The Three Weapons of War

Three Weapons of War:

Excerpts from “Patriot Battles – How the War of Independence was Fought” By Michael Stephenson

By Joe Wagner

 This piece discusses some relevant excerpts from a thought-provoking book on the hardware and tactics of the American Revolution, and takes a look at the three way relationship between the military musket, its bayonet, and the hand-crafted rifle as seen by the participants of the 18th century.

The musket was the linchpin in defining the effectiveness and functionality of the 18th century army.  We are aware how the inaccurate and short ranged musket determined the infantry tactics of the time.  Volley fire, linear alignments, constant repetition of a rigid drill, the en masse movement of formations, all reflect the nature of the musket as the infantry weapon of choice.  Its performance was key in dealing with the other two members of this triad in battle.

The musket of the 1770’s as an instrument for battle drove the tactics, as noted above.   Using 600-800 FPS of muzzle velocity (25-30% that of a modern rifle) in sending off a  round ball that could drop 5 feet in elevation over the first 150 yards of flight, and diverge by just as much in any direction from the point of aim, it did not represent an individual weapon so much as a part of a mass shooting machine – the infantry line.

Poor as they were, some muskets were better than others, at least in the eyes of the users.  The American pre-revolution militia establishment for decades had been exposed to the British King’s Arm.  As Englishmen, they had accepted it as much as any other part of their heritage.  Once France declared for our revolution, the first sizable shipment of 23,000 French Charleville muskets reached the American forces in 1777.  A common reaction to the appearance of these French products appears in an American soldier’s diary:

“The enemy then retreated precipitately, throwing away many of their guns.  I was foremost in following (being mounted), and got as many of their guns as I could conveniently manage on my horse.  I gave them to the American soldiers as they stood in rank.  They threw away their French pieces, preferring the British.”

Wm. Lloyd, NJ Militia

 Whatever the feeling about the French muskets, there is no doubt they were much preferred (preferably with an accompanying bayonet) to the rifle by commanders and tacticians of the day.  The rifle was an individually handmade one of a kind weapon, an unknown and unpracticed factor in 18th century combat.  European armies did not generally use them, few were used by the militia of New England – source of the early American army, tactics for their use by military formations did not exist, and the well-known lack of standardization in caliber or construction made the supply and management of such an armed force more difficult. It was slow to load, lacked the bayonet, and could be fragile and hard to repair.  It was an unknown and risky proposition for a leadership whose experience in combat was founded largely upon the bedrock capabilities of the musket with its bayonet.  Following is a military leader’s opinion that captures the essence of all three corners in this weapons triangle –

“I don’t like rifles – I would almost as soon face an enemy with a good musket and bayonet without ammunition – as with a rifle and ammunition without bayonet; for although there are not many instances of bloody bayonets, yet I am confident that one bayonet keeps off another . . . the enemy knowing the defenseless state of a rifleman, rush on – they fly – and mix with or pass through our troops and communicate their fears.  It would be better if good muskets and bayonets were put in the hands of good marksmen and rifles laid entirely aside.”

 Genl. Anthony Wayne, 1778

 Use of the bayonet on musket was viewed, perhaps subconsciously, by military officers as the logical follow-on to the application of force against the enemy using the pike and other hand to hand arms of earlier wars.  The poor performance of the musket alone encouraged this thinking – that in the end they were still dealing with a hand to hand struggle using cold steel.  This led to the commonly expressed belief that the bayonet was the ultimate “decider” for infantry.  Of course, the preference for bayonet, vice a musket or rifle, was most prevalent with the generals and senior tacticians of the day.  For the common soldier, it must have seemed a better day when he could fire at an officer or artillery crewman with a rifle, or volley with the musket, rather than advance in ranks with the bayonet, ala Bunker Hill.

 “The impetuosity and uncertain aim of the troops in giving their fire and the mistake they are still under in preferring it to the bayonet is much to be lamented.”

 General Burgoyne

19 Sep 1777

 Whatever the common soldier preferred, the bayonet and its tactics, in the minds of the generals, represented the brave and aggressive behavior they desired to see in their troops.

 “General Howe recommends to the troops an entire dependence upon their bayonets, with which they will ever command the success which their bravery so well deserves.”

 General Orders, Kips Bay, NY

15 Sep 1776

 “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet as I am resolved to take Trenton.”

General G, Washington

25 Sep 1776

 As General Wayne pointed out in his quote above, there are “not many instances of bloody bayonets.”   Despite enthusiastic support of bayonet usage by the leadership, a survey of battles fought in the period offers little evidence of bayonet on bayonet combat on any large scale.  There were actions planned that relied on the bayonet, such as Paoli or Bunker Hill.  There were also isolated occurrences due to circumstance, such as the death by bayonet of General Mercer leading the Virginia troops at Trenton.  But in most cases the answer to such attack was fire and/or retreat.

While rifles seem a somewhat safer alternative for the user – if he took care in how he fought, they also stood apart in terms of the military organization that used them. General Wayne’s opinion of riflemen is clear – they seem to be right up there with raw militia in their ability to ruin formations and instill panic in the solid, much-to-be-preferred musket men. It is not hard to look back at the descriptions of rifle units, and perceive that they believed they were something special – maybe with the thought that they were avoiding the rigid discipline and rote behavior required of the musket and bayonet line.

 “A rifle corps came into camp from Virginia, made up of recruits from the backwoods and mountains of that state, in a uniform dress totally different from that of the regiments raised on the seaboard and interior of NE.  Their white linen frocks, ruffled and fringed, excited the curiosity of the whole army, particularly the Marblehead regiment.

 Their first manifestations, ridicule and derision, which the riflemen bore with more patience than was their wont.  Resort being made to the snow which then covered the ground, these soft missives were interchanged but a few minutes when both parties closed, and a fierce struggle commenced with biting, gouging, and knockdown with as much deadly fury as the most deadly enmity could create.  Reinforced by their friends, in five minutes more than a thousand combatants filled the field.”

 Israil Trask

Private, Mass. Militia

 December 1775

 As the descendent of a Revolutionary War rifleman (Maryland & Virginia Rifle Corps), and 30 year member of reenactment infantry, I can understand both sides of the argument.



Patriot Battles

“Patriot Battles – How the War of Independence was Fought”

  • By Michael Stephenson
  • Harper Collins, 2009
  • 448 pages

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