British troops in line were not trained to aim their muskets. Speed was emphasized over accuracy by military strategists in the 18th century. Mass volley fire into massed targets and rapid reloading up to four times per minute were emphasized. For many commanders, the volley was a mere formality that was followed by a bayonet charge. The most common musket issued by both sides was the ‘Brown Bess’, labeled thus because of the barrel’s brownish color. This smooth-bore flintlock had a barrel 44 inches long and weighed fourteen pounds. When a cartridge (ball and powder wrapped in paper and rammed down the muzzle prior to firing) exploded, it projected a round one ounce lead ball. The recoil was powerful enough to dislocate a man’s shoulder. The soldier had to hold his gun in an iron grip; even then the recoil usually sent the shot too high to hit the intended target. Therefore, the musket’s limitations made mass firing at close range the only effective way of hitting anything on the field of battle. To be sure this lethal ‘punch’ would do the most damage, the men were ordered when to fire simultaneously, as outlined in the military manuals adopted by many commanders.
From the British drill manual used by General Gage’s troops stationed in Boston in 1775, at “Present”, the rank of soldiers were to “Step back about six inches with the right foot, bringing the left toe to the front…[simultaneously] raise up the butt so high upon the right shoulder, that you may not be obliged to stoop too much with the head, the right cheek to be closed to the butt and the left eye shut and look along the barrel, with the right eye from the breech pin to the muzzle.” There was no mention of aiming nor of using the muzzle’s front site (no rear site existed). When commanded to “Fire”, the soldier squeezed the trigger and hopefully the musket fired. A full second would pass before the musket was lowered to the re-loading position, butt against the soldier’s right hip. The muzzle was positioned to the left at about a forty-five degree angle. The soldier would look down at the open pan to see if it had ‘flashed’ or ignited. In the ‘fog of war,’ with explosions all around, a soldier could not be certain his weapon had fired.
Unlike the British (many of whom never fired a gun during civilian life), the Americans had a long tradition of weaponry, many owning and firing muskets their entire life. Because the British government did not have the means to protect and police the colonists, they helped the new settlers to form militias in which males were required to serve their local communities. During the many drills performed on town commons, they were trained to aim at their targets.
Since the first of the year of 1776, American militiamen gathering around Boston had been practicing drill from a manual written by one of their own. Timothy Pickering’s Easy Plan of Disipline for a Militia, was published in Salem in 1775. Instead of the twelve steps outlined in British manuals, Pickering simplified a method for loading and firing in ten. It was the first time in any military drill book that men were taught to aim: “Lean the cheek against the butt of the firelock, shut the left eye and look with the right along the barrel, from the breech-pin to the site near the muzzle, at the object you would hit; or in other words, to use the well known phrase, take good sight.”
At the Battle of Bunker Hill, New Hampshire Colonel John Stark’s militia devastated General Howe’s attempt to flank Breed’s Hill by a flying column along the beach of the Mystic River. A former Captain of Robert Rogers’ Rangers and one who had seen much action during the French and Indian War, Stark followed Rogers’ Rules of Ranging (written in 1757) in which the author emphasized the importance of maintaining a “continuous fire [by having] the front fire whilst the rear reserves theirs till the front has discharged.” This tactic did not follow common British strategy that supposed the enemy could only volley twice with their front line troops with little damage because of the inaccuracy of the musket. During this precious time, the British forces would charge the hundred yards separating them from their enemy and discharge the opposing forces with their bayonet. Three ranks of British charged Stark’s New Hampshire farmers and frontiersman and each was destroyed by three quick successive volleys that were well aimed.
Baron Von Stueben’s Revolutionary War Drill Manuel, not published until after the war in 1794, was personally taught to the American troops during the winter at Valley Forge. Like Pickering’s manual, the former Prussian officer reduced the number of steps from loading to firing a volley from twelve to ten. Under his tutelage, the Americans were able to ‘stand toe to toe’ with the British regulars during the following summer’s Battle of Monmouth.
Fleming, Thomas J. Now We are Enemies, The Story of Bunker Hill. 1960: St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY.
Von Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm, Baron. Revolutionary War Drill Manual. 1794 & 1985 Facimile: Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY.
Wolfe, James P. General Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers. 1768 Printed for J. Millan and the Admiralty, Whitehall, England
Wulff, Matt. Robert Rogers Rules for the Ranging Service: An Analysis. 2009: Heritage Books, Berwyn Heights, MD.