British troops advance to within musket range at Bunker Hill, as depicted by 19th Century American artist Howard Pyle.

The reasons why, in combating the American rebels, the British put so much emphasis on what were (by European standards) seemingly outdated shock tactics are explored in detail in the next chapter. Here it is necessary to examine how the redcoats delivered their fire in combat and whether or not it was generally effective.

Strikingly, there is little evidence that British infantry in action in America often employed the regulation firings, whereby volleys were delivered in strict succession by the battalion’s fire divisions (whether by the four grand divisions, the eight subdivisions, or the sixteen platoons) in prearranged sequences. This is hardly surprising for three reasons. First (as discussed in the next chapter), throughout the war the British preferred to spurn the firefight wherever possible in favor of putting the rebels quickly to flight at the point of the bayonet. Second (as noted in the last chapter), a combination of broken ground and the battalion’s extended frontage often prevented field officers from exerting close control over the whole in action, compelling captains to exercise an unconventional degree of tactical autonomy in handling their companies. It was only natural that this tactical decentralization extended to musketry. Third, because, for most of the war, the rebels lacked good cavalry and most of their infantry were unlikely to adopt the tactical offensive, the British did not need to ensure that a fraction of the battalion was always loaded to repel any sudden, determined enemy advance. These three factors ensured that British battalions on the attack seem commonly to have thrown in a single “general volley” (or “battalion volley”) immediately prior to the bayonet charge.

When sustained exchanges of musketry did occur, as at Cowpens or Green Springs, it seems likely that each company loaded and fired independently of the others under the command of its captain or senior subaltern. Evidence of this can be found in George Harris’s later account of the action at the Vigie on St. Lucia, where (as major in the 5th Regiment) he commanded the single grenadier battalion: “on my ordering the 35th [Regiment’s grenadier] company, commanded by Captain [Hugh] Massey (from a reserve of three companies which I kept under cover of a small eminence) to relieve the 49th [Regiment’s grenadier] company, he was in an instant at his post, and as quickly ordered the company to make ready, and had given them the word ‘Present!’ when I called out, ‘Captain Massey, my orders were not to fire; recover!’ This was done without a shot, and themselves under a heavy fire.” In another possible example, at the battle of Camden, a British officer was “ungenerous enough to direct the fire of his platoon” at the horse of Colonel Otho Williams. The rebel adjutant escaped injury from the British volley only because, as Williams recounted, “I was lucky enough to see and hear him at the instant he gave the word and pointed with his sword.”53 More conclusively, in August 1780 Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hope directed the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers that, when the “Preparative” was beaten in action, the corps was “to begin firing by companies, which is to go on as fast as each is loaded till the first part of the General, when not a shot more is ever to be fired.”

Although British musketry was supposed to have been quite effective by European standards, contemporary eyewitnesses and modern historians have tended to give the impression that the redcoats were generally no match for the American rebels in the firefight. It is of course impossible to qualify this phenomenon with any degree of precision since, for any given exchange of fire, we cannot precisely document the number of troops engaged on either side, the total rounds discharged, or even the casualties they inflicted. Yet one particularly striking example may serve to indicate how the premise may have had some basis in reality. At Guilford Courthouse Cornwallis’s initial attack pitted about 1,100 British and German regulars against roughly 1,600 smoothbore-and rifle-armed militia and light troops, mostly posted behind a rail fence that separated the ploughed farmland to their front from the woods to their rear. Once the British line had advanced to within about 150 yards of the enemy, the rebels opened a general fire that appears to have inflicted numerous casualties. For example, Lieutenant Thomas Saumarez (with the 23rd Regiment, on the left wing) noted that the rebel shooting was “most galling and destructive,” while Dugald Stuart (an officer with the 2nd Battalion of the 71st Regiment, on the right) later rued: “In the advance we received a very heavy fire, from the [North Carolina Scotch-] Irish line of the American army, composed of their marksmen lying on the ground behind a rail fence. One half of the Highlanders dropped on that spot, [and] there ought to be a pretty large tumulus where our men were buried.”

One participant on the rebel left later recalled that “after they [i.e., the rebels] delivered their first fire (which was a deliberate one) with their rifles, the part of the British line at which they aimed looked like the scattering stalks in a wheat field when the harvest man has passed over it with his cradle.” By contrast, the volley that the British battalions delivered at much closer range, immediately prior to their charge, was almost wholly ineffective (rebel returns having indicated that the North Carolina militia sustained only eleven killed and wounded in the course of the whole action). Indeed, Henry Lee later reported of the North Carolina militia (which comprised almost two-thirds of the first rebel line and fled when the British rushed forward) that “not a man of the corps had been killed, or even wounded.”

The apparent disparity in the effectiveness of the British and rebel fire in this incident does not appear to have been wholly unrepresentative. To explain this, one is tempted to point to the popularly accepted view that, unlike in Europe, most males in America had access to firearms, which they were very proficient in handling. Although some British participants in the war subscribed to this view,58 it is likely to have been the case only in the wilder backwoods and on the frontier. Moreover, because the Continental Army and the state regular regiments filled their ranks largely with landless laborers (many of them recent immigrants), it follows that a good proportion of rebel enlisted men were hardly dissimilar to their British and German counterparts.

If most rebel regulars and militia were not inherently skilled in handling firearms, then it is necessary to consider the common assumption that, unlike European regulars (who supposedly simply pointed their muskets in the general direction of the enemy and blazed away on command), the Americans tended to deliver independent, well-aimed fire in combat. This may well have been true of the lively skirmishing that characterized the petite guerre, in which individuals typically moved, sought cover, and fired largely at their own initiative. Moreover, rebel militia used rifles more often than is sometimes realized, particularly in the South (as in the case of the North Carolina militia at Guilford Courthouse). For decades historians have been playing down the combat effectiveness of riflemen in America by pointing to their inability either to match the rate of fire of smoothbore-armed troops or to perform bayonet charges. While both of these points are valid, riflemen were undeniably able to do horrifying execution when employed as auxiliaries to smoothbore-armed troops. If thrown forward as a screen, riflemen were able to get off one or two destructive fires at the advancing enemy before retiring to the cover of their musket-armed compatriots in the main line — as occurred at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. In addition, riflemen were able to support their fellow infantry during a static firefight by picking off enemy officers, as occurred at Freeman’s Farm.

But if smoothbore-armed troops were likely to deliver independent, aimed fire when engaged in the kind of skirmishing that characterized the petite guerre, this was not the case in stand-up engagements in the open field, for which rebel regulars and militia alike were trained to employ more or less conventional volleying systems. Indeed, for much of the war, the rebels used the 1764 Regulations or its British or colonial variants as their standard drill.63 Because the experience of three years of war showed that the British-style firings were difficult for the relatively inexperienced rebel forces to master, the drill manual that Major General Steuben compiled for them in 1778 prescribed a simpler variant, whereby the different battalions within the line of battle could deliver general volleys in sequence.

The counterpart to the questionable notion that rebel troops generally delivered independent and thus accurate fire in action in America is the widespread assumption that European volleying techniques were ineffective because they were calculated primarily to terrify rather than to kill and maim. Admittedly, by the time of the American War, this kind of “quick-fire” mania appears to have been the hallmark of the Prussian infantry, who reputably were able to loose an astonishing six rounds per minute and whose king wrote in 1768 that “a force of infantry that loads speedily will always get the better of a force which loads more slowly.” Interestingly, the subject of speed also figured in contemporary British directives on musketry training. For example, the 1764 Regulations laid down that, during the performance of the “platoon exercise,” the “motions of handling cartridge, to shutting the pans,” and “the loading motions” (that is, the fourth to sixth and the eighth to twelfth of the fifteen motions) were “to be done as quick as possible.” Similarly, in 1774 Gage reminded the British regiments in Boston that in plying the firelock the soldier “cannot be too quick” in performing the motions, “more particularly so in the priming and loading,” and that “there should be no superfluous motions in the platoon exercise, but [it is instead] to be performed with the greatest quickness possible.” Strikingly, after the costly Concord expedition, one flank company officer complained that the inexperienced redcoats had “been taught that everything was to be effected by a quick firing” but that the determined harassment they experienced during the return march to Boston had disabused them of the notion that the rebels “would be sufficiently intimidated by a brisk fire.”

