We all know the argument: By the 1860s, rifled-muskets changed warfare by increasing ranges, thus rendering old-style Napoleonic close order tactics obsolete. Civil War generals had to learn this lesson the hard way, unfortunately, and their men paid the price. Along comes Paddy Griffith, with his tactical snippeting, and voila – range is not nearly the factor we thought it was, standing the conventional wisdom on its head.
However, Griffiths’ argument can be suspect. Sometimes he plays fast and loose with his numbers. For example, he offhandedly cites an infamous Spanish volley at Talevera, noting that they opened fire at 1,000 yards, without also noting that the fire did no damage to the French and frightened the Spanish so completely that the troops in question immediately broke and fled the field. There are also discrepancies between the typical ranges for smoothbores Griffiths cites in his earlier work on Napoleonic tactics and in his later writing on the Civil War; in the latter work he extends the typical ranges for smoothbores by a small but significant distance of about 50 yards.
Griffiths wasn’t wrong, however – and much better recent scholarship has backed him up. Brent Nosworthy’s, Mark Grimsley’s, and most recently Earl Hess’s work on just this subject have also shown long range fire to be far less common than earlier historians assumed it to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that on this specific question, history has been satisfactorily revised.
Is that really the end of the inquiry, however? Personally, I believe that it isn’t. We are really wrestling with a three-part problem:
1) Did rifle-armed infantry engage at longer ranges than smoothbore-armed troops?
2) Did rifles deliver more accurate fire at all ranges, not just long range?
3) If rifles did open the range by even a small factor or provide more accurate fire at close range, what effect did this have on attacking troops?
The third question is especially important, because it introduces morale into the equation. So far, few of our new class of tactical historians have discussed how unit morale might be affected by rifles, if at all. Instead, the discussion has focused on the mechanical aspects of trajectory, training, and the like. Very useful stuff, of course, but not the whole of the problem.
Then there’s the question of sampling. In each work, the range sample numbers are pretty small – 119 for Griffiths, just 39 for Hess, for example. Basically, these follow the same pattern: cite a regiment at a battle where the OR report or some other source provides some discussion or range, and interpolate from there. Usually these examples are spread out over a number of battles, further reducing the tactical “snapshot” to a mere 2-5 examples per battle.
Hmm. At Chickamauga, the Union army had 129 regiments engaged. Bragg had 157 infantry formations in action. Most of them engaged in discrete actions at least once per day, sometimes twice per day. Thus, at this battle alone, we have something like between 900 and 1200 “actions” to draw data from. Hess cites 6 examples.
Off the top of my head, I can think of 20+ ‘snippets’ at Chickamauga alone where regiments experienced fire (and effective fire, meaning at least some loss was suffered) at between 150 and 200 yards. Plug that data into any of the above statistical databases and you would significantly affect the average. Prior to Chickamauga, I studied Gettysburg in similar depth, and I can still think of a number of examples from that battle, as well. Sure, close range examples abound, and you won’t find much useful work being done at 400 yards or more, but what if we are just talking about doubling the effective engagement range from 100 to 200 yards? I think that is significant.
In reading Hess, I was struck by his comment that “There is no evidence that the rifle musket was more accurate than the smoothbore musket at close range.” (see Hess, p. 107. In fact, there is such evidence, just not from American sources. In 1807, the Prussians studied this exact question, and found that at 160 yards, their rifle was 2.5 times more accurate than their musket – but since a rifle took at least twice as long to load, muskets remained the preferred arm for all but specialist troops. The Minie system, of course, solved the loading problem. In the era between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the introduction of the rifled musket as a standard shoulder arm, other studies by other European armies show similar results.
Pre-war theorists were aware of the potential of the rifle-musket. Their solution was speed. In the 18th century, infantry formations moved slowly – about 75 yards per minute. The French revolutionized infantry combat when they sped up – to 87.5 yards per minute. (Hint, a modern day funeral march moves at about 90 yards per minute.) In 1855, Hardee’s tactics – which were largely copied from the most up-to-date French tactics of the time – adopted the French pas gymnastique, which expected infantry to close with defenders at 165 yards per minute. In short, if the rifle doubled the effective beaten zone, the solution would be to double the pace at which troops crossed it.
In practice, things weren’t that simple, however. More on that next time.