Infantry 1800-1815

(part 2)

  • Firing in 3 ranks.
  • Effectiveness of musket fire.
  • Rifles.

  • Brunswick light troops

    "500 men packed into front of 200 paces were able to throw 1.000 rounds per minute
    it shows rate like a modern machine gun and only fool can stand up.
    The enormous din and rattle of 500 muskets is completely beyond imagination."

    - Colonel John Elting, author of "Swords Around a Throne".

    Firing in 3 ranks.

    The drill manual distinguished several movements for firing:
    - a paper cartridge holding powder and ball is taken from the cartridge box
    - the end of the paper cartridge is bitten off
    - small amount of powder is poured into the priming pan. The pan is closed by a spring-loaded frizzen
    - musket butt is grounded, the rest of the powder is poured down the musket barrel. The powder is followed by musket ball.
    - the ramrod is used to tamp down the charge
    - the infantryman present his weapon and will thumb back the cock and pull the trigger.
    During firing the flint knocks the frizzen up exposing the priming pan and dropping sparks into it. The priming flares, making him flinch. The sparks pass through the touchhole to ignite the main charge. The soldier is enveloped in white smoke.
    The ratio of fire was 1-6 shots per minute, depending on quality of weapon, training and the time taken for aiming (if any aiming was there at all).
    The sight of advancing enemy was enough to open fire, especially for troops of low discipline and training. Often such musketry took place outside of the real killing zone. The noise and smoke were of great volume but the casualties were very low. The problem with firefight was that it was contagious. Once individual soldiers fired their muskets (without the order from their officers) the others began firing too. Within moments the entire battalion was covered with smoke as the troopers fired and loaded their muskets rapidly. To make things even worse such massive musketry gradually sucked in battalions on both sides. It all happened with or without the conset of their officers and generals. For this reason it was important to have troops in reserve, far away from the combat zone.
    In 1813 at Dennewitz skirmishers drawn from Prussian Landwehr advanced against Italian infantry. Behind skirmishers were two battalions of Landwehr led by Paczkowski and Steinmetz. Soon the skirmishers on both sides fired their shots but the Prussian advance was halted as the musketry beacme heavier and more and more troops opened fire. The firefight ended only after their ammunition was expended.
    In 1814 at Valeggio the French "skirmishers were moving forward and positioning themselves in small groups behind mulberry bushes... and began to fire on Austrian Division Masses, supported by several artillery pieces. The Masses sent out skirmishers; the 4 guns, which were attached to the brigade, unlimbered and took up their firing positions and now there the firing was general. The French deployed gradually across a longer front and forced us to dissolve the Masses and deployed into open order."
    This is interesting that today reenactors claim that after firing 60 rounds or less they usually experience troubles while loading because of fouling. They say that the reserves behind skirmish line replace them pretty quickly for the above mentioned reason.
    Often in the end of battle majority of the columns, or at least big part of them, gradually dissolved into thick and long lines of skirmishers. These were the bravest infantrymen who fought to the bitter end, firing their last rounds at the enemy.

    If the enemy was brave enough and advanced despite the long range fire the infantry wavered and retreated. Only when both sides were equally determined the firefight was lengthy and bloody. At Marengo the Austrian infantry advanced against the grenadiers of Consular Guard standing behind a ditch. The white coats were so brave that they actually came within a very short distance from Bonaparte's guardsmen and opened a galling fire. Both sides kept firing by entire platoons for considerable amount of time.
    If the troops were not trained to attack after their first volley, and they already fired 2-3 shots it was very difficult to get them advancing. Marching and firing at the same time was used sometimes by brave and disciplined troops, but it greatly slowned down the advance and disordered them.
    During a firefight the troopers in 3rd rank had to load their muskets and give them to those in 2nd rank. But in reality it was impossible to keep them doing this under fire.
    The firefight usually lasted only few minutes (1 - 6 minutes) before one side had enough.
    Only few times the firefight was very long as it happened at Auerstadt between Prussian regiment and French (Davout's corps) infantry. Both sides fired for 3 hours (!) before the Prussians noticed a reduction in the enemy's fire and finally advanced forward. The Prussians although were down to 50 % of their strength after the long firefight they broke the wavering French.
    During lengthy musketry the battalions would shrink toward its center and gaps appeared in the line. The gaps were caused by casualties or by cowards taking cover behind their braver comrades.
    Firing sometimes set tall dry grass alight with burning paper from cartridges. Similar situation was with cornfields. In the flames many wounded perished.