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to argue that the Prussian quick-fire mania had permeated the British Army by the time of the American War. Significantly, when in 1781 military writer John Williamson decried the “very quick” time adopted for “the performance of the manual,” he reasoned that “it does not appear that a battalion can fire oftener in the same space of time since the quick method has taken place, than before it.” Another military writer, Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, made the same point in 1782. While he asserted that all motions with the firelock were “to be executed with the utmost celerity,” he nevertheless argued that British soldiers should be able to fire three times a minute (in other words, half the best Prussian quick-fire rate) and scarcely ever miss at ranges between fifty and two hundred yards. As Dalrymple’s comment suggests, if the British emphasis on rapid priming and loading did not markedly increase the battalion’s rate of fire, it certainly was not intended to diminish the accuracy of that fire. Indeed, the leading authority on the performance of British long arms in this period has argued that the eighteenth-century British fire tactics remained consistently and firmly wedded to making the infantryman’s musketry as deadly as possible. The dominant perspective probably remained that expressed by Wolfe when in December 1755 he reminded the 20th Regiment that “[t]here is no necessity for firing very fast; a cool and well-leveled fire, with the pieces carefully loaded, is much more destructive and formidable than the quickest fire in confusion.” It is instructive to note that Wolfe himself played a significant role in the introduction of the Prussian “alternate fire” volleying system into the British Army.

If the Prussian quick-fire method did not quite permeate into British training in the years before the American War, one might argue instead that volleying was in itself inherently prejudicial to accurate fire. There remains some disagreement on this question. Historians have commonly asserted that, to have had any chance of hitting his target, a man had to choose his moment to pull the trigger. Dr. Robert Jackson, who served in the American War as assistant surgeon to the 71st Regiment, subscribed to this view: “The firelock is an instrument of missile force. It is obvious that the . . .  missile ought to be directed by aim, otherwise it will strike only by accident. It is evident that a person cannot take aim with any correctness unless he be free, independent, and clear of all encumbrances; and for this reason, there can be little dependence on the effect of fire that is given by platoons or volleys, and by word of command. Such explosions may intimidate by their noise; it is mere chance if they destroy by their impression.”

Although Jackson’s argument sounds persuasive, not all contemporaries shared his opinion that volleying was incompatible with accurate, aimed fire. In fact the 1764 Regulations explicitly directed that, when given the order to present, the soldier should “raise up the butt so high upon the right shoulder, that you may not be obliged to stoop so much with the head (the right cheek [is] to be close to the butt, and the left eye shut), and look along the barrel with the right eye from the breech pin to the muzzle.” Military writers likewise commonly advocated that the men should aim carefully before firing. For example, Major General the Earl of Cavan recommended that officers “have at the breech [of the firelock] a small sight-channel made, for the advantage and convenience of occasionally taking better aim.” Similarly, in the directions for the training of newly arrived drafts and recruits issued three days before the battle of Bunker Hill, Lieutenant General Gage directed that “[p]roper marksmen [are] to instruct them in taking aim, and the position in which they ought to stand in firing, and to do this man by man before they are suffered to fire together.”

Furthermore, if volleying was incompatible with accurate, aimed fire, then it is difficult to understand why the army invested such effort in practicing the men in shooting. As John Houlding has shown, although before 1786 regiments did not receive sufficient quantities of lead in peacetime to fire at marks, in wartime troops spent a good deal of time shooting ball when they were not in the field. In America, shooting at marks was a common element of the feverish training that preceded the opening of each campaign season; indeed, it occurred almost on a daily basis during the tense months before the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Here two examples of the ingenuity and effort invested in this activity will suffice. At Boston in January 1775, Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Regiment wrote:

The regiments are frequently practiced at firing with ball at marks. Six rounds per man at each time is usually allotted for this practice. As our regiment is quartered on a wharf which projects into part of the harbor, and there is a very considerable range without any obstruction, we have fixed figures of men as large as life, made of thin boards, on small stages, which are anchored at a proper distance from the end of the wharf, at which the men fire. Objects afloat, which move up and down with the tide, are frequently pointed out for them to fire at, and premiums are sometimes given for the best shots, by which means some of our men have become excellent marksmen.


While target shooting commonly involved files of men firing successively at marks, and the fire divisions generally practiced volleying with squibs rather than with live ammunition, on occasion both methods were combined. A visitor to Boston witnessed one such session in late March 1775: “I saw a regiment and the body of Marines, each by itself, firing at marks. A target being set up before each company, the soldiers of the regiment stepped out singly, took aim and fired, and the firing was kept up in this manner by the whole regiment till they had all fired ten rounds. The Marines fired by platoons, by companies, and sometimes by files, and made some general discharges, taking aim all the while at targets the same as the regiment.” In New Jersey in May 1777, the battalions of the Fourth Brigade were urged to undertake a similar exercise: “Lieutenant Colonel Mawhood recommends to the officers commanding the several regiments of the 4th Brigade to practice the men in firing ball by platoon[s], sub[divisions] and grand-divisions and by battalion; and this [is] to be done by word of command and on uneven ground, so as to accustom the men not to fire but when ordered, and not only to level but to be taught to fire up and downhill.”

Frequent target shooting undoubtedly improved soldiers’ marksmanship, as David Harding has shown through systematic analysis of the extensive contemporary East India Company test-firing data. Although these impressive test results were unattainable under actual combat conditions, repeated practice with the firelock probably did have the effect of influencing the soldier (even subconsciously) to take more care when shooting in action. This is what Gage probably meant when he observed at Boston in November 1774 “that the men [should] be taught to take good aim, which if they do they will always level well.” Moreover, as Houlding has pointed out, practicing with the firelock had other practical benefits than simply enhancing accuracy — such as removing inexperienced men’s apprehension at firing live ammunition.

Earlier we noted that the effectiveness of troops’ musketry in action tended to deteriorate when orchestrated volleying degenerated into an uncontrollable “running fire.” It was therefore essential (as Cuthbertson put it in 1768) for the officers and sergeants “to attend very particularly to the men’s behavior during the firings; to observe if they are expert in loading, and to oblige them to perform the whole of their business with a proper spirit.” If British musketry was not as deadly in America as on European battlefields, it is possible that the adoption of the formation of two ranks at open files was partly to blame in that the dispersal of the men over a wider frontage weakened the fire control that their officers and sergeants were able to exert over them in combat. This theory gains credence from Thomas Anburey’s later account of the scrambling action at Hubbardton (where he participated as a gentleman volunteer with the grenadier battalion), which seems to suggest that that, in combat in America, the redcoats did not always load according to the regulation procedure: “In this action I found all manual exercise is but an ornament, and the only object of importance it can boast of was that of loading, firing and charging with bayonets. As to the former, the soldiers should be instructed in the best and most expeditious method. Here I cannot help observing to you, whether it proceeded from an idea of self-preservation, or natural instinct, but the soldiers greatly improved the mode they were taught in, as to expedition. For as soon as they had primed their pieces and put the cartridge into the barrel, instead of ramming it down with their rods, they struck the butt end of the piece upon the ground, and bringing it to the present, fired it off.” Here Anburey’s references to “self-preservation” and “natural instinct,” his comment that the men “fired . . .  off” their pieces once they brought them to the “present,” and the fact that he does not mention verbal commands strongly imply that the grenadiers were loading and firing at will. In the context of the furious, scrambling action at Hubbardton, this is not surprising. But the fact that former sergeant Roger Lamb reproduced Anburey’s passage almost verbatim in his memoir (though he participated in Burgoyne’s Albany expedition as a corporal in the 9th Regiment, he was not present at Hubbardton) would tend to suggest that he too was familiar with this corner-cutting loading technique.

While both Anburey and Lamb seem to have approved the way in which troops achieved a higher rate of fire by spurning the ramrod and firing at will, Anburey’s further comments reveal that at Hubbardton the combination of haste and a lack of supervision had an undesirable side effect: “The confusion of a man’s ideas during the time of action, brave as he may be, is undoubtedly great. Several of the men, upon examining their muskets, after all was over, found five or six cartridges which they were positive to the having discharged.” Clearly the malfunction of a proportion of the men’s weapons reduced the battalion’s volume of firepower and had major safety implications. Yet neither Anburey nor Lamb seems to have been aware that the practice of spurning the ramrod also significantly reduced the muzzle velocity of each discharge. As evidence of this one should note that, during a skirmish in New Jersey in February 1780, soldiers of the Queen’s Rangers were struck by rebel bullets that did not penetrate their clothes. Simcoe later judged that these rounds had been fired by militiamen “who had not recollection sufficient to ram down their charges.”

