Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Musketry Effectiveness on the Early Nineteenth Century Battlefield - Part 1

Several years ago, I completed a course in simulation.  One of the requirements was to craft a project that used simulation techniques.  Topics were unconstrained so with an interest in military science, wargaming, and simulation, I chose to simulate musketry effectiveness on the 19th Century battlefield.  Below is the Part 1 excerpt from that project.  Comments encouraged.  On to Part 1 for motivation and review.
From the mid-1750’s through the mid-1850’s, the smoothbore musket was utilized as the principle infantry weapon on the battlefield. The loading and firing of the musket took as many as seventeen, well-drilled steps. To maintain control and overcome the inaccuracies of the weapon, tactics evolved emphasizing volley fire delivered by lines (ranks) of soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder and discharging their weapons in unison at the command of their officers. Not only did this deployment provide a sense of confidence and safety to the soldier but also provided the volume of fire necessary to ‘discourage’ an advancing enemy formation from bearing down on his position.

In these firing lines, two ranks of infantry could simultaneously discharge their musket. For example, a British company of 100 men would be drawn up in two ranks, each having a frontage of 50 men. While the company only maintained a frontage of 50 men, firing both ranks yielded a volley of 100 musket balls towards the target. Trained infantry could produce three or four volleys per minute on the parade ground but in battle, only two or three volleys per minute could be sustained in a protracted firefight.

On the battlefield, formations of men maneuvered in accordance to strict regulations. Both rates of advance and maneuvers were drilled to the point of becoming automatic. Each combatant nation maintained several prescribed rates of advance depending upon the situation. Often, these rates of advance were not standardized across nations. During an infantry charge, the attacker would quicken the pace to shorten the length of time needed to cover the ground between themselves and the defender. For the French, this quick pace was called the 'Pas de Charge' and equated to 120 paces per minute. Due to the length of the French pace, this march rate equated to 90 yards per minute.(1)

While many anecdotal accounts support the potential for devastating musketry volleys, little empirical evidence exists. The few field trials conducted during this period were carried out under ideal conditions and without scientific rigor. Three of the more famous musketry trials were conducted by Scharnhorst, Picard, and Muller. In each trial, soldiers lined up facing a target the size of an enemy company and fired volleys into the target at varying ranges.

In Scharnhorst's trials, a company of grenadiers (the most disciplined and trained classification of infantry) fired at a company-sized sheet at different ranges using six different types of muskets. The six columns for Scharnhorst's trials in the accompanying table represent one trial per weapon.(2) Instead of varying the weapon, Muller varied the quality of the firing soldiers between veteran (experienced) and raw (little training and no combat experience).(3) In all three trials, these data show, in general, an inverse relationship between range to target and casualty rates. That is, as the range decreases; the expected casualty rate increases. The results of these trials are detailed in Table 1: Musketry Trials Under Controlled Conditions

Table 1: Musketry Trials Under Controlled Conditions 

Plotting these data points yields the results in Figure 1: Musketry Effectiveness Under Controlled Conditions. Notice that Picard and Muller's (Veteran) results are quite similar while a distinct gap exists between Muller's two trials suggesting that the quality of the soldier firing the weapon was much more important than the quality of the weapon, itself.
Figure 1: Musketry Effectiveness Under Controlled Conditions 

In A Guide to Napoleonic Warfare, Nafziger used the Scharnhorst data as a baseline for his analysis and computed a non-linear regression to these data (this series is labeled, 'Nafziger I'). In order to compute a non-linear regression equation, two artificial data points were added to the analysis: (1) 100% hits at 0 yards and (2) 0% hits at 450 yards. The assumptions are that at 0 yards all muskets will hit a target and at 450 yards, even if a target is hit, no damage will be sustained. Not satisfied with these initial results, Nafziger added one historical data point obtained from an account of the Battle of Gohrde (labeled as the 'Gohrde' volley in the graphics) to the data series and recomputed the regression (labeled as 'Nafziger II').

Since details regarding the effectiveness of an individual volley in the battle are rare, the Battle of Gohrde provides a singular event. During this battle in 1813, a Hanoverian militia battalion sustained 27 casualties at a range of 70 yards fired by 66 French muskets for a hit percentage of 41%.(4) Superimposing the musketry effectiveness curve using the Gohrde point on Figure 1 yields Figure 2. 
Figure 2: Musketry Effectiveness Fit to Nafziger's Analysis 

Using the Nafziger II curve and the following assumptions, Nafziger concluded that four volleys would completely destroy an approaching attacker when both attacker and defender were of equal size. His assumptions were:
  • Two rounds per minute fired. 
  • The attacking infantry marches at its regulated march rate. 
  • The results of the Gohrde volley are typical and average. 
  • The first volley was delivered when the attacker reached 300 yards. 
  • The terrain between the attacker and defender is perfectly flat. 
One must note that Nafziger's conclusions regarding the complete destruction of the approaching enemy were actually computed at a one minute per volley rate rather the two minutes per volley rate in his assumptions. That error implies that casualty rates would be twice as large as stated in his original analysis.(5) 

Historical evidence suggests that the attackers were not typically eliminated while advancing on the defender. Often, the attacker's choices would be to either halt the advance short of contact and enter into a firefight or withdraw from musketry range. For the defender, if musketry volleys failed to persuade the attacker to halt the advance then the defender would withdraw as the attacker closed in on his position. Evidence also suggests that the first volley was usually the most accurate and delivered with the greatest care. After that first volley, muskets were more prone to misfiring and continuous volleys would reduce visibility as smoke choked the battlefield.

