Monday, October 28, 2013

Rifle Tactics and the Myth of American Sharpshooters in the American Revolution


I was recently reading through Harold L. Peterson's 1968 Book of the Continental Soldier (a guide to the arms and equipment of Revolutionary War soldiers) and it had some interesting things to say about the use of rifles during the Revolution. Since the 19th century there was a myth that sprung up about American marksmanship and hunting rifles being the decisive factor that defeated rigid, close order British infantry regiments. The American Rifle Association, among other organizations, has made a cult out of this legend. However, among military historians the truth that belies the legend has been accepted for quite some time. As a reenactor portraying the American regular Army of the War of 1812, I often encounter confusion over the role of the rifle in early modern warfare.

It is true that the American riflemen could hit targets with much more accuracy than their counterparts carrying smooth-bore muskets. 
I have many times asked the American backwoodsman what was the most their best marksmen could do; they have constantly told me that an expert rifleman, provided he can draw good and true sight... can hit the head of a man at 200 yards. I am certain that provided an American rifleman was to get a perfect aim at 300 yards at me standing still, he most undoubtedly would hit me, unless it was a very windy day...
--Captain George Hanger, Hessian Jagers. (In Peterson, pg. 42).
 However, once the side with muskets and bayonets closed the range, the rifleman was at a serious disadvantage:
The riflemen, however dexterous in the use of their arm, were by no means the most formidable of the rebel troops; their not being armed with bayonets, permitted their opponents to take liberties with them which otherwise would have been highly improper.
-- Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, Queen's Rangers
 ...About twilight is found the best season for hunting the rebels in the woods, at which time their rifles are of very little use; and they are not found so serviceable in a body as musketry, a rest being requisite at all times, and before they are able to make a second discharge, it frequently happens that they find themselves run through the body by the push of a bayonet, as a rifleman is not entitled to any quarter. (my italics)
 --Anon. British officer, Middlesex Journal (December 31, 1776).
Actually, the idea of rifle verses musket is a false dichotomy.  Both sides used both kinds of weapons. People who are not familiar with the complexities of 18th and 19th century warfare usually mix up open or light and close-order tactics. Again, both sides during the American Revolution used both types of fighting techniques. The side that kept the best order among its troops, and which came up with the right mix of light and close-order formations, usually won.

 Riflemen and American regulars at Saratoga, 1777.

A good example of the difference between the legend of the American marksman and the reality of the Revolutionary War is the Battle (really a running skirmish) of Lexington and Concord. In popular culture, this battle was between line of close-order British regulars and a cloud of American minutemen hiding behind trees and shooting the redcoats down with rifles.

The reality is quite different. Most of the minutemen were trained militia, armed with smooth-bore muskets like their British regular opponents. It is true that they swarmed the battlefield, and lined the road to Boston shooting from behind trees at the end of the engagement. However, the start of the battle took place with formed lines of New England militia engaging lines of British troops in open fields. Moreover, this British force was made up entirely of the flank companies of the Boston garrison.

To explain further, even as early as the Seven Years War, the need to protect close-order infantry lines from being flanked or shot at by small units was known. General Braddock's column that marched into disaster in 1755 actually had flankers to fan out into the woods and smoke out an ambush: they just didn't use them very well.

By the time of the American Revolution, each British battalion of foot had two elite companies: one of lights, or troops trained to work in open files to cover the main body; and one of grenadiers, who had originally been assault troops equipped with grenades. By this time they had dropped the grenades but were still the thugs of the battlefield, specializing in bayonet and close-combat work.

A typical organizational trick of this period (and quite common throughout the War of 1812) was to strip the elite companies out of the line regiments and create super-elite battalions made up entirely of grenadiers and light infantry. The detachment that marched out to Lexington and Concord was such a elite formation. They were well-screened by flankers, who knew their business by now.

During the long and bloody retreat back from the swarming minutemen (a "Zerg-rush" in PC gaming terms), small groups of militia used the cover of trees and houses to shoot at the passing British column. They were frequently surprised by sudden and lethal attacks from flanking light infantrymen who were keeping abreast of the main force.

But each little firefight or group of rebels they ran through with bayonets taxed the energy of the flankers, who had been marching all day, and trudging through shrubbery, woods, and over fences for most of it. Each house had to be taken by storm. The tired and angry British soldiers often torched the houses and cut down anyone they found within.

 Redcoats overwhelm the American battery on Breed's Hill with a bayonet charge. Most of the defenders lacked bayonets for their smooth bore muskets. Those that did not flee, died in their tracks.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord set the course for open rebellion against Great Britain, but there wasn't a lot of continuity between the famous minutemen companies and the Continental Army. The New England militia was able to concentrate perhaps the largest force of Americans in one place during the Revolution for the Siege of Boston, but the ensuing war was mostly fought by different units: regulars of the Continental Army, formed state militia brigades, and lots of different small units and combined arms Legions.

It's not well known, but the Continentals had more riflemen in the beginning of the war than at the end: many of the rifle regiments that showed up for the first campaigns had either been disbanded or re-armed with the more versatile muskets by the middle of the war. Americans continued to value rifles and marksmanship: but most of the armies of the Revolution as well as the War of 1812 were combined arms forces, with a backbone of close-order battalions armed with muskets and bayonets.

 Guilford Courthouse, 1781. The Americans mastered a combined-arms defense which exhausted the British infantry.