The School of Musketry, Hythe

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Source: The Times, 4 January 1855

Situated in a remote corner of the kingdom, on the coast of Kent, about 18 miles from Dover, is this our new military establishment, of the existence of which the great majority of the public are probably not aware. It owes its origin to the introduction of the Minié rifle into the army, and has been established little more than a year and a half, or since April 1853. Guided by his experience of our military system, the Commander-in-Chief judged that, if it were left to the commanding officers of regiments to see that the men under them were properly instructed in the use of the new weapon, he should fail of securing throughout the army that uniformity of practice so essential to the efficiency of the service, and advised the creation of a special establishment which might serve at once as a training school for our infantry and marines. This, then, is what we have at Hythe, and if, as seems likely, the Board of Ordnance is to establish a manufactory for the construction of Rifles and small arms generally – provided such an establishment be erected in connexion with the training school the depôt at Hythe will henceforth bear the same relation to the Infantry of our service that Woolwich does to the Artillery.

For the purpose of the new establishment, the barracks already existing there, and formerly occupied by the staff corps of the army before the dissolution of that body, were immediately available; but there was this further inducement to select Hythe as the site for the training school – that, abutting on the sea, it possesses a very extensive beach, admirably suited for “the judging distance drill” and target practice.” The barracks, however, are not capable of holding more than 200 men, an amount of accommodation which will have to be greatly enlarged if Hythe is ever destined to grow into an establishment worthy of the part which the rifled musket will play in deciding the vents of war. According to the plan laid down by Lord Hardinge, each regiment of the line was to send in its turn a party of ten men, together with an officer and non-commissioned officer, to the training school, the men to be selected with a view to their quickness and intelligence, and, after remaining there for a period of two months, to rejoin head-quarters and aid in the instruction of their comrades, under the direction of the “Officer Instructor of Musketry,” an officer hence-forth to be attached to every regiment. This plan has, however, been so far deviated from an account of the war that, while some regiments have been represented by Hythe by two and even three detachments, other have not had as yet a single party there. At present, the regiments having detachments at Hythe are as follows:– the Grenadier, Coldstream, and Scotch Fusileer Guards the 18th, 20th, 21st, 23d, 28th, 34th, 54th, 56th, 66th, 71st, 72d, 77th, 79th, and the 88th; all of which, with the exception of the 56th, just landed in Dublin from the Bermudas, are either actually serving in the Crimea, under orders for it, or in garrison in the Mediterranean. And, in its way, it is a somewhat novel sight to see these men drawn up of a morning on parade, where, side by side in one common line, you have the dark blue facings of the Guards and Royal Irish, the green of the 54th and 66th, the buff of the 71st Highlanders, the yellow of the Connaught Rangers, and the purple of the Pompadours. On, however, recurring to the list of regiments that have had parties at Hythe, it is curious to note that the 93d Highlanders, who fire at 600 yards upon the advancing Russian cavalry on the memorable day of Balaklava did not, perhaps, sufficiently attest the capacity of the Minié rifle, was the only regiment then serving in the Crimea which had never been represented there. What that weapon can effect against cavalry at such a distance is being over and over again demonstrated at Hythe, for parties of men at fire and volley firing will lodge from 87 to 92 out of every 200 shots in a target 18 feet in width by 8½ feet high, supposed to represent cavalry; and with such terrible effect is this dire delivered, that the ball, weighing one half as heavy again as the old spherical bullet, is utterly annihilated on coming in contact with the target. The probability, therefore, is that, if the 93d had had a little more experience of the Minié, the Russian cavalry would have been disorganized before receiving their second discharge.

