Episode 003

Military Tactics and Technology of the 1700s

As we near one of the first major military confrontations and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Before we get there, it’s important for us to understand how the militaries of the time fight and what technologies they use. In this brief interlude, we’ll discuss these technologies and tactics.

 

In this podcast, we’re nearing one of the first major military confrontations and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Before we get there, it’s important for us to understand how the militaries of the time fight and what technologies they use. In this brief interlude, we’ll discuss these technologies and military tactics.

For centuries leading up to the 1700s, battles had been won on horseback or with hand to hand combat. However, with the advent and improvement of gunpowder and gunpowder based weaponry, it was clear that the 1700s marked the beginning of the Age of the Rifle.

Armies themselves began to change as well. England was one of the first governments to create a standing professional army with strong organizational structure. This was a strong departure from current standards of the time, which revolved around recruiting armies from the population or hiring out mercenaries. When England created it’s New Model Army, local militias did in fact represent the bulk of the fighting forces in England, and throughout Europe. It’s also something that we see in the American colonies, during the first part of the Revolutionary War, prior to the forming of the Continental Army.

The New Model Army brought into play the flintlock-actuated musket guns for infantry soldiers. And while these soldiers also still sometimes carried a sword (for extreme close range combat) it was their rifle that changed the course of warfare and saw the end to the horse mounted knight, as musket balls could easily pierce the strongest personal armor of the time.

Prior to the implementation of the flintlock rifle, the matchlock rifle had originally introduced the concept of a mechanism or “lock” to aid in the firing of a hand-held firearm. Before the development of this mechanism, a lit match had to be lowered by hand into the weapon’s flash plan to ignite the gunpowder primer. The matchlock made the weapon easier to fire, and more stable (as they soldier was now able to use both hands to hold the weapon). The weapon itself began to make it’s appearance in Europe in the mid-15th century but was mostly obsolete by the early 1700s, giving way to the more efficient and powerful flintlock rifle.

The term flintlock is applied to any firearm that is based upon the flintlock mechanism. Commonly referred to as a just a “flintlock”, the mechanism holds a piece of flint which is held in place between a set of a jaws at the end of a short hammer. The hammer is pulled into the cocked position prior to firing, upon trigger pull, the spring-loaded hammer moves forward causing the flint to strike a piece of steel called the “frizzen”. The movement of the flint and hammer causes the frizzen to slightly slide back, revealing a pan which contains gunpowder. As the flint strikes the frizzen it creates a spark which falls into the pan and ignites the powder. While the matchlock rifles of the past had keep a match constantly lit, which provided problems in moist conditions and it also increased troop visibility to the enemy during night marches or maneuvers. The flintlock eliminated most of these problems, but it was not without it’s own flaws.

One problem was the lack of a proper safety mechanism. To ready the rifle, the hammer was moved to a half-cocked position, the pan was primed and a percussion cap was inserted, to fully fire, the hammer was moved to a fully cocked position and the trigger would be squeezed. However, in many instances the hammer would snap itself out of the half-cocked position causing it fire. This was a such a common problem it’s where we get the phrase “going off half-cocked”. The rifle also emitted a huge shower of sparks when fired which not only gave away location but ran the risk of igniting the powder of the man reloading beside you, leading to the practice of firing in volleys to stagger the shooting & reloading.

Despite it’s shortcomings the flintlock rifle was a revolutionary weapon, staying in service for military and civilian use for some 100 years. In, addition the weapon positions and drill commands that were originally devised to standardize carrying, loading and firing a flintlock weapon remain the standard for drill and display today.

In terms of the Revolutionary War, the most common flintlock rifle was the Brown Bess muzzle-loading smoothbore musket. It was a British weapon but it was used heavily by both British troops and American colonists alike. The musket fired a single shot .75 caliber ball or a cluster style shot which fired multiple projectiles giving the weapon a shotgun like effect. The barrel, lockwork, and sling-swivels were typically made of iron while other pieces such as the butt plate, trigger guard, and ramrod pipe were found in both iron and brass. It weighed around 10 pounds and could be fitted with a 17 inch triangular cross-section bayonet. The rifle did not have sights, but it could be aimed by using the bayonet lug as crude sight.

