Roman shield Vs musket ball

That’s not really what happened. The real problem with the charge at Omdurman was that they thought they were charging only small number of men, but there were a large number concealed behind them that they weren’t aware of.


In what has been described as the last operational cavalry charge by British troops, the 400-strong regiment attacked what they thought were only a few hundred dervishes, but in fact there were 2,500 infantry hidden behind them in a depression. After a fierce clash, the Lancers drove them back (resulting in three Victoria Crosses being awarded to Lancers who helped rescue wounded comrades).


Presently I noticed, 300 yards away on our flank and parallel to the line on which we were advancing, a long row of blue-black objects, two or three yards apart. I thought there were about a hundred and fifty. Then I became sure that these were men—enemy men—squatting on the ground. Almost at the same moment the trumpet sounded ‘Trot’, and the whole long column of cavalry began to jingle and clatter across the front of these crouching figures.

We were going at a fast but steady gallop. There was too much trampling and rifle fire to hear any bullets. After this glance to the right and left and at my troop, I looked again towards the enemy. The scene appeared to be suddenly transformed. The blue-black men were still firing, but behind them there now came into view a depression like a shallow sunken road. This was crowded and crammed with men rising up from the ground where they had hidden. Bright flags appeared as if by magic, and I saw arriving from nowhere Emirs on horseback among and around the mass of the enemy. The Dervishes appeared to be ten or twelve deep at the thickest, a great grey mass gleaming with steel, filling the dry watercourse.

Even so, they only lost 70 men out of 400 (and about 125 horses).

After they had charged right through the enemy line, they dismounted and fired their rifles, and the enemy moved back.

That’s fair enough. But as I see it, your plans for how the Romans can counter the Redcoats’ muskets seem to consistently ignore the fact that the enemy also gets a vote.

I don’t actually think both sides are going to have to be creative. I think the Redcoats just need to follow age-old military maxims - choose favorable terrain and seize the high ground. The only “creative” tactic would be to try to maintain a stand-off distance with the enemy, rather than closing with them and destroying them. I know firing by rank and falling back in a bounding pattern was a musketry tactic, but I don’t know enough about 1780 Redcoats if that was part of their standard drill. If it was, I don’t think they need to be at all creative.

Here’s where, again, I think you’re forgetting that the enemy also gets a vote. The Redcoats are trained and experienced in reloading and firing while being hit by musket and canon fire. And an infantry charge is a bog standard tactic that Redcoats will be exhaustively drilled in responding to. Meanwhile, the Romans are trying to ready and throw javelins and darts while being hit by musket fire, something for which they have no training or experience. I think the advantage is still clearly to the Redcoats.

I actually agree with most of that. But the OP set up the highly artificial conditions for this time-travel clash, and the two sides are 100 yards apart. If circumstances are different, well, sure, they’re different, and that changes things.

That’s true. But, again, OP posits the two sides start the engagement 100 yards apart. I don’t think under those conditions, the Romans’ superior training and conditioning helps them much, until they can get into melee range, and at that point, they’ve all but won anyway.

I think the terrain will have an impact. I agree, the nature of the battle will be critical. As pointed out upthread, one of the unstated artificial constraints is that the OP seems to assume the sole goal of both sides is to drive the other from the field in a battle to the death, which isn’t really how that usually works.

But, as I stated upthread, I personally think it’s going to come down to whether the Romans maintain discipline and unit cohesion under the alien experience of musket fire long enough to close to contact with the Redcoats. And I think, on balance, that’s unlikely.

One critical factor that’s only been touched on in this thread that I think potentially favors the Romans is quality of leadership.

The British Army of 1780 had some very capable officers, who almost certainly would have carefully studied there Caesar and their Vegetius, and would be very familiar with Roman order of battle, drill, and tactics. That’s a significant advantage for the Redcoats if they are lead by such an officer.

But the British Army of 1780 also had significant numbers of incompetent, even actively counter-competent officers. The British Army of the era lost more than one battle that on paper should have been a victory due to incompetent leadership.

From what I understand, and I am not an expert so I may be wrong, the Caesarian legions had more consistently competent leadership.

All of my posts implicitly assumed basic competency in leadership on both sides. I think there’s a non-trivial chance the Redcoats are led by an incompetent who purchased their commission and view their post as a sinecure rather than a vocation, in which case all the advantages that the Redcoats enjoy on paper could easily be wasted.

And circling back around to a point @Sam_Stone raises, it’s my understanding that under the prevailing recruitment and retention procedures of the Caesarian legions, the Romans are probably largely battle-hardened veterans, while the Redcoats probably have a much higher proportion of green recruits. It’s possible that green Redcoats (as it were) might break and run even if they have all the advantages.

