As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, this year I retired from the military to ‘persue other projects and spend more time with my family’ (I’ve always wanted to say that). One of the projects I’ve decided to persue in military reenactment. More specifically, as a grenadier in the Revoltionary War era 35th Regiment of Foot. (So you can do to the British Army what you did to the American one for all those years? Didn’t they lose enough battles? eds.)
I thought I’d write about interesting bits of what I learn about the 18th century British military and, where I can, compare and contrast that with late 20th century/early 21st century American military practice.
First, let’s begin by talking about the fundimental unit in the British Army of the time, the regiment. For those of you who are familiar with military graphics, it looks like this:
Looks pretty straightforward since you don’t have a lot of additional specialized units like you have today (with organic engineers, artillery, armor, scouts, etc). What you did see is for grenadier and light companies to get stripped from individual regiments and then reformed into new units of only this type of unit. The question therefore is, why would you do that? What’s so different about those troops that makes consolidating them look good?
Well, according to Osprey Publishing’s ‘British Redcoat 1740-1993, the grenadiers were “stedier and more mature men – those who could be depended upon in a crisis…” In this description it sounds like they were similar to the triarii of the old Roman manipular system as described by Plutarch.
The light companies were…eh, who cares about them? We’re here to talk about grenadiers.
Training of new recruits could occur in several ways but some things were striking and at odds with my preconceived notions of how trained the professional British army was. During peacetime, British soldiers were allocated enough gunpowder to fire approximately 60-120 rounds per man. They were only given enough lead shot to fire two to four rounds per year!
Assuming they used all their alloted powder it sounds like they spent the vast majority of their time firing ’empty’ or just going through the manual of arms to load and fire the weapon without any real effort to practice marksmanship.
By way of comparison, the average peacetime soldier today fires about 60 rounds of ammunition per year (18 rounds to ‘zero’ her weapons and another 40 rounds to ‘qualify’ on the marksmanship range to hit targets from 50 to 300 meters). Additionally, they may get opportunities to fire on practice systems (like the E.S.T. or ‘Engagement Systems Trainer’) which would see to accomplish the same thing as firing your musket with powder only. You can get the mechanics of firing down without any real guarantee you’ll hit anything when you’re firing real bullets. Infantry soldiers can expect to practise and fire much more.
This does seem shockingly low amounts of ammunition to spend on training your infantry forces. From that I’m making two guesses about firearms in the 18th century.
- Lead shot was (comparitively) expensive
- Learning to be an adequate shot with a musket is an easily acquired skill
I base #2 on a later passage which states:
In the summer of 1757 the 15th Foot were reported to be out three days a week firing seven rounds of ball per man: “Every man has fired about 84 rounds, and now load and fire Ball with as much coolness and alacrity in all the different fireings as ever you saw them fire blank power, hitherto without the smallest accident.”
Seven rounds a day doesn’t sound like a lot to me, even with a weapon that could only fire a couple of rounds a minute. But I suppose you could dry fire and use powder only to work on issue of speed and then focus the few rounds of shot you’ve got to practice accuracy. I do wonder just how long it took to fire those seven rounds per man. Did they fire in volleys or did soldiers fire individually to test accuracy? Or was there some combination?
Then there was the bayonet which was a big deal for the British who were renowned for their charges during the Revolution. Earlier in the century, the musket with bayonet was esentially seen as a pike and therefore that’s how people thought it should be handled. Check this out:
This guy looks like a doofus, right? I mean, how the hell does he control the pointy end of that thing? Well, he doesn’t. You’d do this in a big formation and everyone would be given the command ‘push!’ at one time. That’s it. That’s about all you can do holding that thing like that.
Fortunately, bayonet drill had recently undergone some dramatic changes. Beginning around 1760, somebody realized this way of using a bayonet wasn’t going to do much and introduced the bayonet stance that’s pretty recognizable to this day.
When I went through basic training (way back in the mid-80s) we had very minimal bayonet training. Maybe four…no more than eight hours that really boiled down to ‘stick the pointy end into the enemy’. It sounds like my 18th century counterpart was similar, much to my surprise. One thing I remember about bayonet training was the importance of having your ‘war face’ on and being able to yell menacingly. Compare with these instructions:
The soldier is, particularly, to be taught to keep his head well up, and erect: it is graceful, on all occasions, but absolutley necessary if an enemy dare stand the charge; when the British soldier, who fixes with his eye the attention of his opponent, and, at the same instant, pushes with his bayonet without looking down on its point, is certain of conquest.
Seem to be trying to achieve the same effect in just a different way. I suspect the power of an 18th century charge by the British was seeing this impersonal wall of red rolling towards you. Perhaps this is the same effect you get when you have armor charging infantry. You want your enemy to be reminded that he’s an individual man while you are an unstoppable, unfeeling machine. It’s not clear from this brief description if it was thought to be more impressive if the charge was conducted silently or with a battle cry.