Like most muskets, the accuracy of the Brown Bess was fair, with the effective range being quote as 175 yards, but most formations and strategies called for the weapon to be fired en masse at 50 yards to inflict the greatest damage upon the enemy.

A rifle wasn’t the only thing a Revolutionary War soldier carried: pistols, sabers, and halberds were also known to be carried. Officers carried smallswords, Dragoons were officially issued a saber and a pistol. For standard infantry, pistols were rare.

The soldiers in the Revolutionary War that fought for America were either Continental Army Soldiers (after its formation) or Militiaman

A continental army soldier, on his right side carried a leather or tin cartridge box that held twenty to thirty rounds of ammunition, a musket tool, and a supply of flints. On his left side he carried his bayonet in a leather scabbard attached to a linen or leather shoulder strap. Each soldier also carried a haversack, usually made of linen, to carry his food rations and eating utensils, which typically included a fork or spoon, a knife a plate and a cup. He also had a canteen made of wood, tin or even in some cases glass to carry water. His knapsack held extra clothing and other personal items such as a shaving kit, a tinderbox with flint and steel for starting a fire, candle holders, a comb and a small mirror. Soliders also learned to carry a fishhook and twine so that they could catch fresh fish when near a lake or river.

After the formation of the Continental Army, the militiamen were the secondary fighting force in the Americas but were often called upon to assist the army in military campaigns. While the equipment that the militia soldier carried looked different from that of the Continental soldier they usually performed the same or similar function. A militia rifleman carried his firearm, knife, tomahawk (or a light ax), water canteen, powderhorn for his black powder, and a hunting pouch that held other shooting supplies.

Battles fought with black-powder weapons would produce enough smoke that would make it very difficult to see more than few yards on the battlefield. Clouds of smoke would make it harder to distinguish between friendly and enemy forces. Because the smoke produced was white, bright colors were typically chosen for uniforms. The British for the most part wore red and scarlet uniforms; the French wore uniforms of white, but with bright blue accents, and the Americans wore dark blues and browns. Congress did not adopt an “official” uniform until 1779, but soldiers did tend to have clothing similar to others in the company or regiment. Many volunteer companies entered the war in uniforms purchased by themselves or their commanders.

A soldier’s uniform consisted of:

  • a hat, usually turned up on one or three sides
  • linen or cotton shirt
  • wool coat
  • a waistcoat or vest
  • a pair of trousers or breeches that were gathered just below the knee or overalls
  • stockings
  • leather shoes

Camp life for the soldier’s provided minimum equipment. Officers were provided tents made of canvas or heavy cotton, usually about 10 feet across by 14 feet deep by 8 feet high. If supplies were available infantry were given tents, which were roughly 6.5 feet square and 5 feet high. Not only was it smaller than an officer’s tent, but it was expected to provide shelter for 5 men. In lieu of a tent, an infantryman would use his blanket to protect him from the elements. While marching soldiers would eat biscuits or hard bread and ears of corn. Sometimes there was cornmeal and dried beef. Baggage wagons would lead the march and carry the provisions and rations of troops. The wagons were in front, so that the soldiers would be forced to pass by them when the army stopped the march for the day. As they passed by they would pick up their rations and start setting up camp and cooking.

Cooking became essential in camp because food was issued in raw form. A set of cooking utensils was usually issued to every six or eight men. This included a kettle, cooking forks and spoons, and often a water bucket. Soldiers usually provided their own forks, spoons, and knives to eat with. They also needed a plate, usually made of wood or pewter, and a drinking cup.

In 1777 it was ordered that each soldier would receive one pound of flour or bread, one and one-half pound of beef or pork, and one quart of beer per day. Each week he would receive five pints of peas, one pint of meal, and six ounces of butter. Vinegar was issued on occasion and rum was issued to those men working around the camp and on guard duty. It was recommended that the men should always boil or roast their provisions.

Formations

Camp life was one thing, but the battlefield was another. It’s a common “myth” or more correctly a “misunderstanding” that the American army beat the British by employing guerrilla tactics to fight against the British who just came at them in nice straight organized lines. This is just not historically accurate.

Did the American Army use guerrilla tactics? No. We do have evidence that proves that colonial militia employed these tactics on several occasions but in most battles, both sides used the classic linear tactics. It was how armies of the time foght and Washington wanted to be recognized as a legitimate commander of a respectable military, so he employed the tactics and techniques that were common in the world at that time.