I agree with your analysis. Wouldn’t preferred and trusted fighting formation style fit into this. The Romans used a phlanx style which in my opinion would make them more vulnerable to the musket fire as they are closer together and shots don’t have to be aimed as well. I think the musket ball was also very effective in causing wounds that were deblitating so you don’t have to necessarily kill your opponent.

I land on the side of the muskets even if the Romans used multiple cohort formations coming from different angles.

That’s fair. Never learned Latin.

On the contrary, I would suggest the two sides are quite evenly matched in this regard. First, the scale of the combat as outlined in the OP is more or less divorced from the top-levels of leadership. This is purely a struggle of JO’s vs. Centurions. And in that respect, the British Army in 1780 and the Romans had held strong reputations for effective group leaders.

Both had some great general officers/Proconsular commanders and some… not-so-great leaders. Sure, there were legends like Caesar, Sextus Pompey and Agrippa, but also quite a few bungling fools. And for the British, one of the effects of the American Revolution was to weed out much of the officer corps so that, heading into the French Revolution, it became much more effective at actually thinking about what it wanted to achieve and how it aimed to do that.

No they didn’t. See my post #95

Indeed! Countless soldiers have marched to their deaths on the orders of a wayward commander.

Well, the Romans can & did throw the pilum while charging.

And while yes, a man, in non-combat situation,using a new and in perfect shape musket, with all the time in the world to load, and actually aiming (the Redcoats did not aim)- can do that. A WW2 marksman can hit a target at 500 yards nearly 100% of the time. But it took 50000 rounds to actually kill a foe. So, possible- sure. Meaningful here? No.

That number is misleading. World War II combatants generally weren’t formed into infantry squares facing off against each other. Dispersed individuals and small groups would take cover and fire at other dispersed individuals and small groups behind cover. A lot of fire was wild, unaimed fire from troops reluctant to expose themselves to enemy fire enough to take proper aim. The result was a lot of rounds hitting cover or going wild.

“Maneuver by fire” was a common tactic - you fire as many rounds as you can in the general direction of the enemy to keep their heads down, while your squadmates move to a superior position. That results in a lot of rounds being fired that don’t actually hit anyone.

There’s also the question of whether most infantry actually tried to hit the enemy. As I understand it, the research on this is contentious, but it seems clear that at least some combat infantry weren’t actually aiming at anyone - they were just shooting in the general direction of the enemy, even when the enemy was exposed.

One of the main purposes of a musket square is precisely to overcome a lot of those factors by massing fire so that “aiming in the general direction of the enemy” would collectively result in a lot of actual hits.

Plus there’s the fact that combatants in World War II had magazine fed weapons, many of them fully automatic, which under the stress of real world combat conditions tends to result in a lot of rounds being fired off to no good purpose.

Looking at rounds fired per enemy hit in World War II and trying to extrapolate from that how accurate a 1780 musket square would be at shooting a Roman infantry formation is comparing apples to oranges.

Of course it is. So is comparing - a man, in non-combat situation,using a new and in perfect shape musket, with all the time in the world to load, and actually aiming with actual redcoat infantry.

Ok, but what are you arguing, then? Will the Romans chucking pilae and plumbata at a formation of Redcoats interfere with their ability to load and fire more than taking concentrated musket fire is going to interfere with the Romans’ ability to ready and throw those pilae and plumbata?

Again, the Redcoats are trained and experienced in loading and firing while under fire from muskets and canons. And in receiving infantry charges. The Romans are trained and experienced in charging under missile fire, but not musket fire.

(And even though it’s not a perfect comparison, what a marksman can do with a musket is a much better starting point for evaluating how effective a Redcoat musket square would be against a Roman infantry square than statistics about rounds fired in World War II).

Nope. What I am saying is that the redcoats will get in one good volley, which won’t stop the Romans, then once the Romans close, the redcoats usual tactic of bayonet fighting will fail.

You can argue that the Romans might be surprised by musket fire, but the Redcoats would be surprised by seeing a Roman Century in full kit charging at them from 100 years. But that wasn’t the point in the OP.

Why only “one good volley”? The Romans start 100 yards away. I genuinely don’t know if the Redcoats c. 1780 drilled in alternating fire by rank, but even if not, they should be able to get in one volley at the beginning of the engagement, and then probably at least one more as the Romans are charging. And the closer the Romans are by the time the Redcoats reload and fire again, the more accurate and powerful the musket fire will be.

How do you know it won’t stop the Romans?

