Did the Minie Ball really change warfare that much?

Menshevik

Ad Honorem
Dec 2012
9,245
here
#1
There was a thread a while back that postulated that the kind of maneuvers used in the Napoleonic Wars wouldn't have been possible during the American Civil War. It was argued that the increased range of post-Mini Ball rifles would have rendered obsolete many of the tactics and thing seen in earlier wars; for example: massed cavalry charges that were sometimes decisive in earlier conflicts didn't happen in the ACW due to advances in small arms technology.

This all made sense until I came across this:

"Traditionally, historians have stated that many generals, particularly early in the war, preferred to use Napoleonic tactics, despite the increased killing power of period weaponry. They marched their men out in tightly closed formations, often with soldiers elbow-to-elbow in double-rank battle lines, usually in brigade (by mid-war numbering about 2,500–3,000 infantrymen) or division (by mid-war numbering about 6,000–10,000 infantrymen) strength. This large mass presented an easy target for defenders, who could easily fire several volleys before his enemy would be close enough for hand-to-hand combat. The idea was to close on the enemy's position with this mass of soldiers and charge them with the bayonet, convincing the enemy to leave their position or be killed. At times, these soon-to-be outdated tactics contributed to high casualty lists.

However, historians such as Allen C. Guelzo reject this traditional criticism of Civil War infantry tactics. Casualty estimates compared with expended ammunition from battles indicate 1 casualty for every 250–300 shots discharged, not a dramatic improvement over Napoleonic casualty rates. No contemporary accounts indicate that engagement ranges with substantial casualties between infantry occurred at ranges beyond Napoleonic engagement ranges.

To explain this seeming contradiction between technology and tactical reality, Guelzo points out that even when laboratory tests indicates accuracy with a rifled musket from 600 yards, in an actual battlefield situation, the lack of smokeless powder quickly would obscure visibility. The gunpowder of the time produced a great deal of smoke when fired. Thus, in larger battles, battles began with artillery firing for some time, and skirmishers had been firing at each other for some time. By the time the main lines of infantry began approaching each other, visibility was significantly obscured. Once the infantry began the main engagement, visibility quickly was reduced to almost nil. With the lack of visibility, only massed infantry fire was effective, and this reality is reflected in the tactics of the time. Guelzo argues that rifling only truly benefited the sharpshooters on the skirmish line, who fought before their visibility was obscured, but the main line of infantry could not take advantage of the benefits of rifling."

Infantry in the American Civil War - Wikipedia


So, what say you all? Until smokeless powder, were the advances made in small arms technology (Minie Ball, repeating fire arms, etc.) kind of a moot point? In other words, were these pre-smokeless advances not able to really be applied on the battlefield?
 
Jul 2016
9,562
USA
#2
If the entire premise of Guelzo's argument is correct, that the Minie ball didn't change anything beside casualty figures were similar to smooth bore muskets used in the Napoleonic War, then I guess modern repeated full auto firearms are even less effective than muskets, because with them a more rounds (about 1,500 x more) were fired to claim a casualty.

If that isn't true, then what it means is improperly analyzed statistics of casualty estimates and comparison don't tell the whole story. Especially when computed in ridiculous ways like number of rounds expended (a number provided by logistician reports) vs reports of number of enemy hit by bullets (supposedly gathered by enemy's own medical and strength reports).
 
#3
Disagree.

Another salient point on the skirted, or Minie, ball is that the skirt more effectively seals the bore, increasing velocity. Killing power, or energy, is an adjunct of velocity.

So even with unaimed fire, we should expect more casualties in the rifle-musket era than the Napoleonic era simply due to the larger and longer ranged beaten area due to higher velocity of the .58 caliber projectile.

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Menshevik

Ad Honorem
Dec 2012
9,245
here
#4
If the entire premise of Guelzo's argument is correct, that the Minie ball didn't change anything beside casualty figures were similar to smooth bore muskets used in the Napoleonic War, then I guess modern repeated full auto firearms are even less effective than muskets, because with them a more rounds (about 1,500 x more) were fired to claim a casualty.

If that isn't true, then what it means is improperly analyzed statistics of casualty estimates and comparison don't tell the whole story. Especially when computed in ridiculous ways like number of rounds expended (a number provided by logistician reports) vs reports of number of enemy hit by bullets (supposedly gathered by enemy's own medical and strength reports).
Sorry if I'm missing your point (maybe I'm misunderstanding Guelzo?) but, I though the point was that it didn't matter how good marksmanship was or how fast a gun could be reloaded or how far a rifle could be fired accurately, before smokeless powder all of these things would be null and void; one wouldn't be able to see the target due to smoke obscuring his vision.
 
