Battle Ranges

by Fred Ray on March 5, 2010 · 11 comments

The range at which an enemy soldier can be engaged on the battlefield is a factor that has occupied both soldiers and pundits since the invention of firearms. In Civil War circles much of the recent controversy has centered around Paddy Griffith’s revisionist work Battle Tactics of the Civil War, in which he argued that infantry engagement ranges were essentially unchanged since 1815 and therefore Napoleonic warfare was still possible. This view has been adopted and amplified by historians like Earl Hess.

Some time ago I did a review of Joe Bilby’s Small Arms at Gettyburg, which I thought was the best look yet at mid-war engagement ranges. After a careful look at both the literature and the ground, Bilby concluded that the average engagement range at Gettysburg was about 200 yards, or about triple that of the Napoleonic wars.

In another post I argued that the effect of the heavily-wooded American landscape had to be considered, and that battlefields here were quite different than those in Europe.

Fast forward now to the present day for a fascinating look at the infantry engagement ranges in two places, Iraq and Afghanistan. The immediate impetus for this is a paper written by an Army major,  Thomas Ehrhart, “Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer.

Comments from returning non-commissioned officers and officers reveal that about fifty percent of engagements [in Afghanistan] occur past 300 meters. The enemy tactics are to engage United States forces from high ground with medium and heavy weapons, often including mortars, knowing that we are restricted by our equipment limitations and the inability of our overburdened soldiers to maneuver at elevations exceeding 6000 feet. Current equipment, training, and doctrine are optimized for engagements under 300 meters and on level terrain.

Once again we see the effect of landscape on engagement ranges. In Iraq, where combat was mostly urban, the ranges were close. In the more rural, mountainous, and open terrain of Afghanistan the ranges are correspondingly longer. Erhart’s monograph begins well after the Civil War, around the turn of the century, but contains a reasonably good overview of Army marksmanship policy from then until now. For much of the 19th century the quest was for increasingly long range weapons, but this changed during WWII with the introduction of the “intermediate” caliber assault weapon like the Sturmgewehr 44 and later the AK-47, and still later the smaller caliber weapons like the .22 caliber AK-74 and M-16, which resulted in a corresponding decrease in the effective engagement range of the infantry soldier. I found it interesting to compare Erhart’s observation that today’s Army only trains out to a battle depth of 300 meters (he recommends going out to at least 500) with Bilby’s estimate of the average engagement range at Gettysburg being 200 meters! Thus engagement ranges tripled from 1815 to 1863, but then only jumped 50% in the next hundred and forty-five years. Quite interesting, and I think it shows some of the limitation of basing tactical judgments on engagement ranges.

If you’re interested in the discussion Defense Tech has three articles and lots of comments on the subject, part one, part two, and part three. It’s started a conversation that I think is long overdue.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

elektratig March 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Fred,

What a coincidence! I was just reading about this at the Weekly Standard.

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Dean West March 6, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Hi Brett,
I enjoy your blog and believe it to be one of the best ACW sites.

The topic of average Civil War firefight ranges as a function of enhanced rifle-musket effectiveness is ongoing. Like you, I thought Bilby’s book was excellent and important to this discussion, but hardly the last word. Very good arguments have been made that the average firefight occurred at around 140 yards. Earl Hess made good points supporting this in his book. I believe the truth lies in a synthesis of the information contained in all the works that address the subject– each adds something important tot he discussion. For example, Fred Ray argues in his book on the ANV sharpshooter battalions that enhanced long range effectiveness of the rifle-musket had more to do with the natural abilities and training of the men who used the weapon, and their fighting formation, than did the rifle-musket’s technical advantages. In “Bloody Crucible of Courage” (the first book after Griffith’s to examine the subject in depth), Brent Nosworthy does a great job explaining the difficulty of hitting anything with a rifle-musket at longer ranges due to the “rainbow” trajectory of the bullet, caused by the low muzzle velocity of the weapon. Both Ray and Nosworthy emphasize that to be effective at longer ranges, users had to be well trained in estimating ranges and make the point that in general the troops did not receive much training of this sort.

After reviewing all these works, a good argument can be made that effective firefight ranges differed dramatically from battle to battle, depending on the ability and experience of groups of soldiers, and on their fighting formation. Superbly trained, natural fighters fighting in open order could deliver an effective fire at 300 yards or more, while troops in line of battle could not cause much damage to the enemy even at 100 yards. As Basil Duke wrote of one such encounter, “The enemy gave us a tremendous volley, which would have killed us all– had we been advancing through the tree tops.

Though likely to resist quibbling with blog-meisters, as long as I’m holding forth I’ll mention that the point about differences in terrain over which battles in Europe and America were fought has been much over-emphasized. European terrain was not, in general, any more flat than American terrain, nor was it devoid of vegetation. Europe is quite forested, the terrain often hilly and broken, and occasionally quite mountainous. As a result, many 18th and 19th Century European battles were fought in wooded terrain, or very hilly terrain, or both. Examples are the War of the Spanish Succession mutual massacre at Malplaquet, and the Seven Years War battles of Lobositz, Hochkirch, Maxen, Korbitz, Freiberg, Hastenbeck, Bergen and Burkersdorf. Other European field battles of this period involved attacks on entrenched positions, such as at Kunersdorf. Pickett’s Charge was made over terrain every bit as open as any most European battles; same goes for Franklin in the Western Theater, and there are many more examples.