I agree with you here. I think we did have one poster upthread who contended the Redcoats’ bayonet fighting would be effective against the Romans, but I think almost everyone agrees that if the Romans close to melee contact with the Redcoats, they win.

It’s not a matter of surprise. Have you ever been shot at? It’s terrifying. * Now, it’s true that while the Romans may have some green troops mixed in, they’re probably mostly veterans, who have come under missile fire before. But slings and arrows are very different from concentrated musket fire. And the Romans would have had missile armed auxiliaries covering them. In this hypothetical, they’re trying to advance under gunfire with no missile fire of their own, until they can close to within hurling distance for their pilae and plumbata.

As I’ve said a couple of times in this thread, I don’t think it’s a given that the Romans break and run from their first exposure to gunfire. But I think it’s a live possibility. We have copious historical examples of it happening. If the Romans can maintain discipline and unit cohesion long enough to close to melee contact with the Redcoats, I think the Romans win in a rout. But I’m doubtful they would manage that.

*Just to be clear, I don’t speak here from first hand experience in an actual firefight, but from training with both simunitions and live fire, and have served and trained with guys who were in actual combat.

My math seems to show they could not reload in time.

Yes I have, actually and it is, but so is being charged.

Would you share your math?

(Question to anyone who’s reading this thread and might now: how did Redcoats c. 1780 drill for volley fire? Would they have fired in alternating volley by rank? Or just line up and everyone shoots at the same time? I think it makes a pretty big difference if the Redcoats fire one massive volley then they all have to reload before volleying again, or if the Romans are subjected to multiple, rolling volleys as they try to close the distance.)

Ok, fair enough. But the thing is, Redcoats are trained, drilled, and experienced in receiving infantry charges. They’re also trained, drilled, and experienced in reloading, firing, and getting set to receive infantry charges while under fire from muskets and canons. And historically the Redcoats fought enemies with spears, shields, and thrown weapons of various kinds. Romans simply have no frame of references for being subjected to musket fire.

Let’s take a look at the two experiences.

If you’re Roman, you see an infantry square of oddly dressed men wielding spears, which they’re leveling at you. Nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times bef-KRAKRAKABOOM!!! A rippling roar like a distant sound of thunder - and you’re from a world without internal combustion engines or radios and TVs or loudspeakers. And along with that, the enemy’s “spears” are flashing fire, and smoke is billowing from them. Simultaneously, shields, armor, and men all around you are being splintered and shattered, with no visible cause.

Maybe you hesitate. That gives the Redcoats more time to reload and fire again. Maybe you realize you are under a missile bombardment. If you do, maybe close ranks and form a tetsudo formation. That’s pretty effective against slings and arrows. But it’s worse than useless against musket volleys. Now you’re just a stationary, tightly clumped target - perfect for musket volleys.

Maybe you charge the enemy. Romans didn’t generally charge pell-mell - maintaining good order and unit cohesion was vital to their entire experience of warfare. So your “charge” isn’t going to be a sprint, it’s going to be a fast walk. And the Redcoats are going to be reloading and firing. (If the Redcoats are firing alternating volleys by rank, and again I don’t know if that was actually part of their drill, you’re going to be advancing under nearly continuous fire). You’re used to advancing under fire. But you’re used to being covered by your own missile troops, and you’re used to advancing under fire from slings and arrows, not thunder lances.

If you make it to within 30 or 40 yards, you’ll ready and throw your pilum or plumbata. Possibly while under close-range musket fire. But you know that’s just a distraction, and at best will break up the enemy formation. It won’t defeat them - for that, you need to close to melee contact.

Finally, if you survive the musket volleys and maintain discipline and unit cohesion (and again, you have no frame of reference for those thunder lances you’re being hit with), you come to grips with the enemy. Now you’re fighting unarmored spearmen, and you’re back on familiar ground, and all of your training and experience and gear are relevant again, and you drive the enemy from the field. If you get that far.

Now, let’s suppose you’re a Redcoat. You see an infantry formation armed with spears and shields. That’s unusual, but not unprecedented. But they’re dressed as ancient Romans! That’s deucedly peculiar. Maybe that causes you to hesitate. But they’re enemy infantry. Especially if they begin to advance, you know exactly how to deal with that. You shoot them. If they maintain discipline and unit cohesion and continue to advance, you know how to deal with that as well. You reload and you shoot them.

If they close to 30 or 40 yards, they start throwing javelins and darts. Again, unusual, but not unprecedented. And you’re drilled and experienced in reloading and firing while under fire. So you know what to do. You shoot them.

Finally, if they manage to close to melee range, you know what to do. You fix bayonets and set to receive the charge. Here, finally, your training and drill and experience and weapons betray you. You aren’t trained and equipped to deal with heavy armored infantry in close combat. So you are driven from the field. If they get that close.

