A Brief Explanation of Napoleonic Combat

People are often confused by Napoleonic fighting: why all the bright uniforms? Why line up to be shot? In this post, I will try to explain the rationale behind flintlock combat.

The Thin Red Line, by Robert Gibb. National War Museum of Scotland, via Wikipedia. N.b. depicts Battle of Balaclava, 1854.

The cornerstone of Napoleonic tactics is the musket. The musket is not a rifle – that is, it doesn’t possess rifling, or swirling grooves down the inside of the barrel. These grooves spin a fired bullet, helping it keep a straighter trajectory. American football players spin their balls as they throw them for the same reason.

Rifling in a 9 mm pistol barrel. By Matthias Kabel, via Wikipedia. Used under license.

Without the benefit of rifling, bullets fired from smoothbore muskets bounced down the barrel, exiting on an unpredictable trajectory. This made muskets extraordinarily inaccurate.

Rifles existed in the Napoleonic period, but were more expensive to produce and took much longer to load than muskets, so they were used by specialized skirmish units.

Napoleonic firearms were all muzzle-loaders. That is, you had to stuff the bullet down the barrel to load them, as opposed to breach-loaders, which are loaded at the breach, above the trigger, and can be fed with a magazine. Naturally, muskets took some time to load, even more if you weren’t standing. Extremely well drilled troops could fire them every 11 to 15 seconds, but you wouldn’t do that often or you’d run out of ammunition. Most troops weren’t that proficient.

So you have a weapon that can’t fire very fast and can’t hit anything it shoots at (unless you stand very close). Thousands of people are walking toward you to kill you. What do you do?

You get hundreds of your friends to come with their guns and shoot at them with you.

The 28th Regiment at the Battle of Quatre Bras, 1815, by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler. National Gallery of Victoria, via Wikipedia.

Thus the shoulder-to-shoulder line of battle is formed. The line of battle has been likened to a giant shotgun – if you point it and shoot, hopefully you’ll hit something. Conversely, since anyone aiming at you is likely to miss, you’re not criminally endangered by standing out in the open, with a bright red coat on.

There are two more reasons for the close formations. One is cavalry. Muskets couldn’t mow down charging horses like the machine-gun can. If cavalry could get in among scattered troops, they could cut them all down with the sword. To survive, soldiers had to stand in dense blocks. (When threatened by cavalry, lines would actually collapse into squares to guard against fast-moving attacks from any direction.) They would use their bayonets, triangular blades affixed to their muskets, to ward off the horses. The risk from cavalry was so great that it was considered worthwhile to let your tight ranks be blasted by artillery fire rather than open them to attack on horseback.

The Battle of Waterloo: The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers, by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux. Victoria and Albert Museum, via Wikipedia.

The second reason is control. Because you have to get everyone together to fire and to stave off cavalry, you need to keep them together while moving or you’ll have chaos. It’s like taking kindergarteners for a walk – make them all hold a rope. Make your troops all walk together like they’re glued at the elbows so they don’t fall apart.

Napoleonic armies did have skirmish troops that didn’t fight like this. They fought somewhat like modern soldiers, strung out, crouching, seeking cover. They could disorganize and distract lines opposing them, but lacked the firepower to destroy those facing them. That would have to wait for the arrival of better rifled smallarms after the Napoleonic period.

That in a nutshell is why Napoleonic soldiers all stood in lines (with bright coats on) – they won’t accomplish anything otherwise, and they’ll probably all get killed. Funny enough, they didn’t all die doing this. War to war, even across technological gulfs, casualty rates stay about the same. You fight till you’re beat, then you scram.


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