Volley Fire

The Deadliest Tactic: 1346 to 1870

On 26 August 1346 the English Army of Edward III lined up on the crest of a hill near the small town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu, just short of their goal of retreating to the safety of the coast. For several days they had been pursued by the might of the largest army in Europe: the feudal army of the French king Phillip IV Valois of France. The English army that arrived in Crécy numbered around 10,000 souls with no possibility of reinforcements. Only a quarter of the soldiers were mounted heavy horseman. The French were an army of over 20,000 men with nearly 9,000 heavily armored knights in the vanguard, and were one of several columns of soldiers that could come to each other's succor in case of need.

In terms of combat power, the medieval thinkers of the 13th and 14th century reckoned the cavalry charge, of which France was the acknowledged master, as the penultimate military tactic. Heavy cavalry was mounted on specially bred horses enured to wearing leather barding to protect its vulnerable flanks. Each cavalry soldier carried a mixture of metal plates and flexible chain fixed to their body that could only be penetrated by metal swords and axes weilding by the strongest experts, and carried a long spear, sword, and other weapons that could be wielded effectively from horseback. All of these tools were dedicated to supporting the cavalry when it employed its most powerful tactic in battle, the open field cavaly charge.

The cavalry charge, be it a charge-du-lance (three soldiers fighting in unison) or charge-du-bataillon (the massed charge of a company of knights), was a fearsome event. In such a charge the cavalry, consisting of knights and their retainers, would line up in a tight formation. When ordered to charge they would move forward at a trot little faster than the running speed of the average infantryman, then would break into a gallop 30 to 40 meters before they reached the enemy line. When they reached the enemy line they would be one massive weapon that not only included the weapons of the knight, but the hooves and the great weight of the warhorses themselves.

At Crécy the English lined up their forces on a ridge above a marshy field flanked by woods and rough ground, the English leader perched in a windmill behind the lines and directing the battle by messengers. The French, confident in their superior numbers and the weakness of the English, felt they could carry the day with a single charge. Their leaders were embedded in the middle of a mass of knights eager for battle. The knights were so eager in fact that they pushed aside and may have even rode down French archers who were positioning themselves to take the English line under fire.

The French knights charged into the field and bogged in the soft ground then were hit with the fire of between two and three thousand archers firing English longbows. The French lines by all accounts staggered with the first mass of arrows loosing all cohesion and structure. Once the French charge bogged down it was all over - the flower of French chivalry was killed, captured, or scattered

The longbow was a powerful weapon but not penultimate. Its effectiveness was based not on the weapons superiority - crossbows were its equal when properly employed (their slower rate of fire was made up for by higher accuracy and armor penetrating power), but based on the use of a tactic known as volley fire. In volley fire, a large group of archers would release their arrows at the same time. While longbowman firing in a sustained way were deadly, a charging unit could sustain the losses because charging soldiers develop tunnel vision and do not notice even significant casualties to their sides or behind them. With a volley strike so many soldiers are hit so quickly that the attackers cannot ignore the losses. The morale effect of the initial strike could stop a charge and destroy the initiative of any but the best trained group of soldiers.

By 1520 the age of the longbow was already over, and with it the use of archery volley fire, but a new weapon was on the horizon: the gunpowder fired musket. Gunpowder is a flammable low explosive that makes massive quantity of gas when burned. If that gas is enclosed it can be used to detonate bombs for throwing shrapnel, or launching projectiles. The original military infantry guns (as opposed to earlier hand cannons) were smooth bore. iron, muzzle loaded weapons equipped with a wooden stock, with a hole in barrel to touch a piece of saltpeter soaked slow match. Initially these infantry guns were designed for harrassing fire. They were expensive and their users were helpless in melee, meaning that most infantry remained pike carriers. Despite this Spanish and French soldiers, using these weapons, were able to dominate the new world, and fought effectively in the Four Years war with the new weapons.

The weakness of firearms with regard to close combat (where they could not be reloaded fast enough to defend their user) was first solved by hunters in the 15th century. Starting at this time firearms start to be built that have axe or knife blades integrated into their design. At the same time some militaries where training their infantry to fight in close coordination with pikeman and halbardiers, each type of infantry making up for the weakness of the others. These tactics though removed volley fire from prominent use because it reduced the number of firing infantry to one in three (at best), relegating the infantry requipped withe ranged weapons to the role of harrassment.