#5
Hardee's Tactics was the primary tactics manual of the CW era. Hardee was an instructor at West Point, and virtually all CW era tactics manuals cadged more or.less from General Hardee's work. The only aimed fire prescribed was in the Fire By File at platoon strength or greater, or fire by skirmishers. Almost all directed fire was by volley, Fire At Will excepted. Fire At Will was recommended to be ordered in close combat before Charge Bayonets.

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Likes: Niobe
Jul 2016
9,562
USA
#6
Sorry if I'm missing your point (maybe I'm misunderstanding Guelzo?) but, I though the point was that it didn't matter how good marksmanship was or how fast a gun could be reloaded or how far a rifle could be fired accurately, before smokeless powder all of these things would be null and void; one wouldn't be able to see the target due to smoke obscuring his vision.
That part about smoke is just his personal opinion, of which I don't at all believe. Does a battlefield clogged with powder smoke make sighting harder? Sure. Was that the reason misses increased? Probably one reason (among too many to even really list). But there were numerous examples of various Civil War battlefields where faster firing breech loading Sharps or Spencer rifles, or Henry rifles, absolutely turned the tide. Or how ineffective and poorly rated the early "recipe" load out of "buck and ball" was compared to the Minie Ball. There were numerous examples of black powder Gatling Guns turned the tide of a battle. So which is it? It sounds like this individual 1) Never fired a rifle before or musket 2) and is just trying to sell books with wild and controversial theories. The academic version of click bait.

And the only evidence the individual had to support his theory was hit ratio vs rounds expended:

"Casualty estimates compared with expended ammunition from battles indicate 1 casualty for every 250–300 shots discharged, not a dramatic improvement over Napoleonic casualty rates."

This is a logical fallacy when used to describe a weapon's effectiveness. Or else 5.56 NATO, 7.62 NATO, 7.62x39mm, 30 Cal, 7.92 Mauser, 7.7 Arisaka, 7.62x54R were ALL less effective than a muzzle loading smooth bore from the year 1800, because all had massively higher casualty/ammo expended ratios. And nobody would ever argue they weren't as effective simply because it take 500,000 rounds fired in combat to achieve one casualty caused by small arms (according to a poorly analyzed but much repeated statistic).
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,084
Dispargum
#7
One claim I've read about is that in Napoleonic times artillery could fire at infantry while the artillery remained beyond infantry range. In other words the artillery was imune to infantry counter fire. After the invention of the minie ball infantry could effectively counter fire at artillery, rendering artillery much less effective. Infantry could pick off the gunners faster than the gunners could reload and counter-fire. Civil War statistics by cause seem to suggest that artillery was much less effective at mid-century (less than 10% of all casualties) than in the early 19th century while infantry fire became much more effective (90% of all casualties). These statistics are based on casualties at Union army hospitals and may be flawed. For instance, they measure the effects of Confederate fire at Union troops but they do not measure the effect of Union fire upon Confederate troops which might yield different results. Union artillery was known to be much more effective than Confederate artillery.

Did Guelzo account for casualties by cause? (infantry fire vs artillery fire) Or did he simply count total casualties vs total bullets fired without counting artillery rounds?

How common were cavalry charges against infantry in Napoleonic times? They were very rare in the ACW. If Napoleonic cavalry charges were more common, that would be one example of how tactics were forced to change to greater effectiveness of infantry firepower. The reason there were not more casualties in the ACW is that leaders quickly found out the old tactics did not work and stopped doing them, as least as far as exposing cavalry and artillery to infantry fire.
 
Likes: Niobe
Apr 2018
281
USA
#8
The claim was that more accurate weapons made very little difference in pitched battles with thousands of men are packed into tight formations firing all at once while the enemy is shooting back at them. In smaller engagements and in the hands of well-trained skirmishers and sharpshooters more accurate weapons could make a noticable difference since those are situations where the shooters tended to be more isolated and spread meaning they had far fewer distractions to worry about and could have a much easier time remaining calm (i.e. actually remembering to aim instead of just loading and firing as fast as possible.

Here's how Col. du Picq described it in his late 19th century "battle studies"

Battle Studies, by Colonel Ardant Du Picq

"
The fire of skirmishers is then the most deadly used in war, because the few men who remain cool enough to aim are not otherwise annoyed while employed as skirmishers. They will perform better as they are better hidden, and better trained in firing.

The accuracy of fire giving advantages only in isolated fire, we may consider that accurate weapons will tend to make fighting by skirmishers more frequent and more decisive.

For the rest, experience authorizes the statement that the use of skirmishers is compulsory in war. To-day all troops seriously engaged become in an instant groups of skirmishers and the only possible precise fire is from hidden snipers.

However, the military education which we have received, the spirit of the times, clouds with doubt our mind regarding this method of fighting by skirmishers. We accept it regretfully. Our personal experience being incomplete, insufficient, we content ourselves with the supposition that gives us satisfaction. The war of skirmishers, no matter how thoroughly it has been proven out, is accepted by constraint, because we are forced by circumstance to engage our troops by degrees, in spite of ourselves, often unconsciously. But, be it understood, to-day a successive engagement is necessary in war.