Inadequate supervision of the loading process in action seems to have been matched on occasion by a failure to ensure that the men directed their fire properly. For example, according to Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie, during the final leg of the return march from Concord, the panicky redcoats “threw away their fire very inconsiderately, and without being certain of its effect.” Similarly, another officer who complained that the redcoats returned the militia’s fire “with too much eagerness, so that at first most of it was thrown away” laid the blame for “this improper conduct” largely at the door of the officers, who “did not prevent [it] as they should have done.” Significantly, after the battle of Freeman’s Farm, Burgoyne’s public censure on his troops’ unsteady shooting went hand in hand with an avowal of the importance of maintaining fire discipline: “[T]he impetuosity and uncertain aim of the British troops in giving their fire, and the mistake they are still under in preferring it to the bayonet, is much to be lamented. The Lieutenant General is persuaded this error will be corrected in the next engagement, upon the conviction of their own reason and reflection, as well as upon that general precept of discipline, never to fire but by order of an officer.” Rebel eyewitnesses frequently observed that the King’s troops customarily overshot the enemy in action because, when they brought their pieces to the “present,” they did not level them low enough to compensate for the kick and for any difference in elevation between themselves and the target.

Coincidentally, the two most graphic examples of this phenomenon concern the storming of Fort Washington. According to the recollections of one rebel participant, when during the course of the action his militia party discharged a few rounds at two British battalions that were advancing in line against them, the latter

halted and began to fire on us at not more than eighty yards distance. Their whole battalion on the right of the colors were ordered to fire at once. I heard the words “Battalion, make ready!”; and, as few as we were (notwithstanding their boasted discipline), when the word was given and they came to a “recover” to cock their muskets, a considerable number went off and were fired in the air. When the word PRESENT was given (which means “take aim”), they fired, along the battalion as if it were a feu de joie; and when the word FIRE was given, there was but few pieces to fire. The battalion on the left of the colors fired much better than [that on] the right; but I do not recollect of my attending any more of their manner of firing, though it was very brisk for a few rounds. But at least 99 shot out of 100 went a considerable distance over our heads. . . . While we were here engaged with the enemy I saw [Lieutenant] Colonel [Thomas] Bull . . .  ride within fifty or sixty yards of the British along their whole front when they were firing briskly, as I supposed to show and demonstrate to the men . . .  that there was not so much danger as they might apprehend.

The British corps in question here may have been the 42nd Regiment. Interestingly enough, it was to a party from this corps that Captain Alexander Graydon and a fellow rebel officer attempted to surrender later that day, when they found that the British had cut off their retreat to the fortress. Although ten of the Highlanders discharged their muskets at the pair from various ranges between twenty and fifty yards, Graydon attributed the failure of these “blunt shooters” to hit him or his companion to the fact that the pair were ascending a considerable hill. But like Adlum, Graydon also noted significantly, “I observed they took no aim, and that the moment of presenting and firing, was the same.”

Nevertheless, any real disparity in the effectiveness of British and rebel musketry in combat in America was almost certainly rooted in other factors. One might argue that the variation in the type and quality of the long arms utilized by the contending armies affected their performance. Rifle-armed regulars and irregulars were to be found on both sides, particularly in the South, where the militia employed the weapon more commonly than is often recognized. But if the focus remains on the smoothbore muskets that the vast majority of troops wielded, there is little evidence that either side enjoyed a significant advantage. Houlding has shown that, while many British regiments’ firelocks were in shockingly poor condition in peacetime, the Board of Ordnance often issued ill-armed regiments with new weapons when they went on active service. Indeed, the record for last-minute issues was probably that made to the 52nd Regiment on Boston Common on the morning of 17 June 1775 — just hours before the corps fought at Bunker Hill. As for the rebels, both regulars and militia commonly employed old or captured British Land Pattern pieces or locally made imitations (the “Committee of Safety” musket), while from 1777 large numbers of imported French weapons became available. While there is some disagreement as to the respective ballistic qualities of British and French firelocks, it is interesting to note that, when Continental troops at the battle of Monmouth had the opportunity to acquire the muskets of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers’ dead and wounded, “[t]hey threw away their French pieces, preferring the British.”

If probably neither side enjoyed a substantial advantage in terms of the quality of their firelocks, the apparent disparity in the effectiveness of British and rebel musketry may have had something to do with ammunition. In particular, British troops appear to have been supplied with poor-quality flints. Captain the Honorable Colin Lindsay commanded the 55th Regiment’s grenadier company in America and during Major General Grant’s expedition to St. Lucia, and he later noted that the British musketry at the bloody action at the Vigie would have been even more destructive had it not been for the number of misfires caused by “the badness of a pebble-stone”: “In the attack, the bayonet is always a remedy for this deficiency, but to find in a defense that one-third of your men are useless from this cause is indeed extraordinary. . . . It was a common saying among the soldiers in America, that a Yankee flint was as good as a glass of grog. The government flints will often fire five or six shots very well, but they are of a bad sort of flint, and are too thick.” As for the propellant, there are hints that the black powder supplied to the army and navy during the American War was also of inferior quality (a problem that was exacerbated by poor storage conditions during the transatlantic voyage), while Henry Lee later asserted that British soldiers commonly overcharged their cartridges. In terms of shot, rebel practice differed from the British in that their musket cartridges customarily included (commonly three) buckshot along with the ball; irregulars sometimes fired these loose. While the redcoats lightheartedly styled these multiple projectiles “Yankee peas,” they were potentially lethal at up to about fifty yards. For example, they probably accounted for a good proportion of the approximately one hundred casualties that Ensign George Inman estimated the 17th Regiment sustained during its first charge at Princeton, he himself having been wounded in the belly by a single buckshot that penetrated his leather shoulder belt.

Leaving aside differences in weaponry, several other factors contributed to give the impression that rebel musketry was superior to that of the redcoats. First, as in the British attack on the first rebel line at Guilford Courthouse, it would often have been the case that the rebels simply had more men involved in an exchange of fire, largely because the British deployed and advanced at open files. The Hessian adjutant general in America made this point explicitly when he reported that, at the action outside Savannah, “the rebels at first withstood the fire of the British, who had opened ranks [sic], but . . .  they lost their coolness when the said regiment [von Trümbach] advanced with closed front and effectively answered their disorderly fire.” Second, one should not forget that rebel troops on the defensive often knelt or lay down to fire behind trees, rail fences, and walls, which provided stable firing platforms as well as varying degrees of cover.

Finally (and perhaps most significantly), it is well known that in conventional linear warfare a battalion’s first fire was the most destructive. This was because the soldiers had carefully loaded this round before the action, their barrels were clean, their flints were sharp, and their field of vision was clear of powder smoke. This is crucial because one should remember that the kind of “heavy though intermitting fire” that the British and rebel centers exchanged “for near three hours” at Freeman’s Farm was not typical of most of the war’s engagements. Indeed, whenever a genuine firefight of even a few minutes’ duration occurred in America (as for instance at Brandywine, Bemis Heights, Monmouth, Cowpens, Green Springs, and Eutaw Springs), participants noted this circumstance with genuine interest. Such prolonged exchanges were comparatively rare because (as discussed in the next chapter) the British tended to spurn them wherever possible in favor of dislodging the enemy quickly at the point of the bayonet. When these bayonet rushes succeeded in their purpose (as they commonly did), rebel troops did not have the opportunity to get off more than one or two rounds. Since these first shots were potentially the most destructive delivered in combat, it may well be that the historical record tends to give an inflated impression of the general effectiveness of rebel musketry. This idea gains strength when one considers, once again, that in the South the militia carried rifles far more commonly than is often realized; clearly the tactic of firing and then retiring played to the rifle’s main strength (its accuracy) while negating its principal weakness (the time it took to load).

This idea that the general effectiveness of the rebels’ musketry has been overstated tends to gain support from the fact that, when sustained firefights did occur, the redcoats’ musketry drew the same kind of praise that it did against European enemies. For example, Tarleton believed that the duel between the British line and the rebel regulars at Cowpens was “well supported” and “equally balanced”; indeed, from an analysis of the rebel casualties, Lawrence Babits has concluded that the 7th Regiment’s musketry must have been especially punishing. British troops appear to have shot similarly well at the action at Green Springs. One rebel and one British officer each wrote of the firefight between the Pennsylvania Continentals and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas’s brigade that the latter, “aiming very low kept up a deadly fire,” and that many of the rebel casualties “were wounded in the lower extremities, a proof that the young [British] soldiers had taken good aim.”

During the eighteenth century, technological advances spawned a significant increase in the volume of musketry that infantry could generate in action. This ensured that fire tactics gradually eclipsed infantry shock as the key to battlefield success. By the end of the Seven Years War, British infantry regiments had cemented their longstanding reputation for being among the most formidable practitioners of fire tactics in Europe. Yet against the shaky American rebels, Crown commanders instead relied overwhelmingly upon shock tactics to deliver quick and cheap tactical decisions. This meant that British musketry was most commonly delivered in combat in America in the form of general volleys, which the troops threw in immediately prior to the bayonet charge (rather than as regulation-style sequenced firings). When British infantry did become involved in sustained firefights, it is most likely that fire control devolved entirely to the officers commanding companies. As at Hubbardton, if these officers and their sergeants did not closely supervise the loading and leveling of weapons, the men probably did not execute these actions well, and the effectiveness of the battalion’s fire must almost certainly have suffered accordingly. Despite this, it is difficult to believe that the musketry of the generality of rebel regulars or militiaman significantly outclassed that of the King’s troops.

