“Loose files and the American scramble”

by Fred Ray on October 17, 2008 · 3 comments

I’m going to take a step backwards here into the Revolutionary War, both to get a perspective on infantry tactics and to get a feel for how the landscape affected them. I’ll also address another issue, that of weapon effectiveness, particularly the rifle, during the war.

There are those who, with good reason, maintain that the effect of the rifle has been greatly exaggerated in the Revolutionary War, and to a large extent this is true. Now, however, I think there’s been somewhat of an overreaction on this. The argument is that the first riflemen were ill-disciplined and did not stay long in the opening battles (true) and that the role of the rifle gradually declined as the war went on in favor of the smoothbore musket (also true).

What you don’t hear much about is the tremendous psychological effect of the rifle on the British, and how it forced tactical changes on them that ended up greatly reducing its effectiveness. Thus the use of a weapon may decline not because it was ineffective but because it was, and it forced the other side to find a way to counter it.

When then British began operations against the rebels in America they used their standard European tactics – deploying in three lines, taking time to properly dress their line of battle, and advancing slowly to maintain alignment. In Europe, when facing smoothbore-armed opponents, this was not a big problem, since the line of battle did not begin to receive fire until it came within 75 yards or so. Beyond that you were fairly safe.

In America, however, things were different. You began receiving fire from those American rifles up to 200 yards away, and the longer you took to form up and advance the higher your casualties. The Americans used rifles both on the skirmish line and in their line units. A Continental line regiment, for example, might have three or four rifle companies and the rest armed with muskets. Those rifles could shoot quite a ways, especially when aiming at an area target line a column or line of battle.

The British Army in the Revolution has often been portrayed as being run by a lot of aristocratic, hidebound poltroons who knew nothing about war in the colonies, but this is very far from the truth. Their commanders could and did make major tactical changes in the way they fought.

The American landscape was vast and wooded, and the armies small. Thus the compact, three-rank formation did not work very well here. Lord Howe changed this to a “loose files” arrangement of two ranks with a much greater spacing between the men in both rank and file, amounting almost to a skirmish line at times. This worked much better in the wooded terrain and also had the welcome effect of reducing casualties. The British also began using the “American scramble” i.e. approaching and deploying quickly without much care about exact alignments. They found that they needed to get close and press the Americans with the bayonet to win. If they tried to stand there and shoot it out with them, they lost a lot of men without much result.

The weakness of the rifle was its slow rate of fire (one round a minute vs. three for a musket) and its inability to take a bayonet. Thus if the British could close rapidly, fire a few volleys and go in with their pig stickers, they usually prevailed. Their light infantry, also armed with smoothbore muskets, could push back the American skirmishers for the same reason. When Daniel Morgan first brought down his riflemen, fresh from their victory at Saratoga, they were dispersed and chased away by the British light troops, who closed with the bayonet.

Even though their tactical changes were effective, the Brits still felt they needed to deploy rifle-armed Hessian jaegers to combat the American riflemen. They also briefly fielded a rifle corps of their own equipped with the experimental Ferguson rifle and later ended up issuing a small number of rifles to designated members of their infantry regiments.

Washington countered by forming his own light infantry, one company per regiment. These companies were usually grouped into a semi-permanent “light corps” and ultimately into brigade-sized units that operated independently. Armed with smoothbore muskets, they became the elite of the army and were quite capable of meeting the British light troops on equal terms. Washington kept his rifle units on the skirmish line but mixed them with his other light troops or backed them with line infantry so that they would not have to face the bayonet. American commanders came to prefer muskets on the line of battle, and thus rifle use gradually declined as the war continued. Nevertheless Washington continued to consider them “a very useful corps.”

They certainly made a lasting impression on their opponents, where the “unerring aim” of the American rifleman was feared and respected. Although the British Army had shown little interest in the rifle before the American campaign, this changed after its return home. In the closing years of the century the British raised their first rifle unit, the 5/60th Royal Americans (really a Hessian outfit) and shortly afterward the Experimental Corps of Riflemen, which eventually became the famed 95th Rifles.

As far as the tactics of the line went, Lord Dundas (not so affectionately known as “Old Pivot”) quickly squashed the “loose files” concept and went back to the three rank formation. Nevertheless, the army did eventually return to it in the Peninsular campaign and by the middle of the century it had been adopted into the familiar line of battle in the Civil War.

This brings us back to the effect of the landscape on tactics. General Sherman’s comments sound surprisingly similar to the British experience eighty years earlier.

Very few of the battles in which I have participated were fought as described in European text-books, viz., in great masses, in perfect order, manoeuvring by corps, divisions, and brigades. We were generally in a wooded country, and, though our lines were deployed according to tactics, the men generally fought in strong skirmish-lines, taking advantage of the shape of ground, and of every cover.

British wargamer Andy Callan also has some thoughts on the subject and yes, there’s a game as well. Perhaps Brett will give us a review.

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