    Some veterans (for example Tanski) declared that they never saw among the French troops kneeling and firing soldiers as was prescribed by instructions. If they were kneeling and firing it was difficult to get them stand up and advance. Kneeling soldier presented a much smaller target for the enemy and he wanted to keep this advantage as long as he could. Before Napoleonic Wars sometimes the French infantry during a lengthy firefight went from standing to kneeling to ... prone position on the ground.
    Kneeling by the 1st rank when firing was abolished for good in the Austrian army already before the 1809 campaign. By this time kneeling in the Russian army was considered as idiocy. The only use for kneeling was when infantry was formed in a square against cavalry.

    Concentrated firepower was essential because of the poor accuracy of the smoothbore muskets used during Napoleonic Wars. During firing in 3 ranks, "elbow-to-elbow", the infantrymen were struggling for space to load, aim and fire their muskets. A high rate of fire produced massive clouds of smoke unless there was a strong breeze. The smoke was sometimes so dense that the infantrymen could hardly distinguish friend from foe and was no chance of sensing the other side casualties. It was also very noisy, troopers couldn't hear officers and even suffered ear damage. In this hellish situation the following accidents often took place:

  • - the pressure of loading and firing under tremendous stress resulted in wounds inflicted by the 3rd rankers on their comrades who stand in front of them, and fingers and elbows were shot away from the fire of the troopers of rear rank. French commander St. Cyr claimed that 1 in 4 casualties were inflicted by own fire. On 3rd May 1800 at the battle of Engen a disciplined and well trained Swiss battalion marched in line towards the enemy. The enemy opened fire and the Swiss infantrymen in the 1st rank stopped. The anxious troopers in 2nd and 3rd rank could't see what happened and immediately opened fire causing disorder and wounding their comrades in the 1st rank.
  • - if your muzzle flash or the bursting percussion cap was too close to other troopers their eardrums could be damaged.
  • - while under high stress the infantrymen loads and fire without waiting for orders and as much as possible. Even in recent war in Iraq tens of thousand of rounds were fired before one casualty was inflicted. The fast firing relieved anxiety and occupied troopers' minds and bodies.
  • - infantrymen without ammunition fell out to the rear of the firing line or left the ranks under the excuse of getting a supply of ammunition. It was easier to do such things when fighting took place in villages or woods where NCOs and officers had less control over the troopers. In 1813 at Kulm 4.000 French infantry stood in good order near Schandau and waited to receive Russian grenadiers. The French fired several volleys exhausting their ammunition, then some fled while others threw down their muskets and surrendered. In every army were cases where skirmishers spend their ammunition quickly or threw it away in order to leave the fire line and ressuply in the rear and never come back. One general said that a number of soldiers is lost to "temporary desertion" while skirmishing [and skirmishing in the wooods or towns was the most "attractive" for these smart boys.]

    The confusion in battle sometimes was so great that it resulted in friendly fire. Until wind cleared the battlefield the soldiers knew little about their position in line or the situation. The unknown mixed with fear and anxiety resulted in terrible mistakes. At the Battle of Talavera the British II/87th and I/88th Regiment of Foot became so disordered and frightened after French attack that they fired at each other ! Both regiments fled behind 45th and 60th, reformed and the British division retreated, covered by British cavalry. The British lost 440 men (including approx. 100 who surrendered and became prisoners) while the French lost less than 100.

    Effectiveness of musket fire.

    "There was a common saying that to kill a man required
    expenditure of an amount of lead equal to his weight."

    Many troops were so hastily and poorly trained that
    in battle they couldn’t hit a cow’s backside with a banjo.

    In training.

    In training the soldier was under close observation and the pressure upon him was to give satisfaction to his officer(s), whereas the man engaging the enemy was of necessity pretty much on his own, and the pressure on him was to remain alive, if possible. Fears of varying sort afflicted him in combat, while in training there being no real bullet danger. Thus the accuracy of fire in training was very different from combat. The French infantry during the Ancien Regime and Empire had lead allowance for yearly exercises in life fire training. Certainly there was no systematic training exercise in life fire, but rather shooting competitions. Napoleon's Grande Armee had target matches, bands played and prizes being given to the winners. The target shooting competitions for the entire army were not low cost affairs.
    Berthier wrote that the conscripts should "fire a few rounds so that they would know which eye to use in aiming." The target was 5.5' x 21" (French) at ranges of 50, 100, 150 and 200 toises. Davout's infantrymen did live fire training, and it did other troops. In December 1806 Napoleon wrote to Eugene: "Give them target practice; it is not sufficient that a soldier knows how to shoot, he should shoot straight." In 1809 the Young Guard fired at targets 3 times per week.