Brown Bess – The Story of History’s Most Famous Musket

Books By Brent Nosworthy


Some German research was far ahead of its time; this remarkable drawing of a caseless cartridge – one using a solid block of propellant to support the bullet instead of a brass cartridge case – was discovered in 1945, but it was to be another 40 years before the idea was successfully incorporated into a practical weapon system.

During World War II, Germany began an intensive program to research and develop a practical caseless ammunition for military use, which was driven by the rising scarcity of metals, especially copper used to make cartridge cases. The Germans had some success, but not sufficient to produce a caseless cartridge system during the war.

WWII – Germans experiment with caseless ammunition – Formed Nitrocellulose (NC) employed to save “strategic materials” (brass).  Steel cases were used instead.

Nitrocellulose or “guncotton” is formed by the action of nitric acid on cellulose fibers. It is a highly-combustible fibrous material that deflagrates rapidly when heat is applied. It also burns very cleanly, burning almost entirely to gaseous components at high temperatures with little smoke or solid residue. The burning rate of nitrocellulose is dependent upon the pressure a pile of uncontained nitrocellulose will burn slowly, with a high, bright flame, but when placed in a high-strength, sealed container, the same material will burn very quickly, bursting the container. Nitrocellulose, the primary component of modern, ignites at a relatively low temperature of around 170 °C (338 °F).

Gelatinised nitrocellulose is a plastic, which can be formed into many shapes of gun propellants such as cylinders, tubes, balls, and flakes. The size and shape of the propellant grains can increase or decrease the relative surface area, and change the burn rate significantly. Additives and coatings can be added to the propellant to further modify the burn rate. Normally, very fast powders are used for light-bullet or low-velocity pistols and shotguns, medium-rate powders for magnum pistols and light rifle rounds, and slow powders for large-bore heavy rifle rounds. These are known as Single-base propellants.

Solid propellants (caseless ammunition)

A recent topic of research has been in the realm of “caseless ammunition”. In a caseless cartridge, the propellant is cast as a single solid grain, with the priming compound placed in a hollow at the base, and the bullet attached to the front. Since the single propellant grain is so large (most smokeless powders have grain sizes around 1 mm, but a caseless grain will be perhaps 7 mm diameter and 15 mm long), the relative burn rate must be much higher. To reach this rate of burning, caseless propellants often use moderated explosives, such as RDX. (Caseless ammunition might be considered a return to the mid-19th century, since the first practical cartridge repeater, the “Volcanic” pistol, used a charge of black powder in a cavity in the bullet base. This weapon was the direct ancestor of the Henry and Winchester rifles, though they switched to metal-cased ammunition. Some early rifles and revolvers also used combustible-paper cartridges, but they required a separate ignition system.) The major advantages of a successful caseless round would be elimination of the need to extract and eject the spent cartridge case, permitting higher rates of fire and a simpler mechanism, and also reduced ammunition weight by eliminating the weight (and cost) of the brass or steel case.

While there is at least one experimental military rifle (the H&K G11), and one commercial rifle (the Voere VEC-91), that use caseless rounds, they are meeting little success. The caseless ammunition is of course not reloadable (a major disadvantage in civilian markets, where reloading is common) and the exposed propellant makes the rounds less rugged. Also, the case in a standard cartridge serves as a seal, keeping gas from escaping the breech. Caseless arms must use a more complex self-sealing breech, which increases the design and manufacturing complexity. Another unpleasant problem, common to all rapid-firing arms but particularly problematic for those firing caseless rounds, is the problem of rounds “cooking off”. This problem is caused by residual heat from the chamber heating the round in the chamber to the point where it ignites, causing an unintentional discharge.

Belt-fed machine guns or magazine-fed submachine guns designed for high volumes of fire usually fire from an open bolt, with the round not chambered until the trigger is pulled, and so there is no chance for the round to cook off before the operator is ready. Such weapons could use caseless ammunition effectively. Open-bolt designs are generally undesirable for anything but belt-fed machine guns and pistol-cartridge submachine guns; the mass of the bolt moving forward causes the gun to lurch in reaction, which significantly reduces the accuracy of the gun. Since one of the motivating factors for the use of caseless rounds is to increase the rate of fire to the degree that several shots can be fired to the same point of aim, anything that reduces the accuracy of those first shots would be counterproductive. Cased ammunition serves as a heat sink, to carry heat away from the chamber after firing; the hot case carries away much of the heat before it can transfer to the chamber walls, and the new case absorbs heat from the chamber, reducing the risk of cook-off.

Birmingham Small Arms – BSA

The Birmingham Small Arms company of Birmingham, England, was founded in 1861 to manufacture rifle stocks. In 1863 the company built their factory at Small Heath and in 1866 they obtained a military contract to convert 100,000 muzzle-loading Enfield rifles into Snider breech-loaders. Two years later came orders for the complete manufacture of various military pistols and carbines. In 1873 a factory at Adderley Park was acquired for the manufacture of small arms ammunition, trading as the Birmingham Small Arms & Metal Company. This facility was disposed of in 1891 to the Nobel Dynamite Trust.

During the First World War, BSA factories produced 145,397 Lewis machine guns and 1,601,608 Lee-Enfield rifles. The company also began to take an interest in weapon development and in 1919 produced a -40 calibre military automatic pistol which failed to attract military attention. They then obtained a licence to develop the Thompson submachine gun patents in Europe and produced a number of prototype automatic rifles based on the Thompson designs, again without much commercial success. Another venture was the Adams-Willmott machine gun. Before the out- break of the Second World War the company had set up for production of the BESA tank machine gun and during the war developed the Besal or Faulkner machine gun. Anti-tank rifles, aircraft cannon and submachine guns, were also produced.

In postwar years the BSA submachine gun was developed, as was a 7mm automatic rifle, but neither gained military acceptance. Some of the 7.62mm FN rifles adopted after Britain standardised on the 7-62mm NATO cartridge were made by BSA.

After the First World War the company had entered the sporting gun field with an inexpensive shotgun, and they later followed it up with sporting and target rifles. Air rifles had formed part of the firm’s output since the early 1900s, and they were the developers of an unusual air rifle modelled on the service Lee-Enfield rifle and intended for inexpensive training of cadets and militia units.

BSA started to pro- duce submachine-guns in 1924 when they flirted briefly with the Thompson design from the US. This came to nothing, as did another licensing venture in 1939 for a Hungarian weapon designed by Kiraly. BSA put some effort into this latter model, including an element of redesign work, and it obviously disappointed them when the War Office showed no interest. Throughout the Second World War the company made weapons to government order, including Sten guns, but did no original work.

BSA submachine gun

The BSA submachine gun, submitted for trials in 1946-1949, was a compact and ingenious design in which the cocking action was done by rotating the forward handguard, thrusting it forward and back, and rotating it again to lock into place. This system meant that the firer retained his grip of the weapon throughout the cocking action, which was advantageous in the event of a feed stoppage. Of 9mm calibre, the gun had a magazine which, with its housing, could be folded forward alongside the barrel giving compact dimensions for packing and, again, allowing rapid action in the event of a malfunction. But in competitive trials, it suffered from having had less development time than its competitors and was rejected for military service. The same fate befell the P-28 automatic rifle, a weapon of great promise. It was an exceptionally clean design, using a laterally-locking bolt, but the abandonment of the projected British .280 cartridge in favour of the 7.62mm NATO round put an end to its chances.


British submachine-gun. The Welgun was one of many British attempts during the Second World War to produce a very small and light submachine-gun. It was called for by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which were at that time in Welwyn, hence the first part of the name. It was designed and built by BSA in Birmingham and the first military trials were in early 1943. From then on there seem to have been several trials, in all of which the Welgun fared quite well, but it was never adopted, not even for the SOE.

The design used some Sten components. The barrel, magazine and return spring were Sten, but the design was most compact. The spring was around the barrel and two long plates ran forward from the bolt to a ring in front of the spring. There was a stop just in front of the breech and rear movement of the bolt compressed the spring against this stop. The plates had serrations on them, and these were gripped to cock the weapon. The Sten magazine fed vertically upwards and the barrel was enclosed in a tubular jacket. The trigger mechanism was very simple, almost crude, and the safety was an external rocking bar which held the bolt either open or closed. A simple folding steel stock was fitted.