When soldiers were trained in the American Army, they were trained using the British manual of arms, but it is interesting to note that while conventional tactics were the focus, there were some units like those in Williamsburg, Virginia who would march one day a week to places like Queen’s Creek in order to practice wood tactics or Indian tactics.

So what exactly were the tactics of the time? They are commonly referred to as linear tactics and it’s something we’ve all seen before in movies or on television. Lines of soldiers facing off against each other while volleying fire back and forth.

The line formation was the standard tactical formation of the time, it was a continuted derivation of the phalanx formation or shield wall formation from ancient times. An infantry battalion would form “in line” by placing troops in several ranks (or rows) (with 3 ranks being the most common), each rank was roughly half a metre apart and each shoulder was roughly arms length apart. The army had to be well drilled in this formation and constantly watched over by officers and noncommissioned officers to ensure that the line was solid and that proper order and discipline was maintained. The officers and non-coms typically arranged at the rear of the line, behind their respective units. The line formation was considered a stationary formation. Troops could advance short distances, but movement was slow and typically always resulted in a broken line, an uneven line, or an unwanted salient in the line.

Troops travelled in a traditional column formation, which is a formation of soldiers marching together in one or more files in which the file is significantly longer than the width of ranks in the formation. The formation allowed the troops to move quickly, charge effectively, and form a square formation quickly (which we’ll talk about momentarily) but it would not present a large number of firing muskets towards an enemy target.

The line formation was slow for moving, but it was also very susceptible to cavalry charges. An effective cavalry charge against a unit in line formation would completely break down the units cohesion and quite possible even lead to the unit being completely wiped out. Not to mention the morale and psychological impact to other nearby line units. To combat this, a line formation would transition into a square formation.

The square formation or “hollow square formation” was units arranged as a square or sometimes rectangle with each side composed of two or more ranks of soldiers armed with their muskets and bayonets affixed. Typically a battalion (approx. 500 to 1,000 men) was the smallest force to form a square. The units colors and commander were positioned in the center, along with reserve forces to help patch holes in the square. Once formed in a square the infantry would volley fire at approaching cavalry, either by file or by rank. If possible they would hold fire until roughly 30 meters from the square. The resulting casualties would eventually form piles of dead and wounded horses as well as their riders which would help to obstruct further attacks. The weakest point of the square formation was it’s corners. An effective cavalry charge, while costly to the cavalry unit, could break the formation. Calvary would also use feint charges and false attacks to make the units waste their shots, and then fully charge while they were busy reloading. The best way, however, to break a square formation was with artillery. 500 to 1,000 men grouped closely together would be easy targets for artillery. The cohesion of the square would break under sustained fire.

Another formation was the skirmish formation. In this formation, unit cohesion is much looser and the troops are much more spread out. Typically behind cover or a structure like a fence or ridge line or even trees and rocks. It may be the skirmish formation that is often confused with “guerrilla tactics”, especially since American militiamen were known to use tactics taught to them by the Native American tribes (ie: how to effective fight from cover). While the skirmish formation promotes firing from a covered position it doesn’t enforce the “hit and fade” tactics that are so common with guerrilla attacks. In a guerrilla attack, an offensive force would appear and harass the enemy, either defeating him, or fading back into cover to retreat or converge from another angle. A skirmish formation was more dug in. Holding a fairly stable position, that would remain there until ordered otherwise. The skirmish formation was the least susceptible to massive losses under artillery fire because the men were so spread out. However, they were extremely vulnerable to cavalry charges as they did not present a united line or front of fire like the line or square formations.

Calvary were also privy to their own tactics and techniques. Given that they were large targets for artillery and their smooth bore weapons had a close range (in fact, most dragoon or cavalry soldiers fought more with a sword than with their firearm) they were ill-suited for holding terrain. The primary role of calvary elements was to disrupt enemy lines, to rout units, the split forces, and to charge and destroy artillery positions. They were major offensive force that would do great damage to enemy forces if they were left unchecked.

The technology of war would evolve constantly in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. However the line tactics and formations that we have discussed today stayed with most major armies through the Civil War and even through the beginning phases of World War I.

 

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