Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

American Riflemen Change the World

If you ask military historians, many will tell you that America had very little influence on military science until the later part of the 20th century. Most of the military techniques which were used by the US Army were adaptations from French and English field manuals. The evolution of the line and troop maneuvering procedures came directly from the European style of combat. America did however provide quite possibly the greatest innovation to warfare since the advent of gunpowder. When the Colonial militia began to employ the rifle in addition ot the traditional smooth bore musket against British troops in 1774 they introduced the world to the power of accurate fire and ushered in a new form of warfare.

Although rifles have been in service around the world since the 1600’s, they really came into their own during the American Revolution. What is truly fascinating is that even though the Americans proved how effective the rifle could be, they did not come into general use as a military arm until the 1850’s. The lesson of the rifle on the battlefield and its effects were learned by the British but seldom acknowledged in other European countries.

In the American Revolution, frontier riflemen were used a not only skirmishers, fighting from concealed positions, but as true force multipliers. Under the British military system, the leadership was what we would call today a top down eastern bloc leadership style. Officers issued orders and sergeants and corporals carried out those orders. The individual infantrymen were largely uneducated and not allowed to make independent decisions. The loss of leadership would cripple the ability of English battalions to perform in the field. The American riflemen were notorious for targeting the officers and sergeants. They could deliver effective killing shots at ranges that far exceeded the range of the English Tower (or Brown Bess) musket. As the officers fell, the attacking battalion disintegrated into a disorganized mob. Thus a company of riflemen had the ability to hold off and scatter a battalion of the Kings infantry.

Instead of dressing in the uniform of the Continental Army, the riflemen typically dressed in the fringed hunting coats of the frontier. Just the sight of troops dressed thus would strike fear into the hearts of the English officers on the battlefield. The fear was so great General Washington, when short of riflemen, dressed some of his regular troops in frock coats for the shock effect.

After the Revolution, the English began to develop a rifle of their own. By 1800, they began to field the Baker Rifle. This new gun was shorter than the traditional long rifle and sported a 24-inch sword bayonet instead of the traditional triangular one. The Baker did not see general use; they were reserved for elite regiments and selected skirmish companies in various battalions. The most famous of these units was the 95th Rifles. Clad in their green jackets and trousers, these “grasshoppers” as they were called were able to wreak havoc on the French troops. None of the French units during the Napoleonic period were armed with rifles due primarily to Napoleon’s opinion that the rifle was too slow to load and thus reduced their firepower. The green jacks did the same to the French that American Riflemen had done to them. The focused on killing the officers and NCO’s throwing the battalions into chaos.

By the American Civil War, most of the world’s armies had a rifle of some form. What is distressing is that when the rifle went into general use, they completely forgot the lessons of the American frontier riflemen and the English green jackets. With the rifle in general use among field armies, leaders reverted to the standard liner battle tactics use with the smooth bore musket. Relying on mass and liner formation, the carnage was horrific.

It is interesting to see that the rifle started is military tradition in the United States and truly came into its own 100 years later in the United States. From that point on, the American rifleman has defended these shores against all who threaten her peace and security.

No comments:

Post a Comment