in maniples several men deep, could absorb the losses. Then the two forces would be upon each other and the slaughter would commence. One Legionnaire, I submit, could fell 7, 8, 9, 10 Redcoats in less than a minute. In this way of construing it, the Redcoats really wouldn’t stand a chance.

But - it would all depend on the match up in the title of the thread. Am I overestimating the strength of the Roman shield Vs the musket ball? According to Wikipedia the shields weighed 10 kg and were made of three sheets of wood glued together and covered with canvas and leather.

The Roman scutum was made of wooden laminate. If light wooden shields would have stood up to massed musket fire, wouldn’t every regiment of soldiers have fired from behind a mobile shield wall?

Any sort of ancient foot soldiers would have been ripped apart.

What if the shields had been reinforced with a layer of iron or steel? They weren’t, but if they had been, would that change your assessment?

So the redcoats could fire 3 rounds in a minute, or once every 20 seconds. Maybe 4.

A fully equipped infantry man can run 100m in 12 seconds.

When it comes to sprint standards, with or without 16kg of equipment, 60m in 8sec and 100m in 12sec is both reasonable and essential in combat.

The redcoats will get off one volley. The shield will hide the targets, and they, and the lorica will deflect some bullets.

Yes, veteran redcoats could maybe get in a second volley at point blank range, which would be devastating.

Now, yes that means at 100Yards the Romans will win. But 100yards is rather close. True, the Redcoats in general loosed their volleys at 100yards as the brown bess wasn’t aimed so much as pointed. But they could start shooting at 200- that means more like three volleys.

According to the Russian Lieutenant-General Ivan G. Gogel, all the muskets of the European nations were able to penetrate a wooden shield with a thickness of 1 inch (2.54 cm), at a distance of 300 yards.

From the wiki for the Brown Bess. The Romans would be mowed down.

They might be better off dropping the shield and trying to close the distance as fast as they could. In which case they’d run into a hedge of bayonet points. No contest. Concentrated firepower is a hell of a thing. In fact without prior exposure to gunpowder weapons, I’d expect the Romans to bolt in a rout after the first volley - it would be a genuinely terrifying experience for even the toughest veteran.

As an aside, I did read the Spotter Up article, but 100m in 12 seconds for an infantry man carrying a 16kg load? Pretty darn fast. Consider that most U.S. collegiate sprinters cover that distance somewhere around 10 seconds flat. I’d be surprised if the average infantry man could do 12 seconds even in shorts, singlet, and running shoes, much less dressed for combat. Even if you assume that adrenaline does wonders for your top speed…

Romans win each time.
Volley fire was not aimed: the point was to shoot in the general direction of the enemy, hoping to wound or kill some, but it’s the volume and rate of fire that was sought.
An estimation of about 400 shoots= 1 casualty! So most of the shots will miss the Romans, maybe 5 casualties…
The moral effect was primordial: seeing well ordered troops on battlefield was enough to put ill trained militia to flee. There is a reason if “ordre serré” was the training, and that was the same for the Romans: most of musket era troops were not eager to fight hand to hand, except for Grenadiers or other elite troops. So the moral is toward the Romans, except if the sound of firearms frighten them.
And they don’t have to run 100 m in full armor, that’s only Hollywood tactic…Troops were marching, maintaining strict order, until the last few meters where they charge. And after, maintaining cohesion was still crucial, to prevent gaps in the line.
By the way, this thought battle had been fought…and won multiple times, not by Romans but Highlanders. They will taunt British in firing at distance, soaking some casualties then closing for the kill: sword + buckler was winning each time against bayonet. Only at Culloden did Cumberland trained his Redcoats to fight, not the Scot in front of them, but the one at their right, where no shield protected them. The British won this time.

The best are sub 10s but most? Only if they round their times down to nearest second.

What happens when the resistable musket ball meets the movable shield?

I don’t think we can quite read across because of the nature of the equipment. The problem here is the shield. It’s one thing to run with well distributed weight. It’s quite another to run while supporting a heavy shield on your braced left arm and maintaining it at chest height or better throughout.

There has, brilliantly, been a study on this. The battle of Marathon in 490 was won by the Athenians who charged the Persians at their beachhead. Herodotus claims that the distance run was 8 stades or just under a mile. In 1973, Donlan and Thomson, two heroes of empirical research, decided to test this in the obvious way: they took a bunch of track scholarship students in excellent physical shape, kitted them out as hoplites, and got them to run a mile.

The mile was too much. The formation broke down after c.300 yards. So as far as our proposed 100m dash through fire goes, that’s OK. But what of the shield?

A shield wearing 9lbs was carried on the left arm. Subjects were instructed to hold them chest high for as long as possible. None were able to maintain the chest high position after 75 yards…A second field experiment was conducted in the spring of 1974…no one was able to keep his shield up.

