Rifles against artillery

by Fred Ray on December 11, 2008 · 5 comments

Bill Adams sent me an interesting graphic he scanned from a period book and has agreed to let me post it. Widely published and commented on the time, it shows the results of a test conducted at the British musketry school at Hythe in the mid-1850s. Thirty riflemen who did not know the distances involved fired 270 rounds (9 rounds per man) at 610 and 810 yards at a mockup of an artillery battery going into position. You can see the hits indicated (click for a larger pic).

Effect of rifles on artillery

This was seen—correctly—at the time as a major leap forward in firepower. Nothing like this had been possible in the time of the first Napoleon, when military rifles like the Baker had an effective range of about 150 yards and a maximum range of maybe 300. Rifle pundits like Cadmus Wilcox thought the new weapons would drive artillery off the battlefield except in special cases while other pundits like John Gibbon (both men would be major generals in the coming conflict) conceded the power of the new rifles but thought artillery (which also had greatly increased ranges) could adapt to it.

As we know, the rifle did not drive the artillery battery off the battlefield, but it did show it had the power to degrade and occasionally silence them at long ranges. French tirailleurs had often harassed enemy artillery, but at much closer ranges, and one of the hallmarks of Napoleonic warfare was the deployment of artillery at close ranges.

As you can see from the photo, a six-gun artillery battery took up quite a bit of real estate. With the guns, horses, caissons, limbers, and men it covered about the area of a modern football field when deployed by the book. A group of thirty sharpshooters (about the size of a Confederate regimental sharpshooter company) could drop rounds into a target this size even at extended ranges, and though they might not be able to silence the guns could be fairly sure of at least degrading their capabilities. For example, killing or wounding the horses would render the battery immobile.

Overall, riflemen placed some severe limitations on the use of artillery in the open in the Civil War, much more so than had been the case in the past. Artillerymen, especially those with rifled pieces, often returned the favor and went “squirrel hunting” at sharpshooters in trees.


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig December 12, 2008 at 9:35 am

Fred, I think you are exactly right with regard to the impact of ranged rifle fire on artillery employment in the tactical sense.

One interesting trend I’ve seen matching battle reports to casualty figures – the high value targets for anyone seeking to silence a battery was the horses. Without horses, the battery was not only immobile, but was soon out of ammunition (unless the gun crews want to heave a chest up from the trains themselves!). A limber with 32 to 40 rounds didn’t last long enough in a prolonged engagement after all.

We often read in the primary accounts of batteries either immobile or neutralized for want of horses. Or at other times that a battery was disengaged when the officers noticed the loss of horse flesh was reaching a point of critical mass.

There are tales of gunners unable to load and fire their pieces due to rifle fire, but those are far less prevalent than “they killed our horses” reports. And as a counterpoint, there are a heap of accounts detailing the bravery of gunners manning their pieces in spite of rifle fire. I think, however, as the tactical situation evolved later to the heavy use of earthworks, the gunner’s job became much harder.

When looking at artillery battery casualties the numbers often look deceptively low when compared with nearby infantry regiment numbers. For instance, Smith’s Battery at the Devils Den was right in the crucible of the fight. Smith brought six guns and 135 men into the battle. He lost 2 men killed, 10 wounded, 1 missing (so right at 10%), half his guns, and eleven horses. It was the loss of the later which crippled the battery.

Craig

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Sean December 12, 2008 at 10:17 am

One thing that I have found facinating are accounts of gunners being driven away by infantrymen then rallying to recapture their guns. Facinating stuff, especially when you consider the conditions that these guys lived in.

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Fred Ray December 12, 2008 at 2:21 pm

Good point about resupply — I hadn’t thought about that. Horses did make excellent targets and were one of the first things riflemen aimed at. I think personnel casualties were proportionately lower in artillery batteries because the gunners were much more dispersed than infantrymen in the line of battle.

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Craig December 14, 2008 at 1:06 pm

Fred, I like the suggestion that the gunners were more dispersed, but that would imply the sharpshooters were not actually aiming at individuals, but shooting in a general area.

Perhaps another factor was the smoke accumulation around those gun tubes. Given a good two or three rounds from a battery, and even a moderate temperature gradient, a pretty good cloud of smoke would blanket the gunners.

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Dave December 15, 2008 at 4:47 pm

I just would like to comment how that photo is just amazing– it really puts into context just how “large” even a six gun battery really was.

It looks like the size was a double-edged sword: a few riflemen could rapidly inflict a “mobility kill” such a battery, but the extra manpower prevented such batteries from being easily silenced once in action.

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