Post 3.

They did both, but the same number of shots, of course.

You do not get that second shot if the Romans charges from 100 yards.

Mind you, we are being fair and assuming the Redcoats are lined up, muskets loaded and ready.

Interestingly, it appear that Romans had ‘terror’ weapons of their own:

I don’t know if slings are unavailablein our scenario. They were mostly used by auxiliary troops, but some legions carried them. I don’t see them used while charging the enemy, though.

One thing to remember is that while the Romans are relatively undefended against musket balls, the Redcoats are undefended against ancient weapons that other armies in the ancient world could defend against. Sling stones, for example, weren’t particularly effective against shielded and helmeted soldiers with armor. Against a redcoat, a sling stone could kill or at least stun lonp enough to prevent shooting or reloading.

Also, I think once the Romans are inside 40 yards the Redcoats won’t be reloading another volley, because they will come under a rain of javelin and plumbata and stones. So the job of the Romans here is really to close the distance from 100m to 40m or so without being slaughtered.

One question we haven’t answered: do the Redcoats get to start this battle loaded and with knowledge they are about to be attacked? Or is the scenarii that they are marching and come across the enemy 100 yards away? That alone may be the difference that changes everything. If the Redcoats have to unsling their weapons and powder and start loading while the Romans begin their charge, they will be lucky to get off one volley.

Another complication: How close do the Romans get before the Redcoats order a bayonet charge? My understanding is that once the enemy got into a certain range the order would be given to fix bayonets and charge.

From here:

If they did that, then that single volley had better take out enough Romans to either cause them to break and run, or thin their numbers so much that the Redcoats’ bayonet charge would have a chance of succeeding. If the Romans charged in a group four deep, the most the Redcoats could get would be 25% of them, minus the misses.

For the Romans in the back, they would just hear a bang ans see smoke, then a bunch of people charging at them with essentially unwieldy spears. This is the kind of fight Romans are used to. The Redcoats would be totally untrained in fighting an enemy that has body armor and fights expertly with sword and shield. And their bayonet charge would get a lot of them riddled with holes from javalin and plumbata.

Ok. I think this has been pointed out upthread, but you seem to be assuming peak performance in an all-out sprint from the Romans. For a modern NFL player, a 4 second 40 yard dash is considered exceptional. And, again, the entire Roman experience of warfare is to maintain their formations in good order, not wild sprints. I don’t think there’s any way the Romans close the 100 yards in under 20 seconds. The Redcoats get at least two volleys.

Sure, the same total number of shots. But it seems to me there’s a huge difference in being subjected to a single massive volley and surviving it vs. being subjected to smaller but frequent, nearly continuous barrages while you are helpless to respond.

I think you do. I think you may well get more than that. I don’t think the Romans are going to be sprinting all out, in defiance of all of their drill and experience, and even if they do, I don’t think they’re going to equal the performance of modern elite athletes.

That’s absolutely a fair point. We’re also assuming the Romans are lined up in battle formation with shield and pilum ready, not in marching order. But, yes, it’s going to take the Redcoats longer to line up in proper battle order from the march. If it’s two columns of marching troops coming across each other unexpectedly and immediately engaging from the march, I think the Romans almost certainly win.

I actually agree with much of that. I do have some caveats, though.

  1. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the Redcoats are drilled and experienced in reloading and firing while under fire from muskets and canon. I just don’t think darts and javelins are going to prevent them from reloading and firing.

  2. Musket balls don’t just stop when they hit one man. A single musket ball can potentially wound or kill multiple men. If the musket ball hits center of mass, it has to go through the breastplate, the Roman, and then the backplate. So that may well be enough to absorb all the energy. But the balls that are hitting extremities are probably continuing on or ricocheting. And the fragments from the armor and shields being splintered by musket fire are probably also causing some casualties.

  3. I may be wrong here, but I don’t think legionaries on the march had their shields and pilae readied for a fight. Wouldn’t they have had their shields slung? And they marched in fought in different formations. It would take them at least a bit of time to form up into battle formation from the march.

But, even given 3), I agree, if the two forces are encountering each other with no forewarning from the march at 100 yards, the Romans have a massive advantage. And even given 2), I agree, if the Redcoats fire a single point-blank volley and then perform a bayonet charge, they only win if the shock of the volley causes the Romans to break and run.

It depends. Sometimes in front, but on long marches through “friendly” territory, it was slung on the back, but that is a fast change.

Look at the image “the Roman’s would carry so much of their own gear on march, that they were nicknamed Marius’ Mules.”