The Redcoat's Brown Bess
By George C. Neumann
By George C. Neumann
Another development of the earlier period that was universally adopted by the middle of the century was the use of paper cartridges for the smoothbore musket. The powder, ball and wadding were included in a single package. By 1738 every nation had issued their infantry with cartridges. This not only increased the speed of reloading and the rate of fire, but also allowed the infantryman to carry more ammunition into battle. Most soldiers in this period carried 60 rounds into battle.
Another important technological innovation in this period was the introduction of the iron ramrod by Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau in 1718. Up until this point, ramrods had been made of wood. While serviceable, the wooden variety of ramrod suffered from some serious faults, especially their tendency to break in the heat of battle. Although the iron ramrod was ultimately a substantial improvement over its wooden cousin, it too was not without its initial difficulties. The main problem was finding the proper composition for the metal used. If the metal were too soft, the ramrod might bend and become difficult to insert and remove from the barrel. On the other hand if the ramrod were made too hard, it might become brittle and subject to snapping just like a wooden one. But once the proper temper was found the iron ramrod allowed musketeers to fire much more quickly. Moreover, states during this period became centralized enough to create standardized muskets and ammunition. The most famous example was the English 'Brown Bess' .By 1730 the barrel was set at 1067 mm (42 inches) with a calibre of .75 (19 mm) and was provided with ammunition of .71 (18 mm) calibre. The smaller diameter for ammunition meant that there was a degree of 'windage' as the ball moved along the barrel when fired, reducing the accuracy. This was considered to be more than compensated for by the ease with which the ball could be put down the barrel and hence the additional speed with which the weapon could be loaded. The Brown Bess was so successful that it continued to be manufactured for more than 125 years, by which time some 7,800,000 had been made.
The new firing methods and technological advancements in firearms allowed well-trained musketeers to fire as many as five rounds per minute. This was, however, in the perfect conditions of the parade field. In battle, things could turn out quite differently, often reducing the rate of fire by more than half. Various factors contributed to the reduction in the rate of fire. First, solders carried many more accoutrements into battle, such as their knapsacks, canteens and so on, than were present during drill. Second, the complex nature of the platoon firing systems tended to break down in the smoke and din of the eighteenth-century battlefield. Both noise and smoke made it difficult to hear the commands used in platoon firing systems. This left soldiers to their own devices and so they continued to fire as individuals. In the confusion of battle soldiers might even give up the use ,of the ramrod, instead pouring the contents of the cartridge down the barrel, and then banging the butt of the musket on the ground to complete the loading process. This individual fire was common enough that by 1756 the French drill manual included independent fire alongside platoon fire and fire by ranks as an acceptable firing method.
Leopold, the old Dessauer, was also responsible for another innovation of drill that had grander tactical implications. Some time in the 1730s Leopold introduced cadenced marching in Prussian units. With the introduction of marching in cadence, Prussian troops advanced in unison, with each soldier marching in time with his comrades. Troops kept in time with the beat of the drum. This type of marching could only be used by troops who were very well disciplined and of all the armies in Europe, the Prussian was most renowned for its high standards of discipline. This discipline, however, was maintained by harsh corporal punishments.
The use of cadenced marching allowed the Prussians to increase significantly their ability to manoeuvre both to the field of battle and across it. For example, armies that did not use cadenced marching used an open column as their basic formation for advancing to the battlefield. The formation was called an open column since the intervals between the files were quite large, sometimes as much as three metres (ten feet) between them. This was necessary to avoid the unit from losing cohesion, because the troops advanced without a regulated pace. This meant that as open columns advanced on to the battlefield, the evolution of the battalion into line was a cumbersome process as the companies of the column had to not only form line, but also had to close their ranks and files.
The Prussians, using the cadenced system of marching, could form more, closely-packed columns and use a variety of different manoeuvres to form line more quickly and more efficiently. Another advantage of cadenced marching was the speed with which it allowed lines to move across the battlefield. Those armies that did not march in cadenced step had to halt frequently to dress their ranks, with officers and NCOs moving along the front and rear of the unit pushing men back into their proper positions. A Prussian battalion in a line that advanced by cadenced marching could keep its men closer together, often with elbows touching, and kept its linear formation better, which in turn meant fewer halts to dress the ranks.
The Prussian army forged by the Old Dessauer and bequeathed to Frederick the Great was an impressive institution. It was highly disciplined, well equipped, capable of delivering tremendous volumes of firepower against its foes and was highly manoeuvrable on the battlefield. Despite the ... emphasis placed on firepower by Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau, who actually argued that the firepower of the Prussian infantry would allow them to be deployed in two ranks rather than three or four, Frederick the Great initially chose to use the infantry's manoeuvrability and discipline to bring his battalions into hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. This followed current trends in military thinking, which emphasized the virtues of the bayonet and close combat. But it soon became clear that with improved weapons and firing systems, to march into contact with the enemy without the use of one's own musketry was not prudent. Frederick later allowed his troops to deliver volleys at close range before resorting to the push of the bayonet. By the time of the Battle of Leuthen (December, 1757), Prussian troops relied so heavily on firepower that units .required replenishment of their ammunition, having expended the 60 rounds they carried into battle.
By the end of the Seven Years' War it was clear that the Prussian army was the epitome of what could be achieved with the weapons and formations of the age of linear warfare. It was also clear that Frederick the Great was perhaps the practitioner who best understood the possibilities and limits of warfare at the time.