The French were the first to institute a standardized system of drill and armament in the 17th Century that allowed the infantry to discard the pike and halbard of the previous centry in favor of an all musket armed force. Colonel Jean Martinent, a French Infantry officer, under the command of Marshals Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, viscount of Turenne, Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, and François-Michel Le Tellie, marquis de Louvois, created a revolutionary system of military manuever that would dominate infantry strategy for 200 years. The Martinet system placed a musket into every infantry soldiers' hands by providing the soldier a bayonet, or a short sword that could attach to their musket to turn it into a short pike. Volley fire was reinstituted by putting soldiers into tight lines, then drilling them to load and fire in unison. This sort of fire was impossible with the wide range of home-made weapons in the hands of infantry, so Martinet created amories and depots through out the country with the taks of making, storing, and handing out muskets to the soldiers.

A further improvement was the development of the permenant battalion organization. A battalion of infantry consisted of a single manuever unit under the care of a Colonel. Soldiers entering newly forming battalions would be trained mercilessly in care of their weapons, marching, battalion order (to get the battalion from a marching formation to a firing formation without confusion and delay) and a manual of arms to efficiently fire their weapons. Battalions, with their own quartermasters, would confirm that a soldier was present, armed, dressed for fighting, and not suffering from disease or malnutrition. It became practice of the French under Martinet to not only train units, but to assemble them and count them on a regular basis to assure soldiers were present and at their tasks.

The universal arming of French soldiers with firearms lead to the development of improved weapons designed for volley fire. The first of these was the adoption of the pattern 1717 musket, later called incorrectly the "Charleoi" by American revolutionaries who were provided these weapons by the French crown. These muskets were an advance over previous weapons in that they had a superior ignition system, using the more reliable and less caustic flint sparker in place of the saltpeter match, and that they were usually smaller calibre firing a ball that was faster, and thus had longer range using less powder. These weapons were accurate individual to 50 meters, and could fire effective volley fire out to 100 meters. The bayonet attached to them was an effective weapon rather than an absurd tool - well into the 19th century the bayonet was the deadliest weapon in the infantry arsenal.

Volley fire had its first challenge by two new weapons in the soldier's arsenal, the high explosive shell and the rifled musket. Rifles arrived on the scene in small numbers in the 18th century. They were slow to load but had an effective individual range of nearly 200 meters, and in volley fire could strike an enemy unit with sigificant casualties at up to 400 meters. Their very slow rate of fire meant that they were mostly used for harrassment, but in the fighting on the American continent during the 18th century rifleman, called light infantry, began to overtake the traditional massed infantry block. During the American revolutionary war rifle armed soldiers began to have an effect on battles. Although most battles were fought in traditional blocks of mucket armed soldiers (including Concord and Lexington, held erroneously by many authors to be a prime example of light infantry rifle fighting), British soldiers suffered losses in many battles, including Bunker Hill, from concealed rifleman who fired on columns as they formed up out of range of musket fire.

The demise of volley fire would not come because it was ineffective, but because it made mass infantry marching in close order obsolete by being to dangerous. The reason this occurred was that the rifle came of age in the form of Claude-Étienne Minié's minié ball fired from a muzzle loading rifle. Rifles before the Minié were either slow to load muzzle loaders, or faster loading but relatively low powered breach loaders such as the Hall Rifle. While this would be solved in time (with the French Chassepot) the solution in the 1850s was to use muzzle loading minié ball firing rifles, which proved very deadly when fired using volley firing. The signs where present that infantry could no longer fight in formation, first in the Crimean war, then at Four Lakes in the United States, and finally in the slaughter of United States civil war which saw rifle armed infantry adopt huge trench system to defend against the danger of the rifled musket.

Despite the folley of massed formations and volley fire, weapons manufacturers and tacticians continued to insist on the design of weapons for it, training soldiers to use it, and even to use it in battle. When facing colonial enemies armed with primitive weapons, the faulty of the tactic was minimized, but both the United States and Great Britian ran into early examples of why modern infantry could not face infantry armed with repeating rifles firing from cover, espeically when that enemy was using smokeless powder. The United States suffered several difficult setback during the Spanish-American war against modern repeating rifles, while the British were handed several defeats by irreular Boer forces during the Boer war.

Against modern weapons, infantry developed a method of fighting that depended on smaller, highly coordinated fire teams, using firepower instead of massed unit shooting to engage enemy units in small groups to enable a "defeat in detail." Despite this, weapons were still designed for volley fire. Volley fire sights graduateed to 2000 meters would remain on rifles until the 1930s, while both the French and the English would start the great war using close order infantry formation.


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