Chalons – The Camp

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The following is extracted from a longer article about the French camp at Chalons, and concerns musketry and small arms.

Source: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, March 1856

The Times, in a late article said that a soldier would henceforth be a man with a gun, and inferred that he who had the best gun, and handled it best, would be the best soldier. The arm becomes thus of great import, even if this be only partially true. The French in this respect are now experiencing, as we are doing with our war-ships, the consequences of being experimentalists. With them began the development of the musket; each stage had its result in some improvement of the arm, and they are now burdened with the productions of each experiment. They did not dare the cost of sweeping off all the failures or comparative failures, and adopting generally the last and best invention; and consequently many of their regiments are still armed with the carbine-à-tige, altered; some with the “minié” in its first form; and a great number also of the old smooth bores are being converted into rifles. Thus France, until it has used up its old material and its old patterns, will be at a disadvantage in comparison with the armies which have been armed thoroughly with the best and latest weapons. The musket we saw generally at the camp was a very inferior arm, and very much below the present standard of rifle efficiency. It was clumsy in workmanship, the barrel was bright, and the lock very coarsely wrought; it had only “one sight,” fixed so as to give a convenient point-blank range; and it was laid down in a programme issued by the minister of war for the construction of arms, that it was not necessary that the fire of infantry soldiers should exceed 600 metres. The chasseurs alone have movable sights capable of being adjusted for long distances. The Ecole du Tir, the system of musketry instruction, originated also with them; but they seem to have halted at an early stage, and to have refrained from carrying it to its fullest development. The French soldier of the line is only trained to fire up to 400 yards, and instead of using a sight, is taught to make allowance for the different distances by aiming at different points of the target, or different parts in a man’s body; and it is evident that they do not consider this method to be of much avail beyond 300 yards. The flank companies of each regiment are named grenadiers and voltigeurs; and whether these have a speciality of arm or not, we did not discover. What the motive may be for thus limiting the use of this new projectile power, and confining its full adaptation to special corps, we know not. The theory that a rifleman, a marksman, should be an institution and a class, and that it was unadvisable or impossible that soldier and sharpshooter should be synonymous terms, is a theory which has been often broached, but too fallacious a one, we should have thought, to have been adopted by the practical soldiership of France.

At present, in respect of arms and riflemen, England is in advance of the armies of the world. The Enfield rifle, in accuracy, workmanship, and general efficiency, is the best weapon carried by any soldier. Other arms are looming in the distance which will be to it what it was to Brown Bess. Indeed there seems no definite limit to projectile power. Whether the powers of man to use it will keep pace with its progress, will be the next problem. At present, man is up to the mark of the weapon – in fact, trained marksmen show an ability to shoot and hit at distances where, as a rule, the Enfield begins to fail in accuracy.

“It is better to make every soldier in the army a good shot than to assume that most of them will be bad ones, and provide special battalions for compensating the defect. In this respect every battalion should be special, and to such an end our organisation is now tending.” This is the principle on which the training of the British army is now based, and it is doubtless a wise one – “When every man carries a firearm as his weapon, there can be no reason why one should not be as well equipped and as well trained as another, why the greatest available efficiency should not be imparted to all.” Why the training which brings out and develops the power and merit of each soldier, and determines the place which he should occupy as a skirmisher, should be made exclusive or partial, it is hard to conceive. If the theory be based on the supposition that the knowledge and skill necessary for a marksman are too abstruse for the average soldier, actual experience condemns it as fallacious. The is no result more evident in the musketry instruction than the handiness in using his arms, and the expertness in arranging the sight and practising the rules for firing, which the soldier acquires after one or two courses of training. Another result has been the extraordinary progressiveness of the soldier in his capacity of rifleman. The bad shot of one year will be often the good one of the next. The next returns from Hythe will probably show that at least one-half of the army have attained a qualification as first-class shots, that have proved themselves all-efficient at a distance of six hundred yards, and many up to nine hundred. Special corps must be fed, the best qualified men must be selected for them from ordinary regiments, and be put through a special training. Whereas, according to the present system, every man is in process of becoming special; and the whole army made one great school of riflemen.

In the rules for the distribution of prizes for good shooting, it is supposed that the marksmen “soldiers who make good practice at distances betwixt six and nine hundred yards will be in the proportion of ten to every hundred.” Even at this rate a body of fourty thousand infantry in the field would furnish four thousand riflemen, who, at nine hundred yards, would drop one shot out of every two in the midst of guns, reconnoitring groups of small or moving columns, and would, out of several shots, be able to pick off single individuals who might be pointed out to them. This even would be a terrible force – a terrible power of war; but marksmen are the product of training, and their numbers will increase in the ratio of the courses of instruction – so that in a few years the proportion would be probably doubled. In addition to these badgemen one-half of the remaining body of foot soldiers at least would be men who had proved their efficiency as shots up to six hundred yards. So far, then, we are in advance in arms and in the training of arms.

If an English and French army were brought in contact at this present time, either as allies or as foes, the superiority would rest with us, if it be true, or even an approximation to truth, the “the most powerful army henceforth be that which contains the greatest number of riflemen” – as every regiment of the line would be equal in that respect to their special corps of chasseurs.

We are in advance – are we, however, far enough in advance? We have the arms, and the men to use them, but we have still the same system of drill and manoeuvre that we had in the days of the Brown Bess. This seems like getting a steam-engine and then putting it on a coach road. Some adaptation of the system is doubtless necessary, and it would seem to be like putting new wine into old bottles to drill men who can fire up to nine hundred yards by the same rules as were used when skirmishing could not be attempted with any effect beyond two hundred yards, and when every man, in point of merit as a shot, was supposed to be on an equality. A French authority says – “Now that the musket has been rendered capable of striking a group of two or three men six times out of one hundred rounds at a distance of a quarter of a league and that at two hundred metres every shot takes effect, it is evident that constant firing, and more especially the meeting of line against line, column against column, will become less frequent – that a change will take place in battles and manoeuvres.” The French have so far acted upon this that all the regiments are now, we believe, placed under the same system of drill as the Chasseurs. We have developed the arm and the man, they the system of movements under which they are to be used. The nation which shall first unite and adapt the two will obtain an advantage in the field which would probably turn the scale of war.