In 1798, the British Army hired German and Austrian soldiers as sharpshooters. Informed opinion at the time was that Englishmen could not be taught to shoot accurately. A dozen years later, that had all changed and British sharpshooters, armed with rifles, were considered “the best marksmen in Europe.”
How did that happen?
Problems Create an Incentive to Change
The American Revolutionary War was a wake-up call for many young British officers. Their army was one of the best trained on the planet, but they weren’t trained to fight the way the colonists fought.
The British Army was prepared to fight in formation, firing volley after volley on command. The problem was that the colonists didn’t just stand and fire back. Instead, as one historian puts it, the Americans
posted behind thickets, and scattered wide in the country, frequently picked off the officer, and galled and annoyed the King’s troops in their march.
The officers carried that experience back home with them and it made a difference in what they did as they rose through the ranks. One of those officers was John Moore.
By 1801, he was Sir John Moore and he hadn’t forgotten the lessons he learned in America. That year his regiment was the first to be designated “light infantry” a new kind of unit that would use different tactics than the rest of the infantry.
“Light infantry” was the British term for a more independent soldier with a different mix of skills from the regular soldiers. They would not always fight in formation. They would make many important decisions on their own. That may sound like common sense now, but then not everyone thought independently-acting soldiers were a good thing.
The Social Forces in Play
In Britain, like most of the world, the structure of the Army mirrored society. There were people who were officers in the Army. They were also likely to be from the upper class of society. They had money to buy commissions and patronage. Very few officers without those advantages had successful Army careers.
The Army was set up so officers gave commands and the troops did what they were told. It made a lot of powerful people uncomfortable that a light infantry soldier would be making decisions about movement and firing his weapon without waiting for a command.
On the one hand, Britain needed to keep up with other countries, especially France, who were developing similar kinds of independent-acting soldiers. On the other hand, societal norms and Army tradition favored the old ways. New technology was part of the reason that change happened.
Technology Plays a Role
Regular British soldiers used “Brown Bess” muskets. They didn’t aim them. They pointed them and they weren’t very accurate. A soldier armed with a musket could hit a target up to 40 yards away, while a trained rifleman could hit a human-sized target at 200 yards. But there was a trade-off.
A trained British soldier could fire three rounds per minute with his trusty musket. Trained riflemen could only get off one shot in the same time. And the rifle required more cleaning and often couldn’t stand up to field conditions. Ezekiel Baker’s rifle changed that.
Rifles had been around for almost a century when Baker produced his first rifle in 1800. The Americans had used their long rifles to torment the British a couple of decades earlier. Baker’s version was modelled on German rifles.
Baker’s rifle was robust enough to stand up to use on the battlefield. It weighed about the same as a long rifle, but it was almost a foot shorter and a soldier could attach a sword bayonet to the rifle for close-in fighting. It also had adjustable sights to make it easier to hit targets at a distance. The Baker rifle was the breakthrough technology for the kind of soldier Sir John Moore imagined.
Moore’s New Kind of Soldier
John Moore had some definite ideas about how to develop the new kind of soldier he imagined. In a time and army when flogging was the punishment for even minor offenses, he chose a more humane approach.
He taught soldiers how to read and to write. That not only made them better people, it also made them more likely to be promoted.
There was a different uniform for his “Rifles.” The regular British soldier wore the red coat and white belting. Moore’s Rifles wore dark green and black leather. Some historians call it the first attempt at camouflage by the British Army.
The training was different, too. Moore’s troops used live ammunition. After all, you need feedback to determine if you’re actually hitting your target. They designed and built moving targets for better training. Moore allowed his men to “waste ammunition” shooting at squirrels and rabbits and birds. Shooting competitions with rewards and recognition for the winners helped develop skills and camaraderie.
Sir John Moore’s regiment, the 95th Rifles, are one of military history’s great fighting units. They distinguished themselves in the Peninsular War and later in the campaigns leading to Waterloo.
It wasn’t the technology that made that organization great. Other British soldiers were armed with the same rifles. The training was important, but other units had similar training. Technology and training are only part of the story.
The way the officers (usually from the upper classes) and rank and file worked together was different, and important. According to one history of the 95th Rifles, officers often shared the same fate and conditions as regular soldiers and often ate with them, “a practice that was unheard of at the time.”
Improved technology and better training made a difference in performance. But the most important differences were driven by leadership and culture.
If you want to learn more about the 95th Rifles I recommend Mark Urban’s excellent book, Wellington’s Rifles: Six Years to Waterloo with England’s Legendary Sharpshooters.