    In 1811 and 1812 the Prussian fusiliers (light infantry) were allowed 30 practice rounds, while the jagers and Schutzen (riflemen) 60 rounds.
    The British regiments of light infantry received 50 musketballs and 60 blank per man for shooting practice. Their riflemen received even slightly more, 60 balls and 60 blanks per man. In comparison the British line infantry received only half of this amount of rounds while the Austrian line infantry in 1805 trained with only 6 (six) live rounds per recruit. In 1809 there were 10 rounds a year for every rank and file. The 2 corporals and 12 privates designated as sharposhooters in every company received 23 rounds per head.

    On training ground the ratio of hits was higher than on battlefield. For example out of 720 French infantrymen 52 hit a target of 3m x 100 m. At 200 m were 18 hits.

    In battle.

    An American study in 1965 found that stress had a considerable bearing on firing, though more on accuracy than on rate of fire. Also older soldiers and more seasoned in combat performed better under stress than did raw troops.
    Firing on the training ground and firing at the enemy these are two different things. In battle the stress and excitement were tremendous, often the smoke obscured all vision and the fear was overpowering. The soldier's senses were overloaded by what was going on around him. A Prussian veteran of the Seven Years War wrote: "one is firing totally differently in battle than on the drill ground, then the advancing infantry opens fire, despite what is taught and drilled on the exercise ground, often at 800 paces against the enemy or at least at six hundred paces. " Marshal Maurice de Saxe wrote : "Light infantry should be able to fire 6 shots a minute, but under the stress of battle 4 should be allowed for." The stress and fear factor were very strong not only during Napoleonic Wars where almost all troops were deployed in open field and exposed to enemy's fire but also during War World 2 during the trench warfare. For example 500.000 men were discharged from USA Army for psychiatric reasons and 101 psychiatric casualties per 1.000 men per year were recorded in the 1st Army (USA) in Europe. (source: "Combat motivation" by A. Kellet, p. 272)

    The efficacy of the muskets and the casualty ratio was pretty low for infantry firing in 3 ranks. The reasons were:

  • - The troops were tightly packed, those in the 1st rank and in the center of the line received the heaviest load of lead while many in 2nd and 3rd rank were untouched.
  • - The falling of the dead, and the retreat and moaning of the wounded caused a great deal of disorder and additional stress. It lowered effectiveness of fire. A man who fell threw all his neighbors into great deal of confusion. Let's don't forget that taking the wounded to the rear was a favorite skulker activity. Five wounded taken to the rear by 5-15 troopers weakened the line and its power fire. It must be a problem in every army, including Napoleon's Grande Armee. In 1809 the Emperor issued orders prohibiting leaving the ranks under the excuse of carrying the wounded. The strict directive stated that no one could leave the ranks to succor the wounded.
  • - After few volleys thick smoke obscured all vision and aiming, that is picking out an individual target was virtually impossible.
  • - Being under tremendous stress the most a soldier could do was load, point and fire as quickly as possible (up to 6-9 shots per minute). The soldier was acting like an out-of-control machine. However this is known that the soldier is shooting worse the quicker he loads and fire without proper aiming. The constant loading and firing distracted him from any thoughts of fear of being killed which were surrounding him in this moment.
  • - misfires and muskets problems. The misfires in French infantry consisted of up to 20 %, in Austrian infantry 15-20 %.
  • - exhausted ammunition. Soldiers often left ranks under the excuse of getting a fresh supply of ammunition and only part of them returned to the ranks. Some even threw their ammunition out to have excuse for leaving the ranks. At Marengo the grenadiers of Consular Guard distributed cartridges along the battle line to prevent such occurances.
  • - sometimes the 3-rank deep line degenerated during a lengthy firefight into a much thicker "line" as the cowards sought refuge behind the brave. These lads fired a way much less frequently or not at all.

    Of course there were situations where the volley caused heavy casualties. For example in 1809 at Aspern one battalion of French 67e Ligne took cover behind the cemetary walls. When Austrian infantry came closer the French rose up and delivered a point-blank volley that broke the enemy in the instant and caused heavy casualties. The Austrians fled stumbling to the rear.