The course of instruction at the training school is confided to the direction of a Lieutenant-Colonel Commandant, aided by two assistant instructors, and comprises the theoretical as well as the practical, the practical being subdivided into two headings – namely, drill and practice; under the former of which are included the cleaning of arms, target drill, judging distance drill, and the manufacture of cartridges, wile under the latter are comprised “target practice” and judging distance practice. Of all these, undoubtedly, that which requires the most attention is “the judging distance practice;” for on the abilities of a soldier to compute with accuracy his distance from an enemy, depends on great measure the degree of efficiency which he is able to display in the use of the Minié rifle. And it was on the supposed inability of the common soldier to estimate long distances with a sufficient approximation to accuracy, and on a somewhat erroneous calculation as to the trajectory of the Minié bullet when directed against an object a long distance off, that the objection of one of our most distinguished authorities against the introduction of the Minié rifle mainly hinged. That calculation supposed the ball to rise much higher above the line of sight than in practice at Hythe it is found to do, while its descent on the object aimed at was believed to be much less gradual than it is proved to be. On issuing forth from the muzzle of the gun, the course of the ball is upwards towards a point, the elevation of which varies according to the distance of the object it is intended for; it then descends, but the descent is less gradual than the ascent, for the culminating point of the ball’s trajectory is further removed from the muzzle of the gun than from the object. In other words, supposing the rifle discharged at a target 600 yards off, the bullet would rise for probably about 400 yards, and then keep descending for the remaining 200. Previously, however, to experiments at Hythe, it was held by some most distinguished authorities that the descent was much more abrupt, and, consequently, that the chance of hitting an object a long distance off was much less than what it is. The “judging distance drill,” or the mode of judging distances by the eye, is thus conducted:– the instructor causes a line of 300 yards to be measured; this line is subdivided into equal parts of 50 yards each, by perpendicular lines, the length of which increases according to the distance from the starting point. Thus, if the first perpendicular line, drawn at 50 yards, is 10 yards long, the second, drawn at 100 yards, is 20 yards in length, and so on. At the extremity of each of these perpendicular lines a soldier is placed, standing at ease, and facing the squad about to receive instruction, so that each soldier serves in turn as a point of distance for them to estimate. The instructor then points out successively to the men the different parts of the arms, accoutrements, figure and dress, still distinctly perceivable on the soldier placed at 50 yards’ distance, and also such as cannot be plainly discerned. He questions the men one after another on what they see, points out the differences existing between the objects stationed at the six different points comprised in the 300 yards, makes them observe the state of the atmosphere, whether it be a clear or dull day. And here the instructor is directed to take care that each days’ instruction is conducted on different ground and under different states of the atmosphere, in order that the soldier may become habituated to the diversity of circumstances in which he may have to act. The men, after they have been exercised up to 300 yards, continue to practise up to 600, and then up to 900, when after some time they are divided into three classes, according to their ability; No.3 class being limited to judging objects up to 300 yards, while the practice of No.2 extends up to 600 yards, and that of No.1 ranges as far as 900 yards. In target practice the men are divided into similar classes and are made to fire at similar distances; and it is found that, during the course of instruction, more than 50 per cent. of the men became entitled to rank with the first or second class. While at Hythe, each man is supposed to fire away 90 rounds of ammunition – 60 in individual firing, and the remaining 30 in file and volley firing and skirmishing. As for the weapon now in use by the troops, it is understood that, as soon as practicable, the present regulation Minié musket will be superseded by a new weapon, manufactured at Enfield. Its advantages, as compared with the Minié are its lightness and greater strength, while it is more highly finished as to the “sighting.” The weight of the latter, with bayonet, is 10lb. 8¾oz.; that of the Enfield being about 9lb. 3oz.; and, while the present Minié bullet weighs 680 grains, with a charge of 2½ drams, the new bullet will weigh but 520 grains and will only require a charge of 2¼ drams of powder. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that the wounds inflicted by the Enfield bullet will not be as severe as those made by the Minié, although it will be heavier than the old spherical bullet by 30 grains. It might also be stated that a new kneeling position has been introduced, which gives the soldier greater steadiness in taking aim. The position is this: the man kneeling on the right knee sits on the right heel, while the left elbow rests on the left knee, the left hand steadying the musket; the body thus rests on a tripod of equilateral proportions, of which the right knee, right toe, and left foot are the feet, and this position is generally found easy and advantageous. On considering, then, the nature of the establishment at Hythe, it cannot but be hoped that it is not merely intended to serve a temporary purpose, for its existence will always insure something like a proper attention to the musket practice of the British army, which has been hitherto too much neglected, as well as a more ready application of all the new improvements in small arms to the wants of our service. It only remains to make two suggestions – the first is, that the introduction of small prizes as the recognition of merit would serve greatly to stimulate the exertions of those engaged at the training school; while the second is, that the militia regiments, although not as yet armed with the Minié rifle, might with the greatest advantage be constantly practised at “judging distances.” With this we dismiss the school of musketry at Hythe, believing that Lord Hardinge deserves well of the country for having established it.