Platoon Fire

Contrary to our expectations, there was quite a lot of tactical variation during the first half of the 18th century. The problem is that most memoirs and battle accounts are very terse, providing the barest minimum about tactical level detail. One has to literally look through thousands of pages of period histories to find the occasional interesting tidbits, such as the such and such regiment fired by platoon, or re-doubled its files and attacked (i. e., increased its normal depth four times thus forming what would later be called a “column of attack).

The practice of Platoon fire dates back to Maurice of Nassau and the early 17th Century, it is a method whereby the battalion can maintain a continuous fire across its entire front. There are certainly records of the Imperialist troops using the practice against the Turks in the 1680’s. This therefore does not mean Platoon fire was restricted to battalions deployed in 3 ranks. Platoon Fire does not get mentioned in English Language Drill books until Bland in the 1720’s although I am aware from contemporary memoirs that it was practiced in various forms long before that date.

It would seem that the later 17th and early 18th Century armies adopted various approaches to the use of Platoon Fire and this was very much dependent on the situation. Whether firing from a static position or by introduction or extroduction the practice was very flexible in its use. While this practice seem to deter the Turk from charging home it did not have the same effect on either the French or Swedes (whose doctrine was Arm Blanc). In addition, close range fire by all nations was still volley by rank or ranks prior to charging home.

In effect the rate of fire was increased by widespread use of the Fusil and reduction in ranks of the infantry. Infantry effectiveness and cohesion was mainly affected by manpower … some battalions will perform better than others simply because they have more men.

In effect Platoon fire seems to have not inflicted any more casualties overall than any other method of firing. Increase casualties seems more related to weaponry and manpower.

Fire Combat – Malburian Pertod and Seven Years War

It will be noted that wooden ramrods were used by most troops as late as the War of the Austrian Succession, first being abandoned in favor of metal ones by the Prussians. Wooden ramrods have the effect of slowing down the firing of infantry, and I believe that fire was generally much better controlled and more deliberate during the Marlburian period than during the Seven Years’ War and after. Generally speaking, during the later period, all accounts indicate that after a controlled volley or two, troops started firing as quickly as they could, in a “rolling fire.” If we read the famous account of the exchange between the two Irish regiments at Malplaquet – the one in Allied pay, and the other French – we find that the Anglo-Irish fired a series of controlled volleys, while advancing by platoons. This sort of “advancing fire” is only possible if you have control over individual volleys, which makes a good deal more sense if the slower rate of fire is mandated by the use of slower wooden ramrods.

Much has been written about infantry fire drill, but it is not safe to assume that the “fire by platoon” system pioneered by the Anglo-Dutch and Prussians during the Marlburian period was generally adopted by all other nations, even during the period of the Seven Years’ War. If you look closely at what happens to infantry firing by ranks – especially with metal ramrods – you will quickly understand why the French fired their muskets and then went in with the bayonet: they would simply be shot to pieces by an enemy using an organized platoon fire. However, the “cold steel” doctrine stayed with the French well after the Marlburian period, and the same is true of the Austrian army. Arguably, there was much less standardization in these armies than there was in the smaller, more centralized forces of their opponents. It is also true that French platoon-fire systems were not as effective as those of the British, at least during those years leading up to the Seven Years’ War.

If I were to characterize the differences between platoon fire and fire by rank, I would accord the following major benefits to the platoon fire system:

•            Greater arc of fire, by a matter of some 10 degrees or so

•            Greater fire control: the Marlburian system allowed for either three or four firings

•            The ability to reload while other platoons are firing, thus allowing a steady stream of fire, so long as only one “firing” was discharged at once (not possible when each rank fires and then reloads, as the fellows in front block the firing of those in back when they stand to reload).

If we examine the platoon systems used during the Marlburian period, we find that there were a greater number of platoons, and that greater control was exercised over them, than during the Seven Years’ War. Typically, by the end of the Seven Years’ War, even the Prussians used only volley fire by the entire battalion, followed by a reliance on rapid fire at will (“rolling fire”). While there were certainly cases where four separate firings were maintained, two was more typical, and one was the norm. I believe that what we are seeing here is the fact that (a) controlled fire was less important than the sheer speed allowed using metal ramrods, once the first devastating volley had been delivered; and (b) lower troop quality and levels of training – and less practice with live fire – meant that there was no way to achieve a level of fire control such as was the norm during the Marlburian period. Armies such as the Austrians and the French typically had less live-fire exercise, and less overall training, than the British and the Prussians.

Infantry using platoon fire required the three ranks to be ‘locked’ when firing, but I think the lack of cadence during the War of Spanish Succession meant they moved with a greater gap between the ranks (not files) than their Seven Years’ War counterparts.

What this boils down to is that during the Seven Years’ War period, it is unlikely that we would see the same emphasis on fire control that characterized the earlier period. Firefights become more deadly, because more lead is flying around, and troops get more easily out of control once rolling fire starts, but even in better-trained armies such as the British the controlled fire of the Marlburian period is probably inappropriate.

The primary sources I am drawing on are Chandler’s “Warfare in the Age of Marlborough,” Brent Nostworthy’s “Anatomy of Victory,” Christopher Duffy’s excellent books, and various other articles and books, by Pat Condray among others.

British Infantry Firepower

18th Century – New Technology

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