The bolt had a floating firing pin actuated by a plunger and rocking bar. When the bolt closed on the breech the plunger was pushed in and operated the rocking bar. This pushed the firing pin forward to fire the cartridge. With a little development the Welgun could probably have been every bit as good as the Sten, and perhaps better, but by then the Sten was already in production.

Welgun and Welrod

Multi-barrel Miscellany

In 1786 the leading London gunmaker Henry Nock devised one of the most satisfactory of all flintlock breechloaders. A reloadable cartridge which forms part of the breech is pivoted on a slide. When the slide is drawn towards the butt, the cartridge hinges upwards to a vertical position for loading. In the Firing position, in line with the barrel, it is locked by a vertical peg attached to a short chain which also serves as the handle when opening the breech. An example in the Tower Armouries shows that this was an efficiently-made arm, and much less complicated to use than its appearance would suggest. However, it had little success, although it was a considerable improvement over Guiseppi Crespi’s design of 1770, itself so like Bicknell’s breechloader of c. 1660.

Nock volley gun in the Charleston Museum. These guns were made 1779-1780 for the British Royal Navy. Nock’s Volley gun – 7 barrels brazed together with the outer 6 having their breeches plugged. The central barrel screwed on to a hollow spigot which formed the chamber and was connected to the vent. This chamber fired through smaller vents to ignite the charges in the outer barrels. At first, the barrels were all rifled but this led to loading difficulties and most were later made smooth bored. This improved the rate of fire but reduced range and accuracy.

The gun was made by James Wilson 1779 and named after Nock. Nock was contracted to manufacture the gun and 635 examples were sold to the Royal Navy. A flintlock mechanism fired through a vent that led to the central chamber. Firing cause dignition in the central chamber and resulting flash passed through and ignited the other 6 so all 7 fired more or less simultaneously. The gun was intended for the fighting tops of warships to fire down on the deck of the enemy vessel as it closed alongside. However recoil was so strong and the weapon so difficult to control that a smaller lighter version had to be produced. This made it shorter ranging but still effective as Admiral Howe’s fleet showed in relief of Gibraltar in 1782. Nevertheless, it was still unpopular because of the danger of a ship’s sails and rigging catching fire from the muzzle blast.

Overall length 37in, barrel length 20in, calibre 0.52in.

Henry Nock was also closely involved in the production of a volley gun offered by James Wilson to the British Board of Ordnance in 1779, when the inventor described it as “a new Invented Gun with seven barrels to fire at one time.” When the version with rifled barrels was recommended for use from ship’s rigging, Nock, who had made Wilson’s prototypes, supervised the manufacture between 1780 and 1788 of 655 at £13 each. Perhaps inspired by the interest shown by Colonel Thomas Thornton, several of London’s leading gunmakers made versions for game-shooting. The most distinctive survivor was the colonel’s own, an 11.5-lb (5.2 kg) sporting encumbrance by Dupe and Company with fourteen barrels in two sets of seven placed side by side. The gun is now in the Musee d’Armes, Liege. With the development of percussion ignition, the inventive Forsyth and Pauly designed neater seven-barreled sporting arms, and as late as 1900 the Belgian Henri Pieper made a rolling breech rifle firing seven .22-inch (5.6 mm) cartridges from seven barrels on a single pressure of the trigger. Pieper’s design was the last hand-held example of a series that began soon after the introduction of fire-arms and proceeded by way of a seven-barreled handgun mentioned in a Bastille inventory of 1453; sporting guns with several barrels drilled from a solid block; pistols with two, three or more barrels-of which the “duck’s foot pistol” is perhaps the best known -through J. Lillycrap’s patent of 1842, which shows a belt set with five pistol barrels that were fired simultaneously.

The appeal of the same idea to some artillerists resulted in the so-called “partridge mortar” of c. 1700, which had a large central bore surrounded by a ring of thirteen smaller bores firing one standard mortar shell and thirteen grenades. The vent of the parent barrel also gave fire to the smaller ones to produce an almost simultaneous discharge. Although never common or especially successful, they were used by the French in defense at Bouchain in 1702, and in attack at the siege of Lille six years later. One survives in the Museum fur deutsche Geschichte, Berlin.

Nebelwerfer trio werfing nebel. Company of Heroes computer game – I think not!

The psychological effect of these coveys of explosive shells must have been much the same in their day as the much more devastating clusters of rockets from the 5.9-inch (15 cm) Nebelwerfer 41 and its 8.3-inch (21 cm) successor, respectively six- and five-barreled, that rained down on the Allied armies at Cassino and later at the defensive complex occupied by the Wehrmacht east of the Orne. There, almost three hundred of these rocket-mortars were emplaced, each capable of discharging six rounds every 90 seconds at targets up to 7,700 yards (7,041 m) away.

Zielfeuergerät 38 Training Machine Gun

Drawing in an US Intelligence Report from January 1945. The barrel of the examined ZfG had rifling with right-hand twist. Certainly it was a reworked old machine gun barrel.

A German machine gun for static defense, Zf.Ger.38, c.1944. It was fired by a trip-wire. A bullet-cutter could be fitted to the muzzle to fragment the .31-inch (7.92 mm) projectile, thus giving the effect of a shotgun pattern. From the contemporary technical report.

The Zf.Ger.38 is a machine gun of German origin. The weapon is a blank firing training weapon also used for static defence. When the Allies examined the weapons discovered in the German Reich after World War II, they came across a device which was classified as a “spring gun” or “trip wire activated static defense machine gun”. It was a practice device with the name “Zielfeuergerät 38″.

The Zf.Ger.38 is a blowback operated magazine fed training weapon, using 7.92×57mm wooden bullet blanks. The simple construction was sturdily implemented, and reduced to the most necessary functioning parts. The device functions as a blowback operated weapon with unlocked bolt in full automatic mode only.

Zielfeuergerät 38 Training Machine Gun


The Assault Rifle

Six comparative views (left to right) of the 7.92×33mm MKb.42(W), MKb.42(H), and the MP.44.

Polte Company drawing of the 7.92mmx33mm kurz Sturmgewehr cartridge (all dimensions in millimeters). The Sturmgewehr and its intermediate cartridge, the 7.92x33mm Kurz (Short), gave the individual soldier vastly increased firepower by two attributes that neither the rifle nor the submachine gun could combine: controllable burst fire and good ballistic performance. It inaugurated a new concept in small arms: a short, handy shoulder weapon having a reduced recoil impulse that allowed accurate full-automatic fire, yet powerful enough to serve as a conventional rifle out to 400 yards- the range within which most infantry engagements occurred. This combination was achieved by utilizing a cartridge midway in size and energy between the relatively weak pistol round used in submachine guns and the full-power infantry ammunition common to then-standard rifles and machine guns. The smaller intermediate cartridge allowed the Sturmgewehr’s mechanism to be more compact, lighter, and less expensive, while the reduced weight of both gun and cartridge meant that the soldier could carry more ammunition into battle. Today virtually all infantry rifles embody the Sturmgewehr concept.

The universal application of the automatic principle to the individual weapon has made it necessary and convenient to give that weapon a new name, thus indicating its enlarged capabilities — the assault rifle.

Widespread use of assault rifles, particularly during the past five decades, has shown this individual weapon used by all adversaries involved in past and present conflicts; whether guerrilla wars, civil wars, “wars of liberation” and certainly by major combatants in larger wars. The increase in firepower for the individual has literally provided small groups of determined men armed with selective-fire assault rifles the force that here-to-fore was reserved for battalions and regiments.

When hand-held fully automatic weapons fed by detachable magazines first came on the scene, they were made in existing infantry rifle calibers. Some, such as the FN/FAL and U.S. M14 rifles, continued in such calibers until the advantages of an intermediate round — such as controllability on full automatic fire — were irrefutably demonstrated by the Kalashnikov AK-47. The early iterations of the assault rifle concept, such as the Federov, the BAR, the Simonov AVS-36 and others served to illustrate how advantageous such a design might be, but it was not until the German Sturmgewehr 44 (assault rifle 44) with its intermediate round proved just how advantageous such a design really was, that the concept was validated. Interestingly, the StG.44 was first called a submachine gun by the Germans (Machine Pistol 44), and the AK-47 was first called a submachine gun by the Soviets and by NATO in the early years. It was during WW II that the German designation of “assault rifle” was coined, and it was such a captivating term it has come to nearly universal usage, referring to a hand-held weapon capable of semi-automatic or fully automatic (selective) fire, fed from a detachable box magazine, which fires an intermediate rifle cartridge. Earlier designs firing a full-size infantry round, such as the Fedorov, BAR or AVS-36, however, were still assault rifles as well — just as a Model T, although an early design, was still an automobile.