    {NOTE: The majority of calculations for accuracy on battlefield were done by counting all the expenditure of the amount of rounds fired and the number of soldiers wounded and killed.
    But we have to remember that some of the lightly wounded went uncounted and part of ammunition nominally fired was thrown away by soldiers.
    These factors artificially lowered the ratio of hits. So instead, for example saying 1 in 900 shots caused casualty should rather be 1 in 300 or 1 in 600}

    According to English author R. Henegan the British infantry at the Battle of Vitoria fired on average 459 rounds for 1 French casualty. (on pages 344-345 in "Seven Years' Campaigning in the Peninsula and the Netherlands" published in London, 1846).

    According to Guibert only 0.2 % of all shots hit the target. [All shots means also those fired at very long distance by the skirmishers, and not only the salvos at 50-100 paces.]

    Gassendi calculated that only 1 shot in 3.000 resulted in casulty.

    Hughes calculated for Albuera, for several volleys at 100 yards the British redcoats achieved 5 % ratio of casualties.

    British author Napier claimed that in Spain he witnessed volleys fired by British infantry where out of 300 musketballs fired none hit the target.

    At the Battle of Vitoria, in Spain, the British infantry had on average 1 hit in every 459 shots fired [at short, medium and very long distance]. I assume that the ratio for French infantry was even lower, as they had less time for training.

    French seasoned general, Duhesme, found his battalion firing at Austrian battalion at 100 paces. It was a lengthy firefight and Duhesme expected heavy casualties, he was however very surprised, there were only 3-4 men hit.

    In 1813 at Gohrde 66 French infantrymen fired at 60-80 paces at Germans hiting 27 Hannoverians and Bremen-Verden. It gives 40 % hits. [This high ratio of hits can be easily explained, the most effective was the first volley, the next salvos were usually much worse. In this case the count is only for one volley.]

    In 1813 at Dennewitz one squadron of 'Brandenburg' Dragoon Regiment (Prussians) attacked a French battalion formed in square. The infantry delivered volley at 30 paces killing 23 horses and 7 men, and wounding 18 horses and 21 men. But 80 dragoons were untouched by the musketry at very close range.


    The English Baker rifle was the most accurate of all firearms during Napoleonic Wars.
    On the training ground 100 % hits were recorded at 100 paces ! In September 1813 the French commander in Spain, MdE Soult, wrote to the Minister of War that British sharpshooters were killing the French officers officers in a fast rate. It was due to several factors: good quality weapons, training (for example the 95th Rifles had advanced marksmanship training which included firing at moving targets on the ranges!) and picking up the officers as target. Soult: "the losses of officers are so out of proportion with the losses in soldiers". However some of the claims about the incredible superiority of British weapons make no sense. For example if the British rifles were so superior, then why the musket, not the rifle, remained the weapon of British infantry for decades after Napoleonic wars ended ?

    The bad thing about rifles were:
    - the rifles needed long time to load (thus unpopular with troops fighting in open field)
    - needed good clean before it could be fired again
    - they easily became fouled.

    The Tyroleans and other Austrian light infantrymen brought the French "to despair by their rifle fire" in the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The French responded by arming only the elite companies with rifles but after several months the carabiniers demanded their usual muskets back. {In 1793 the (French) Comité de la Convention formed one battalion of carabiniers armed with rifles they were disband the same year. French military theorists thought that giving the infantrymen long range weapons, rifles, would mean they shot rather than go forward with the bayonet. Later there were rifles issued only to NCOs and officers in light and line infantry.}

    According to E. G. Prühs in "Die Schlacht bei Waterloo" (published in 1983), in 1815 the Hannovarian {German} Jägers of von Kielmannsegge's brigade fought against French Tirailleurs and the French suffered about 40 killed and wounded, while the jägers had only 20 dead and wounded.

    Acknowledgement and sources :

    Brent Nosworthy - "With Musket, Cannon and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies"
    Gunther E. Rothenberg - "The Napoleonic Wars (History of Warfare)"
    John R. Elting - "Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grand Armee"
    George Nafziger - "Imperial Bayonets: Tactics of the Napoleonic Battery, Battalion and Brigade as Found in Contemporary Regulations".
    Brent Nosworthy - "The Anatomy of Victory"
    David G. Chandler - "The Campaigns of Napoleon"
    Rory Muir - "Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon"
    Vincent J. Esposito, John R. Elting - "A Military History..."

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