Note that this a 9lb shield, not the the 10kg monster mentioned in the OP. So…

The Romans march slowly towards the redcoats from outside effective musket range… The redcoats have loaded muskets. At c.100m the Romans start to charge and the redcoats fire their first volley. Let’s say it’s minimally effective. The Romans continue at a full sprint while the redcoats reload. But at about 68m two things start to happen to the Romans. The shields start to drop, and to manage their energy enough to lift them, they start to slow down. The redcoats complete reloading and fire a volley into unprotected men.

What if the Redcoats fire at the unprotected legs of their opponents?! :wink:

There’s an actual historical example of muskets vs. swords and shields, at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689.

Redcoats (Scottish army + one English regiment) vs. Scottish Highlanders.

The Highlanders won a complete victory, but suffered high casualties. The Scottish government army suffered 50% casualties, the Highlanders 30% casualties.

The Highlanders had a small number of pistols and muskets, but mainly relied on swords and shields. The effect of whatever firearms they had was minimal.

The government army deployed in close order in three lines and awaited the downhill charge of the Highlanders. At close range they fired their muskets, causing most of the 30% casualties to the Highlanders, but the charge still drove home.

The plug bayonets then in use had to fitted to the muskets after firing, so the redcoats were left defenceless once it came to hand-to-hand fighting. They fled, suffering 50% casualties.

However, the commander of the Highland army, Lord Dundee, was killed by a musket shot, and the uprising later petered out. Detailed accounts were written by senior commanders on both sides after the battle – Dundee’s right-hand man, Sir Ewan Cameron, and General Hugh Mackay.

Mackay later invented the modern bayonet as a result of this battle. The result might have been different if they could have used bayonets immediately after firing.

Given the accuracy of muskets, even without aiming some shots would be going under the shield.

But there’s a broader point. We’re assuming that the two sides are in lines of equal length, but there’s no reason to make that assumption. Caesar’s legions would fight in formation with a centre, right and left wing and reserves. They would adjust tactics according to situation, but would be looking to attack one wing of the enemy rather than always going for a full frontal charge. But each cohort of the army would itself be several men deep - not just one big strung out line. They would also by preference start in open order with space between each cohort and each man in the cohort.

Equally, redcoats had options about how they organised themselves, but probably would favour a reasonably long line, perhaps two or three deep. It’s not hard to envisage that when each side is in it’s favoured layout the redcoats would have options other than firing front-on towards a shield. Diagonal fields of fire cutting into the unprotected flanks of different cohorts would be devastating.

Roman shields are one thing, but the Romans are also armoured and wearing helmets. So the question is really can a musket penetrate a laminated composite (not plain wooden, it makes a difference), curved shield and lorica and subarmalis. And then be reloaded enough times to take out all the Roman ranks before they close.

Edit to add - the closest to musket-contemporary legionnaires we have were the aforementioned Highlanders and the Spanish rodeleros and the latter were phased out with the rise of guns, but weren’t using full Roman kit, so I’m on the fence about the whole thing.

The Romans get even slower and the musket balls still blow through their shields.

Warfare didn’t move away from armor because people thought it looked silly. Gunpowder made it obsolete.

Why assume the entire regiment fires one volley every 20 seconds instead of 3 lines of 1/3 of the regiment firing every 6-7 seconds?

We’re also assuming here that the redcoats stand still long enough for the Romans to reach them. Obviously volleys are most effective at point-blank range but as the redcoats aren’t weighed down by armour they should be faster over the ground than the Romans. So is there an option for them to fire at, say 75 yards, run back 200, load and fire again? I’m pretty sure a well organised Redcoat regiment could manage something similar by company or platoon. If the problem the redcoats have to solve is “The Romans are incredibly dangerous when it comes to melee fighting” then “Don’t do melee fighting” is quite a good solution.

Because either way, each soldier gets off one shot.

It took about 30 seconds to reload a musket in practice, and that was too long to fire more than one shot before the enemy could move from ‘in range’ to ‘hand-to-hand’.

Armour persisted for some time after the invention of firearms. In fact, armoured helmets still persist today, and body armour is becoming the norm.

But before modern times, body armour that was solid enough to resist musket fire was found to be not worth the cost and slowing down.

Cuirassiers (armoured cavalry) were still used in the Napoleonic wars, and their cuirasses were impervious to musket balls.

I suppose actually there are two questions here.

The one closest to the OP is: If 500 Roman legionnaries faced one volley at effective range from 500 redcoats, how many would survive well enough to keep fighting?

The second question is, given the answer to the first question, how effectively could both sides fight each other? The problem the Romans have to solve is “How can we close to melee distance and keep a maximum effective fighting force” and the problem the redcoats have to solve is “How can we minimise the Roman melee effectiveness by the time they close to melee distance?”

If the Romans close to melee distance with only a fraction of their starting numbers and/or with the living legionnaries physically exhausted, they lose. So what’s the best way for them to close the distance?
Option 1 is the charge, which is quick but runs the risk of leaving yourselves open - you can’t go full tilt and keep closed ranks, and shields will start to drop as energy budgets get depleted. Option 2 is something more like the testudo - gradually but safely closing with the enemy under cover of the shields. The risk here is that you never close with your enemy as they can just keep maneouvering away from or around you while doing enough damage from their firing to gradually wear you down.