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I. Introduction -- The Problem

When infantry used smoothbore muskets, defenders did not start shooting until attackers came within 50 yards. A musket is accurate no further because the ball tumbles and curves in flight. One can easily walk 50 yards in 30 seconds, and it takes 30 seconds to reload a musket, so each defender got only one shot before the fighting came hand-to-hand. This means that the safest way to attack a position held by musketeers was to form up 100 yards away and march steadily towards it in close-packed ranks so you outnumbered them when you got there.
Today, dismounted infantry assault is conducted by two or more four-man fire-teams which switch between the roles of base-of-fire element (to suppress defense) and maneuver element (to close). Once the base-of-fire elements suppress the enemy, maneuver elements advance to the next available cover, then swap roles with the fire elements to take over suppression while they, in turn, advance.
The change in tactics was forced by the invention of the military rifle. Every technology- driven change eventually stabilizes and percolates to the roots of our culture and this one is no exception. Mid-nineteenth century children playing soldier marched grimly forward, elbows touching. Today's kids shout "cover me!" at each other from across the yard. What is exceptional is that, in contrast to most technology-driven changes in technique (accountants' use of adding machines, say, or physicians' adapting to X-rays), rifle assault tactics took an extraordinarily long time to stabilize--about sixty-five years. This is the story of those years.

Captain Minie's Weapon System
The first practical military rifle was made public in 1849. Capt. Claude Etienne Minie of the Chasseurs d' Orleans, on temporary duty with the French Ordnance Department, did not invent it all on his own, of course. Few innovations are that self-contained. Others had pioneered the idea of a bullet small enough to drop down the barrel of a rifle which would expand to be spun by the barrel's helical grooves on its way back out. Work on the system continued after Minie. His version, for example, used a two-part projectile. A BB-sized piece behind the main slug was driven by the detonation into the bullet's scooped-out rear, thus expanding it. Subsequent users discovered that gas pressure alone would do the job. Nevertheless, the system came to be named after him, and it revolutionized infantry tactics.
To see why, we must understand one basic fact. Any black-powder enthusiast can demonstrate that a P1853 Enfield rifle produces the same spread at 300 yards as an M1835

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smoothbore at 50 yards. This is independent of skill. A marksman shoots a tighter group than a novice, but the six-to-one ratio is constant. Both weapons have the same cycle rate--about two- RPM under stressful conditions. (The earlier hunting-type rifle, in contrast, takes about three minutes to hammer the ball home.) Consequently, a musketeer attacked over open ground by infantry marching 100 yards per minute will get off one effective round before melee. A rifleman will get six. Rephrasing this: if both sides enjoy the same qualitative factors (morale, skill, training, experience, exhaustion, hunger), an infantry assault conducted in the open by march-to- melee requires two-to-one superiority against muskets, but seven-to-one against rifles. These results are immune to persuasion--any honest skeptic will measure these same numbers in the field.
What does this mean? First, it gives defending riflemen stronger incentive than defending musketeers to pick a position with good fields of fire, even to the point of clearing trees and shrubs. Second, it leads attackers to find a way of approaching under cover or of replacing march- to-melee with a better tactic. Third, it means that a march-to-melee assault with much less than seven-to-one superiority conducted over open ground, and pressed home against qualitatively similar riflemen, will fail. What does it not mean? It does not mean that attackers in earlier times had the advantage over defenders. A force ratio greater than one has always been necessary. The rifle simply worsens the force ratio needed for certain assaults.
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Minie's invention made obsolete the infantry assault tactic used in the age of the musket. From 1850 on, every thoughtful tactician in the world recognized the problem, which Jamieson

IMAGE imgs/infreport01.jpg
1I belabor this point because some historians overstate the case, inspiring others to excessive rebuttal. Jamieson and McWhiney blame the rifle for making flanking movements more effective than frontal assaults. But soldiers have avoided frontal assaults throughout history. Sometimes one has no choice--how else can a surrounded unit break out or be rescued, for example? The same authors measure the rifle's effect by comparing success rates of armies conducting offensives with those repelling invasion. Hattaway and Jones then dispute them using the same yardstick. But both sets of authors use the words attack, offensive, invasion, and assault as if they were exact synonyms. Neither points out that the effect applies only to infantry assaulting static riflemen by march-to-melee or distinguishes among operations, grand tactics, and small unit tactics. Neither makes clear that it is common for an invader to be defending a position and for the invaded to be attacking in any given battle or that most large battles are mixtures of assaults, defenses, and meeting engagements, no matter which side is on the operational offensive. For many reasons, a unit defending a position might send a sub-unit to conduct an assault (a spoiling attack, say), whereas an attacker may assign static sub-units to secure (defend) flanks and rear.
Another writer, Griffith, denies that rifles are more effective than smoothbores at all. He does this by verbal legerdemain: Napoleon's musketeers were cautioned by their officers not to waste ammunition shooting at extreme range. Riflemen were later warned with the same words. Since both were thus taught to fire only within effective range, there is no difference between the weapons. He concludes that smoothbores are actually better than rifles because, at short range, buckshot is deadlier than a bullet. One cannot resist pointing out that, at really close range, a brick is more effective than either. Jamieson and McWhiney, Attack and Die. Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won; Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil Warp. 74-75.


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Copyright © 1999-2002. ConsimWorld.COM. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission is prohibited. Web Masters are encouraged to link directly to this page, this URL is not subject to change. For general site information: kranz@consimworld.com


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Copyright © 1999, 2000 ConsimWorld.COM. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission is prohibited. Web Masters are encouraged to link directly to this page, this URL is not subject to change. For general site information: kranz@consimworld.com