BRITISH ARMY COMBAT DOCTRINE DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION - MYTH AND REALITY
The image is a well-known one, reinforced by centuries of bad history and nationalistic nation-building. The American Revolution saw rifle-armed frontiersmen go up against the ruthless redcoats, sniping officers and decimating the densely packed red ranks, which swiftly fell into mindless confusion, were routed and, thus, eternally humbled.
The problem with such a narrative is that it simply isn’t true. The British Army had already experienced the difficulties of irregular warfare in the colonies two decades earlier. When the Revolution began it already had dedicated light infantry companies, marksman training and combined arms units.
Traditionally it has been said that the ability of British regulars to fire three shots a minute was the primary reason for their European battlefield victories, but they were unable to combat the colonists in their native woodlands. The Patriots certainly made excellent use of both terrain and artificial defences throughout the war, but this did not confound British generals, in fact the reverse is true. Even from the first major battle of the war, at Bunker Hill, British troops were ordered not to fire at the entrenched rebels, but to drive them off using their bayonets.The reason the initial attacks on the hill failed was down to the fact that the regulars, less experienced soldiers than the American militia, panicked and refused to charge, but blazed away ineffectively with their muskets.
Throughout the war the British came to rely almost solely on the use of bayonets. Many observers commented on the fear the rebels had for the weapon, which they viewed as savage and excessive.
A typical engagement would play out as follows - British troops would adopt open files, with as much as eighteen inches separating each man in the line. This was to assist with moving quickly through woods and difficult terrain, and to make the American sharpshooter’s job of hitting them harder. As soon as they came under small arms fire, the line typically broke out into a brisk trot, approaching the enemy at speed and increasing the pressure on them, often accompanied by shouts and huzzahs. They would either halt briefly to fire a single volley, or simply keep on going and break out into a bayonet charge. At several battles, such as Paoli’s Tavern and Overkill Road, the rank and file were actually ordered to remove the flints from their muskets, making them impossible to fire and forcing them to rely on their bayonets.
The loose formations used by the redcoats meant that they were as quick and maneuverable as their foes, but this came with a price. A loose line was less able to withstand sudden shocks, like a fully formed battalion of Continental infantry, or an unexpected (and rare) bayonet counter-attack. After being smashed at Cowpens, British officers complained their their leader, Banastre Tarleton, had relied too much on the loose, open files during the battle, which had ultimately led to their men becoming scattered and overwhelmed. Regimental flags and colours were also only rarely carried into battle, partly because they were impractical in woodland, and partly because they were difficult to defend when the men were so spread out.
The infrequency of British defeats in the Revolution underscores the fact that in reality the redcoats adapted well to fighting in America. If they had been as painfully incompetent as populist modern history portrays them, the war would have ended considerably sooner.
Is there any evidence to support the speculation that in order to achieve 3 rounds a minute that the redcoats were simply tamping with the butts of their muskets and not actually drawing rammers? I have never personally witnessed anyone achieve 3 live rounds LOADED AND FIRED in 60 seconds. The best I have seen was loading and then starting the timer when the first round was fired, and getting the next two loaded and fired (3 fired, 2 loaded in 60 seconds). Not saying it isn’t possible, just never witnessed it myself.