Artillery Battle Tactics During the American Revolutionary War

American artillery.

Determining conditions for deploying and targeting field artillery on the battlefield was akin to decisions a chess master would employ prior to making a move, whether on offense or defense. Gun officers had to make quick, determined decisions and hope they chose correctly. In 1776, many factors came into play when American or British gun crews unlimbered their field pieces on a pasture turned killing field. This article briefly outlines the tactics of the day.

Battle of Yorktown. Continental troops storm British fortifications capturing artillery.

Mid- and late- eighteenth century technology governing artillery deployment and re-deployment had distinct limitations. The time of horse drawn carriages galloping onto a field, rapidly deploying their cannon, firing an effective barrage, and rushing off to follow the advance of their infantry or to fall back before an enemy charge where yet to come. In colonial times, the speed with which the field guns attained their position depended on the skill of the gun crews (cannon cockers) who dragged their cannon or walked alongside the machines. Horses were used to drag the cannon, but never more rapidly than the crew which plodded alongside the carriage.

Battles fought in America were small compared to European conflicts. Guns could not be quickly re-deployed to take advantage of rapid movements by the enemy; this limitation required the effective placement of cannon in advance of the action. Once the guns were positioned, they could usually command the more strategic sectors of the field and were not required to be redeployed.

American Artillery Crew in Action during the R...
Typical American Artillery Crew during the American Revolutionary War

When preparing for a battle, standard practice dictated the guns be placed in the center of the line of infantry. This placement was called a grand battery. Another common practice was to place individual guns and crews at set intervals between the line of infantry. Beside artillery batteries under direct command of major artillery officers, regiments were assigned ‘regiment guns’ which were light field guns ranging from three pounders to twelve pounders (based on the weight of solid shot the cannon fired). Pairs of guns were assigned to each regiment and would be positioned in line of or in advance of the infantry. They would lay down a covering or destructive fire until the enemy was within musket shot range, usually within a hundred yards.

English: Henry Knox bringing artillery to end ...
Henry Knox bringing artillery to end the Siege of Boston.

A sufficiently numbered gun crew (around ten men) with an ample supply of canister (pre-packed powder and shot or shell) could fire an average of four times per minute. The choice of solid shot or exploding shell depended on the situation at hand. Solid shot was commonly used when facing an enemy line of infantry. When firing forward, the cannon was aligned so that the shot would travel flat and close to the land, thereby cutting through the ranks of closely packed soldiers or skip across the terrain until it bounced up and plowed into the men. Any attempt to fire a shot against distant troops by raising the barrel of the cannon would be fruitless as the shot would arch high to gain distance, but upon arrival bury itself harmlessly into the ground. A favored placement of gun crews was to align their cannon so they could flank the line of encroaching troops; in other words, positioning their cannon to the side so that an entire line of attacking soldiers would pass in front of them. This tactic could inflict great devastation when the enemy was ‘taken in enfilade’. A dozen or more soldiers could be felled with one solid shot. Exploding shell was used effectively when bombarding stationary targets like the enemy’s artillery or fortifications.

Consider the problem as if you were the commander: at the start of  battle, you could chose to target the opposing infantry, cavalry, or artillery. When your shot was focused on the infantry, the enemy could concentrate their fire power on your guns and possibly inflict heavy casualties before you could do damage to the infantry. If targeting your adversary’s artillery, the opposing infantry could gain precious ground unmolested and overrun your gun placement. If you and your enemy counterpart targeted each others guns, you would continue in an artillery duel that would have little or no affect on the battle’s outcome, leaving the decision to the infantry or cavalry. Therefore, an experienced officer with knowledge of the terrain, the numbers and armament of the forces he faced, and a complete understanding of the immediate situation was paramount to make an effective decision.

American artillery at Monmouth

When the battle was joined and the artillery’s own infantry advanced, they could not continue firing for fear of firing into their own ranks. Techniques of firing over the heads of the infantry as they advanced, called indirect fire, were, like the rapid deployment of artillery, years in the future. Also, once the infantry began to rapidly advance, the artillery was hard-pressed to keep up with them, limiting their effective use as the battle advanced across the terrain.

Because re-employment of guns was slow, it was not uncommon for cannon to change hands between opposing forces several times during a battle. Many times attacking troops would overrun the artillery position and turn the guns on their owners or, if it seemed that a counterattack would successfully gain back the guns, the infantry may try and spike the cannon – either by driving rocks or metal wedges down the barrels or touch holes or even hammering the touchholes so no fuse could reach the charge at the base of the barrel. Many times the victor retained possession of the field and also gained many of their enemy’s cannon at the end of the day. It was readily accepted by both sides that the loss of one’s cannon was usually the price of defeat.

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French Artillery at Yorktown

Callahan, North. Henry Knox, General Washington’s General. South Brunswick, NY: Barnes, 1958.

Downey, Fairfax. “Birth of the Continental Artillery.” Military Collector and Historian, 7 (Fall 1955).

Manuey, Albert.  Artillery through the Ages.   1985 U.S. Gov. Printing Office National Park Service.

Rouquerol, Gabriel, Translated from French by Captain P. De B. Radcliffe, R.F.A.  The Tactical Employment of Quick-Firing Field Artillery.  1903:  Hazell, Watson & Viney, LD, London, UK.


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