Rifles and Ranges

by Fred Ray on November 1, 2008 · 2 comments

Drew Wagenhoffer has a short review up of Earl Hess’s The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth. Although he calls it “the best single volume treatment of the subject so far,” he does raise some significant questions, including one I hadn’t thought of (showing, again, the value of distributed intelligence).

There is also something of an inherent contradiction to be considered. If a primary contention is that the vast majority of Civil War soldiers received little or no specialized training in range estimation, how much useful data can we really derive from the range estimates provided in reports, diaries, letters, and other primary sources written by these very same men so badly untrained in the art of doing so? Of course, one must work with what’s available, but that, combined with the small sample sizes used, certainly leaves room for further inquiry.

Good point! Of course the obvious counterargument is that while exact range estimation is critical for hitting a target, range data for the purpose of figuring engagement ranges is much less critical. Still, speaking from my own military experience, I can tell you that people without training can often make very big errors, especially when under the stress of combat. Wagenhoffer also wonders if the author has actually checked the unit’s records to see what they were armed with (it’s not evident in the book), and:

Sample sorting by environmental constraints is needed. Only open terrain truly offers the full gamut of range options (short, medium, long) for initial fire, while other terrain features can restrict firing to point blank range only. The latter situation comprises useless data for thesis application.

Also true. One of the arguments that Hess and Griffith made was that most combat was at well under the theoretical ranges of the weapons. But was this due to poor training, as he maintains, or to environmental considerations? At the Wilderness, for example, units often could not even see each other until they were literally on top of one another. Thus even a superbly trained sharpshooter battalion could use their rifles only at point blank range (and this is in fact what happened). I would add that there has to be some sorting by the tactical situation as well.

Overall, I think there has been perhaps too much emphasis on engagement ranges almost to the exclusion of everything else. This went through a couple of stages, and needs to go through another one before it really becomes useful.

The first stage was the initial look at the problem, and the assumptions by earlier historians that because the CW-era rifles had a longer theoretical range that they were actually used that way and were thus more deadly.

The second stage was when British historian Paddy Griffith challenged that assumption, and I think he and his intellectual followers have had the better of the argument, at least for the line of battle. Griffith had very limited information to work with (this being before the arrival of the PC and the digitized OR), but later researchers like Brent Nosworthy and now Earl Hess have accumulated some impressive data on the issue. Still, as Wagenhoffer points out, at least a portion of the data is suspect, especially if one of the props of one’s argument is that the writers were poor judges of distance.

The third stage, which is now just beginning, is to actually get out and check the data (i.e. the engagement ranges) on the ground. So far the only one who’s done this is Joe Bilby. I mentioned this earlier in a review of his book,  Small Arms at Gettysburg,  which I would recommend to anyone interested in this controversy. Gettysburg is probably the most studied battle in history, and thanks to generations of interpretation the positions of the troop units are known with a great deal of accuracy. Using these, Bilby checked the engagement distances with a hand-held laser rangefinder, so as of this moment his figures must be considered the gold standard. The next obvious step is for Hess or his successor to go out and, so far as is possible, confirm those old estimates on the ground. When (and if) that happens we will have some solid data on which to base our conclusions.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig November 3, 2008 at 1:26 pm

I’ll confess to “cherry picking” the book thus far, that is reading sections corresponding to personal interests. Overall seems a good read, but then again I’m partial to Paddy Griffin.

Two minor points I’d make however. First off we seem to discount these soldiers ability to estimate range, based on the lack of formal training. We forget, many of these men were farmers or grew up in similar rural avocations. Anyone who has spent a day turning unbroken field into furrows can attest, there’s a lot of applied geometry to farming.

Second, while accuracy is important in military marksmanship, the almost critical component is setting the sight picture in order to facilitate rapid target framing. In other words, the faster you draw the bead, the more likely you will get the first shot off. From World War II, Korea and Vietnam (and my generation of DS and beyond), had this drummed into their heads. We even see doodles from time to time of these “sight pictures.” Have we ever seen a corresponding “doodle” from the ACW? Or was the importance of rapidly drawing down on a target lost to them (drummed out by a reference to the all important volley)?


Fred Ray November 3, 2008 at 9:49 pm

Most farmers would have expressed distances in rods rather than yards, as that was the common way of measuring fields and farms. Thus while most of them would have had a good idea of what 20 and 40 rods (the most common distances) amounted to, I’m not sure that would translate over into accurate distance estimation in yards.

FWIW, most American rifle matches were conducted at 20 and 40 rods.

As for your second question, yes, marksmen trained “by the book” did get considerable instruction on sight picture.


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