The weapons of mass destruction held by national powers today exist primarily to checkmate similar hostile weapons. We must continue to discourage their use. But if future wars involve the employment of tactical atomic weapons against military forces, a modern field army would see much of its sophisticated equipment reduced to shambles in a matter of minutes. When the dust settles on an atomic battlefield, to a great extent the outcome will still depend on small groups of desperate men, the assault riflemen.

Today’s emerging threats include antagonists with a suicide mentality so base it does not care if all parties lose, and they are more likely to employ asymmetrical warfare and individual terrorist operatives, or work for their goals within “low-intensity” conflicts. When such faceless combatants can be engaged, however, the fighters on both sides mostly comprise small units of individual riflemen, armed with what has become known as an assault rifle.

In addition to the military context, modern police fighting organized crime find their new adversary so well funded and equipped that police elements are increasingly forced to train and operate as paramilitary forces to combat “traditional” crime, in addition to their role in responding to terrorist threats at street level, with an assault rifle in their hands.

Assault rifle performance and technical characteristics are largely determined by the ammunition used. Designers have been aware of this fact for many years, but prior to the appearance of the German Sturmgewehr in the early 1940s, all standard military automatic and semiautomatic rifles were chambered to fire cartridges that previously had been used in older weapons. (One exception was the U.S. carbine’s .30 caliber, 7.62×33mm cartridge, which was not a true assault rifle cartridge.)

Design limitations imposed by older “full power” rifle cartridges made it impossible to develop truly lightweight rifles that would shoot effectively during full-automatic fire. Not only was mechanical functioning violent with such cartridges, but projectile dispersion was very great. Muzzle climb during burst fire was the usual result. After the first shot of the burst, subsequent ones generally passed harmlessly over the target, or in compensation, lateral dispersion increased.

As a first step in changing Western thinking about infantry ammunition, French armament engineer Marcel Devouges offered the following observations about ammunition for automatic weapons in 1924: “The cartridges for automatic arms (except pistols) were originally designed for non-automatic weapons, and for tactical concepts which have been greatly modified since the experiences of the last war.” He noted that during World War I, each army designed its machine guns for the same cartridge used in their service rifles.

Devouges commented that there was a growing opinion favoring separate cartridges for each class of weapon, because of the contrasting needs in today’s terms of the general-purpose machine gun, those of the squad automatic weapon, and those of the automatic rifle (self-loading rifles). General purpose machine guns were expected at the time to kill out to as far as 3,500 meters. Squad automatic weapons and automatic rifles would be employed against targets up to 800 meters. Devouges suggested that 7mm would be the optimum caliber for lightweight automatics, and that 7.5mm would be suitable for GPMGs. His ideas and suggestions were far ahead of contemporary thinking.

In actual practice, those nations that employed a single cartridge (7.62mm or larger) for rifles and machine guns retained that type ammunition through the end of World War II. Those countries that had calibers smaller than 7.62mm (generally those in the 6.5mm class) adopted a larger, more powerful caliber cartridge during the 1939-1945 conflict. Most notable in this latter group were the Dutch, Greeks, Italians, Japanese, Norwegians, Portuguese, and Swedes. Adoption of a second cartridge was usually related to the needs of the machine gun. In some instances — such as the Italian 8×59mmRB Breda cartridge and the 7.9×57R M.v.M. Dutch — the new ammunition was provided exclusively for machine guns.

As with the American decision to keep its Model 1906 .30 caliber (7.62×63mm) cartridge, and not adopt the proposed .276 Pedersen (7×53mm) ammunition, other industrialized nations opted to retain their older munitions because of the enormous expense involved in fielding a new round — even if they agreed to the reduction in power and range of the service rifle ammunition. In addition to research, development and tooling costs, huge quantities of ammunition must be stockpiled in peacetime in anticipation of wartime usage. For nations such as the United States and the former Soviet Union, which have large territories and global commitments of troops, ammunition also must be prepositioned worldwide. Allied and enemy experience with the unanticipated magnitude of cartridge expenditures during the World War led to cautious behavior in the post-1918 period. Nearly all belligerents had artillery shells and small arms ammunition shortages. For some, for example the Russians, these shortfalls were chronic and fatal.

During the final years of World War II, and in the immediate post-war period, all major armed forces examined the tactical advantages of switching to less bulky and lower power infantry ammunition types. The decade 1943-1953 was a period of much experimentation with new rifle cartridges. Many competing designs appeared, with a few key ones surviving testing and evaluation through to adoption,

Within alliance groupings, “interoperability” has become a priority. Standardization of ammunition and weapon types simplifies logistics involved in the field supply of large armies. It also requires more stringent attention to common standards and quality control. The Warsaw Pact armies were all very successful in standardizing both guns and cartridges, NATO allies have settled for a few standard types of interoperable ammunition that will work in a wide variety of weapons of the same caliber. In theory, all 7.62×51 mm NATO cartridges will function equally well in the Fabrique Nationale FAL, Heckler & Koch Gewehr 3 (G3), U.S. M14 rifles, and FN MAG, Rheinmetall MG3, Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Saint Etienne (MAS) AAT 52, and U.S. M60 GPMGs, without concern about the country in which the weapon or ammunition was manufactured. As we shall see in subsequent discussion, this interoperable ideal is sometimes elusive. Weapons types respond differently to differnt cartridge case materials (e.g., brass vs. steel, material hardness) or to variations in chamber pressures or gas port pressures. Projectiles can respond significantly differently to even slight changes of barrel twist. The basic goal of interoperability is often difficult to attain.

Assault Rifle Operating Systems

Significant confusion and misunderstanding exists concerning the various operating systems of the world’s assault rifles (and other firearms). First it must be understood that all self-loading firearms are operated by expanding gases when the cartridge is fired, and are thus gas operated. It is how these gases are harnessed that more precisely defines the operating system. Although new operating and locking systems have continued to evolve over the years, the definitions of operating systems described below are based on those established by the late Colonel George M. Chinn, USMC (Retired). These systems are listed in Col. Chinn’s book, The Machine Gun, Volume IV, Parts X and XI, published by the Bureau of Ordnance, U.S. Navy.

  1. Blowback: An unlocked bolt opening by the opposite reaction of a cartridge case when the projectile travels forward. Blowback bolts depend on being relatively heavy to delay opening until pressure has dropped to a safe level, and thus are sometimes called an “inertially locked breech.” Although a blowback action can sometimes assist another operating system, the only assault rifle to use the simple blowback operating system was the Burton.
  2. Delayed Blowback: An operating system beginning with a fully locked breech being unlocked shortly after the cartridge is fired through a recoiling part, the movement of a primer, or another means of unlocking. No assault rifle using this system was ever mass-produced. Often confused with retarded blowback operation.
  3. Retarded Blowback: A system of operation beginning with a semi-locked breech that is opened by the opposite reaction of a cartridge case being fired, but only after overcoming a retardation caused by a mechanical means, usually a combination of leverage and spring tension. Examples of retarded blowback assault rifles include the German G3 and the French FAMAS. Often confused with delayed blowback operation.
  4. Long Stroke Gas Piston: A locked breech mechanism operated by a gas piston that travels a distance at least equal to the length of the cartridge being fired. Examples include the WWII German FG42, MP44, and Stoner 63.
  5. Short Stroke Gas Piston: A locked breech mechanism operated by a gas piston that travels a distance less than the length of the cartridge being fired. Examples include the U.S. M1 Carbine, M14 rifle, and the Steyr AUG.
  6. Long Stroke Piston and Cylinder Via Direct Gas: A locked breech mechanism operated by a gas, piston and cylinder that travel a distance at least equal to the length of the cartridge. Examples of this system include the AR-10 and M16 rifles where the bolt (piston) and the carrier (cylinder) are actuated by direct gas fed through a tube from the gas block.
  7. Short Recoil: A locked breech mechanism where the barrel and bolt recoil together for a distance shorter than the length of the cartridge before being mechanically unlocked, allowing the bolt to continue rearward while the barrel returns forward under spring pressure. An example is the Johnson assault rifle.

