Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cartridges? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Cartridges!

I don’t delight in the killing and maiming of folk, but I do tell stories where battles take place. 
Why fire one big cannonball
when you can shoot 25 little ones?
Conducting my usual level of research into Crimean War battles, I realized that writers should be aware warfare is evolution of not just technology but also of tactics.  Although, just like biological evolution, military evolution can be ponderous and slow, even in the face of superior advances.

For example, the Reffye mitrailleuse, developed in the 1850s, a kind of early machine gun, wasn’t considered an infantry weapon.  Instead it was seen by the military minds of the day as a light, specialized artillery and used as such.  The Verchere de Reffye, the creator of the French mitrailleuse wrote:

“Comparing the fire of the Mitrailleuse to that of the rifle is misunderstanding the role of the Mitrailleuse. This weapon must begin to fire with effectiveness only at ranges where the rifle no longer carries. It must, for the great ranges of 1000 to 2500 metres compensate the insufficiency of grapeshot.”

The problem with this thinking is that while a mitrailleuse certainly could be effective at those distances, they weren't. The operators couldn't see if they were hitting anything, unless men started falling down in the line they were shooting at.  That range is perfect if you’re using a cannonball or mortar round, which is meant to impact a general area.  Sadly, the mitrailleuse were regarded as an interesting but mostly useless technology.

What do you mean our tactics are outdated?
Who is she dating now?
Employed correctly, as infantry support, they would have been devastating.  That role, though, would have to fall to the mitrailleuse’s younger cousin, the Gatling gun.

Another fine example is that of breech-loading rifles and cartridges.  These were available together in the 1840s, yet Americans fought the US Civil War mostly using rifled muskets. The Colt revolving carbine rifle was available in 1838 (based on a revolver design), but both the Union and the Confederacy standing armies used single shot, muzzle-loading weapons.  Tactics didn’t change much either.  Both the US Civil War and the Crimean War were fought using mostly frontal assaults.  Even though effective range and accuracy of firearms had been increased from 200 yards to 1000 yards with the development of the Minie ball and rifled barrels, the strategy remained to march everyone forward and shoot it out, causing near catastrophic loss of life and literal limbs every time.

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