The problem, then, is to develop a musketry effectiveness model and simulate (in repeated trials) the expected number of casualties sustained by an attacker while advancing on a defender’s position. In addition, the number of volleys that a defender can deliver before being contacted by an attacking force will also be quantified. Taking these data, contemporary anecdotal accounts, and a number of simplifying assumptions, an event-driven analysis will be examined that models musket effectiveness on the nineteenth century battlefield. The objective of the simulation is to provide insight into the tactics employed and theoretical casualty rates on the early nineteenth century battlefield.

Next Part 2: The Model

  1. Nafziger, A Guide to Napoleonic Warfare, pp.6-7.
  2. Nafziger, pp. 11-12.
  3. Nosworthy, Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies , pp. 203-204. Nosworthy cites Hughes, Firepower p. 27 who in turn, cites Picard in La Campaigne de 1800 en Allemagne.
  4. Nafziger, pp.14-15. Nafziger draws this account from von Quistorp, B, in Die Kaiserlich Russich-Deutsch Legion, p. 99.
  5. See Nafziger, Table VII. Musketry Hits Based on Gohrde Curve p. 17 to verify computational errors.


  1. Great analysis. Was this the project that led into your Anatomy of Glory rules?

    You may also want to look at Dave Grossman's "On Killing" he addresses the additional issue of soldiers actively trying to avoid hitting one another under actual combat conditions.

    1. The Anatomy of Glory (AoG) engine pre-dates this study. You may recall that AoG used poisson distribution to model inter-arrival times of volleys. Better quality troops had the greater probability of throwing more lead downfield with greater impact in any given time interval (smaller mean time between volleys).

      Do you recognize the battle scene? That photo was from our Handlkirchen game.

      Thanks for the feedback.

    2. I think it was the photo that cued up my memory of AoG. It has been too long since last I played it.

  2. I second Dartfrog's recommendation.

    I'm reading Grossman's "On Killing" right now and it makes the case that most soldiers must be trained to shoot to kill. He pulls up quite a lot of stuff to back that up-ACW forward. I'm quite persuaded. Good read.

    1. With two recommendations, I better pick up a copy!

      Do you think the premise of training soldiers to shoot to kill was applicable in the early 19th century? Few armies did much live ammo musket drilling and soldiers were trained not to aim and fire but to level their muskets and fire. With smoke quickly obscuring the battlefield, targets wouldn't be visible for long anyway. I say the common recruit was barely trained to shoot.

      If you were being charged by a line of infantry would you purposely fire astray knowing that your opposition was set on skewering you?

      You'll see in following entries that the model would easily accommodate this thesis by simply adjusting the misfire rate.

      Appreciate the book recommendation and your comments.

    2. One of his points is the muskets gathered after Gettysburg with multiple charges. He points out that if you forget to fire and pack another charge, it'll fire the double charge. And if you forget a third time, same-same. So when you have muskets with 5, 10 even 15 charges, it's pretty clear the combatant was mimicking his partners and not firing on purpose.

      He also reaches back to the Romans and the historical accounts of how Roman soldiers had a tendency to slice with their swords and how they had to be trained to stab, stabbing being much more lethal and difficult to do.

    3. Monty, that is an interesting conclusion regarding multiple weapon charges. I, too, have read of this battlefield phenomenon and it is often attributed to battlefield chaos. That is, when the tension, anxiety, smoke, and noise of a firefight envelop a combatant coupled with the pressure of maintaining the fire drill, mistakes happen. Is it equally plausible that in the heat of battle a soldier thinks he has discharged his weapon but has not?

      I have also read accounts of double-charged muskets blowing up in the face of the firer. Would the soldier take this risk if he was intent on not firing?

      Does the author specify how many double-charged weapons were found at Gettysburg? Were the numbers significant to form this inference? Perhaps, the ACW was different in this respect due to the fraternity of the common soldier on the ACW battlefield?

      Many questions and an interesting topic.

  3. I need to find my original sources, but when I was studying the War of 1812 I found reference to the differences in fire commands. The British used "present, fire!". The Americans used "present, AIM, fire". The casualty rates were comparable on both sides, but the British NCO & Officers casualties were significantly higher. Perhaps the Everyman has an easier time going after those of privilege...

    1. ...and I bet the British officer corps thought the American tactic as unsporting behavior.


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