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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