However, let us not have illusions as to the efficacy of the fire of skirmishers. In spite of the use of accurate and long range weapons, in spite of all training that can be given the soldier, this fire never has more than a relative effect, which should not be exaggerated.

The fire of skirmishers is generally against skirmishers. A body of troops indeed does not let itself be fired on by skirmishers without returning a similar fire. And it is absurd to expect skirmishers to direct their fire on a body protected by skirmishers. To demand of troops firing individually, almost abandoned to themselves, that they do not answer the shots directed at them, by near skirmishers, but aim at a distant body, which is not harming them, is to ask an impossible unselfishness.

As skirmishers men are very scattered. To watch the adjustment of ranges is difficult. Men are practically left alone. Those who remain cool may try to adjust their range, but it is first necessary to see where your shots fall, then, if the terrain permits this and it will rarely do so, to distinguish them from shots fired at the same time by your neighbors. Also these men will be more disturbed, will fire faster and less accurately, as the fight is more bitter, the enemy stauncher; and perturbation is more contagious than coolness.

The target is a line of skirmishers, a target offering so little breadth and above all depth, that outside of point blank fire, an exact knowledge of the range is necessary to secure effect. This is impossible, for the range varies at each instant with the movements of the skirmishers.

Thus, with skirmishers against skirmishers, there are scattered shots at scattered targets. Our fire of skirmishers, marching, on the target range, proves this, although each man knows exactly the range and has time and the coolness to set his sights. It is impossible for skirmishers in movement to set sights beyond four hundred meters, and this is pretty extreme, even though the weapon is actually accurate beyond this.

Also, a shot is born. There are men, above all in officer instructors at firing schools, who from poor shots become excellent shots after years of practice. But it is impossible to give all the soldiers such an education without an enormous consumption of ammunition and without abandoning all other work. And then there would be no results with half of them.

To sum up, we find that fire is effective only at point blank. Even in our last wars there have been very few circumstances in which men who were favored with coolness and under able leadership have furnished exceptions. With these exceptions noted, we can say that accurate and long range weapons have not given any real effect at a range greater than point blank.
"

I think a much better explanation would be to instead focus on the improving rate of fire of accurate weapons. Rifles definitely existed long before the civil war, but even if you were a perfectly cool, concealed sniper and an expert shot back then, you still wouldn't be able to do nearly as much damage with your muzzle-loading, single-shot rifle as an entire battalion firing volleys with their smoothbores would be able to. With the introduction of the minie ball a skilled riflemen could now load at least as quickly as a smoothbore could though it still wasn't enough to change tactics all that much. Then by the time Du Picq was writing most troops were armed with breach-loading rifles able to shoot up to five times as quickly as muzzle-loaders could, meaning that the few skilled sharpshooters or skirmishers able to remain cool could now inflict 5 times as much damage as they could with just a minie rifle.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#9
If you have ever watched re-enactors firing black powder muskets and cannons, you will see lots of smoke.being produced and I can easily see volleys creating enough smoke to obscure the shooter's vision. But that would have to defend on conditions, a breeze might blow all the smoke away, so the condition would be worse in some conditions than others. The Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops. There literally could be the fog of war created by the smoke of battle.

Some generals were worried that will h repeating rifles soldiers would waste ammunition, which is why the Union resisted adopting repeating rifles like the Spencer and Henry, which were available during the American Civil War. Sounds like those generals had a valid point, but better to waste bullets and win a battle, than be frugal and loose.
 
Jul 2018
297
London
#10
There was a thread a while back that postulated that the kind of maneuvers used in the Napoleonic Wars wouldn't have been possible during the American Civil War. It was argued that the increased range of post-Mini Ball rifles would have rendered obsolete many of the tactics and thing seen in earlier wars; for example: massed cavalry charges that were sometimes decisive in earlier conflicts didn't happen in the ACW due to advances in small arms technology.

....

However, historians such as Allen C. Guelzo reject this traditional criticism of Civil War infantry tactics. Casualty estimates compared with expended ammunition from battles indicate 1 casualty for every 250–300 shots discharged, not a dramatic improvement over Napoleonic casualty rates. No contemporary accounts indicate that engagement ranges with substantial casualties between infantry occurred at ranges beyond Napoleonic engagement ranges.

.....

Infantry in the American Civil War - Wikipedia


So, what say you all? Until smokeless powder, were the advances made in small arms technology (Minie Ball, repeating fire arms, etc.) kind of a moot point? In other words, were these pre-smokeless advances not able to really be applied on the battlefield?
I covered the subject in this video, I believe it can shed some light.