Though not on point, it might be interesting to mention that most 18th Century battles lasted no more than five or six hours, and none lasted more than one day. Yet these battles routinely generated casualty rates equal to or in excess of Civil War battles, even though the troops were almost universally armed with smooth-bore flintlocks.

Best Regards,

Dean West

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Fred Ray March 7, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Your last observation is a good one and one I’d not thought of — that most European battles in the Napoleonic period and before were single day affairs that caused immense carnage.

However, I’d disagree with what you say about the terrain in American vs. Europe. Much of the American South was a vast forest, and there’s a big difference in fighting in wooded terrain and in the midst of a vast forest. I did a post on this, with charts and references, but the best comment was that of British Col. G.F.R. Henderson: “If the procedure of European warfare was very often departed from, it was because the nature of the country and the conditions under which marches were made and battles fought were utterly unlike anything that obtained in Europe. No European general has yet been called upon to carry on a campaign in a wilderness of primeval forest, covering an area twice as large as the German Empire, and as thinly populated as Russia.” Europeans were invariably gobsmacked to see the extent of the forests here, which had no equivalent in Western Europe. Which meant the battles were quite different, and I have no doubt they would have been equally different (and more European) of they’d been fought in the more open terrain of central Pennsylvania or Ohio, of for that matter Kansas.

I will have more to say on that “rainbow trajectory” in a future post.

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Bryn March 16, 2010 at 11:32 am

Triple the range of the Napoleonic firefight? I assume you must be using Griffith’s figure for the British in the Peninsula War (Forward into Battle) as Napoleonic.

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Bryn March 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm

That last sent before I finished writing it.

My point is that Griffith points out this range (75 yds) was unusually short. No study of firefight ranges in Germany, Italy or Russia exists, but there is plenty of annocdotal evidence for firefights above 200 yards using smoothbores. As you point out in a later post, once committed to the “long shot” the limiting factor seems to be visibility.

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Akeela June 21, 2012 at 11:39 am

At 200 yd individuals appear tiny. At 300 yds they vanish behind the guide sight.

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Dean West June 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Most Civil War battles in Virgina and even elsewhere were mainly fought in fairly open ground. Just look at the National Archives pics of battlefields. The areas where most eastern battles were fought had been settled by people for over a century and had been converted into farm land. etc. There was somewoods, but this was true of most European battel fields too. There were battles fought in heavy wooded areas, such as in the Wilderness and at Chickamauga. Howevr, the Wilderness was unique terrain because during the 18th & 19th centuries the Virgin Timber was completely irradicated to provide charcoal for the iron furnaces in the area (Catherine’s Furnace for example). This defoliation caused a jungle of second growth to grow up, and this gives us a false impression of what the woodlands were like (when they existed) in other parts of the eastern coast. I mean really, does antone argue that Gettysburg, Antietam, Cedar creek, Cedar Moutain or 1st Bull Run were fought on battlefields covered in woods. At Gettysburg, park officials are making great efforts to CLEAR the battlefield of unwanted vegetation in order to retune it to its 1863 appearance. Chickamauga had areas of heavy forrrest, but it was Virgin Forest out there. According to the reseach of the Park historians, the many local farmers in the area thinned the trees for homes and other buildings, fences, and especially fires. Moreover, due to free range grazing, famred allowed their stock to forgage in the woodlands and this cleaned out the under growth on the forrest floor. There were also fires caused by lightening strikes that thinned the woods, and finally, Primary Growth forests “Virgin Timber” formed a significant “forest canopy” that reduced sunlight on the forest floor.

At 200 yards a single man is distinguishable enough to see what color his uniform is. I live on a farm which has long vistas, and since I’m a game designer am very interested in range and visibility issues. I was also a cavalry reenactor for many years and know what troops look like at various ranges. See Lawfords “Firepower” for pics of individuals at various ranges.

Regarding the maligned smoothbore musket, we often judge smoothbore effectiveness by its inability to hit an individual at longer ranges. However, the military smoothbore was designed to hit masses of men as encountered on the battlefield, and it did a much better job when firing on masses at longer range. Bilby makes this point in his book mentioned above. His book is very good on these issues.

Best Regards,

Den

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Akeela June 25, 2012 at 10:51 am

Pre-war arsenal tests compared musket to rifle-musket hits on Army targets at 100 and 200 yards,. Muskets (with buck and ball) hit the 200 yard target 98% of the time and the 100 yard target 210% of the time. Rifle-muskets scored hits at those ranges at 78% and 98% respectively.

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Dean West June 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Sounds about right to me. Bilby argues that effective smoothbore fire at masses could be generated at 200 yards. Theoretically, the RM had a much longer range based on tests. Nevertheless, in actual Civil War combat situations, nothing like 78%+ hits were ever scored, by any unit, armed with any weapon, regardless of the range.

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