Assault Rifle Locking Systems

  1. Rotating Bolt: A locking system where the bolt rotates to bring two or more locking lugs into engagement with counterparts in the receiver or extension of the barrel. Examples include the AK-47, M14, and M16 assault rifles.
  2. Tilting, or Propped Bolt: A locking system where one end of the bolt is tilted to lock into a recess in the receiver of the rifle (usually the rear of the bolt). Examples include the MP44, and FN-FAL assault rifles.
  3. Toggle Lock: A locking system where an arm attached to the bolt is cammed into a recess in the receiver to lock the bolt. An example of this system was used in the U.S. Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).
  4. Locking Tabs: A locking system where two locking tabs (or lugs) are forced out from the bolt into locking recesses in the receiver. An example of this system was used in the British EM-2 assault rifle and was also used in the WWII German G43 rifle.
  5. Locking Block: A locking system where a block or wedge is forced into a recess or recesses in the bolt to lock it to the receiver. An example of this system is found in the Czech VZ58 assault rifle.
  6. Roller-Delay: A semi-locking system where roller-like lugs are forced out into rounded recesses in the receiver or barrel extension, and held there by a combination of leverage in the form of a wedge-shaped mass and spring pressure. Examples are the German G3 and the Swiss SG510 assault rifle series.
  7. Roller Lock: A locking system similar to Roller-Delay, except that the rollers are mechanically locked into their recesses and are unlocked when an operating rod moves the mechanical lock. An example is the SIG 530 assault rifle.
  8. Rocking-Lever: In this locking system a lever connects and bolt and bolt carrier and forces them into battery with leverage under pressure of the recoil spring while pivoting against a shoulder in the receiver. When fired, the cartridge case exerts pressure on the bolt, which in turn pushes against the carrier. This in turn forces the rocking lever out of engagement with the receiver to unlock the breech. This system is found in the retarded blow-back operated French FAMAS assault rifle, where the delay lever also acts an accelerator to add velocity to the bolt group.
  9. Rising Chamber: In this system the chamber is a separate cylinder that moves up and down into and out of battery within the receiver. This system is found in the Stoner and Steyr Advanced Combat Rifles (ACR).
  10. Rotating Chamber: In this system the chamber rotates into and out of alignment with the bore. The rotating chamber system is used in the German G11 assault rifle.
  11. Lockless Chamber: In this system the chamber and breech are integral with the barrel and neither move during operation. Instead, the cartridge is inserted through a side port, and the solid end of the barrel acts as the breech block with a separate means of sealing off escaping gas. The McDonald Douglas Advanced Combat Rifle uses the lockless system.


By the time of the American Revolution, Britain’s .75 calibre Land Pattern Musket head earned the unofficial nickname of “Brown Bess.” Even the 18th century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described the popular expression “to hug Brown Bess,” as slang for enlisting in the army

By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s Brown Bess musket had delivered nearly a century of service. The tactics of the time were for musket troops to fire as many volleys as possible into an advancing enemy formation. The 10.5-pound Brown Bess could propel a one-ounce lead shot to a maximum effective range of 175 yards. Since the weapon was virtually impossible to aim with any degree of accuracy at such distances, most engagements took place at the range of 50 yards or less. Still, an experienced shooter could unload three shots a minute.

The Long Land Pattern “Brown Bess” musket was the British infantryman’s basic arm from about 1740 until the 1830s.

Brown Bess is a 1742 Long Land pattern. The 1742 pattern added a pan bridle to the First Model Bess lock. Fitted with a correct wooden ramrod, issued with an armory bright finish, this gun should have a polished bright barrel and lock.

During the age of the Brown Bess musket the British army took part in five major wars: the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the American War of Independence (1775-83), the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Crimean War (1853-56). It fought the Seven Years’ War as an ally of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Operations against the French and their Indian allies in North America began in 1754, absorbed much of Britain’s military effort and helped initiate far-reaching tactical change. French possessions in Canada were snapped up, with Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in 1759 as the brightest star in a year of victories still remembered in the naval march ‘Heart of Oak,’ first heard in David Garrick’s play Harlequin’s Invasion

Come cheer up my boys ‘tis to glory we steer

to add something more to this wonderful year…

In India, too, there were successes, with Robert Clive’s defeat of the pro-French ruler of Bengal at Plassey in 1757 and Lieutenant General Sir Eyre Coote’s victory at Wandeswash in 1759 bringing much of India under the control of the British East India Company. On the continent of Europe, where the British always fought as part of a coalition force, their fortunes were more mixed. The Duke of Cumberland, George II’s son, was badly beaten at Hastenbeck in 1757, but a British force played a notable part in the victory at Minden in the annus mirabilis of 1759.

It is worth pausing to consider just what these battles were like for the men who fought in them. At Minden, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick with 41,000 Anglo-German soldiers faced Marshal Contades with 51,000 Frenchmen. What made the battle unusual was that it was decided by an attack on a vastly superior force of French cavalry by six British regiments, launched as the result of a linguistic misunderstanding. Hospital Assistant William Fellowes of the 37th Foot wrote that:

The soldiers and others, this morning, who were not employed at the moment, began to strip off and wash their shirts, and I as eagerly as the rest. But while we were in this state, suddenly the drums began to beat to arms: and so insistent was the summons that without more ado we slip’t on the wet linen and buttoned the jackets over the soaking shirts, hurrying to form line lest our comrades should depart without us. There was a keen wind blowing at the time, and with my wet shirt and soaking coat, it was an hour or more before I could find any warmth in me. But the French warmed us up in good time; tho’ not, you may be sure, as much as we warmed them!

Lieutenant Montgomery of the 12th Foot described the advance, with the redcoats stepping out to the rub-a-dub-dub-dub of the drums, and through:

a most furious fire from a most infernal Battery of 18 18-pounders…It might be imagined that this cannonade would render the Regt incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount any difficulty. When we got within about 100 yards of the enemy, a large body of French cavalry galloped boldly down upon us; these our Men by reserving their fire immediately ruined…These visitants being thus dismissed…down came upon us like lightning the glory of France in the Persons of the Gens d’Armes. These were almost immediately dispersed…we now discovered a large body of Infantry…moving directly on our flank in Column…We engaged this Corps for about 10 minutes, kill’d them a good many, and as the Song says, the rest then ran away.

The next who made their appearance were some Regt’s of the Grenadiers of France, and as fine and terrible looking fellows as I ever saw. They stood us a tug notwithstanding we beat them to a distance…we advanced, they took the hint and run away.

Montgomery added a postscript. The noise of battle frightened the regimental sutler’s pregnant wife into premature labour: ‘She was brought to bed of A Son, and we have christened him by the name of Ferdinand.’

The Seven Years’ War was ended by the Treaty of Paris, a triumph for Britain, who gained territory at French expense. But France was soon to have her revenge. A constitutional dispute, focusing on the right to tax, led to war between Britain and her North American colonies in 1775. Although the British won a costly victory that year at Bunker Hill, just outside Boston, and, indeed, won the majority of the war’s pitched battles, they were unable to inflict a decisive defeat on George Washington’s Continental army, and their strength was eroded by repeated small actions in a landscape that was often decidedly hostile. France, heartened by the surrender of an army under Lieutenant General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777, joined the war. In 1781 Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis, commanding British forces in the southern states, was besieged at Yorktown by Washington and his French allies. Admiral de Grasse’s fleet prevented the Royal Navy from intervening, and in October Cornwallis surrendered in what was the greatest British military humiliation until the fall of Singapore in 1942. The Peace of Versailles ended the conflict, depriving Britain of many of the gains achieved in the Seven Years’ War.

France’s victory was dearly bought, for her finances collapsed under the strain of the war. Her government’s attempt at reform led to the summoning of the Estates General in 1789 and began the slide into revolution. War broke out between revolutionary France and old monarchical Europe in 1792, and Britain was drawn in the following year. The French Revolutionary Wars saw Britain’s Prime Minister, William Pitt, assemble two successive anti-French coalitions, but with little success. Overall the war’s pattern was clear enough. There was little to check the French on land, and they overran the Low Countries, scarcely inconvenienced by the intervention in 1793-95 of a British force under the Duke of York, although a French expedition to Egypt ended in failure. At sea, however, the Royal Navy was supreme, and by 1801 the war had run its course, with neither side able to do serious damage to the other, and peace was ratified at Amiens in 1802.

It did not endure for long, and war broke out again the following year. Napoleon Bonaparte, an artillery officer who had risen to eminence by a mixture of stunning military success and deft political opportunism, had become ruler of France, and in May 1804 he assumed the imperial title, gaining popular approval for a new constitution by a plebiscite. By 1812 he had defeated all the major continental powers save Britain, imposing the ‘Continental System’ designed to prevent British commerce with Europe. But that year he over-reached himself by invading Russia. His former enemies, sensing that the tide had turned, took the field against him, and in 1814 was beaten and forced to abdicate. The following year he staged the dramatic revival of the Hundred Days, but was decisively defeated by the British and Prussians at Waterloo, and abdicated once more, this time for good.

During the Napoleonic Wars Britain’s principal theatre of operations was the Iberian Peninsula where a British force, from 1809 under the command of General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later created Duke of Wellington, operated from its base in Portugal against French armies which always outnumbered the British but were constrained by a broader conflict against a hostile population. The British army fought a dozen major battles and endured several painful sieges. The battle of Albuera, on 16 May 1811, came about when a British, Spanish and Portuguese army under Lieutenant General Sir William Beresford blocked Marshal Nicolas Soult’s attempt to disrupt his siege of the French-held fortress of Badajoz.

It was one of the hardest infantry contests of the entire period. Soult fixed Beresford’s attention by feinting at the village of Albuera, in the Allied centre. He then unleashed a massive attack against Beresford’s right flank, where a Spanish division swung round to face the threat and fought gallantly, buying valuable time. A British infantry brigade under Lieutenant Colonel John Colborne – one of the stars of the age, who was to become a field marshal and a peer – moved up to support the Spaniards. It was locked in a firefight with enemy infantry when French hussars and Polish lancers fell on its open flank, at the very moment that a sudden cloudburst drenched the mens’ muskets so that they would not fire. Lieutenant George Crompton of the 66th Regiment told his mother of the catastrophe that ensued. It was:

the first time (and God knows I hope the last) I saw the backs of English soldiers turned upon the French…Oh, what a day was that. The worst of the story I have not related. Our Colours were taken. I told you before that the 2 Ensigns were shot under them; 2 Sergeants shared the same fate. A Lieutenant seized a musket to defend them, and he was shot to the heart: what could be done against Cavalry?

Two fresh British brigades then came into line, and Captain Moyle Sherer of the 34th Regiment relates how the powder smoke, so utterly characteristic of these battles, was snatched away for a moment to reveal:

the French grenadier caps, their arms, and the whole aspect of their frowning masses. It was a momentary, but a grand sight: a heavy atmosphere of smoke again enveloped us, and few objects could be discerned at all, none distinctly…This murderous contest of musketry lasted long. We were the whole time progressively advancing and shaking the enemy. At a distance of about twenty yards from them, we received orders to charge; we had ceased firing, cheered, and had our bayonets in the charging position, when a body of the enemy’s horse was discovered under the rising ground, ready to take advantage of our impetuosity. Already, however, the French infantry, alarmed by our preparatory cheers, which always indicate the charge, had broke and fled.

Perhaps five hundred yards to Sherer’s right was Ensign Benjamin Hobhouse of the 57th Regiment, which was engaged in a prodigious close-range firefight.

At this time our poor fellows dropped around us in every direction. In the activity of the officers to keep the men firm, and to supply them with the ammunition of the fallen, you could scarcely avoid treading on the dying and the dead. But all was firm…Tho’ alone, our fire never slackened, nor were the men in the least disheartened…Our Colonel, major, every captain and eleven subalterns fell; our King’s Colours were cut in two, our regimental ones had 17 balls through them, many companies were without officers…

Lieutenant Colonel William Inglis, hit in the chest by grapeshot, lay in front of the colours and encouraged his men by shouting ‘Die hard, 57th, die hard’. The 57th Regiment and its post-1881 successor the Middlesex Regiment, were to be proudly known as Diehards.

Finally, the Fusilier brigade – two battalions of 7th Royal Fusiliers and one of 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers – arrived to clinch the victory. In the ranks of 1/7th was Private John Spencer Cooper, an avid student of military history who had enlisted in the Volunteers in 1803 at the age of fifteen and transferred to the regulars in 1806. His book Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns, written up when Cooper was 81, gives a soldier’s view of the battle.

Under the tremendous fire of the enemy our line staggers, men are knocked about like skittles, but not a step backward is taken. Here our Colonel and all the field-officers of the brigade fell killed or wounded, but no confusion ensued. The orders were ‘close up’; ‘close in’; ‘fire away’; ‘forward’. This is done. We are close to the enemy’s columns; they break and rush down the other side of the hill in the greatest moblike confusion.

The word ‘moblike’ goes to the very heart of the matter. As the French columns disintegrated, so Soult’s army reverted to the shoal of individuals in which all armies have their origin, and to which, but for the efforts of drillmasters, leaders, and steadfast comrades, they return all too easily. Soult told Napoleon that he had been robbed of victory. ‘The British were completely beaten and the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’ Well might Sir William Napier, himself a Peninsular veteran, celebrate ‘that astonishing infantry’.

Britain’s command of the sea, re-emphasised at Trafalgar in 1805, enabled her to mount smaller expeditions. Sometimes these were successes, like the descent on Copenhagen in 1807, and sometimes failures, like the disastrous Buenos Aires expedition of 1806–7. The epoch had a tragic adjunct. An Anglo-American conflict – ‘the War of 1812’ – had begun promisingly for Britain with the repulse of an American attack on Canada and the temporary seizure of Washington, but ended in British defeat at New Orleans in January 1815, a battle fought before news of a negotiated peace reached North America.

It was not until 1854 that the British army faced its first major post-Napoleonic trial, and the final major war of our period, when an Anglo-French force, with its British contingent under General Lord Raglan, invaded the Crimea in an effort to take the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. The Allies won an early victory on the River Alma in September and beat off two Russian attacks on their siege lines at Balaclava and Inkerman. After a dreadful winter on freezing uplands, they took the outworks that dominated Sevastopol and forced the Russians to withdraw the following summer.

There was sporadic fighting in India throughout the period. In 1764 the British strengthened their grip on Bengal at the battle of Buxar, and in 1799 Tipoo Sultan, ruler of Mysore, was killed when the British stormed his capital Seringapatam. There were three wars against the fierce Mahrattas, whose confederacy sprawled across central India, and in the second (1803–5) they were beaten, with the future Duke of Wellington striking the decisive blow at Assaye (1803). The Pindaris, piratical freebooters who lived on the fringe of the Mahratta armies, were beaten in 1812–17, and a third Mahratta war in 1817–19 saw the British extend their power to the borders of the Punjab and Sind.

In 1838 the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, decided to install a pro-British ruler, Shah Shujah, on the throne of Afghanistan to provide a bulwark against the threat of Russian expansion. The advance to Kabul went well, but in the winter of 1841–42 there was rising against Shah Shujah. The British and Indian force, weakly commanded, retired from Kabul towards Jellalabad, but was cut to pieces as it did so: only one man, Dr Bryden, managed to reach safety.

Better fortune attended the next expansionist step, and in 1843 the British annexed Sind. This brought them into conflict with the martial Sikhs, rulers of the Punjab. In the first Sikh War (1845–46) the British won hard-fought battles at Mudki, Ferozeshah, Aliwal and Sobraon. When hostilities broke out again in 1848 the British had the better of a scrambling battle at Chilian wallah and a decisive clash at Gujerat, and went on to annex the Punjab.

Brown Bess was now almost a thing of the past, superseded from 1842 by a musket ignited by a percussion cap, which was far more reliable than the flintlock, and from 1853 by a percussion rifle. Ironically it was the introduction of this rifle into the Indian army that helped produce the last conflict of the period. The rifle’s paper cartridge was lubricated with grease, and rumours that this was the fat of pork (unclean to Muslims) or cattle (sacred to Hindus) induced some soldiers of the Bengal army to refuse the cartridges and precipitated the Indian Mutiny in March 1857. The mutineers took Delhi, and overwhelmed a British force at Cawnpore, where the survivors were massacred. Lucknow, capital of the princely state of Oudh, held out, and was eventually relieved after the British had taken Delhi by storm in September 1857.

The Mutiny was the last time that Brown Bess was carried in battle by British soldiers. Lieutenant Richard Barter, adjutant of the 75th Foot, – ‘the Stirlingshire Regiment, good men and true as ever had the honour of serving their Queen and Country’ – describes how a hundred men from his battalion were issued with the new rifle, ‘all the rest of the regiment retaining old Brown Bess’. But the new weapon was not deemed a success, and ‘the men, with few exceptions, contrived to get rid of their rifles and in their place picked up the old weapons of their dead comrades.’ Hobden would surely have approved.

Brown Bess had held sway for more than a century. But within a decade she was as obsolete as the longbow, superseded first by percussion weapons and finally by breech-loading rifles in a process of accelerating technical innovation. There were other major changes too: the purchase of commissions was abolished in 1871, and the regimental system was recast shortly afterwards to produce county regiments, with two regular battalions (the 37th joined the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment to produce the Hampshire Regiment) linked to form a new regiment which would normally have one battalion at home and another abroad. The process was not popular, and traditionalists demanded the return of ‘our numbers wreathed in glory.’ In 1884 Colonel Arthur Poole angrily declared that he could not possibly attend a Hampshire regimental dinner. ‘Damned names,’ he wrote, ‘mean nothing. Since time immemorial regiments have been numbered according to their precedence in the Line…I will not come to anything called a Hampshire Regimental dinner. My compliments, Sir, and be damned.’